I have always been intrigued by monuments and memorials. They embody the way a society wants to be remembered, and what they value. It is their way of telling their story to generations to come and to strangers who can’t speak their language. It is the narrative we learn, and remember, and associate with places. It is the landscape (nature and culture) frozen in stone or paint or some other medium. I wrote on the Hiroshima Memorial years ago when I visited there, it still is one of the most profound places I have ever been. The memory of Hiroshima is indelibly etched in my brain from the writing of John Hersey and the monuments and statues I encountered when I visited ground zero. While, Hiroshima chronicles a dramatic event, most landscapes add memorials and monuments more slowly. These cumulative images tell the story of a place as it dynamically changes over time and culture. Through their visual narrative they shape the people who draw identity from the landscape in the future. There are countless critiques of monuments that can and should be raised at another time in another essay, but for now, I simply reflect on the monuments and memorials of Slovenia for what they told me about the people and the place that make that landscape.
The first thing that struck me coming into the capital of Ljubljana is how much emphasis they give to the poets and authors of Slovenia. The center square of the city does not memorialize some fallen war hero, but their greatest poet, Preseren.
His figure watches over the square to inspire Slovenians to pay as much attention to human creativity as to human destruction.
Other authors figure prominently throughout the capital, telling of the Slovenian pride in capturing human emotion rather than celebrating the capturing of territory.
Charismatic mega-fauna seem to also be a common element in the memorialized narrative of many places, and Ljubljana is no different in this regard. There is a story of Jason (from Greek mythological fame) coming to this place to slay a dragon, and so the dragon has become a symbol of the city based on this literary reference. You see it everywhere from tourist trinkets to man-hole covers.
It is also prominently displayed on the main bridge across the river in town. They are very proud of their architects as well and this iconic bridge celebrates not only the mythological dragon of Ljubljana, but the architect, Jurj Zaninovic, who designed and built the bridge in 1900.
Indeed, there are an unusual number of famous architects from Slovenia, and they are quite proud of them. When we took the standard tourist train (all electric) through the city to see what they wished to tell the world about this place, every single building was introduced first by its name, then the architect (almost always Slovenian), then they would tell the history and function of the building. It is noteworthy that they order the presentation in this way. It says a lot about the value they place on the creative, constructive human spirit. Below is an example of the Ljubljana Opera House built in 1892 by the Czech architect Jan Vladmir Hrasky. Granted he isn’t Slovenian, but the fact that they still give credit and list the architect on every plaque around the building is telling.
Even when the memorials were not celebrating the creativity of humanity, they often still required a knowledge of the cannon of western literature to appreciate the imagery. In the case of this statue, there are no plaques to indicate the story, but the image is clear even if the public purpose is less so. It is a statue of Adam and Eve leaving the garden of Eden in shame. A provocative choice for public art on the bridge leading into the central market area, but what are we to take from it?
It was at this point that I realized that landscape, like literature, is often best when it is left suggestive in many directions. It invites the viewer to become a part of the narrative, to add to the story and the meaning of place with their own experiences and understandings. If the plaque had been there to explain what I was supposed to think of this statue, its theme and placement; then I would have lost the agency I need to enter into the landscape itself. Like Verity, it requires conscious participation to derive meaning for the viewer. The artist clearly had a purpose in making the sculpture, the city planner in placing it here, but every person who passes by also has a role to play in the creation of meaning for a place. In this way, the landscape remains a conversation rather than an object or location set in stone (or bronze). I have been studying the European Landscape Convention (2000) while here, trying to gain insight into the “European” understanding of landscape and how to plan and manage it. I am reminded at this point of the definition of landscape they offer to guide the treaty. Landscape is “a certain part of the territory, as perceived by the populations, whose character derives from the action of natural and/or human factors and their interrelations.” In other words, landscape is in the active participation of a perceived connection by those who encounter it. It is dynamic and participatory in this regard. It is grass roots often unplanned as well. Across Europe a pop cultural landscape phenomenon includes placing locks on bridges and other monuments (perhaps to signify the coming together of two lives in love, perhaps a commitment to some action) but it adds to the character of the landscape in an “unplanned” way. The bridge behind Adam and Eve is one of the best examples of this spontaneous landscape I have seen so far in Europe.
Moving beyond the capital to Lake Bled, we see that memorials are not just the narrative of national capitals, they are a part of every landscape. These images of the City Hall in Bled are a message to anyone who sees them of the value of workers in the area. There are pictures here celebrating agriculture, logging and mining.
There are also pictures of sports that are popular in the area (including my personal favorite, curling).
Churches are also another excellent place to find the values and narrative of a community on display as in this scene of the Last Supper in a Catholic church in Bled just below the Castle. The iconographic style of Byzantine influence reveals the history of the area that stands at the crossroads between eastern and western Christianity.
A close up of Judas on the far left reveals that he not only lacks a halo that the other apostles have, but he also bears a striking resemblance to Vladmir Lenin (this was pointed out to me by an historian and life-long resident of Bled) reflecting the tension between two very different approaches to communism at the time this was painted in the early twentieth century.
This type of political commentary is not uncommon to anyone who knows the history of the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s portrayal of many prominent church authorities among the damned in his Last Judgement scene. I found a Last Judgement scene in this church as well, I wonder whose likenesses are among the fallen here. I wish I knew my Slovenian history better, I am sure this would be revealing. As it is, I find it interesting from a spiritual formation perspective that they chose to include such an image so prominently in this church. How it must have shaped generations of young minds sitting in the pews as those minds that wander to it for meaning and identity drifting from following the sermon of the day. Passing through this door, I am reminded of the words of Dante above the door to hell in the Inferno, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here…” Or the words of my father when we misbehaved in Phoenix in the summer, “you think its hot now….” Either way, these words and images are sobering and inspiring to shape up.
The Roman Catholic Church is an important part of the Slovenian identity. They have less of a hang up associating church and state in the modern nationalist Slovenian narrative as evidenced by the prominent displays of flags at every church.
There are roadside devotionals all over the countryside put up in every little town by the local populations to remind the passerby of the importance and presence of spirituality in the landscape and the identity of this landscape.
And often the moments of greatest national pride are given the blessing of proximity to the churches as is the case for this graveyard for partisans killed during WWII as they fought to keep Slovenia (part of Yugoslavia then) free of German occupation. It lies here between the Church and the setting sun over Tiglav National Park.
Ultimately, although the narrative of a place is written on the memorials and monuments, the art and architecture of a landscape; it is kept alive in the minds and hearts of the people as they remember and retell that narrative. We had the great honor to sit for a few hours with the mayor of Bled, Janez Fajfar, and hear the stories from a lifelong resident of this magical place. He is quite a student of history having once worked as the curator of Tito’s Villa in Bled. He talked of the challenges of sustainable tourism, the changes he has seen in his 64 years living here, the politics of Slovenia, but most passionately of the heroic deeds of the Slovenian partisans as they worked to save the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing from the Holocaust. It was one of the most delightful and eclectic conversations I have had in a long time. Here I am with my new friend Janez in his office. He is as much a part of this landscape as the pictures of mountains and lake and castles I have compiled in the blog picture gallery that follows this. Enough of my wordy reflections, enjoy the images (in the next blog post below) of the gift that is, Bled, Slovenia.