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Marin Držić, the greatest comic writer of Croatian literature

An exciting life

Marin Držić is considered the most influential writer and poet of the Croatian renaissance, the greatest comic writer of all time and the most prominent representative of Dubrovnik’s rich literature. During his life, his work wasn’t recognized as deserved. Future generations saw the uniqueness and innovation he brought to the genre. Until today all of his work was screened, keeping the best performances for Dubrovnik’s open stage.

Marin was born in 1508 to a family of common merchants that came to Dubrovnik from Kotor. Due to an illegitimate son who continued the family name in the 14th century, they had lost peerage, title, and noble ranks. 

As they were no longer nobility, the Držić family were not officially eligible to perform administrative roles in Dubrovnik and claim patronage. However, the family had managed to retain the title of protectorate throughout the years, allowing Marin to be trained from a young age as a priest.

He took over the family’s patronage, and as a priest, he was head of All Saints church and St. Peter’s church on the island of Koločep. His position gave him revenue from the land that belonged to the church. 

Records from 1536 tell of early financial issues, although he had income from the land and his mother’s dowry. He had a dispute with the nuns from the monastery of St. Andrew where he lived and was accused of not paying rent. Thanks to his interest in music, the Senate appointed him as an organist in the Cathedral in 1538. The same year, the Senate approved financial aid for his studies. 

They gave him 30 ducats to study at the University of Siena. He became popular among other students and was elected as the head of a student hostel. It was a position that also made him vice-rector of the university. 

He was part of an investigation into a prohibited play, where he played the part of a lover, but thanks to his social status he was not punished severely. 

Marin never completed his studies and went to Ancona in 1543. There, the Senate was appointed to replace his brother Vlaho as a clerk in a wool trade. 

This is the period when he met an Austrian Count, Christoph von Rogendorf. The Count was a spy for the Spanish Court. Marin worked for him as a valet, travelling to Vienna and Constantinople (Istanbul). 

Their partnership ended quickly, as Marin had to return to Dubrovnik due to political disputes he had with Marin Bucignolo, a member of an exiled family from Dubrovnik.  

He was the subject of an investigation by the police for his connection to the Count. 

In 1548 he became a deacon, which was when he started intensively writing his plays. 

His work

Marin’s first play was called Pomet, and it was performed in front of the Rector’s Palace in 1548. The play’s script was lost, but it is known that this is the first time Marin introduced his famous character, Dundo Maroje. 

He based characters on real people from Dubrovnik. They all became part of the most famous play he ever wrote, carrying the same name Dundo Maroje.

He created another pastoral play, Tirena, for which he was accused of plagiarism. Accusations were dismissed by the author of the allegedly copied script, a poet named Mavro Vretanović. 

Another famous play was performed at a wedding of nobleman Marolica Zamagna. To entertain the guests, Marin wrote a farce of an older man and youth colliding. He inverted the traditional role, where elders are wiser, and younger characters are naive and inexperienced. In his play, an older man is confused and naive, while the young men are smart and capable. This is the only surviving script that has been preserved in its entirety.

During another wedding ceremony, a mythological drama about Venus and Adonis was performed. This drama, along with previously published plays Novela od Stanca and several poems were published in a book in Venice in 1551. This was the only book published during Marin’s life. 

Theatre group Pomet, established during the first performance of the play of the same name in 1551 in Rector’s Palace, introduced Marin’s most famous play – Dundo Maroje. It is a prose comedy, and a sequel to the first play Pomet. The story is based on Marin’s traditional conflict between old and young generations. The story unfolds in Rome, where Dundo Maroje finds his overspending son and plans to recoup some of his money. 

In the following years, his work established him as the greatest comic writer of Dubrovnik’s, and later Croatia’s, literature. 

He wrote Pjerino, Manda, Džuho Krpeta, Arkulin, and another famous comedy Skup. It is based on Plato’s Aulularia as it shows the troubles of a scrooge. 

He wrote another great pastoral, Grižula and the only tragedy Hekuba. It was prohibited to perform it in 1558, as authorities worried it might disturb the citizens. It was a political piece, which reflected his unhappiness with the situation in Dubrovnik. A year later the work was performed by actors from the Bidzar Fellowship.

Innovative writer

In 1562 Marin Držić left for Venice, where he became the chaplain of the Venetian bishop. Unhappy with the political situation in Dubrovnik, Marin wrote to the Medici family, offering support if they were to help overthrow the government. He was disappointed because of the alliance with the Ottomans. Marin was the first vocal critic of the authorities and the way they ran Dubrovnik. Only a year after his coup plot, he passed away in Venice in 1567.

As mentioned, Marin wasn’t recognized in his hometown during his life. Most of his work was reprinted in the following centuries, but Marin Držić’s popularity grew in the 1930s. 

The first play that attracted attention to his work was Dundo Maroje, performed in Zagreb in 1938. This started a trend where all of his plays were brought to life, performed while keeping them authentic. 

Some of the most memorable performances were held in Dubrovnik, rich with open stages. Marin Držić finally got recognized as the most important and the most excellent comic writer, poet, and actor of 16th century Dubrovnik. 

Marin’s work was modern, innovative, ahead of his time, and unique, and this still stands true today. 

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