By Jillian Ford-Carver
A gallery employee pulls me aside as if to share a well-kept secret. “Take a peek under this dining table; there were buttons installed to call the servants (a preferred alternative to yelling down the hall),” he says. “This is the only room in the villa that looks just as it did when Mestrovic lived here.”
The Ivan Mestrovic Gallery had not even made it to my “must-see” list on a recent visit to Croatia. But I am thrilled to have stumbled upon it. In the city of Split the dreamy, clear Adriatic Sea meets a palm tree-lined harbor. Across the city, patches of lush green trees stand out against the white buildings with red tiled roofs. Rugged mountains loom in the background as if to watch over and protect the peacefulness below.
Most visitors will step back in history at the Diocletian Palace, walk Split’s restaurant- and shop-lined cobblestone streets, tour the Archeological Museum, climb the steps to Marjan Park for a bird’s eye view of the city, and hop on a ferry for a day trip to one of the nearby Dalmatian islands.
But this lesser-known gem should be at the top of your list. From the moment you enter through the green patina copper gates, Mestrovic lures you in — a beautiful garden peppered with larger-than-life sculptures. As you walk up toward the villa, on the left is a sculptured woman playing a mandolin, and to the right is a nude woman with her arms reaching toward the sky. Both are figures of exquisite beauty and grace.
Ivan Mestrovic was a Croatian sculptor, architect, painter, and writer who lived from 1883 to 1962. He is thought to have been one of the greatest sculptors since the Renaissance era. The gallery contains over a hundred of Mestrovic’s works of art. Some draw you into their anguish and pain; others convey delight in the simple pleasures of life, while some — well, you just have to laugh. The villa is a Mestrovic masterpiece as well. It was built (based on Mestrovic’s design) between 1931 and 1939. He and his family lived in it from 1932 to 1941, when he moved to Zagreb in the northeast part of Croatia for reasons of safety during WWII. In his will Mestrovic made a donation to Croatia providing for the gallery.
Be sure to ask one of the gallery employees about the painting of The Last Supper (which is painted on the back side of a canvas) and other bits of inside information.
Generally heading to the outdoor sites (hikes to fortresses and waterfalls, kayaking along the coast, etc.), I don’t consider myself an art enthusiast. But an hour or two taking in the beauty of one of the world’s most renowned modern sculptors is worth every second. Even the view as you leave is a thing of beauty.
Mestrovic Gallery address: Setaliste Ivana Mestrovica 46, 21000 Split (a short distance from Mrjan Park)
Summer hours: (May 1-Sept. 30) Tuesday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Winter hours: (Oct. 1-April 30) Tuesday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Note: Croatia is appearing on more bucket lists than ever before. The beautiful country sits just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. Long considered the quieter, less expensive alternative to Italy, Croatia is quickly becoming a go-to destination (and for good reason!). It is a land teeming with rich history and culture, unspoiled beauty, delightfully welcoming people, and some of the most beautiful seaside cities in the world.
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