I did not expect to find the old emperor hanging out in Perast. I figured the Montenegrins were long since through with Emperor Franz Joseph (reigned 1848 – 1916). After his death, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed just a couple of years later. Every other successor state in the Habsburg domain beyond Austria banished him to the dustbin of history. While I saw his beloved wife, Queen Elisabeth, immortalized in statuary by the Danube in Budapest and across from the train station in Trieste among other places, the emperor who had ruled for an unfathomable 68 years was nowhere to be seen in the territories which he had once ruled over. This was why seeing Franz Joseph in Perast came as such a surprise.
Montenegro was always a fringe area on the empire’s southern frontier. Historically, it had not been a core land of the crown, but one obtained during the early 19th century. Austrian rule never had the deep roots in Perast that others, such as the Republic of Venice, did. The Venetian influence was on display throughout the town in the old mansions that stood facing the Bay of Kotor. The sunny disposition of the seaside also made Perast seem much more Mediterranean than Mitteleuropa. The town reminded me of southern Europe rather than the middle of it. What could possibly be left of the relatively short rule of Austria-Hungary in Perast? I found the answer in a most unlikely place.
Unfinished Business – A Towering Discovery
A stunning view of the Bay of Kotor was the first thing I noticed upon entering Perast. The sparkling blue bay was the ultimate distraction. Once I managed to refocus, my eyes were attracted to St. Nicholas’’ Church. Its 55 meter high bell tower drew my attention as it soared into a piercingly blue sky. The church was a magnetic attraction with its own unique allure. It marked a sort of midpoint in the town and a starting point for my explorations. On this day, the church was not open for viewing. That is not so surprising when you consider that the church has never been finished. What I found surprising was the fact that construction on the church began during the 17th century. Looking at the exterior, it was hard to figure out what had been left unfinished. The church was a formidable stone structure, one that fit in well with the rest of Perast. This grand old edifice rewarded me with several excellent photo opportunities.
As I snapped image after image, I focused on getting photos of the bell tower. This took me to the side of it, where I spotted a bust attached to one side of the wall. It was in between some scaffolding that had been erected for restoration work on part of a wall. Staring at the bust, I did a double take. It was hard to believe, but the mutton chop whiskers and regal visage were unmistakable. It was Emperor Franz Joseph. What the old emperor was doing hanging around – quite literally – on a wall at St. Nicholas’ Church was beyond me. The bust was sculpted out of a rustic red material which gave it a certain sheen of distinction. I studied the bust from several angles, its situation seemed to defy gravity. I could see how it might have been grafted on to the wall, but the fact that it had stayed there for at least a century was nothing short of incredible. Weathering and war had not been able to dispose of the old Emperor’s bust. It had withstood the vagaries of ideology and regime change. It stood as a lasting symbol of a lost empire, one whose death knell was sounded in the Balkans.
The Emperor Vanishes – Deceased To Exist
There was something ironic and rather endearing about the bust’s survival. If this had been in Austria, I would have thought nothing of it. In Perast, it was the ultimate outlier, a forgotten artifact worth its weight in old. Busts of Emperor Franz Josef must have been a common sight across the empire during the late 19th and early 20th century. Photos of the Emperor would have been a common sight on posters and postcards as well as in civic buildings. Franz Joseph was the ultimate symbol of Austria-Hungary. A unifying presence for the distant and disparate lands of a political entity which stretched from the Adriatic shoreline to the plains of eastern Galicia (present day western Ukraine). Even though the empire was coming apart at its ethnic seams, Franz Joseph acted as a steadying influence. His visage denoted more than a man. He was the essence of stability and longevity. And then after sixty-eight years on the throne, he was gone.
It would not be long before images, busts and statues of Franz Joseph disappeared right along with the empire. The most famous and revered representative of an empire which no longer existed vanished from the public square, posters, and postcards. He went into missing person mode, as the chapter of history he helped write was ripped out of history books. The supposedly benign emperor was viewed as a historically malignant force by the successor states that were formed from the dissolution of Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I. Yugoslavia, the new home for Perast and Montenegro, was more than happy to throw off the Habsburg yoke. The South Slavs now ruled themselves and had little use for those who had repressed nationalist sentiment. Borders changed, flags changed, and forms of government changed. The world of Franz Joseph became an anachronism. Any representations of the emperor disappeared overnight. Oddly, this is the opposite of what happened on the side of St. Nicholas’ Church.
A Montenegrin Mystery – Living In Obscurity
For whatever reason, the old emperor had staying power in this small, sequestered area of Perast. The bust’s survival remains a mystery to me and probably always will. Nonetheless, it reminded me of just how far the empire reached and a legacy that has been largely lost. It was in places like Perast where the old emperor still lived in obscurity. There are worse things than having been forgotten, never having been known in the first place is one of them. That was something Franz Joseph never had to worry about, but his legacy is another matter.