Saturday, December 25, 2010

Ivan Mestrovic’ Victor in the battered fortress of Kalemegdan symbolizes confluences.

Kalemegdan - Belgrade, Serbia

 The castle’s been luring us since we arrived. We can see it from our window, through the concrete high rises; a park with lawns that are green even in the winter, surrounded by an ancient wall. On its highest point is the castle itself: Kalemedgan.

We walk side by side as if we’re representing a new Europe that looks back on its past; she is Serbian, I am Dutch. She’s orthodox, I am protestant. While I grew up in economical prosperity, she stood in line for bread. Now my world is overflowing hers. We follow the pedestrian shopping street Knez Mihajlova until we reach the entrance to the park. I’m pleased to see welcoming signs with clear explanations of what this building is all about.

For millennia people have drawn towards the confluence of the rivers Sava and Danube, and where these signature rivers kept washing the land clean, armies brought their conflicts and left their dead and weaponry, planted flags and claimed this magical spot for themselves.

Inner Stambol Gate - Kalemedgdan, Belgrade
 The confluence has been occupied by settlers since antiquity. In the third century BC, Celts proclaimed it a dwelling but were disposed by the Romans. By then there was already a fortress there. The Romans battled the Huns from it, and legend has it that Attila’s body was interred below its walls.

The Turks conquered the fortress in the 16th century and called it Kalemegdan, after the words for battlefield and fortress. At the conclusion of the four hundred years Turkish occupation (with intermitted visits from the Austrians), the city of Belgrade decided it needed a monument to commemorate Serbia’s brittle victories. The world famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic was commissioned to create it. He finished the statue to see its installation thwarted by the outbreak of the First World War. The conflict left much of Belgrade destroyed but not the statue.

Victor - Kalemegdan, Belgrade
 “His name is Winner,” says Draga, pointing at the huge, naked man on his pedestal. “He’s the symbol of Belgrade,” and explains that the Serbian word podobnik comes from the verb pobeda, meaning to win. In English this statue is known as Victor.

In 1918, the federation that would later be called Yugoslavia was pronounced in the Corfu Declaration, and the statue called Victor was erected on the edge of Kalemegdan’s grounds. It stood there silently overlooking the city in 1941 when Belgrade was bombed by the Luftwaffe, in 1944 when it was bombed by the Allies, and in 1989 when it was bombed by the NATO.

Victor - Kalemegdan, Belgrade
We stand looking up at the impressive sculpture. Victor offers the dove of peace on his outstretched left hand, but holds a sword in his right, hugged to his chest. The expression on his face is both defiant and entreating. Through his partly parted lips he seems to both expel a sigh of hope and a muffled provocation. His eyes, however, are decidedly passive, concerned even. Victor has the body of a war god but the face of an observant child.

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