VENERATION OF THE NATION-BUILDING POETS
VODNIK AND PRESHEREN
In the process of formation of national identity which saw the Slovenians become a modern nation in the second half of the 19th century, the central role was played by the idea of the uniqueness of Slovenian language and literature. The territorial administrative entity called Slovenia did not officially exist yet and it was not possible to fall back on the ideology of historical law, there being no nation-centred nobility.
The English historian Alan John Percival Taylor believes Slovenians have less history than any other nation in the Habsburg monarchy – with the exception of the Ukrainians.1 It is therefore not surprising that the United Slovenia (Zedinjena Slovenija) program (the first Slovenian political program) was the only national program in the Habsburg monarchy which was based only on natural law with the language as national identifier. The central role of language, literature and culture in the process of national establishment was not just a Slovenian particularity. Taylor emphasises that many central European national movements from the end of the 18th century onwards were created and led by writers.2
The educated middle-classes, who were behind the cultural, national and political rise of Slovenians in the second half of the 19th century, decided to mythicise culture and set it in the place of history. Put a little more simply: if they wanted to oppose the labelling of Slovenians as members of an »unhistorical« nation and establish a national program, they had to artificially create heroic periods of Slovenian history. Instead of creating an artificial memory of a supposedly glorious past, drawing attention to great political events, military victories and long-standing independence, they mainly referred to the nation-building and unifying role of the Slovenian language and written culture. Genuine literary achievements were supposed to have done more for Slovenian national self-establishment than historical memory, powerful dynasties, religion or various programs. We are of course talking about the artificially created myth surrounding language, writers and poets who were supposed to be the main and only true creators and active shapers of Slovenian identity.
Every nation has its nation-building heroes and the Slovenian intelligentsia and political elite were well aware of this. Influenced by the idea of the uniqueness of language and literature as a substitute for political successes, brilliant historical events, military campaigns, victories and defeats, the role played in other nations by great rulers, leaders and politicians was taken over for the Slovenians by creative individuals, artists, writers and poets. Other nations too have leading poets but they often fail to attribute a central unifying and nation-building role to them.
This is how in a famous essay that appeared in the first reprint of Presheren’s Poezije the poet, writer, editor and critic Josip Stritar (1836–1923)expressed his thoughts: »Every civilised nation has in its literature a man it not only reveres and praises but whom it truly loves like a friend; everything about him is beautiful and dear, even his mistakes; it likes to pride itself with him and woe betide the foreigner who criticises the idol – the smallest word of disapproval would seem like sin; even praise that is not passionate enough would be like sin. Every nation has a man it considers to have a pure and holy halo around his head. What the English have in Shakespeare, the French in Racine, Italians in Dante, the Germans in Goethe, Russians in Pushkin, the Poles in Mickiewicz – the Slovenian equivalent is Preshiren! He is worthy of being honoured and loved and boasted about and of the heavens being thanked for having so soon and so unexpectedly ‘sent Orpheus bearing Slovenian songs’.«3
The Mladoslovenci Stritar, Jurchich and Levstik who in 1866 prepared a reprint of Presheren’s poems, placed Presheren on a lofty poetic and national pedestal. However, Presheren did not take his full place as the greatest poet and symbol of national and linguistic existence which he was supposed to have earned with his role in the process of building up the Slovenian nation until the beginning of the 20th century. In the second half of the 19th century he had to share the poets’ Parnassus with the first Slovenian poet and »prominent rouser of the life of the nation« 4 Valentin Vodnik (1758–1819) and the Staroslovenski poet Jovan Vesel Koseski (1798–1884). The poet, journalist, linguist, translator and Franciscan priest, Valentin Vodnik – »the first rouser of the nation’s spirit and the first guide to Parnassus where all nations have hitherto gone in search of laurel wreaths and pride«,5 strove for the cultural growth of the Slovenian nation in the spirit of the enlightenment and in the time of the Ilyrian Provinces he campaigned for the use of Slovenian in schools. For the greater part of the 19th century he was praised and honoured more than Presheren. In 1806, Vodnik published a collection of poetry Pesme za pokushino, and was also editor of the first Slovenian newspaper Lublanske novice (1798 to 1800).
