The town acquired its present urban plan and architectural appearance during the prosperous years of the 17th and 18th centuries. Although damaged by a long period of economic stagnation, the construction of a coastal road and various incursions on old towers and palaces, Perast today represents one of the most beautiful examples of baroque architecture on the Adriatic coast.
Two primary factors have influenced the urban character of the place: a historic need for strong defenses and the blending of monumental and minor stone structures with sacral buildings of outstanding beauty.
Under Venice (1482-1684), no continuous defensive barrier was erected around this exposed and fragile settlement on the border of the Ottoman Empire. In 1570, only the fortress, St. Cross, rose above the town. However, within the town a chain of ten watchtowers, called “cardaci”, presented a well-devised system of checkpoints to protect against attacks. These characteristic towers contributed to the unique appearance of Perast.
Of the more than three hundred (300) houses and palaces crowding the coast and slopes of the hill, two hundred and seven (207) buildings were classified in the 18th-century as being of architectural significance, one hundred and seventeen (117) as ordinary structures and fourteen (14) churches were noted as associated with the patronage of noble families.
Of the churches, the unfinished parish church of St Nicholas deserves special mention. Its architecture, though incomplete, reveals the monumental design of Giuseppe Beati, who created a Venetian-Romanesque variant of baroque in the 17th century. In 1691, Ivan Scarpe began the construction of an impressive, 55m (179 feet) tall belfry with five stories and a divided series of loges at a cost of 55,000 ducats. An inscription on the belfry proudly reads that the Turkish threat ended after the Venetians conquered Herceg Novi and Risan. Although left open to the sky, the great apse of the main altar with its two sacristies makes a significant contribution to the coastline of Perast.
Other churches of note include the church of Our Lady of the Rosary with its outstanding octagonal belfry, built in 1687 on the high ground adjoining his palace by Archbishop Andrija Zmajevic; the church of St. Mark, dating from 1760, with a richly decorated facade, once the church of the Confraternity; the monastery and church of St. Antony, built near the fortress by the Mazarovic family in 1679; the church of St. John the Baptist; and the church of St. Anne.
Outstanding examples of palaces must include the sumptuous Bujovic palace, today the Museum of Perast. It was built in 1694 and decorated with five harmonious balconies opening off paired arcades on three sides of the building and fronted by a spacious cross-vaulted porch supported by massive pillars carved in the bugnatto technique. Although the newly constructed coastal road gives the palace the impression of being “sunk” and its overall artistic value compromised, the Bujovic palace is still one of the most beautiful edifices on the Montenegrin coast.
Besides the Bujovic palace, the following palaces also beautify the coastline of Perast: the Smekja palace, with a large terrace projecting towards the sea, balconies ornamented with baroque balustrades and a third floor of narrow proportions which takes the form of an extended belvedere; the Bronza palace decorated with a marble relief depicting the scene of the Annunciation; and the palaces belonging to the Viskovic, Balovic, Mazarovic, Sestokrilovic and Brajkovic families
The aesthetic values of baroque Perast have been highly appreciated by modern art historians: “… in Perast, without going into poetical phrases, the Dalmatian baroque achieved its apotheosis in every stone with its coating, every elegantly carved portal, contributing to an eternal atmosphere of province to be lost. Here, the unity of the town, more than individual monuments, creates an atmosphere that connects into one chord church domes and pillars of balconies, as well as gold coating of time… Perast represent a culmination of the Dalmatian baroque.” (Dr. Kruno Prijatelj). It was from maritime trade and customs privileges obtained from battles, especially against piracy, that Perast garnered the wealth that financed such beauty.
Although it was an ancient settlement, Perast enjoyed greater economic, political and cultural development only from the middle of the 15th century. At that time, the Boka became part of the Venetian Republic (1420). About sixty years later, Ottoman forces advanced on the Gulf of Kotor, determining its fate for the next two centuries. Before these events, Perast was just a small village possessing a shipyard and a number of modest fishing and trading ships. Kotor, the far larger, fortified city at the end of the bay, held jurisdiction over the island and the abbey of St. George (9th century). At that time, St George was the only island off the coast of Perast and the abbey sustained itself from properties it owned there. The overlordship of Kotor became a burden to Perast as the town began to acquire a higher degree of economic independence and power. Following the Turkish conquest of the Boka from Herceg Novi to Risan (1482), Perast attained a strategically and politically significant position as a border town. Because of this new role, important economic and political privileges were bestowed on it which the inhabitants of Perast soon used to their advantage.
