For 600 years, the Orlando Column has stood in the middle of Luža Square in front of the Church of St Blaise, in the heart of the Old City of Dubrovnik. It is a relatively small monument, some 4 metres high, carved in 1417 by the Italian sculptor Bonino di Jacopo from a single block of limestone, with a separate base stone and cornice. This somewhat unassuming appearance however belies a rich web of cultural connections that link this monument from early medieval literary traditions right the way through to current day notions of independence and national identity within modern Europe.
The central figure on the column represents Roland, or Orlando as he is locally known, dressed as a knight, bearing a shield and sword. Roland was a military leader under Charlemagne, whose death in 778 later became celebrated in the C11th epic poem, The Song of Roland. A popular literary figure from then on throughout the medieval and renaissance period (being also the inspiration for the character of Orlando in Shakespeare’s As You Like It), Roland came to represent the struggle for freedom from tyranny and injustice. As such he was adopted as a symbol of civic rights under Saxon law, with the erection of ‘Roland statues’ in cities throughout Germany and neighbouring countries reaching a peak in popularity during the 14th and 15th centuries. Although, how one such Roland statue came to end up in the middle of Dubrovnik, on the Adriatic rather than the Baltic coast, is curious.
Since the time of its erection, the Orlando Column has assumed a special place in the public consciousness, representing for the people of Dubrovnik the pride and independence of their city. The location of the column, in front of the church of St Blaise (the patron saint of the city of Dubrovnik) completes this symbolic narrative. Originally used as a platform for the delivery of public proclamations, the symbolic function of the column was soon consolidated in its use as a support for the city flag.
Despite (or perhaps in part because of) its symbolic importance, the column has not fared so well in recent years. It has had a chequered conservation history – nothing much is known prior to 1825, when it collapsed in a strong wind, following which it remained in storage for some 53 years. Since it was re-erected in 1878 it has been subject to a number of restorations, the first in 1954, when cracks in the base of the sculpture were grouted with cement. Following the Croatian War of Independence (1991-5), during which it was protected behind wooden hoarding and sandbags, the column was again used as a flagpole – this time to celebrate the City of Dubrovnik, and the Republic of Croatia. However, by the early 2000s the column was showing signs of renewed cracking, indicating that it was not strong enough to withstand this use. In 2006-7, following a series of investigations, extensive structural works to the column were carried out by private contractors, with the principal objective of strengthening the column so that it could continue to fly the City’s flag.
Unfortunately, soon after works were completed, severe cracks started to appear on all faces of the monument – to the extent that proposals were made to remove the column altogether to a museum, and install a replica in its place. Conscious of the strong public attachment to the monument and determined to find the best solution for its conservation, in 2019 the Croatian Conservation Institute launched a new programme of investigations to find the underlying causes of the deterioration. In view of the complexity of the problem, to support these efforts the Croatian Ministry of Culture also asked ICCROM to put together a team of international experts, to undertake a site assessment of the Orlando Column and review the collected evidence.
In February 2020 the ICCROM mission team, comprising two specialised conservators and a structural engineer, undertook a site visit to assess the condition of the Orlando Column. The mission found the monument to be in such a fragile state that any attempt to move it could further endanger it. They also identified a number of outstanding questions that need answering to know how best to safeguard the column. Accordingly, the mission team laid out a plan of scientific investigations to resolve these unknowns, and illuminate the way forward for the long-term conservation of the column.
One thing that was clear, however, is that although the monument is fragile it does not appear to be in immediate danger of collapse – provided it is not subject to further stresses. This means that while investigations proceed, Orlando can stay where he is – albeit with some additional protection. This will no doubt come as good news for the people of Dubrovnik who have just celebrated his 600th anniversary, and in some ways, the story of this particular Roland — the protector of civic rights – reminds us that such things can at times be fragile and need to be defended.
ICCROM is grateful to the Croatian Ministry of Culture and the authorities of the City of Dubrovnik, the Institute for Restoration of Dubrovnik and the Croatian Conservation Institute for their support and assistance to this mission.