In the 19th century there were several ways of publically honouring poetic leaders and heralds of national awakening (publications, reprints and translations of their works, articles in newspapers and magazines, celebrations, lectures, visual depictions, the erection of public monuments…). Slovenians were able to learn this from larger nations from whom they gradually took over these ways of honouring meritorious men. They referred to creative Slovenians, their importance for the affirmation of Slovenian identity and at the same time looked to foreign examples. Different foreign examples and methods of praise dictated the form and content of the Slovenian actions. Of course, this was not just a technical transferral of a pattern onto Slovenian soil, but an adaptation to the needs of the Slovenian subscriber who in the 19th century came from the middle classes.
Depictions of nation-building poets (paintings, statues, drawings, printed reproductions, monuments etc) were also influenced by examples from other European nations (Germans in the Habsburg monarchy and in the other German empire, the Czechs and others). Slovenian visual art generally borrowed motifs and manners of interpretation from visual art produced in foreign art centres. But foreign examples were not simply copied – the Slovenian milieu imprinted its own character on imported art forms.
The most important role in the consolidation of a great man’s importance was played by public monuments (national monuments), above all due to their symbolic significance. Up until the end of the 18th century, monuments were the privilege of deserving individuals of noble blood, but in the 19th century the middle classes too began seeking confirmation in this way. A true monument cult sprang up in Europe. Even the Habsburg monarchy was taken over by the monument craze. The eleven nations living under the rule of the Habsburg monarchs wanted to provide monuments for their famous personalities. The monuments in the main cities of the monarchy were modelled on the monuments in Vienna.
Slovenian public monuments paid homage above all to personalities from the field of culture. They were supposed to show the long road that the Slovenian creative spirit had trod and act as encouragement for the future. They were to help consolidate cultural not political identity, but the line separating the cultural from the political was often blurred. Of course, Slovenians could only erect monuments in places where they had gained sufficient political influence. The Germans erected several monarchic monuments in Styrian towns.
The monument craze spread amongst the Slovenians with considerable delay. The broader Slovenian society only began seriously thinking about the question of monuments towards the middle of the 19th century. After 1848, there were calls for monuments to be erected in honour of Vodnik, Valvasor, Vega, Slomshek, Wolf, Linhart, Knoblehar, Kopitar, Zhiga Herberstein and other important Slovenians.
The first monuments were in fact more or less artistically designed tombstones (Chop’s, Korytko’s and Vodnik’s tombstones). Presheren’s tombstone from 1852 at the cemetery in Kranj was the first monument, which grew from a mass national awareness initiative (the foundation of a special committee and invitation to begin collecting contributions which took place throughout all the Slovenian lands). Although it was a tombstone in a city cemetery, this memorial possessed the character of a public monument.
Slovenians were quite far behind the larger European nations as regards the veneration of their great men. In 1859 they published Vodnik’s Album (an album dedicated to Vodnik with Slovenian and German contributions), and in 1852 and 1859-1860 they honoured the Austrian Field Marshal Count Radetzky who was also an honorary citizen of Ljubljana with a public monument.6 Radetzky’s monument was the first public monument in Ljubljana to be dedicated to a person. Meanwhile in 1859, the Germans celebrated the 100th anniversary of Schiller’s birth as a national feast, which was supposed to be attended by all parties and all social strata.7 Since the beginning of the 19th century Friedrich Schiller was considered to be the most popular German poet even in Carniola – the »giant of the German Parnassus«. Levstik mentions that the Germans in Ljubljana intended to set up a monument to Schiller.8
Ceremony around the statue of Vodnik, 13 October 1929
Vodnik’s monument in Ljubljana is Slovenia’s very first national monument. It took over thirty years to gather the money needed for it and it was ceremoniously unveiled in 1889. The man behind the statue was Alojzij Gangl (1859–1935) who learnt his trade from the famous Viennese sculptors Caspar von Zumbusch and Edmund Hellmer. He succeeded in catching the monument trend prevalent in the capital at the time. The monument’s neo-baroque style reflected Zumbusch’s concept of a monumental figure or composition on a mighty architectural pedestal. Gangl designed Vodnik’s statue in larger than life dimensions according to a style, which was typical of German monuments of writers in the first half of the 19th century. He softened strict German realism with flowing neo-baroque.