Venice encouraged the development of a local fleet for the purposes of trade as well as to do battle with Ottoman pirates. The skilled mariners and traders of Perast gained fame both for their chosen professions and for their prowess as warriors. Due to this reputation, they earned the honour of guarding the Venetian gonfalon (standard) of St. Mark in time of war. Perast held this privilege until the fall of the Republic in 1797.
Despite the dramatic circumstances of constant conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Venice, which were particularly fierce in this area, the town continued to develop culturally and architecturally. The construction of luxurious palaces, chapels and churches, the importation of works of art and the ongoing literary activity give evidence of an intense industry out of proportion to the size of the town and the number of its inhabitants.
Noble Families of Perast – Casadas – According to tradition, Perast had twelve distinguished families. During the Middle Ages and afterwards, these “casadas”, patrician clans or brotherhoods, were called by the names of the original families. They were an integral part of the commune of Perast and their chiefs were elected as members of the town council every few years. The following casadas were active in Perast: 1) Studeni, 2) Dentali, 3) Vukasovic, 4) Brajkovic, 5) Sestokrilovic, 6) Bratica, 7) Stoisic, 8) Smilojevic, 9) Silopi, 10) Cizmaj, 11) Perojevic and 12) Miokovic. Each also had a flag bearer. This was in addition to serving as the bearers of the gonfalon of St. Mark.
St. Nicholas Church – It is situated on the main square, a single nave structure, with its apse facing southeast. The present church was built in 1616, although it is said to have replaced an earlier church dating from 1564. Behind the 17th century church of St. Nicholas, on the northeastern side, a new, more ambitious church was begun under the Venetian architect, Giuseppe Beati, but only its apse and sacristies were completed. The foundation stones were laid beginning in 1740 and construction continued until 1800 when the work was interrupted by the Napoleonic Wars. Today, the two churches of St. Nicholas (the old and unfinished new) combine to form a single entity.
Next to the church, in 1691, as mentioned earlier, a lofty and handsome belfry was constructed by Ivan Skarpa, called “the Baptist”, from the island of Hvar. Although it was built in the baroque period, it had elements of both Romanesque and Renaissance styles. The major bell was given as a present by the archbishops Andrija and Matija Zmajevic in 1713. Two smaller bells were added in 1797. The clock on the belfry was brought from Venice and installed in 1730. Inside, the church of St. Nicholas displays a rich collection of paintings by Tripo Kokolja (1661-1713), the famous painter of Perast. The organ is a very old one with no known date of construction but the first mention of repair dates from 1699. Valuable paintings and precious vestments from the 16th and 17th centuries are kept in the treasury.
Our Lady of the Rosary – Andrija Zmajevic (1624-1694), Archbishop of Bar, built the chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary in 1678 as his mausoleum. The church and its belfry bear stylistic features of both Renaissance and baroque. The slender octagonal belfry is one of the most beautiful on the Adriatic coast.The belfry is supposed to have been designed by Andrija Zmajevic.
Church of St. John the Baptist - It is located in the western part of Perast, by the side of the old road. It was first mentioned in documents in 1595 and belonged to the medieval “Confraternity of the Wounds of Jesus Christ”. Its late Renaissance west facade has a fine portal with a small rose window and a two bell gables above, one on top of the other. One of its bells bears a casting mark from 1596. Some renovation was undertaken in 1703.
St. Anne’s Church – It stands about 300 meters above sea level. The exact year of its construction is not known, although Drago Martinovic (1697-1781) in his Annals refers to it as “antichissima” (very old), further stating that it was surrounded by houses. It was recorded that in 1693 its altar was destroyed in a fire and that a new one was built. Judging from the account books of St. Anne’s church and in particular, by one of rare signatures that Tripo Kokolja left at the bottom of the altar fresco, it can be concluded that the fresco was painted in 1708. The dimensions of the tiny church are only 5 x 3 meters. It is built simply of rough stone and roofed with stone slates. Its facade is topped by a small bellcote.
