The famous Vodnjan inhabitant, Giovanni Andrea Dalla Zonca, put forward the hypothesis that his town was founded by the same fugitives who erected the foundations of old Pula. Mythical thought is one of the determinants of each genius loci, however Adignanum it undoubtedly had to emerge from some agglomeration (village or fort) located along the reputed Roman Via Flaviae and roads that criss-crossed this part of the region. Vast latifundiums extended here, while estates in the area of Vodnjan comprised a separate praedium. Throughout time, in the written material, telling the story of Vodnjan, a premise is offered in which this Istrian locality received its name from some Attinius and his estate called Attinianum, Adignani, Dignano, while the Slavic transcription was given through the efforts of Croatian village inhabitants from the surrounding area who, carrying full baskets of their own products, hurried to the market … va Dinjane, vo dinjan, and finally to Vodnjan.
Many think that the history of Vodnjan begins with the Romans, however the oldest traces reach back to the Bronze Age or approximately about 1800 years B.C. This is the period when in Istria there were settlements located primarily on the top of hills under the name fortified town (castellieri), whose imposing defence walls and articulated entrance, even today, is truly impressive. Even more interesting is the fact that the architecture of the fortified town from the Bronze and later Iron Age were constructed with drywalls. The exterior and interior faces of the walls are made from carved stone, while the interior part is filled with crushed stones and soil.
After the Bronze Age followed a longer period for which we still don’t have any remnants up until the appearance of the Romans. Upon inhabiting our peninsula, the Romans conducted subdivision or division of land, called centurijacija, whose traces have also been preserved in the Vodnjan area. These remnants are parts of dry stone walls and partitioning drystone walls, divided into multiple parallel rows within which partitioning drystone walls are positioned at equal distances which correspond to Roman actus (approx. 35 m). They have been preserved in the area called Komunal, which is also in the direct vicinity of the settlement Barbariga. Istria in the Roman era, and certainly also Vodnjan, rightfully experienced progress in the political, administrative, social and primarily economic sense.
The development of agriculture in this era is confirmed for us not only by the historical sources of Roman writers, rather are also evident in the numerous tangible remnants of rich Roman villas which are located within the Pula region. These buildings are purposefully located mostly on the western Istrian coast which is much more accessible and is directly connected to trade which in Roman times primarily took place via the sea. So it was at the beginning of the past century that structures were found in the wider Barbariga area, and one in the area of Velika Šaraja, not far from Peroj, whose remnants indicate the production of olive oil, and maybe even wine. Parts of the machinery for production of oil remained preserved in these villas for years, as was discovered in the so called oil mill near Barbariga which was built in the 1st century A.D. Gradually it expanded, right up to the VIth century, and the discovery of twenty or so presses indicates it was a real factory for the production of the precious liquid. Such a production role may also be assigned to the humble remnants of the ancient structures located in the interior of the Vodnjan area too; close to the Church of St. Lucia, not far from the railway station in Vodnjan. That similar complexes also existed in the area of Gurana are witnessed by numerous fragments of presses incorporated later into early Christian churches.
Anyone who would like to imagine how it was to live during the relatively short-lived Ostrogoth rule which in the fifth century inherited the scattered Western Roman Empire, will easily be transported to this era at this location. A Roman building, a building from the period of early Christianity, an Ostrogoth building, a Byzantine building – we can find each of these all with parts of everyday life in the complex of walls and mosaics in Dragonera, in the long lost and once again found pearls of the Cassiodorus’s beads.
In the middle of the XIIth century, in the charters of the Pula church province, finally the first written mention of Vodnjan appears: Vicus Atinianus (year 1150); then on 15 November 1194, XIIth the indictions in the document on the completion of a dispute between the bishop and Poreč commune, mentions Paponis de Adignano, and then further: Basilius de Adignano (1230 – 33), villa Adignani (1303), comune et homines Adignani (1330) etc. To be in documents, means to be in the world, to be on the historical scene, to be under the magnifying glass of historians, given that due to the great chronological gaps, the history of Vodnjan cannot be reconstructed in its entirety.