In terms of costume, Vodnik’s monument kept to the trend of portraying the honouree in contemporary dress. The debate over the choice of costume (the so-called »Kostümstreit«) with those preferring old style on the one hand and those in favour of modern garments on the other appeared because there were more and more monuments dedicated to scientists and artists. As artistic taste changed, so too the neo-romantic concept had to give way to the honouree being depicted in contemporary dress. Gangl’s draft for Vodnik’s monument also had an »antique« accessory (part of a column), which was however omitted in the final version.
The next monument campaign to hit Slovenia was the Presheren monument in Ljubljana. The sculptor Ivan Zajec (1869–1952), who received first prize in a competition in 1899, created the statue of the poet and his muse between 1900 and 1904. Zajec conceived the poet in evening dress with a quill and a book of poetry – Poezije – in his hands. The monument was unveiled in a ceremony that took place on 10 September 1905 in the central square in Ljubljana as it was to draw attention to the universally Slovenian nature of the capital of the central Slovenian region of Carniola.
The unveiling of Presheren’s monument in Ljubljana, 10 September 1905
With a few art nouveau features on its pedestal (more the work of architect Maks Fabiani (1864–1962) than Zajec), the monument to Presheren attempted to catch up with developments in the field of monument sculpting. However, allegory (the poet and the muse), academic realism and late turn of the century historicism were not the most up-to-date ideas and styles for monuments.
The muse has its roots in Greek-Roman tradition. It embodies the motif »poeta laureatus« (Lat.; in Greek and Roman poetry competitions, the winner was crowned with a laurel wreath). The partly unclothed young lady, with a laurel branch in her hand, honours the poet and keeps watch over his geniality.
The monument was both praised (by fans of the poet and the liberal party) and severely criticised (by modernists and Catholic circles). It was, however, clear that Zajec had to satisfy the expectations of customers and the general style and standards of the period. His style – like that of his father, the sculptor France Zajec (the man behind the first bust of Vodnik (1858) and series of small statues of famous Slovenians made of patinated plaster, around 1870) – was along the traditional lines of monuments made by Rauch-Rietschel (from the classicism of Christian Daniel Rauch to the realism of his pupil Ernst Rietschl). The final appearance of the monument was influenced not just by various advisors and Viennese professors but also by public opinion, which wanted something similar to the statues of Goethe and Schiller. The statue of Presheren, for example, is reminiscent of one of the court ministers of Maria Theresa on Zumbusch’s monument on the Vienna Ring, as well as of Schiller and Goethe in front of the theatre in Weimar. The muse, meanwhile, reminds one of Benko’s statue of Fortune in Vienna which itself is modelled on Makart’s Ariadne.
1 From: A. J. P. Taylor, »Democratic Pretence: the Indian Summer of the Habsburg Monarchy, 1897-1908«, from: The Habsburg Monarchy 1809–1918 (1941, revised edition 1948).
2 From: A. J. P. Taylor, »The Peoples«, ibid.
3 Josip Stritar, »Presheren’s poetry«, Pesmi Franceta Preshirna, Ljubljana 1866, pp. 15–16.
4 From: Sh, »Vodnik«, Novice, 1865/6.
5 »Ceremonies honouring one hundred years since the birth of Valentin Vodnik, the father of Slovenian poetry«, Novice, 1858/6.
6 In 1852, the people of Ljubljana erected a natural-sized statue of Radetzky. As it was not of a high enough quality (it was only a cast), it was replaced in 1859 with a new bust, the work of the most famous Viennese sculptor at the time Anton Dominik Fernkorn. Radetzky’s dress is adorned with medals and around his head he has a laurel wreath as a symbol of victory and glory. The pedestal is the work of the Slovenian stonecutter Ignacij Toman ml.
7 From: Franz Mehring, »Goethe and our time«, Prispevki k zgodovini knjizhevnosti, Ljubljana 1952, pg. 28 (Goethe in unserer Zeit; first published in 1899 in Neue Zeit).
8 From: Fran Levstik, »From Ljubljana, 29 October«, Slovenski narod, 1868/90.
Translated from Slovenian by Marko Petrovich