FORTIS, Alberto. Viaggio in Dalmazia, vol. I, Venice, Alvise Milocco, MDCCLXXIV [=1774].


The Italian clergyman Alberto Fortis (1741-1803) studied philosophy and natural sciences with a specialty in mineralogy, and was professor at the University of Padua. Later in life he settled at Spalato (Split), from where he went on a series of explorations in Istria and Dalmatia, which at the time were provinces of the Venetian Republic. He published his impressions in 1774, in a volume entitled "Viaggio in Dalmazia" ("A Journey to Dalmatia").

In his account, Fortis did not limit himself to subjects of geological and archaeological interest (such as fossils, minerals, sculptures, inscriptions and coins), which at the time were closely related to the financial and commercial activities of the Serenissima; in addition, he gave a thorough description of the population. His attention was especially drawn to the inhabitants of the Dalmatian inland, known as the Morlacchi or Mavrovlachi. Although initially the name of Morlacchi designated the Vlach peoples of the western Balkans, in the 17th century this appellation corresponded to the Slav, mainly Orthodox populations, who were stereotypically viewed by the European reading public as savage, violent and primitive.

Travellers of the 17th century such as Jacob Spon and Sir George Wheler had already made reference to the Morlacchi. However, Fortis is the first foreigner to have visited their settlements and he dedicated an important part of his work to them. To Fortis, the Morlacchi constituted the archetype of the "noble savage". He describes their rudimentary living conditions and the squalid huts where they slept together with their livestock, as well as their coarse manners; nevertheless, he also stresses their virtues, their spontaneous sincerity, their hospitality and their code of honour, in which the blood feud (vendetta) was the chief moral regulator.

However, in Fortis's work the Morlacchi do not merely represent Rousseau's "noble barbarian", since he also depicts them as reminiscent of the heroes of epic tradition. He was especially drawn to their folk songs, which their bards sang accompanied by a gusle, an one or two-stringed instrument played with a bow. Fortis wrote in an era when the European reading public was fascinated by epic poetry: around 1760 the Scottish teacher and poet James Macpherson published the epic poems of a Scottish bard of the third century named Ossian, which had been supposedly discovered some time before but turned out to be Macpherson's own work. In fact, the Scottish John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, to which Ossian's poems were dedicated, financed some of Fortis's travels.

In this ambience, the publication of "Viaggio in Dalmazia" caused a sensation and the epic poem of the Morlacchi entitled "Hasanaginica" ("Lament of the wife of Hassan Aga"), which relates the conflicts between the inhabitants of the Croatian frontier and the Ottomans, was translated into Italian by Fortis, later into German by Goethe, into English by Sir Walter Scott and into Russian by Pushkin. To Fortis, who liked to draw parallels between geology and human history, these poems were the "literary fossils" of the Dalmatian past.

The work of Fortis and his Morlacchi continued to exert an influence on arts and letters for several decades after the publication of "Viaggio in Dalmazia". In 1793, "Gli Antichi Slavi" of Camillo Federici was staged in Venice during the Carnival, while in 1802 an adaptation of the same play was presented again twice, as a comic opera and as a ballet performance titled "Le Nozze dei Morlacchi".


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Written by Nicolas Nicolaides

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