Croatia is not a large nation. In fact, until the early 1990s, it wasn’t an independent nation at all. Therefore, the great leaders, scientists and writers born within its current borders or with familial ties to this land were citizens of Yugoslavia, the Habsburg Empire or whatever came before it. Influential inventor Nikola Tesla is justifiably claimed by Serbia and America, but Croatia also names streets and museums after him.
Also known as Branimir of Croatia, this ruler from the late 800s is significant, as he was the first to offer his people the notion of statehood. In those days, papal legitimacy was paramount, and recognition from Rome in 879 changed the course of Croatian history. Along with a statue in Nin, near Zadar, Branimir’s legacy is illustrated at the Archaeological Museum in Split, which contains the Latin inscription that once decorated the gable of a church in Šopot, signifying Branimir as ruler of the Croats.
Born of Serbian parents in what is today Croatia, eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla made his name in America, where he lived in the hotels of New York. His work in electrical engineering, telephony, X-rays and radio had a significant effect on urban development in the 20th century, although it is only in recent years that his influence has been recognised. In Zagreb, the Technical Museum takes his name and contains a mock of the scientist’s study.
A Pole born in modern-day Slovakia, Slavoljub Penkala created his inventions in his adopted city of Zagreb, where a factory in his name still exists. Most associated with producing the world’s first propelling pencil, Penkala did many more things besides, including patenting the first hot water bottle and creating the first aeroplane to fly within Croatia. Penkala is buried, along with Croatia’s great statesmen, writers and scientists, at Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb.
Known in Croatia as Faust Vrančić, Šibenik-born Fausto Veranzio was a leading figure of the Renaissance period. A citizen of the Venetian Republic, Veranzio was a writer, a scientist and an engineer, along with a compiler of a five-language dictionary. He is best known for his self-published masterwork Machinae Novae, in which he outlines solar energy, solutions to sea pollution and, above all, building and testing the first parachute. He is buried near Šibenik at a church on the island of Prvić, where he spent his childhood summers and where the Faust Vrančić Memorial Centre now stands.
A major attraction in Split is the statue of Grgur Ninski that stands outside Diocletian’s Palace. Many follow tradition by touching its toe for good luck, little realising who this figure is. Grgur Ninski, Gregory of Nin to the English-speaking world, was a tenth-century bishop who antagonized the pope by introducing the local language to his religious services. In doing so, Ninski (so named as his bishopric was in Nin, a major ecclesiastical centre) promoted Croatian culture and furthered the word of Christianity.
Born and raised in Ragusa, today’s Dubrovnik, Ruđer Bošković was an influential physicist, astronomer and mathematician from the 18th century. It was Bošković, also known as Roger Boscovich, who discovered that the Moon had no atmosphere. A lunar crater has since been named after him. Bošković was made a professor of mathematics in Rome before his fame spread thanks to his studies of the transit of Mercury and the orbits of comets. Bošković was also a notable diplomat and was made a member of the Royal Society not long after Sir Isaac Newton was its president.
Considered the father of the Croatian Renaissance, poet Marko Marulić was born and died in Split, where a statue to him stands in focal trg Braće Radić. While most of his writings were in Latin, Marulić is also known for his epic poems in Croatian, which date back to the 1490s and early 1500s and grant him revered status in the history of local literature. His treatise, in Latin, on psychology is the first known written reference to this branch of science.
Mounted on his horse, his sabre pointed firmly at Budapest, Ban Josip Jelačić dominates Zagreb’s main square, where his statue was re-installed in 1990. The governor (or Ban) of Croatia around the time of the 1848 revolutions, Jelačić led several military campaigns to free Croatia from Hungarian rule. Jelačić can also be credited with one major achievement, that of the abolition of serfdom. His stated aim of uniting the various provinces of Croatia would not come to pass until 1991, shortly after Zagreb’s main square was named after him.
Rijeka-born Giovanni Luppis, known to Croatians as Ivan Vukić, was a Habsburg naval officer generally credited with inventing, or at least developing, the torpedo. Of mixed Italian and Croatian parentage, Luppis worked on his designs after retiring from the navy in 1860. Back in Rijeka, he worked on prototypes with British engineer Robert Whitehead, eventually selling the invention to the Austro-Hungarian authorities. Today, you can explore the abandoned workshops on the Rijeka waterfront where the torpedo was developed — there is no museum or visitor centre.
Emerging from the main train station in Zagreb, you are greeted by a statue of a fearsome warrior astride a rampant horse: King Tomislav. Also lending his name to the main square surrounding him, Tomislav was the first king of Croatia, probably crowned in 925. It was Tomislav who secured the country’s border, against the Hungarians to the north and Bulgarians to the east. Little else is known about him, though in modern times, Tomislav was paid the ultimate honour — by having a local beer named after him.
Being the creator of a flavour enhancer may not give rise to hero status in some countries, but scientist and chemical technician Zlata Bartl achieved this as a woman in Communist Yugoslavia. The condiment she invented was Vegeta, one of the most recognisable brands ever produced in Croatia, today available in 40 territories. Answering a small ad, Bartl left Zagreb for a job in nearby Koprivnica, where she started work at the Podravka factory in 1955. Four years later, she combined spices and vegetables to create Vegeta, earning herself a raft of national awards in the process.