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

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

Im­por­tant pub­li­ca­tion

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

Robert Adams

View of Dio­cle­tian’s Palace to­day, in­cor­po­rated into mod­ern Split

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