However, the XIIIth and XIVth centuries were periods of gradual but far-reaching historical turn around on the Istrian soil. The “Oath of allegiance” (so called fidelitas) of Istrian towns to the Republic of St. Mark for six and half, almost seven centuries determined their fate. Even the Vodnjan commune entered the sphere of Venetian influence and in this way attempted to free itself from the marginal subsistence in a patriarchal state.
In the year of discovery of the New World (1492) and expansion of the European and cosmic pattern, the Vodnjan commune decided to once again list the laws and customs, and to create conditions for better functioning of many and increasingly complex forms of life, to create the conditions for economic and population prosperity. The Statute attempted to review in greater detail, stipulate and place into function the complex nuances of economic-legal relations, the arteries, veins and capillaries of the Vodnjan microcosm, that special, exceptional and fascinating urban-rural commune which in the grey marginality of Venetian Istria stood out with unusual vitality. Tens of statutory chapters edited an unusually interwoven and sometimes unusual, even bizarre and seemingly incomprehensible complex of regulations about procedures of almost every participant who worked and lived from work and production within the walls of the citadel and its area.
Those who drafted the Vodnjan Statute, with a series of laws and regulations, attempted to create in the market town the conditions for security and protection of integrity and individual dignity, they attempted to protect the population from offence of public morality and to create a high culture of living and behaviour … The fourth book of the Statute is in line with these efforts. Not only does it envisage hanging sentences or life-long exile for murders and poisoners, but rather the law also comes down on abductors of women, slanderers, to those who insult their co-inhabitants by swiping their hats off their head with their hands, etc. The death penalty was also envisaged for those who forcibly abducted a widow and girl and forced her to marry against their will; raptus (abduction) may well have been a ritual for some of the newcomers, however the city council – in accordance with the ethos of the Istrian indigenous culture – it was rightly deemed a criminal act. Those who cursed God and the Virgin Mary must pay a tenth, and St. Mark five lira; for other saints the fine amounted to three lira or, for those who could not pay, one day spent on the “pillar of shame” (berlina).
In the second half of the XVIth century, Vodnjan was given the flattering epithet “economically developed and most populated citadel in the whole of Istria (castello florido e popolatissimo di tutta l’Istria). The governor Marin Malipiero, who listed these words in a report to the Senate in 1583, left Pula (his official seat) and moved to Vodnjan – citadel of “firm walls” and “healthy air”. With this he repeated what had been happening throughout a long period of continuity: while from other town and village centres, people escaped from war, hunger, disease and death…. Vodnjan was a sanctuary for refugees and fugitives, a god-given island in the troubled and dangerous Istrian sea.
A century later, another step forward was made: In 1781, the Senate accepted the petition of the Municipality of Vodnjan that a provision be entered into the Statute according to which an immigrant would receive “six žurnada of uncultivated land” with the obligation to plant crops”. With this the doors of the old market town became open even for district inhabitants living on municipal land. During its entire history, even up to our age, Vodnjan has attempted to be both open and selective…
The organisational structure and activities of the institutions of the Vodnjan society up to the beginning of XIXth century (and even later) is yet to become the subject of future archive studies, however even a superficial insight into the issues leaves an impression of a high level of organisation of this southern Istrian locality. Here worldly and church institutions and their codified activities interweave – in the service of betterment. So for example, the Parish Church of St. Jacob of three Saints (“delle Trisiere”) was, traditionally, not only a place of regular worship, rather also a gathering place for Vodnjan locals on some exceptional occasions. In front of it, according to some historical sources, in 1393, peace was concluded with Pula, while in 1492 the Statute of the citadel was proclaimed.
