The Dubrovnik church of St. Blaise, a work by the Venetian sculptor and builder Marino Gropelli, is a superb monument of Baroque architecture and is testimony to the great renovation of the town in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The scars that time has left on this famous symbol of the town have heralded the necessity to carry out a comprehensive renovation programme, starting from the most jeopardized sculptural and architectural elements of the church, and compilation of comprehensive documentation.
St. Blaise’s Church
The church of St. Blaise, patron saint of the town of Dubrovnik, was built in the early 18th c. on the southern side of the main town square in the old Dubrovnik core. It is located at the crossroads of the two main town streets, on the spot of an earlier church consecrated to the same patron saint, built in a Romanesque-Gothic style. However, this mediaeval edifice was badly damaged in the earthquake of 1667, and even more badly in the subsequent fire of 1706, when the church was set ablaze by accident. Only the foundations remained in place, with the exception of three statues: the old silver and gilded statue of St. Blaise with a model of the town dating from the period around the fall of Constantinople (1453), and two stone statues, of St. Blaise and St. Jerome, by Nikola Lazanić. It has been assumed that they were in the sacristy of the old church, which was not burnt down.
After the devastating ‘quake’, within a kind of renovation campaign of the architectural core of the Dubrovnik Republic, that is, of the most important buildings linked to public life in the town of Dubrovnik, the burnt and damaged church of St. Blaise had to be reshaped. The Venetian master Marino Gropelli, better known in his homeland as a sculptor than a builder, was invited to come from Venice and present, to the Dubrovnik councillors, a design for a new church. Gropelli proposed two solutions, neither of which has been preserved to date. Still, the appearance of the selected design can be guessed and reconstructed on the basis of the current layout of the church, which has not been modified in some three hundred years. It follows from the design that the basic type of St. Blaise’s church had a somewhat traditional ground-plan solution for the period.
The main element of the ground plan of this central building with a transept is a gothic cross within a rectangle, with an extension for the sanctuary and an apse – closed by a semi-circle and surrounded by two rectangular rooms – to the south. Four stone columns standing on high cubic plinths bear the central dome, and the columns and side walls are linked by arches, which also support the barrel vaults turned towards the centre of the building. The central dome rises from a low drum, opened with windows, while the four symmetrically distributed small corner domes lie directly against the main skeleton of the building. For this reason, they are not visible from the outside, because the volume of the church deliberately emphasizes only the central dome, which is slightly elongated and finished with an acroterion, that is, a cross on the top.
The Baroque flavour, and Gropelli’s sculpting skill, are most obvious in the northern façade and the main altar of the church. The northern orientation of the main facade of the church, rather than the usual western orientation, is understandable, in view of the position of the main town streets. The main façade overlooking the square, in whose centre there is the high relief of Orlando’s Column, can be approached over a wide staircase, with a balustraded terrace. This ‘open antechamber’ is placed, together with the rest of the building, on an inclined platform, consisting of massive rough stone blocks of harmoniously dressed surface.
The treatment of the northern facade reflects Gropelli’s aspiration to animate the classicistic, calm appearance of this building with a number of sculptural elements. The facade is divided by four large semi-columns supporting a pronounced final cornice with a balustrade and statues. The portal, with semi-circular discontinuous gable and three small statues of playful angels above it, is centrally positioned, while on either side of it there is a rectangular vertical window with rounded stone frame. Above the windows, there are reliefs depicting swollen sheaves of palm-tree shoots, a symbol of the martyrdom of St. Blaise, and beneath the windows there are rectangular cartouches decorated with arabesque bas-relief. In the central section above the cornice, there is a large semi-circular window with a mullion, and, above it, the keystone adorned with a lavish volute with a garland, serving as a plinth for the statue of the saint standing on top of the segmented church gable.
The sculptor's aspiration to strengthen the architecture and make it more lively, evident in statues on the edge of the northern façade, is best seen in the shaping of the central statue of St. Blaise, patron saint of the town of Dubrovnik and the entire Dubrovnik Republic. The statue, overlooking the square, holds in its left hand a faithful model of the town – an important record of the condition of the town's core after the post-earthquake renovation in the late 17th and early 18th c. The sculptor's skill is also evident in the figures symbolizing Faith and Hope, located on the high points of the massive balustrade on the cornice, which corresponds to that along the edges of the ground-floor terrace, thus closing the composition.
In contrast to the plastically diversified northern façade, which reflects the architect's tendency to achieve a picturesque composition, the side facades are simple. Along the surfaces of their walls there are slender and shallow pilasters with composite capitals, standing on top of an inclined base. Their capitals support a strong trabeation, with the volume of the transept rising above it, finished with a wide arched window that, in line with the Baroque custom, provides plenty of light inside the church. The side doors in the eastern and western façade can be accessed over semi-circular stairways. Over the south-western section of the building, there is a bell-gable, erected in a less conspicuous spot, and thus not ruining the unity of the architectural concept, while at the same time, with its complex shape containing three windows, discreetly fitting in with the stone mass of the Baroque church.
