If you have seen a production of, or listened to the music from, Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow”, you actually have some passing knowledge of one of the tiniest but fiercest corners of Serbdom, the Black Mountain – Crna Gora – Montenegro. Disguised with the pseudonym Pontevedro in the operetta, Lehar included elements of Montenegrin life throughout every aspect of the production. Premiering in 1905, the two leads, Mizzi Gunther (playing the eponymous widow, Hanna Glavari, a Pontevedran expatriate in Paris) and Louis Treumann (playing the dashing Prince Danilo), wore stage versions of traditional court costume; characters’ names were reflective of the region and the ruling dynasty, the Petrović-Njegoš family; an aria titled “The Song of the Vila” hearkened to the mythological vile (pl.) of Serb folklore, beautiful but temperamental female fairies who inhabited forests and mountains. The operetta was, in many ways, a Viennese nod to the Slavs of its kingdom, even though Montenegro lay beyond its boundaries. The land of mountains and eagles had never been fully conquered through five centuries of Ottoman presence in the Balkans; little did the Viennese know that in less than a decade, Montenegrin Serbs would be fighting off their armies, too.
Niš, in the south central part of Serbia, has its greatest claim to fame as the birthplace of Constantine, the first Byzantine emperor. Located near the confluence of the Nišava and Morava rivers, the valleys have always made for a natural thoroughfare since ancient times. By Constantine’s time, the Via Militaris or Carigradski Drum was a well travelled route for both trade and conquest. Continue reading
In 2019, an iconic painting is marking its centennial. Depicting events that happened over 600 years ago, the Kosovka Devojka, or Kosovo Maiden, has become the most widely known image of all of Serbian art. It has become a symbol of charity and mercy, of selflessness, and of bravery. This painting was preceded by others that have not retained the same impact in our collective soul. Legendary, not historic, the Kosovo Maiden is a woman every Serb knows like a sister. Continue reading
The Kumanovo district is one that has attracted a lot of attention from folklore ensembles lately, with mixed results when it comes to costume. The region is complex, with two distinct costume forms found locally among Serbian and Macedonian populations. Ethnic Bulgarian and Turkish populations dwindled but their influence remained as well. Moreover, the district experienced rapid changes in costume from the beginning of the twentieth century, something spurred by the preponderance of migrant work (pečalba, gurbet) among the men of the region; returning, they brought home new fabrics and western-style garments that were incorporated into, and eventually replaced, the folk costume. All of these things have led to a bizarre spectacle on the stages of Serbian folklore ensembles: costumes from wildly different time periods, side by side in the same choreography; multiple dancers wearing the heavy bridal headdress abandoned by WWI, even when not presenting wedding customs; and bizarre innovations borrowed from neighbouring regions and cultures. I hope that by sharing some of the costumes from my collection, I can at least sufficiently educate blog readers to spot these anomalies when they encounter them. Let’s make Kumanovo great again, people!
What can I say that has not been said about Kosovo? The cradle of Serbian statehood, faith and identity since the arrival of the Slavs, who encountered Romanized populations, remnants of the tribes and colonies of the Roman Empire. Kosovo, which emerged as part of Raška, alongside Zahumlje and Travunija (Hercegovina), Duklja and Zeta (Montenegro) as one of the earliest Serbian principalities, and which became part of the first Serbian Kingdom of Stefan Nemanjić “Prvovenčani” (The First Crowned). Kosovo became the jewel of the Serbian state, with fortresses and monasteries constructed under the order of kings, emperors and patriarchs: Bogorodica Ljeviška, Gračanica, Banjska, Dečani, so many more… prime among them, the Peć Patriarchate, nucleus of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Kosovo was the turning point for Serbian history, too, as Serbian and Ottoman armies met once again, this time on the Field of Blackbirds (kos, Kosovo Polje) and set in motion the events of future centuries, peonies sprouting from the blood of the fallen.
Wine is arguably the single-most important substance in the history of Europe. Evidence of early winemaking during the Neolithic exists abundantly, not only in Europe but throughout the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean world. It is mentioned in the Bible 233 times, and has permeated the literature of every Indo-European language. Serbian folk songs celebrate it, folk belief venerates it, and it follows a Serb through every moment of life.
If someone ever asks you to give them a lesson in the complexities of Balkan history, diversity of Balkan ethnography, and fluidity of Balkan linguistics, just point them to Vlasina and Krajište. It’s got it all.
Apologies for my absence. The demands of my job have kept me from posting new things on the blog, but I assure you that good things are coming. I’m actively researching, restoring and taking photos for upcoming posts that I hope you will find interesting.
I’m often asked why I do the things I do. Why I teach, why I collect, why I’m doing this blog. I can only think of my late kum Rastko Aleksandrov, who was an excellent cardiac surgeon but an even more passionate birdwatcher. He travelled the world photographing bird species, and published a book on the migratory birds of Serbia. Kum Rastko told me once that people devote a different kind of energy to their hobby than to their job, no matter how much they love what they do for a living. This has stuck with me, and it rang true when I began learning more about Nikola Arsenović, one of the most prolific ethnographers to document South Slavic costume, and one of the most obsessed people in his field during his time. Continue reading