Each time I visit the Cavtat cemetery, I feel deeply moved. Many of the names on the tombstones belong to people I used to know. And new names keep appearing each time I for there. It’s both deeply disturbing and sobering to me.
I don’t know of a more beautiful graveyard. The view from this acropolis is spectacular (it’s situated on top of a hilly peninsula). The Adriatic sea, the islands, the mountains, the entire town of Cavtat resting on the palm of your hand…
The ancient sago palms (Cycas revoluta) provide shade to the ornate inscriptions, black-and-white photographs, broken vases and collapsed columns, symbols of the transience of life.
However, the most spectacular feature of the entire cemetery, dominating its serene atmosphere is a structure so attractive that the fact it is actually a tomb will be the last thing on your mind. Very much like Taj Mahal in India…
The Mausoleum Of The Račić Family
Shining like a pearl on top of the hill overlooking Cavtat, the mausoleum of the Račić family became inseparable part of the town’s silhouette.
It’s made of impeccably white, carefully selected Croatian limestone. Even now, almost 100 year after it was built, it remains unmarred. It as white as Taj Mahal. And almost as mesmerising as Taj Mahal.
Mumtaz Mahal, just before she died while giving birth to their 14th child in 1631, asked her beloved husband, Shah Jahan, to build her the most spectacular grave ever made.
This mausoleum is known today as Taj Mahal.
Of course, the mausoleum of the Račić family in Cavtat is miniature compared to the one in India. But keep in mind that this may well be the LARGEST and the most expensive tomb in Croatia. So, when viewed in its context, this achievement is outstanding.
From the point of view of architecture, they’re so far apart. Still, the common denominator is that they are both MASTERPIECES of masonry, craftsmanship, architecture and, of course, ART.
Ivan Meštrović, Croatian sculptor and architect, won the 1925 GRAND PRIX at “Exposition Internationale Des Arts Décoratifs Industriels Modernes” in Paris, France, for the Mausoleum of the Račić family in Cavtat. The name of this exposition came to be used for the first time as the name of the new “total artwork” or “Gesamtkunstwerk” style, ART DECO, in the same year, 1925!
However, THE STORY behind it is as powerful, or even more powerful than the one of Taj Mahal. And surprisingly, it’s so up-to-date for all of us affected by the COVID-19 health crisis.
The Račić Family And Their Tragic End
Ivo Račić, born in 1845, was a successful shipowner. Being a mere sailor, he managed to eventually become the owner of the first long-line steamship in Croatia and establish his own shipping company. His wife, Mare, and both of his children, Marija and Edi, were involved in the family business.
Their daughter, Marija Račić Banac, born in 1884, was given into marriage to the founder of Yugoslav Lloyd’s, Božo Banac, her father’s business partner. She might have been forced to marry Božo Banac because she had previously fallen in love with a young man from a lower class she was not allowed to marry. Her unhappiness was amplified by the fact that she remained childless.
The Račić family, being affluent, had lived in London and in Rome, and spent their vacations in Viareggio, Italy and in Provence, France.
Marija got to meet the renowned Croatian sculptor, Ivan Meštrović, and his wife, in Rome in 1913. They soon became family friends. However, Ivan Meštrović and Marija Račić might have been more than just friends.
As was revealed later in his autobiographic novel, Ivan Meštović was apparently attracted to Marija. Even though she was unhappy in her marriage, Marija nevertheless remained “elusive and shy like a dove“, as he wrote. Their relationship remained platonic, and yet very profound. He was inspired by her chastity and made her his muse. On the other hand, she found emotional solace in their friendship.
In a conversation with the sculptor, Ivan Meštrović, Marija asked him would he be willing to make her an eternal home. She was probably unaware of the fact how quickly she would need one…
Tragedy Wipes Out The Entire Family
Early in 1918 Ivo Račić unexpectedly died of heart attack.
Soon afterwards, in December of 1918, in just two days, as preparations were made for Edi’s wedding in Rome, both Edi and his fiancee, as well as Marija, died from Spanish Influenza.
Mare Račić, their mother, lived just for one more year. Crushed with grief, she died in 1919.
However, before she died, she established a foundation which was supposed to channel some of their huge fortune into the construction of their tomb.
Since it was well known that they were friends, famous sculptor, Ivan Meštrović, was asked to do the work. Of course, he agreed, remembering Marija’s request.
The Art Deco Masterpiece
The mausoleum he designed was supposed to be his first architectural work. However, the ART DECO style was to affect all, even the tiniest elements of the structure, starting from the door knobs, over candle holders to intricate reliefs. This includes the intricately decorated bell, the door and the “praying” angel on the top, only bronze features of this mausoleum exclusively made of stone.
The building began in 1920 and lasted till 1922. The mausoleum (very much like the Taj Mahal complex) was also intended to serve as a place of worship. The church was dedicated to “Our Lady Of The Angels”. And, BTW, both the interior and the exterior of the Mausoleum is decorated by more than 140 angels. Just the domed ceiling contains 136 angels, with each row of angels having a different appearance.
However, all of the angels are depicted as extremely sad and in deep, palpable agony. Four angels ascend to the heaven carrying dead infants in their arms, representing the souls of deceased family. Among the angels, a motif of a dove decorates the ceiling of the mausoleum, too.
Built on the foundations of an older chapel of St. Roch, the mausoleum includes an altar dedicated to St Roch. (This is probably a self-portrait of the sculptor, Ivan Meštrović)
St. Roch is invoked against the plague.
To view the details of both the interior and of the exterior of this amazing masterpiece, as well as to find out about the working hours and the entrance fees, please refer to the official website of the Račić Mausoleum.
Love, Death, Life
High up, invisible to all, the bronze bell of the Mausoleum hides a powerful message:
What is the secret of love? Why is this message hidden? Does it have to do anything with a private conversation the sculptor had with Marija? We may never find out.
However, the sculptor’s own emotional and spiritual identity is clearly revealed in the entire structure.
I interpret the Mausoleum in Cavtat as a giant prayer. Like a transmission station sending “radio signals” of both profound grief and hope into the Universe.
All the angelic faces express deep agony, with their eyes turned towards Heaven. Finally, the kneeling angel placed on top of the dome lifts up his hands in the final plea.
Ivan Meštrović, in fact, just re-enacted the event he witnessed in Switzerland in 1918. Through the train window he saw a woman down on her knees, with her face turning upward in a moment of deep grief and pain after she lost her loved ones from the Spanish influenza.
So all the angelic faces apparently reflect HUMAN emotions. Human dilemmas, despair and hope.
Even though they are so far apart from each other in time and space, the two mausoleums, Taj Mahal and the Račić Family Mausoleum in Cavtat are strikingly similar. They both are places of worship. And they both convey the same message. The message of love conquering death.
In both mausoleums, the boundaries of death and love seem to disappear.
Can LOVE help us to accept and even conquer death?