Political & Cultural History of Istria

The history of the Istrian peninsula is as diverse as its geography. It is situated at the natural crossroad between Latin, Germanic and Slavic influences, making it a strategic piece of land many great nations tried to possess during the last three thousand years. Going through its rich and tempestuous past, you will arrive at a noble interchange of civilizations going from Histrians, Celts, Romans, and Lombards, over Byzantine, the Slavs and Venetians, to Franks, the Austrian -Hungarian Empire and Yugoslav Republic. All of them left behind traces, although one culture in particular left its mark on Istria: Venice, which ruled this region for almost 500 years.

Istria is one of the oldest inhabited areas in Europe. Archaeological founds in the caves of Sandalja in the South indicate that men arrived about 800.000 years ago, during the Paleolithicum. The Neolithic culture (6000 till 2000 BC) arrived from nowadays Turkey. In the late Bronze Histrian Illyrians, an Indo-European tribe coming from Middle Europe arrived. It is after this tribe that the peninsula was called. Istria offered all they needed for fishing, trade, hunting and agriculture. But it was piracy that gave the Illyrians their fame. Inland the Illyrians build their heavily fortified towns on hilltops, based on the special Gradina-culture. At the top of a hill, around the religious and administrative centre, the houses of the common people were built in circles, the outside circle being protected by massive walls. In Istria traces of the Illyrian city planning can be found till today, not in the least because the Romans used this set-up for their towns in Istria, in stead of the strict square-like street plans they usually preferred.

Much changed with the arrival of the Romans. Called in for help by the Greek communities in Central Dalmatia to help fight the pirates. Already in the 3th century BC they were able to make an end to the Illyrian piracy in Dalmatia. Around 183 BC they headed over land from Triest to the East and did overthrow the Histrians. Once Istria under control, they started with the construction of roads, connecting this region with the rest of the Roman Empire. On top of the Histrian settlements, the Romans built their heavily fortified towns, such as Pola (Pula) and Parentium (Porec), from where they administered the area and traded with the rest of the then know world. Around 121 BC Istria became a Roman colony and around 14 BC (Emperor Augustus) their population received Roman citizenship, their towns received the status of "municipia" and they became part of the roman province Aquileia. In that time, thanks to its location, and sea- and road connections, the region economically flourished. Olives, oil, wine and other products were traded to the markets in Gaul, nowadays Switzerland and Pannonia. Many Istrian marked amphora of that period were found in Rome proving Istria's economic importance. In return important Roman architecture can be found in many places in Istria, such as the Amphitheatre in Pula and the temple of Augustus and the Imperial Villa Rustica on the island of Brjuni.

Under the Romans the importance of Istria steadily grew. With the Decree of Tolerantia of Milano of 313 AC, allowing for freedom of religion, the first Christian diocese appeared in Porec, Novigrad, Pula, and Koper. In 395 BC, when the Roman Empire became divided in two, Istria remained with the Western Part.

But the vast migrations in the 4th century changed it all. In 399 AC the West-Goths arrived, in 452 AC followed by the Huns. On their way to Rome they destroyed everything in Istria. Only the main coastal towns were able to resist them. Large Slavic tribes arrived for the first time in the area around 500 AC. Some hundred years later from them the Croats continued up to the Adriatic coast, and reached Istria and Dalmatia, where they settled. They were, however not strong enough to take the well-organized Latin coastal towns. On the other hand from that time onwards the interior of Istria remained mainly inhabited by this Slavic population.

In 555 Istria slowly returned to Roman civilization, this time from the East: Byzantium. For Istria this meant a new period during which it culturally flourished. However in the 8th century, the far-away Byzantium, could not avoid that Istria was taken by the Germanic Longbards. They established a Diocese in Novigrad and from there continued the conquest of Northern Italy.

On request of the Pope, the Franks, with Charles the Great, overruled the Lombards in the Roman territories, and with it, Istria (788). Because of the weakness of the Franks, the region soon returned to the Byzantine influence. Again, due to its distance, its real influence remained weak, resulting in the strengthening of the church. The Basilica of Euphrasius in Porec is a major testimony of that era. Slowly the Franks regained their control over this region. They limited the independence of the coastal towns and introduced a new Feudal system, resulting in an economic debacle for Istria. It was during this time that the Slavic population in the interior gained power, with old Ilirian settlements being extended, such as Buzet. At the same time the circle centered city plans of the hilltop towns really became the standard in most of Istria.

