Grave goods at the Dubrovnik Museum indicate that Lokrum was inhabited since prehistoric times. A fragment of an ancient gravestone and four interlaced relief fragments, built into the south-west part of the former Benedictine monastery, were preserved. Certain records state that Lokrum was settled by the Benedictine monks around 915 A.D.
THE MONASTERY COMPLEX was first mentioned in 1023 as the first of many Benedictine monasteries on the territory of the Dubrovnik Republic. The entire island was owned by the monastery, while the abbey served also as a hospital and an almshouse until the mid-15th century.
The Roman Curia granted the mitre in 1149 to the Lokrum Abbot and ever since then the monastery’s abbots, after the archbishop, are considered the first prelates of the Dubrovnik Church.
The night before the monks left, they gathered in their hoods, lit their candles, turned them upside down, and with their heads bowed, whispering prayers and murmuring songs, slowly walked around their ancient holding, mourning their loss and saying goodbye to their beautiful home.
The legend, of course, adds drama to such a goodbye.
The dark and mysterious line of monks in the end cursed the future owners of the island under the flickering light of candles. The legend, to which certain deaths and accidents that happened to local sellers and owners were associated, would have faded away if not for the tragedies which befell the family of the Austrian emperor and the Croatian king Francis Joseph I, whose family members owned Lokrum.
The execution of the emperor’s brother, Archduke Maximilian, in Mexico, the assassination of his wife Elisabeth at Lake Geneva and the suicide of his son and heir Rudolph in Mayerling violently and forever impressed the legend in collective memory and enshrouded the island in dark shadows.
The ruins of the monastery complex are divided into three parts. The most ancient are the remains of the three-nave and triconch Romanesque-Gothic basilica (12th and 13th century), the east and west monastery wing with its tower and a destroyed cloister.
In the 15th and 16th century, a new monastery in the Gothic-Renaissance style was constructed to the south of the old Romanesque one. The west and north wings of that monastery collapsed during the devastating earthquake of 1667, and only two wings with the cloister were preserved.
Over the cloister door a timeless and ever meaningful message is inscribed:
(“Harmony makes small things grow, lack of it makes great things decay. ”)
At the beginning of the 1860s, in the south-east corner of the new monastery’s courtyard the summer villa of Maximilian I, the Emperor of Mexico, was constructed.
Built according to the owner’s wishes, where the south section of the east wing of the Romanesque-Gothic monastery used to stand, with a guardhouse, the summer villa is a blend of neo-Romanesque, neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance elements which reflect the historic architecture of Maximilian’s time.
The WOODSMAN’S LODGE was also erected in Portoč during that period and in the same style.
After the island’s function changed, the existing cisterns couldn’t provide enough water for the summer villa and the cultivated area. A LARGE WATER RESERVOIR and the CHARLOTTE’S WELL were constructed, while the SMALL WATER RESERVOIR is older and was built when the French ruled the island and the FORT ROYAL was erected.
Immediately after taking Dubrovnik in 1806, the French army started the construction of a fort on Lokrum due to the strategic importance of the island. The fort was erected on the hill Glavice (97 m) as a spacious battery with walls, ramparts and ditches. The Fort Royal was also used by the Austrian army which extensively added to it during the 1830s.
The circular fort consists of an antemural with towers and the main circular fortification, later called the Tower of Maximilian, although Maximilian I didn’t have anything to do with the construction.
The LAZARET complex was erected between 1534 and 1557 at the order of the Senate of the Dubrovnik Republic for protection against infectious diseases. The Lazaret had a square plan and double walls. The main gate (today walled up) was located in the north wall and above it the building inscription was engraved in 1557. The Lazaret also had premises for traders, sailors and passengers.
The Lazaret was never completed since the Republic gave up on the construction at the end of the 16th century for strategic reasons. Since the fortified Lazaret could have served as a base for the invaders, the Republic started erecting the new lazaret at Ploče, near the town. A part of the Lazaret was torn down at the Senate’s order in 1647 and its stones were used to fortify the town walls. But the overgrown walls of the Lokrum Lazaret continued to fuel the locals’ imagination and a story was born.
HOW LAZARET WAS SOLD
A man noticed a beautiful plot of land on Lokrum and wanted to buy it. He negotiated with the Republic, with the monks, with everyone to whom it could have belonged. Nothing seemed to help, it was not for sale. His last resort was to use a cunning plan. The man asked the owner to sell him as much land as he could cover with cowhide. They made a deal. The man took the largest cowhide he could find, sharpened his blade and cut the hide as thin as he could. He made a belt and wrapped it around the stakes he had rammed in the ground around the plot. Then he called the owner and showed him his work. The owner could only recognize his defeat and sell what was fenced in by the belt.
The TRITON’S CROSS above Skalica Bay was erected in the memory of the sailors of the Austrian Navy ship Triton, which had anchored in front of Lokrum, who died on May 9, 1859 in a huge explosion. Out of the whole crew only ten men survived, and stories told in villages and in the town mostly focused on the rescue of the punished and chained sailor, whom some held responsible for the accident itself.
The tragedy brought to Dubrovnik and Lokrum the emperor’s brother, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Habsburg, a wanderer, poet and a lover of nature, and the Navy’s commander at the time. Where the investigation led to is not certain, but Maximilian engraved the names of dead sailors on the cross erected in their memory. Moved by the event and the wonders he witnessed because of it, the archduke bought the island he fell in love with at first sight.
The old Lokrum harbor, SKALICA, can probably be found in another sea tale. This, perhaps the oldest story about Lokrum, is full of royal brilliance, crusading adventures and the dangers of stormy seas. The protagonist’s name: Richard the Lion Heart.
THE LEGEND OF RICHARD’S SHIPWRECK
On his return from the Crusade in 1192 the king of England sailed the Mediterranean waters in November, a stormy and dark month, on a Venetian ship.
The stories say that, exhausted by the strong winds and big waves, the king could only put his faith in the Heavens and vow to build two churches devoted to Mary the Blessed Virgin: one on the land he reaches first and the other in his homeland.
The interweaving of legend – possibly imagined by the Lokrum Benedictine monks – and history reveals Lokrum as the island which gave shelter to Richard’s ship, probably in the relatively safe anchorage in today’s Skalica, with a view of Dubrovnik.
According to Dubrovnik annals, when the locals noticed the anchored ship, a delegation was sent to greet the king and take him to Dubrovnik, where he was given gifts and where he could rest. And then, since just at that time they happened to plan the construction of a new cathedral, they managed to convince him to give his votive offering to the cathedral – the Republic will fulfill his vow by building a church on Lokrum. Soon after, Richard sailed to his destiny on a Dubrovnik ship.
Although Richard the Lion Heart hadn’t constructed the church on Lokrum, the documents from the 13th century mention three more churches besides the basilica: St. Michael’s, St. Cyriacus’ and St. Elias’.
Today only the Gothic-Renaissance ANNUNCIATION CHAPEL (15th/16th century) remains standing near the entrance to the Botanical Garden.