Unlike such towns as Split, Zadar and Trogir, Sibenik has no Roman roots; it is a Croatian settlement, and, at the same time, is the oldest Slavic town on the Adriatic. It was first mentioned in 1066 in connection with the sojourn there of a Croatian king. The Venetians called the town Sebenico and granted its inhabitants a great degree of freedom, which they promptly applied to conducting a flourishing trade. The locals managed to strike peaceful deals even with the Turks when Ottoman control spread through the port’s hinterland.
Sibenik experienced its best days in the 15th century. In competition with Zadar and Split, the people of Sibenik created some quite imposing buildings. More recently, after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, Sibenik was the scene of bitter fighting. Many Serbs had settled there in the years after the Second World War.
For those arriving from the north over the Krka Bridge, the town is immediately visible on the far bank of the river. Nestled against a mountain slope, its three fortresses dominate the winding Krka estuary before the river flows into the Adriatic. The main road runs through Sibenik above the old town.
The center of the old town, which has been closed to traffic, is next to the harbor. The harbor promenade, called Obala palih omladinaca, with the former Bishop’s Palace and the Ducal Palace from the 15th century, is dominated by Katedrala Sveti Jakov (St. James’ Cathedral), the most significant piece of Renaissance architecture in Croatia. It was built between 1431 and 1536. The work was supervised until 1447 by Juraj Dalmatinac, who was called in from Venice to take on this task. Initially, it was supposed to be a simple church with one nave, but the town leaders soon expressed a wish for a more representative building. So Dalmatinac changed the plans, adding transepts and apses. Further additions were a sanctuary and an underground baptismal chapel. The exterior apse walls show a frieze of 74 portraits. Each head is a study in character, and Dalmatinac, it is thought, probably used contemporaries for his models. He was certainly mocking some of them.
The cathedral was built entirely of limestone and marble, the latter of which came from the island of Brac. There are clearly two building phases to be discerned: the lower part is still indebted to late Gothic style, while the cupola and the dome are built and decorated in Renaissance style.
Dalmatinac also created the grand baptistery, which can by reached by way of a staircase to the right of the altar. The ceiling of the baptismal chapel is a single monolith, and its rich decoration is considered to be a sculptural masterpiece, as are the four apses and the baptismal font supported by angels. The stone leaves of the blind capitals at the edge of the apses have an extraordinary feature: if you play them like a xylophone, each of them gives a different tone – the question is for the student of architecture: is it an accident or a work of genius?
Beginning in 1477, three years after the death of Dalmatinac, his pupil Nikola Fiorentinac (Niccolo Fiorentino, also a former pupil of Donatello) took over the completion of the cathedral. He had proved his knowledge and expertise in Trogir, where he designed the Ursini Chapel of the cathedral.
In Sibenik he wanted to outdo his earlier work. He designed the galleries, the ceiling of the nave and the cupola, all of them done in barrel vaulting, with the vaulting of the apses clad in stone panels. There was hardly any wood used in the cathedral because the fear of fire was so great at the time. The cathedral has no bell tower – its function was taken over by the tower of the former town wall standing nearby.
Also worth seeing is the Main Portal, which depicts the Twelve Apostles being sent out into the world and the Last Judgement, as well as the Lion Portal on the north side, which depicts the beginnings of mankind (through Adam and Eve) and the origins of the Church (through Peter and Paul).
A bronze monument by Ivan Mestrovic on the square in front of the cathedral recalls the great master builder, Juraj Dalmatinac.
On the north side of the cathedral is Republic Square, with a typical Venetian loggia, a reminder of the rule of the great Italian city-state. The building was designed by Sanmicheli in 1532-42 and was once the Town Hall.
Any visitor prepared to take a stroll would find the streets of this old town inviting. Ulica Jurija Dalmatinca starts on the northwest side of Republic Square. You will soon reach the Palazzo Orsini on the left side of the road, built in 1455. The famous sculptor Giorgio Orsini lived here in the 15th century. The maze of alleyways around the Dalmatinca stretching up to the castle hill is called Bordo di Mare. Here is Sveti Lovro (St. Lawrence’s Church), a pretty Baroque building from 1697. If you continue to the left behind the church, you will climb the hill and reach the oldest of Sibenik’s three fortresses, Sveta Ana. If you choose to continue to the southeast from St. Lawrence’s Church, you will reach the old town pedestrian zone, Zagrebacka, which leads directly onto the main square, Poljana marsala Tita, and to the city theater.