From the XIIIth century, the canonical Church of St. Blasius became the most important church in Vodnjan. The secular government, along with the ecclesiastical, attempted to secure living funds for the priest. Data about the church tithe was preserved which due to the shortage of priests was collected by the Pula canons. Given that the villagers did not pay the due amount, in 1423 a deal was struck: from now the church would only be paid 3 % in nature from produced wine, wheat, rye, firewood and lambs. Aside from this, livestock breeders and owners of herds, of which there were many in the Vodnjan villages, gave the parish priest the first (primitiae) of the lambs and cheese. Particularly significant is the so called Bragadin termination (named for the inquisitor Girolan Bragadin) with which it was stipulated that every family possessing land and oxen, and who permanently resided in some parish, had to pay the parish priest a “mozzo of wheat and barely”; the priests pledged to regularly carryout their duties. The provisions, of course, also applied to Vodnjan, in whose urban core and in the suburbs were a number of churches, and also for its municipal area.
In Vodnjan two ecclesiastical orders – Convectuals and Capuchins – had their own monasteries; the first news of them originate from 1633, while the last in 1806, when according to the French authorities they were removed from this region. The ecclesiastical brotherhoods of which there were a few in Vodnjan had an educational but primarily religious and charitable role (the oldest was St. John the Baptist/S. Giovanni Battista with a hospice and Friars house).
After the plague epidemic which in 1631 shook, not only Istria, rather also Venice and the whole of Europe, equally so the citadel and its surrounding area fell into scarcity, poverty and temporary hunger. In the cycle of bad luck which befell Vodnjan (and the whole of southern Istria), should also be included the climate disruptions which culminated in great storms in 1649; the most fertile fields, olive groves and vineyards lost all their crops. What was worst of all, was that the inhabitants were also left without seeds for future planting. The Venetian government, in this and similar situations, was forced to reduce fiscal and natural obligations and send monetary aid for the purchase of wheat. However, some contributions were persistently demanded despite the crisis in which the inhabitants of Vodnjan and other Istrian subjects found themselves in (for example taxes for exported livestock). However, Vodnjan always managed to recuperate, resting on the point of reference of its commercial vitality.
The efforts of the Venetian governor in XVIth and XVIIth centuries to improve, not only the economic but also the health ambiance and ecological conditions, were joined in 1774 by the very learned and agile doctor (protomedico) Ignazio Lotti who warned the Koper Podestà and captain that the southern Istrian manner of crushing grains between two stones was very detrimental to health because the dust and limestone mixed with the flour. He therefore recommended the construction of wind mills, but also the construction of a cistern for every day use. Furthermore, an expert for building cisterns and wells had moved to Vodnjan in those years, who is mentioned in sources as Ioannes Antonius Pozzolarius from Udine, which undoubtedly indicates that Lotti’s advice was heard.
The cultivation of olives and production of oil has for centuries been not only a source of economic gain of the Vodnjan inhabitants, but rather also a type of symbol of their superior skills in this branch of production. Although the Venetian Republic, on the one hand, encouraged production, on the other hand it suffocated it with high taxes on oil presses and attempts that all production should be exported for the needs of the City on the Lagoons, the Vodnjan locals stubbornly persisted in this activity. From Roman times, as part of the Pula region, the Vodnjan territory had produced and exported significant quantities of oil, and the tradition, despite unfavourable circumstances, continued during the long Venetian, Austrian, Italian periods, almost to the present day. The thick plantations of olives follow the history of Vodnjan over two millennia.
It must also not be forgotten that among the usual crafts and trades in Vodnjan, the production of woven cloth and creation of clothing items were particularly developed. This was not only highly productive but also highly creative, and also one of the characteristics of the ethnos of the native population. Back in the late Middle Ages, Vodnjan wool sold well in Venice; later it would develop into significant trade of cloth from which sun shades and clothing for crew on galleons were made. Ash which was also exported was used to wash cloth, although its gains were reduced by high customs duties (it was only in 1445 that the Venetian government significantly reduced fees on Vodnjan ashes).
The Port of Marichio (or Mariccio, Marić) belonged to the Vodnjan municipality, where goods for markets of overseas cities would be loaded, however due to the large quantities of oak logs and firewood, the Senate approved for it another three loading docks – carregador in the Pula territory: Portissuol, Murazzo and Vallbandon. Here – according to some eye witness accounts – traditional boats – trabakuli (sailing ships), bragoci (small fishing boat) and other boats would often dock.