An interesting footnote is the fact that Istria since the second millennium had its own Glagolitic writing, promoted by the Slavs, and in particular the Croats. The alphabet consists of 38 letters. It does in no way resemble any European or Asian writing. In Rome this writing was seen as a treat and soon forbidden by the church. But since Latin took a long time to really be adopted by the Istrians, in more isolated areas this writing persisted until recently, proof of which can be found in many rural churches up till today.

Until the 11th century the influence of the Croats increased, especially in the Eastern part of Istria. The rest remained under Byzantine influence. In the 13th century mainland Istria became divided in two "count-ships", whereas the coast remained under Aquileia. Since Aquilegia, and later Venice, gained force, both "count-ships" sought protection under the Empire of Habsburg. In 1420 Venice finally got control over the coastal towns, and a few important cities in the interior such as Motovun, Buje and Oprtalj. The rest of the peninsula came under Habsburg.

The years under Venice became the cultural and economic heights for Istria. Peace allowed trade. Its cultural development was only limited by the many wars with Turkey and cruel epidemics, that raged through Istria several times, decimating its population.

Looking back at architectural history, one can only notice that in Istria new cultural influences were only fully adopted until the 15th century, with the Venetian influence being strongest. Therefore Renaissance, and later Baroque, never really reached Istria. Venice brought its own interpretation of the Gothic style. Today, as one of its testimonies, you can find the town's loggia's in most of its cities. The many luxurious Venetian-gothic palaces are proof of the economic success during that period. In the 15th century even a real authentic Istrian school of painters existed.

Except for a short period, the Venetians and Austrians remained in Istria until 1797. Then with the coming of Napoleon everything changed. With the treaty of Campo Formio, Austria gave up Belgium to the French, and in return received Venice, and with it the Istrian peninsula and Dalmatia. However after the battle of Austerlitz, they returned to France. It was during the French reign in Istria that the feudal system was abolished, although in reality equal rights for all its citizens mostly remained theory.

In contrast the many nationalities in Istria (Croats, Slavs, Slovenes and Dalmatians) saw this new freedom as a chance for more independence. This resulted in a first insurgence of nationalism in the region. After Napoleon's defeat, Istria again became part of Austria.

When Istria returned to the rule of "Habsburg", German and Italian became the administrative languages. During those 100 years of Austrian rule, the Slavic population had to fight for its cultural heritage. Especially in rural areas the local "popes" were able to succeed in safeguarding old traditions. The backside of this was that since the Slavic population did not speak German or Italian, many remained illiterate. Their economic discrimination continued until World War One, and caused much frustration. The collapse of the Austrian Empire, allowing the young Italian state to claim Istria, did not fundamentally change this. In fact with Italy came Fascism, and with it, a real repression of the Slavic population. In Istria this also resulted in a major influx of Italians. Italian became the administrative language, also used in school.

In 1943 Istria was liberated by the partisans of Tito. After a referendum, Istria became part of the Socialist Yugoslav Republic, whereas Trieste, and the area around it, went to Italy. It is understandable that the new leaders mistrusted the Italian part of the population, who still dominated the region West from the Mirna. Both Balini and Oprtalj belong to this region.

During a turbulent period around 1950, many of its population emigrated to Italy or other countries, leaving behind houses and entire villages collapsing with time. These "ghost towns" can be found all over Istria. Today the rights of the remaining Italian population were restored. Bilingual signs guide you around the area. Especially in Eastern and coastal Istria you will find that many still speak Italian, in fact a Venetian dialect.

Istria's long and complex history resulted in a rare mixture of Croat, Italian and Austrian influences, making this small part of the world a place where many can find something familiar, be it people from West, North or East. Its diverse population seemed to have found peace with itself and the world around it. Even during the recent Balkan wars, in Istria there was not one shot fired.

Together with all it has to offer and its proximity to a large part of Europe, it is understandable that Istria has become a prime tourist destination. Their unique and rich cultural heritage, influenced by Alpine to Mediterranean traditions, is proudly promoted. One never gets enough of this small heart-shaped peninsula, which seems to unite much of what Europe has to offer.