Like people, cities have their biographies and signs of identity which make them anonymous, or recognizable, or familiar, or even renowned. And of a string of Middle European cities, Varazdin is not only one of the oldest and most lovely, but one of the most particular of Croatian cities, with its firmly defined identity as a city of the baroque, of music and flowers. And it is a town that has for over eight centuries been built according to the scale (and the needs) of its citizens, and has right up to the present time preserved its singularity, a truly rare harmony and a distinctive atmosphere.
Many events in the rich and stormy biography of the city have left an ineradicable mark, thanks to its having arisen at the site of a busy junction of European routes that lead from the north west (Austria) and north east(Hungary) towards the south – to the Croatian capital Zagreb and the Adriatic Sea. And so Varazdin is also one of the oldest Croatian cities, whose historical name (Garestin) was mentioned for the first time in a document of the Croatian-Hungarian king, Bela III dated August 20, 1181.
The text of this important judicial document, a deed by which the king returned to Zagreb Cathedral the neighbouring manor of Varazdinske Toplice (Varazdin Spa) also provides confirmation that the royal fortress of Varazdin (“castrum Garestin”), the centre of the county of Varazdin (“comitatus Varasdiensis”), ruled over by the count (“comes castri”), existed as early as the first half of the 12th century, However, Varazdin was also the first Croatian city to attain the status of free and royal city. This favour was granted to the city by King Andrija Arpadovic II in a charter of 1209, and reconfirmed by King Bela in a legal document from 1220.
From that time more or less until 1850, when they were territorially and administratively united, the fortress in which the Counts of Varazdin sat and ruled, and the neighbouring settlement of free citizens (“civites varasdiensis”) lived in a kind of symbiosis, an existential interdependence that admitted juridical autonomy. From 1209 on, the fortress castellan no longer had any judicial authority over the citizens of Varazdin, who chose their own town executive (magistrat) and city judge (rihtar), and were exempted from the payment of taxes and other feudal dues.
Aftre the first famous castellans of Varazdin (Belec, Motmer and Zaharij), the fortress and the commune were ruled over by members of the great families of magnates who successively possessed the “dominium Varasdiensis”. These acted as castellans. They were the Bubek family (until 1397), then Counts Herman, Friedrich and Ulrich Celski (until 1456), and during the 15th and 16th centuries, there were Jan Vitovec, Ivanis Korvin, Juraj Brandenburg, Thuroczi, Stjepan Bathory and Ivan and Krsto Ungnad. From 1607 on, when as a result of a decision of King Rudolf II Count Toma Bakac Erdödy become the high castellan of the county formed this honourable function right up until 1925, when the old fortress was transformed into the Municipal Museum.
To protect the citizens of the Free and Royal City of Varazdin from the frequent raids of the local gentry and the incursions of the Turks, fortifications were built around the settlements in the suburbium as early as the middle of the walls, moats, dikes and wooden palisades. The old fortress became practically impregnable thanks to frequent renovations, additions and outworks, all between the 15th and 17th centuries. Consequently the fortress is a unique synthesis of architectural styles – Gothic, renaissance, Baroque, retaining until today the (largely medieval and renaissance) typical appearance of a Wasserburg, or fortress on the water.
Thanks to its status as a free and royal city, but also to its geostrategic and other favourable circumstances, by the 15th century Varazdin had become a mercantile, handicraft guild, social, administrative and communications centre for north west Croatia. The city already had its city crest, accorded it in 1464 by King Matija Korvin, who specially confirmed it on December 14, 1523. Count Juraj Brandenburg made a gift to the city of the building of the Town Hall which practically, has been used continually for the same purpose right up to the present day. Thus Varazdin possesses one of the oldest town halls in Europe. The building was finished in the late Baroque style.
The systematic economic development of the city of Varazdin up till the end of the 18th century was accompanied, in spite of the still latent danger of war, fires and other discouragements, by a good deal of building. The city centre was the subject of a town plan. Thus, alongside the mainly wooden houses of the burghers arose numerous churches, the courts and palaces of the gentry and aristocracy, all mainly in the Baroque style, and most of them set off by a rich stock of baroque furnishings and fittings.
Although in this period (from the 16th to 18th centuries) sessions of the Croatian Parliament were held in the town, it was in the last half of the eighteenth century that was for Varazdin the peak of its social, political and economic flowering, when it become for all practical purposes Croatia’s capital city. Ban Franjo Nadasdy had this seat here from 1756, and when the Empress Maria Theresa founded the Croatian Royal Council in 1767, she specifically designated Varazdin as its seat. The city thus became the political, administrative and cultural centre of the Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia. During these years not onlx were sittings of the Royal Council held here, but also the boisterous balls and feasts of the country’s aristocracy and the servants of the state. Culture and the arts flourished.
