If you own a roofing company in Dubrovnik, Croatia, you’d better know a supplier who specializes in terracotta tiles. These internationally renowned roofs go beyond the function of shielding inhabitants from the elements. They are spectacles to behold. The old town of this medieval Adriatic gem is a maze of cobblestone streets and stunning white limestone walls. But if you take the cable car to the top of Srd hill, it’s the old town’s expanse of beautiful clay tiles in hues of ochre, maroon, vermilion, and oxblood that will take your breath away.
In the middle ages, Dubrovnik emerged as a bustling seaport and center of culture along the Mediterranean. With this newfound largess, the city fathers engaged Italian architects to add new structures that reflected the city’s rising stature. Critically, they had enough sense to recognize that the cohesive feel of the entire city was more important that the opulence of any one edifice. Public buildings as well as the homes of wealthy merchants and aristocrats were understated and conformed to extant aesthetics. In those days, if you owned or worked for a roofing company you probably had red thighs. The local artisans would take the clay from the surrounding hillsides. They would pack it onto their legs before firing it in kilns and installing the finished tiles one by one.
Under the right conditions, clay shingles have the ability to last thousands of years. The terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang, for example, was fired in the 3rd century BC and discovered intact in 1974. Those in Dubrovnik, however, are exposed to the salt-licked air of the Croatian coast and the wind and storms of the notoriously tumultuous Adriatic; they rarely last more than a century. For many generations, the wearing down and replacement kept many a roofing company in business.
In the 1950’s, the Dubrovnik clay deposits began to run dry, so the shingles were imported from France. In 1979, tragedy struck as a great earthquake shook Dubrovnik to its foundations and brought many of the tiles crashing down to earth. The silver lining is that the earthquake provided the impetus for the foundation of the Institute for the Restoration of Dubrovnik, an organization that successfully campaigned to have the old city placed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. In 1992, during the height of the Croatian War of Independence, the city was mercilessly shelled by Serbian heavy artillery. It is estimated that around 440 rooftops sustained direct hits while another 300 or so were the victims of collateral damage. The city that Lord Byron once called the Pearl of the Adriatic lay in rubble. Thankfully, with the help of dedicated restoration experts and support from the local government, as well as generous donations from international charities, it has risen like a Phoenix from the ashes to flash its crimson plumage once more.