Review: Riječke i Trsatske zavjetne medalje, medaljice i medaljoni

Julijan Dobrinić, Riječke i Trsatske zavjetne medalje, medaljice i medaljoni/ Medaglie, medagliette e medaglioni ex voto di Fiume e Tersatto. Rijeka: Dobrinić & Dobrinić/ Fintrade & Tours, 2001. 95 pp. color and b/w illus. ISBN 953-6603-02-0. 35,00 Euro.

Although the American Numismatic Society and other North American institutions include religious medals in their respective collections (the ANS holdings include some 200 such medals), it would not be improper to say that they are a largely untapped resource for the study of religious and cultural history. However, there has long been European interest in this material, especially in countries with large Catholic populations, like France, Germany and especially Italy. Thanks to Julijan Dobrinić, who has been studying and publishing the religious medals associated with the Croatian shrines in the of Rijeka (Fiume) and Trsat (Tersatto) for several years, we now have a complete catalogue with extensive historical commentary on these interesting medal series of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.

The book is divided into four major sections, the first of which is an essay (pp. 9-25) by Igor Žic detailing the religious history of Rijeka and Trsat from the great plague epidemic of 1599 to the coming of Napoleon in 1796. In these pages, the reader is introduced to the development of the local Franciscan and Jesuit communities and the roles that their members played in promoting the veneration of the miraculous crucifix housed in the Church of St. Vitus in Rijeka and the important Marian shrine at Trsat. The revival of strong interest in these popular religious institutions in the 18th century is placed in the context of the Counter-Reformation policies pursued in the Hapsburg Empire. Photographs of the interior and exterior of St. Vitus’ Church complement Žic’s introduction.

In the second part (pp. 29-35), Dobrinić offers an account of the miraculous local legends that inform the typology of the medals. The main type for medals of Rijeka depicts a crucifix with a scene of the city harbor in the background. According to tradition, in 1296 a local man named Petar Lončarić, enraged at his own bad luck at gambling, cursed and threw stones at the crucifix, thereby causing it to bleed. In response to this sacrilege, the earth was said to have swallowed up Lončarić on the spot.

The main type for medals of Trsat is an image of the Virgin and Child, known as Our Lady of Grace of Trsat, and based upon an icon said to have been painted by St. Luke. This icon was believed to have miraculous powers and is connected with Loreto in Italy, where angels were thought to have deposited the Nazarene house of the Holy Family in 1294. Local legend holds that the house was first carried from Nazareth to Trsat in 1291 in order to save it from desecration at the hands of the Mamluks, and that it was later moved to Loreto. Depictions of the translation of the house to Trsat appear on three of the medals (2.3.1-2, 2.4.1) in the catalogue. The people of the region were so despondent at the removal of the house from Trsat that in 1367 Pope Urban V sent them the icon of Our Lady of Grace, which had originally been housed at Loreto. The shared miraculous experience of Italian Loreto and Croatian Trsat as depicted on the medals make Riječke i Trsatske zavjetne medalje, medaljice i medaljoni an excellent companion volume to F. Grimaldi, Argentieri medagliari orafi a Loreto (1977).

The third part (pp. 39-60) of the book groups the various medals by city and type and discusses notable features, such as the use of Fluminis Sancti Viti as the Latin name of Rijeka, or the reconstruction of the extensive Latin abbreviations on some of the medals of Trsat. He also remarks on the probable dates of issue, which in most cases hover around 1796 for medals of Rijeka and 1891 for medals of Trsat.

A catalogue of 32 medals comprises the final section (pp. 63-94). Along with descriptions of the types as well as data on the previous publications and collections in which they can be found, Dobrinić provides full color images of the individual medals, with the exception of nos. 1.2.2, an anniversary medal of Rijeka, and 2.1.3, a medal of Our Lady of Grace, both of which are known from early 20th century collections in Vienna, but are now lost. For these, the black and white photographs that appeared in R.V. Höfken, “Fiumaner Weihemünzen,” MÖGMM 6 (1910), pp. 167-170, have been used.

In addition to the obvious religious interest of the medals, they also provide valuable material for the study of cultural and civic history. Two of the Rijeka medals (1.2.1-2) depicting the crucifix of St. Vitus’ Church were certainly produced in 1796 in connection with the 500-year anniversary of its miracle, and a third (1.1.1), pairing the crucifix type with a reverse portrait of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, is probably also associated with the same event. The Jesuits received the old Church of St. Vitus as their headquarters in Rijeka and rebuilt it as an impressive baroque structure during the period 1638-1744. Similarly, the majority of the 19th century medals depicting Our Lady of Grace of Trsat and the crucifix of St. Vitus’ Church can be connected with the celebration of the 600-year anniversary of the deposition of the Nazarene house at Trsat, which fell on May 10, 1891.

Two medals (4.1.1-2) pairing the crucifix of St. Vitus’ Church with Our Lady of Passau, rather than the usual Our Lady of Grace type, are also included in the catalogue and excite some interest from the perspective of 18th century cultural history. The author argues that the medals were probably produced in Germany and reflect the influence of the shrines at Rijeka and Trsat and their medallic iconography. He suggests that in this case the image of Our Lady of Grace was probably replaced by Our Lady of Passau to reflect local German religious sensibilities. The crucifix type, although certainly derived from the medals of Rijeka, may have been interpreted as an image of one of the many other miraculous crucifixes venerated in Germany. Although there is no attempt made to date 4.1.2, Dobrinić assigns 4.1.1 to the 17th or 18th century. However, the reasons for this early dating are somewhat unclear since neither the crucifix (1.1.1, 1.2.1-2) nor the combined crucifix/Our Lady of Grace medals (3.1.1.1-2), upon which the Passau medals appear to have been modeled, are dated before the 18th century.

The importance of the decision to produce Riječke i Trsatske zavjetne medalje, medaljice i medaljoni in a dual language format rather than only in Croatian, a language not well known in the West, should not be underestimated. By including a parallel Italian text translated by Melita Sciucca, the work has been made accessible to a much wider reading audience than it might otherwise have had. It is this reviewer’s hope that more Croatian, and other Slavic-language numismatic authors, might consider a similar format for their respective works and therefore extend the knowledge of their numismatic heritage abroad. It has always been unfortunate that important works, such as I. Dolenec, Hrvatska Numizmatika (1991), etc., have been largely unavailable to the North American and Western European audience because of the difficulties of language. Julijan Dobrinić has provided a detailed look into the development of local Croatian religious traditions and the medals associated with them that will no doubt be of interest to cultural historians and students of religious medals. The accessibility of his text has the special value of allowing non-Croatian speaking scholars the opportunity to share his insights into the medals of Rijeka and Trsat and to understand their place in the larger picture of European religious medal production in the 18th and 19th centuries.

—Oliver D. Hoover