CROATIA: Robert Adams discovers Spaletto
Architect Robert Adam’s visit to Split had a profound effect on his future work. Alicia Salter tells his story
What was it about Spalatro (as Split was then known) that attracted the young Robert Adam in July 1757? Today Split is an intriguing tourist destination with its sparkling blue sea and fringe of islands offering a safe and practical base from which to explore the Adriatic. But in Adam’s day it had only ever been visited by a handful of antiquarians interested in the story of Diocletian’s Palace.
Diocletian and his palace
Diocletian’s father was a native Illyrian scribe working for a Roman family near Salona which suggests his son must have had a rudimentary form of education. Entering the army Diocletian gained rapid promotion and by the age of 40 was commander of the Emperor Carus’ personal bodyguard.
Such a position of trust and authority must have influenced his surprising acclamation as emperor following Carus’ unexpected death on the field of battle in 284 AD. Diocletian was to prove a skilled and pragmatic ruler; one of his most innovative moves being to divide the Empire into four parts, each area governed by a trusted colleague who was also given the title of ‘emperor’.
This arrangement of four emperors ruling simultaneously was subsequently known as the Tetrarchy. Each emperor had his own capital city in which he built a magnificent palace but what distinguishes
Spalatro from the rest is that Diocletian built this particular palace specifically for his retirement.
Here, his mausoleum, temple and peristyle survive intact while his royal apartments (which do not exist any longer) are mirrored in the elaborate basement chambers below. No wonder Adam became an enthusiastic fan, planning to visit Diocletian’s palace on his way home to England when staying in Venice.
Adam visits Spalatro
During his two and a half years in Rome, Adam had made many useful friends, his reputation was of the highest and he must have looked upon the necessary permission to visit Spalatro (required by the authorities in Venice as it was a military garrison) as just a formality. Time was of the essence and, becoming impatient with the delay and confident of his welcome in Spalatro, he set off for Dalmatia in high good spirits with three
friends. Enthusiastically he hired a ‘felucca’ and crew, stipulating that it should have a double awning to shelter the deck from the hot sun, his own bedding and plenty of food and wine. The journey took ten days; the delighted party sailed into Spalatro on July 22nd 1757.
On their arrival, they were dismayed. Nothing turned out the way they had expected. Not only were they very unwelcome, but the military then proceeded to put every possible obstacle in their way. To their horror they found that, being a garrison town, there were no lodging houses in Spalatro and only after much ‘string pulling’, did they finally find a house but it was empty and required hired furniture. Digging into the foundations of the palace and drawing its details aroused such suspicion from the garrison that Adam finally suggested that the army allocate an officer to oversee their daily activities. Permission, when it did finally arrive, was not favourable to Adam for the authorities, unknown to him, regarded him as a possible English spy. Their progress on the site was slow and difficult and after five frustrating weeks they left.
Difficult as his visit to Spalatro had been, Adam was determined to profit from his experience and seven years later in 1764 he published the Ruins of the Palace of the
Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro to great acclaim. A well-researched and deeply thought-out folio it remains to this day one of the most important architectural publications of the eighteenth century. Publications of this type were a useful form of publicity and had been used by several of his contemporaries with great success. In Adam’s case he was able to suggest some of the ideas he had found in Spalatro to new patrons, several of whom were young, enthusiastic and open to new ideas.
An interesting example is the case of Kedleston Hall, in Derbyshire, where a youthful Nathaniel Curzon had only recently come into his inheritance. Here Adam transposed the plan of Diocletian’s palace onto a Palladian English country house. The rectangular peristyle becomes the Great Hall (although not open to the air as in Spalatro) and the circular vestibule becomes the Saloon where even the oculus dimensions of each individual dome are the same. Spalatro is not the only classical source used by Adam at Kedleston. He also added a triumphal arch, similar to that of Constantine in the Roman Forum, to the southern façade of the house, an unheard of innovation at the time. Curzon was fully aware of the provenance of such innovations and when writing a description of his house in 1769 gives the antique sources for what is one of the grandest sequences of rooms in the country, ‘The Hall and the Saloon were after the Greek Hall and Dome of the Ancients, proportioned chiefly from the Pantheon in Rome and Spalatro’.
Adam had always wanted to visit an original Roman/Greek site, but, during his two and a half years in Rome, he had not had the means of travelling further than Naples to see the newly excavated Herculaneum. So the opportunity to visit this ancient palace must have seemed the perfect finale to his two year visit. While in Rome he had already invested considerable sums of money in a collection of ancient ‘marbles’ and together with the numerous drawings he had made there, this visit would crown his experience of antiquity and give him an invaluable reserve of ideas on which to draw once he had set up his own practice in London.
Statue of the Four Tetrarchs in Venice
Ruins of Spalatro Frontispiece
View of Diocletian’s Palace today, incorporated into modern Split