The period of the 15th and 16th century is called the Golden Age of the Dubrovnik Republic for a good reason. With this small maritime republic bursting in material wealth, it also blossoms in cultural riches resulting in, among others, rather marvellous works of architecture that elevated Dubrovnik above the others and are admired to this day.
With persistent construction since the 14th century, a real city was built within the walls of what is now known as the Old Town Dubrovnik. Among numerous fabulous structures visible to the eye, an even greater masterpiece lies behind the stone, unseen, thought out and realized by Italian builder Onofrio della Cava. Onofrio came to Dubrovnik with the idea of constructing Dubrovnik’s sewer system. Stretching up to 11,700 meters once it was built, Dubrovnik sewer system represents the world’s first ever documented modern city sewer net.
Understandably, Onofrio pictured the city fountains as the main places for water distribution, the biggest of which is the Great Onofrio fountain lavishly decorated with expressive, carved-stone masks, called maskerons.
These gargoyle-like faces, representing not only animal but also human figures and caricatures, can be found throughout the city giving a delightful quirkiness to the architecture. Placed strategically by Onofrio himself all over the city, the primary function of maskerons in general was draining water from the roofs of the buildings. Rainwater drained from building-tops via pipes, carefully hidden inside the walls, spraying water out through maskeron’s mouth. And while the maskerons on Onofrio’s fountains still serve their original purpose, numerous others are now mostly decorative. And one maskeron in particular is wildly popular amongst the locals as well as Dubrovnik’s visitors.
It is located near the Franciscan monastery, close to the steep stairway that visitors climb to reach the city walls. Leisurely watching you some 30 centimetres off the ground, this owl like maskeron holds a legend that explains his warn-out, slippery surface and almost marble like appearance, unlike any other maskeron in the city. The legend tells a story of a young man, desperately unhappy in love. He vowed if he could run and jump on the maskeron, head facing the wall, take off his shirt and put it on again while maintaining his balance and not falling on the ground, he will finally find love. According to the legend, the young man did just that, and shortly after found love for life.
The word of his success persisted to this day. There is not a citizen of Dubrovnik or a foreign visitor to this city who did not try to climb the top of this stone fellow, trying to repeat the young man’s legendary venture, hoping to forever be lucky in love. If you pass through Stradun, it is impossible not to see this ritual.
But climbing the maskeron is no laughing matter nor is it easy as one might think. The narrow space of the maskeron’s top can hardly fit two grown person’s feet, making it impossible for many to prevail in this quest. And even if they manage to climb it, taking off your shirt represents a challenge for itself, so the ones who manage to succeed really do have something to brag about.
Regardless of the reason, be it love or just good-natured fun, the legend tickles the imagination of every person passing by the Franciscan monastery, keeping the well-loved tradition alive for centuries. So, next time you pass through Dubrovnik streets pay attention to these lovable stone faces, because you never know what other secrets they might be keeping.