On Ragusan Libertas in the Late Middle Ages
Anali Dubrovnik 46 (2008)
The notion of libertas (libertà) is one of the most important motifs in the discourses on collective identity of the Late Medieval and Renaissance Dubrovnik. During this period references to “liberty” of the city reappear constantly in most different sources, such as historiography, literature, diplomatic material, but also civic ritual and visual arts, in almost every instance when Ragusans spoke about the community of their city-state. This article is an attempt to depict the history of Ragusan discourse on libertas, starting from the very first mentions of the notion in the 14th century until the 16th century, when “liberty” became a true commonplace, probably the most influential topos of both Ragusan culture and politics. The aim of this work is twofold. Firstly, it attempts to demonstrate and analyse the different meanings of the notion in Ragusan sources and their changes in time. Secondly, it also seeks to illuminate the socio-cultural context of the discourse on libertas: different and varying “users” of this motif (individuals, social groups, institutions), diverse situations in which it appears as well as its changing purposes and addressees. The notion itself bore an array of most distinct meanings. It could have designated both the autonomy under the supreme royal power or the very “sovereignty” of the city state; “free” life under the republican institutions or the institutions themselves as institutionalised “liberty”; on the bottom line, it could have stood as a pars pro toto for the Ragusan republic itself. As it is impossible to fix only one meaning of this complex notion, it is equally impossible to determine only one purpose behind the almost obsessive Ragusan discourse on it. Libertas meant many things and served many purposes. It was at the same time a fundamental political value, literary and historiographic topos, legitimizing tool of the patriciate, category of political philosophy/analysis, terminus technicus of Ragusan diplomacy, etc. Equally so, the circumstances in which libertas discourse appeared were very different, ranging from the moments of gravest crisis—such as wars and plagues—to the ceremonious occasions of civic feasts. Finally, further enriching the complex semantics and cultural connotations of the notion is the fact that the discourse on liberty had very different “users”, those who created or at least sponsored it—Ragusan diplomats, patrician councils, poets, but also rebels and exiles—as well as very different audiences (patrician circle, their subjects, foreign rulers, European Humanist intellectuals, etc.).