Šibenik’s dominating feature is the tumescent, daffodil-bulb-from-outer-space dome of St James’s Cathedral (Katedrala svetog Jakova), a Gothic Renaissance masterpiece that still has art historians clutching their heads in a “how-on-earth-did-they-build-that?” state of admiration. Occupying the site of an earlier church, the current edifice was begun in 1431 when a group of Italian architects oversaw the erection of the Gothic lower storey of the present building. In 1441, dissatisfaction with the old-fashioned Gothic design led to the appointment of a new architect, Juraj Dalmatinac, who presided over three decades of intermittent progress, interrupted by cash shortages, two plagues and one catastrophic fire. The cathedral was just below roof height when he died in 1473 and his Italian apprentice Nikola Firentinac (“Nicholas of Florence”), thought to have been a pupil of Donatello, took over. Firentinac fashioned the cathedral’s barrel roof and octagonal cupola from a series of huge interlocking stone slabs, a feat that is still considered an engineering marvel. He was also responsible for the statues on the cathedral’s roof – high up on the southeast corner is a boyish, curly-haired Archangel Michael jauntily spearing a demon.
Entry to the cathedral is by the north door, framed by arches braided with the swirling arabesques that led to Dalmatinac’s style being dubbed “floral Gothic”. Inside, the cathedral is a harmonious blend of Gothic and Renaissance styles; the sheer space and light of the east end draw the eye towards the soft grey Dalmatian stone of the raised sanctuary. Follow the stairs down from the southern apse to the baptistry (Krstionica), Dalmatinac’s masterpiece. It’s an astonishing piece of work, a cubbyhole of Gothic carving, with four scallop-shell niches rising from each side to form a vaulted roof, beneath which cherubs playfully scamper.
Juraj Dalmatinac (George the Dalmatian; c.1400–73) was the most prolific stonemason of the Dalmatian Renaissance, but little is known of the man save for the works he left behind. Born in Zadar some time around 1400, he learnt his trade in Venice, setting up a workshop there which made his reputation as a mason. The Šibenik authorities engaged him to work on the cathedral in 1441, paying him 150 golden ducats a year as well as covering his family’s moving expenses and providing free housing.
When work on the cathedral stalled, Dalmatinac picked up commissions elsewhere, notably the sarcophagus of St Anastasius in Split cathedral, and the main facade of Ancona cathedral. In 1464 he replaced Michelozzo Michelozzi as the chief fortification engineer in Dubrovnik, finishing off the finest of the system’s many bastions, the Minčeta Fortress. Following working visits to Urbino and possibly Siena, he returned to Šibenik, where he died in 1473, the cathedral still unfinished.
Dalmatinac’s great skill was to blend the intricate stoneworking techniques of the Gothic period with the realism and humanism of Renaissance sculpture. His stylistic innovations were carried over to the next generation by his pupils Andrija Aleši and Nikola Firentinac, who were involved in the completion of Šibenik cathedral before going on to produce their own masterpieces in Trogir.