The luxury and glory of Varazdin’s fun-loving social life in the baroque period, which were such as to make contemporaries call the town “Vienna in little”, were suddenly halted by the disastrous fire that broke out in a suburb on April 24, 1776.
Two thirds of the town burnt down in the inferno: 385 buildings out of a total of 501. For this reason the Royal Council, and Ban Nadasdy, left Varazdin, and Zagreb become the administrative centre of Croatia once again.
Although the fire almost destroyed the city, in a mere four years, thanks to its industrious and competent citizens, especially its artisans and traders, Varazdin was largely renovated. This renewal process, together with a significant expansion of the city’s area, went on during the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.
Handicrafts were strengthened again, and manufactures started, with the beginnings of the food industry, textiles, timber processing and other branches of industry. Today, with almost 50,000 inhabitants, Varazdin is not only the administrative, economic, cultural, educational and transportation centre of the Varazdin County, but a city “on the scale” of Central Europe.
However, what makes Varazdin today different from other Croatian cities is certainly its exceptional historical and artistic heritage. It has the best preserved and richest baroque urban whole in inland Croatia. Alongside the Old Fort and the Town Council, the cultural and historical heritage of the town is made particularly complex of the City Cemetery (protected as part of the natural heritage) and the neo-classic building of the Croatian National Theatre (built in 1873 to a plan by Viennese architect Herman Helmer), not to mention a great number of harmonious baroque palaces and churches with baroque treatments.
Among the loveliest and most valuable examples of Varazdin’s baroque architecture are for example the 17th century Sermage-Praszinsky Palace (remodelled in 1759 in rococo style), the “Ban’s Palace” of the
Counts of Draskovic (from the 18th century), the palace of the of Erdödy (18th century), of the Counts of Patacic ( completed in 1764), the palace of the Patacic-Puttars from the 18th century, and the palaces of the families of Herzer (1791),Keglevic (1700) and Bakic (17th century), as well as the County Building (1770), the building of the See of Zagreb (from the 18th century) and the Bedekovic-Müller villa (fromthe beginning of the 19th century).
That Varazdin is in its way a museum of a city is borne witness to by its many bell-towers, clear signs not only of the ramified religious life
Oh the citizens, but also of the richness of Varazdin’s sacred architecture. Among the most beautiful and stylistically most luxuriant of Varazdin’s churches, which also contain baroque art of exceptional value, are certainly the parish church of St Nicolas, then the Jesuit (Pauline) Church of St Mary, the Franciscan Church of St John the Baptist, the Capuchin Church of the Holy Trinity, the Ursuline Church of the Nativity, but there others.
And finally, the precious heritage, artistic and cultural, of today’s Varazdin was created by more than two hundrednoted Croats-scientists and scholars, writers, lexicographers, poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, and printers and typesetters, all of whom have left something behind them of permanent value. In the monastery libraries of the Capuchins and Franciscans there are more than 20 incunabula (and many works of old Croatian, Kajkavian, literature); in the printing house of Ivan Manlius in Varazdin in 1538-1588) was printed, as were the Latin works of Ivan Pergosic and Blaz Skrinjaric…
In the whole gallery of famous creative personalities who left their marks on the eight century long cultural history of Varazdin, mention must be made at least of those notable: the writers Juraj Habdelic, Ivan Belostenec, Katarina Patacic born Keglevic, Titus Brezovacki, Ivan Kukuljevic Sakcinski and Zvonko Milkovic; the composers Fortunat Pintaric and Leopold Ebner; the historian Ladislav Bender, Adolf Wissert and Kresimir Filic; the musicians Ivan Padovec, Rudolf Klapac; the painters Miljenko Stancic, Ivo Rezek and Julije Merlic among many others.
And if we add, for example, that Varazdin Gymnasium, founded in 1636, and the Chamber School (a forerunner of legal studies) of 1769, and the National (Illyrian) Library and Reading Room set up in Varazdin in 1838 provide a picture of Varazdin as a city that is certainly worth seeing and visiting and experiencing the material and spiritual values of, then the challenge becomes almost irresistible.
Ernest Fiser in Monograph of Varazdin, publisher Vall 042; photo from 1908, the same publisher