The church interior is divided by architectural shapes similar or identical to those which Gospelli used to achieve plasticity of the façades. This is true primarily in respect of the horizontal and vertical division of wall surfaces, using rows of columns and pilasters, supporting beams of diverse profiles.
Conservation of St. Blaise’s Church
In response to an incentive coming from the Institute for Restoration of Dubrovnik and the Society of Friends of Dubrovnik Antiquities, some ten years ago staff of the Zagreb Department for Stone Monuments of the Croatian Conservation Institute commenced far-reaching conservation interventions aimed at stopping the deterioration of St. Blaise's in Dubrovnik and at detailed conservation of its stone monuments. The first phase of work consisted of smaller conservation interventions on the most vulnerable sculptural and architectural elements of the church, and the compilation of comprehensive documentation which would serve as the basis for further conservation. With time it turned out that the initial work had spurred a long-term and complex renovation process, so that, in the period between 2007 and 2011, conservation treatment was performed on stone ornaments on the northern façade, dome, bell-gable and the access plateau with the church staircase. All the work was based on two comprehensive studies: the 2001 "St. Blaise's Church in Dubrovnik – a project of completion of repair and conservation of all church façades", and the 2008 "Study of Repair and Conservation on the Stone Monuments of the Dubrovnik Church of St. Blaise".
At the very beginning of the work, after the scaffolding was put up, the entire surface of the stone monuments was washed with water under controlled pressure. This allowed another detailed inspection of all the damage on the building, and created the prerequisites for further analysis of the condition of the stone, which would enable efficient conservation interventions. Pieces of stone monuments were dismantled, and corroded metal braces and thorns were extracted from the stone and replaced with new ones made of stainless steel, which were then fixed with lead. The unsuitable binding material (cement mortar), used during previous church renovations to fix pieces of stone, was also removed, because it had caused flaking and falling of pieces of the stone monuments. Small cracks were injected with epoxy resin and two-component adhesive for stone. Broken-off pieces of architectural decoration were put back in place using stainless-steel thorns and glued with two-component adhesive, after which joints were additionally treated. Larger missing elements were carved from artificial stone, in a reversible procedure, and additionally dressed and toned to match the original. The same procedure was used during conservation interventions on the statues of three angels above the portal, and on the statues of Faith and Hope, and of St. Blaise on the attic of the northern façade. During the conservation of these stone monuments, the gilt coats on all of their metal elements were also conserved.
Thereafter, the accumulated dirt deposits and harmful crust were cleaned off using chemical substances. Since the cleaning results were not entirely satisfactory, it was decided that additional cleaning of stone decoration was necessary, using more sophisticated equipment. A method which combines cleaning by laser and by micro-sanding machine was selected. The laser cleaning was used for more complex elements of stone decoration (parts of the semi-circular pilasters, heads of the angels and plinth for the angels above the portal, the horizontal final cornice with consoles above the portal, capitals by the portal, statues of angels above the portal, the statues of Faith, Hope and St. Blaise, plant ornaments and ornamental elements of architectural elements in the upper façade etc.). The stone blocks of the wall surfaces and simpler architectural elements were cleaned using microsanding. After the cleaning was completed, cracks in the stone elements were filled and glued with epoxy resin and two-component adhesive for stone, and all the elements of stone decoration that were previously dismantled were returned to their original places. At the same time, wall surfaces were cleaned mechanically and repaired using hand tools, and new stone elements were dressed and incorporated in them to replace damaged sections of the façades. The joints were cleaned of 'rotten' mortar, and all metal elements that had been added subsequently were removed. Once the façades were cleaned, joints were filled with stone-mortar mass prepared on a basis of spent lime, with an admixture of sand, acrylate and white cement.
When stone fillers (replacement pieces made of natural stone to substitute missing or damaged original parts) were carved, the new profiled stone elements were dressed on the basis of the existing damaged originals, and the dressing method applied to the surface was adapted to produce the appearance of the structure of the church's stone elements. During the mounting of stone fillers, all large stone fillers which could have fallen off were bound to the healthy stone mass of the wall using lime or extended plaster with an admixture of white cement, and, if necessary, they were anchored with threaded braces made of stainless steel.
Those elements of stone monuments which were shown to contain harmful salts (in the analysis carried out by the Institute's Natural Science Laboratory) were subjected to a chemical procedure aimed at the extraction or stabilization of such salts. The stone was soaked with a barium-hydroxide solution, using cellulose pulp. Finally, the additionally carved elements of stone monuments were toned to match the original, and their surfaces were made hydrophobic using a combination of spraying and coating with a protective chemical substance.
All phases of conservation were recorded in detail, in technical descriptions and photographs. The work described here provides guidelines for a continuation of this far-reaching conservation procedure which will begin in the near future and encompass the remaining façades and stone decoration in the church interior.
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