In and around the city’s historic centre, Split’s modest scattering of museums is worth a diversion, but don’t expect anything hands-on or interactive. This is history presented in old-school fashion, with little in the way of touch screens or visual displays. On the other hand, the many works by sculptor Ivan Meštrović, housed in two separate complexes overlooking the sea, are worth the visit to Split alone.
In the shadow of the tall Cathedral tower, the Ethnographic Museum owes its existence to turn-of-the-century school director Kamilo Tončić and the handicraft he collected across Dalmatia to show his pupils. Furniture and kitchen implements also feature. Part of the museum extends into what were Diocletian’s imperial bedchambers, worth the modest price of admission alone. A Roman staircase then leads to the roof of the vestibule to provide a fine view of Split’s historic centre and the sea and islands beyond.
Across two floors of an attractive, bright interior, Split’s Gallery of Fine Arts covers six centuries from around the region. At any one time, some 400 works are on display from a permanent collection of more than 5,000. Venetian Masters dominate on the upper floor, along with a stand-out engraving by Dürer. Downstairs, the most notable pieces are by painter Vlaho Bukovac created in Split in the 1880s, a bronze statue of Leo Tolstoy by Ivan Meštrović and an Egon Schiele watercolour. Note also the striking Abstract Expressionism by Edo Murtić, who had his own exhibition here in 1966.
Referred to in English as simply Kaštelet or Little Castle, this is a worthwhile addition to any visit to the main Meštrović Gallery nearby. One ticket covers both attractions. Purchased by the sculptor Ivan Meštrović in 1939 as a ruined 16th-century residence, Kaštelet houses his great work ‘The Life of Christ’. The series of 28 reliefs in wood is guarded over by a sculpture of the Crucifixion. Exiled to America, Meštrović was able to return and carry on his work here 20 years later, but it proved to be his last visit to Croatia.
The hundreds of sculptures, plans and drawings spread over the two floors of the Meštrović Gallery represent an act of huge generosity on the part of Croatia’s greatest sculptor. Having designed and built this sea-facing family villa himself in the 1930s, Ivan Meštrović was forced to flee the Italian occupation. Imprisoned in Zagreb, he escaped to America, where he later bequeathed his four properties and life’s works to the Croatian nation. The result is this wonderful collection with pieces in marble, bronze, wood and plaster, ranged as Meštrović may have appreciated in what was his own home.