St. Mark’s Church – It is situated in Pencici near the Smekja palace. A small church/mausoleum dedicated to the Virgin, St. Anne, St. Mathew and St. Mark the Evangelist, it was constructed by Matej Stukanovic. Two high pilasters ending in Corinthian capitals flank the front. The roof gable includes a small rose window. On top of the gable, are the sculptures of the Resurrected Christ, St. Peter with keys and St. Mark with the gospel in his hand. On the back, is a three-light bellcote.
Inside the church, which was completely adapted into a warehouse by IMK JADRAN in 1959, only the remains of the Stukanovic brothers’ graves with damaged coats-of-arms, and a collective tomb of the Confraternity have been preserved. Among others, Martija Stukanovic, the archbishop of Bar and Andja, the wife of Admiral Matija Zmajevic were buried there.
St. Antony’s Church – Located in the upper part of Perast, near the Fortress of St. Cross, the church and nearby monastery were built in 1679 by the Mazarovic family. The Franciscans came to Perast in 1636, by invitation of the inhabitants, to open primary and nautical schools. They also practiced medicine and there was a pharmacy in the monastery. Two elliptical windows flank the portal on the baroque facade of St. Antony and there is a statue of St. Barabara above the door in a niche. Until the 19th century, the church had an organ. The monastery used to own a fine library but it was transferred to the Franciscan library in Kotor.
Orthodox Church of the Nativity of the Virgin – It was built in 1757 and restored in 1864. It is a single nave vaulted church with an apse, and semi-arched windows over the altar niches. Influenced by the coastal style, a wooden choir or “baladus” was subsequently constructed. The church was built in the Byzantine style and has a valuable iconostasis.
Museum of Perast – Established by the Municipal Council of Perast in 1937, the museum includes exhibits collected from the second half of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, mainly donated by local people, the descendants of noble families of Perast. Besides the portraits of famous Perast seamen, weapons and other exhibits from the past of Perast, it houses the archives of the municipality of Perast from 1441 onwards. The museum used to be situated in the building of former municipality of Perast, next to St. Nicholas’ church. Today, it is situated in the Bujovic palace, which was adapted for this purpose in 1957.
In the museum of Perast, through its extensive displays and collections, it is possible to trace the historical, maritime, economic and cultural development of Perast during the reign of the Venetian Republic (1420-1797) and throughout the 19th century, when Perast was ruled by the French and Austrians under whom it experienced a much rapid decline than other towns of the Boka Kotorska.
In 1979, the Perast Palace and Museum were damaged by an earthquake. Between 1979 and 1998, the Palace and Museum underwent basic restoration. However, space envisioned after the earthquake for the public display of a rich collection of over 300 paintings, sculptures, and library and archive materials was started but never completed.
Prior to the earthquake, these items were previously stored in the museum for research purposes only and were never accessible to the public.
By the end of 2006, construction will be completed, with the financial assistance of the American people through the US Consulate in Montenegro, for additional space within the Perast Museum for public viewing of these artifacts of significant cultural value. Making these items accessible will add to the attraction of Perast.
Museum of the church of St. Nicholas with a belfry – It possesses a rich collection of relics, silver and wooden crosses, chalices, icons, baroque paintings (by Tripo Kokaolja), etc. There is also a baroque altar with marble angels and different kinds of vestments (copes, chasubles, “dalmatike”, “stole“, etc.)
Our Lady of the Rock – The church of Our Lady of the Rock also possesses a museum with rich collection of stone monuments. Of special interest are the following: a relief worked in Carara marble depicting the scene of Annunciation by Venetian sculptor Giovanni Bonaca: votive paintings of ships; and a famous embroidered icon of the Virgin, a votive gift from 1828, of Jacinta Kunic from Perast who sewed her own hair on the heads of the Virgin and child. Also valuable is a small collection of tools and weapons, reminding us of a past when the sanctuary had to be defended.
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