The history of the Istrian forests, which of course includes those in the Vodnjan region, has tied to it the most difficult working obligations in Venetian Istria, the so called carratada – transport of oak logs (intended for Arsenal in Venice) from the cutting location to the loading place on the sea shore. Admittedly in 1445, with the decision of the Senate, the Vodnjan owners of ox carts were exempt from carratada, so that, as it states in the issued decree, they could spend more time working in the fields and tending their livestock. Unfortunately this privilege was later rescinded, so even Vodnjan villagers were placed on lists on the occasion of “throwing carratada”.
However, at the end of the XVIth and beginning of the XVIIth century, the danger of war hovered over Istria, the Uskoks – who were backed by Austria, began an open “battle for domination over” the Venetian bay “(Colfo or Golfo, as it was called in political familiarity) – they attacked not only ships at sea and coastal localities, but also the interior of Venetian Istria. Vodnjan too began to arm itself and prepare its defence: in 1589, the municipality turned to the Senate for assistance in the form of arms, and from 1600 it increased the number of local cernida, even though in these years the village areas suffered greatly from the cold and storms (harvests of olives and grapes failed, planting was late…), so the local villagers were more concerned about hunger which gripped them, than practicing shooting from arquebus and petrary (small cannons). Despite this, the captain of the cernida managed to gather together about 600 men and prepare for the defence of Vodnjan.
The settlement of Croatian colonists and refugees to the area of the Vodnjan commune and their entry into the citadel/town throughout one period of ethnic transition also created a small cultural-glagolitic nucleus. A whole series of glagolitic entries in mystic baptismal books of the XVIth century bear witness to this. Chaplain Matij Sladić entered the act of christening of children of Vodnjan locals in the Croatian cultural circles, in the years 1566, 1567 and 1569, while the glagolitic priest Matija Sinožić, in 1578.
In historical events, Vodnjan and the Vodnjan region followed the fate of others (primarily Venetian) in Istria. Events followed their inevitable course … with the Treaty of Campo Formio (1797), the government body of the old Serenissime was extinguished, and Austrian troops entered Vodnjan. Fifteen civic judges took over the seat of the Podestà and constituted an interim court council. On the first of February 1800, Vodnjan was attached to Pula, and of the one time market town with autonomous authority, only a regular office remained in whose competency were documents that needed to be resolved according to urgent procedure.
At the end of 1805 Vodnjan was occupied by the French, and the years that followed were accompanied by continual political and administrative changes. A year later and Vodnjan, transformed into the seat of the second canton of the Rovinj district, found itself in the new Napoleon state entity – the “Kingdom of Italy” (Regno d’Italia), while with the Treaty of Vienna in 1809, it became part of the “Illyrian regions” of the French Empire.
The return of Austria in 1813 was accompanied by very sharp protests and the resistance of the Vodnjan inhabitants who, freed from the burden and obligations of French occupation, were also burdened with hardly bearable fiscal levies and work pressures of the new rulers.
Favourable living conditions in the urban habitat of a market town and its vast territory was facilitated by the fertile land which the hardworking hands of the Vodnjan inhabitants transformed into plough fields, olive groves, vineyards…. into pastures full of livestock; it enabled the flourishing of crafts and trades, and trade; the close vicinity of Pula, new wartime ports of the Hapsburg Empire, its Arsenal and a multitude of building sites on which local labour force found lucrative earnings….
However, floating in the historical vacuum (vacuum vuoto) could not last forever; the Vodnjan urban organism began to recognise within itself civilisational components, but also in the given circumstances had to orientate itself towards a new ethno-culture, commercial and population organisational structure, according to some new historical possibilities which will be a happy union of fertile fields of tradition and the spirit of the new age.
Lit: “Attinianum” gazette of the Town of Vodnjan No. 2/2004; 1/2005; Miroslav Bertoša “Trgovište pod staklenim zvonom” (Market town under a glass bell” – historical pictures of Vodnjan; Marijan Jelenić “Vodnjan i okolica” (Vodnjan and surrounding areas).
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