Civil Society Heritage Event

Lady in black – symbol of liberty and love

Every country has its own heroines. Croatia is no different – we have one who didn’t live so long ago. Her name was Karolina Belinić and she lived in Rijeka during a turbulent time at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Portrait of Karolina Belinić, unknown artist circa 1820., oil on canvas, Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral in Rijeka

Rijeka was and still is one of the most significant ports of the eastern Adriatic. The town developed due to the trade in iron, oil, lumber, leather and livestock. Prosperity in the town grew and lots of families came from distant lands to establish businesses in the town. Belinić came from one of those families.

For a short period in the nineteenth century Rijeka was occupied by Napoleon’s forces which were retreating after losing a battle in the War of the Sixth Coalition (1813-1814). To destroy French troops, a British capitain Thomas Fremanle, surrounded Rijeka with a fleet of ships and started a naval siege and bombardment. But the fact was that the French stayed in town for short period and most of the troops were already gone when British started attacking. During attack most of the merchant ships in port were destroyed. In the middle of siege Karolina went to see Fremanle and persuaded him to stop battering the town.

Legend says that she put on her most beautiful black dress and enchanted him not only with her appearance, but also with her eloquent speech and education. The reason she was even granted a meeting was probably she was a daughter of a respectable and rich naval captain. He was named as British vice consul for that part of the Adriatic. Belinić’s husband was also a respectable citizen. He was a member of the city council and owner of an influential company in Rijeka. At the time of the attack, in 1813 Belinić’s father and husband were also members of anti-French movement. That was probably the main argument which stopped the bombardment.

After that episode her life remained mysterious and no one knows the exact year of her death. However, the city of Rijeka remembers her during carnival.

Carnival in Rijeka – parade

Rijeka’s carnival is one of the biggest in Europe and certainly the most popular in Croatia. The first documented celebration was in 1449.

Back then, Carnival was a sort-of safety valve which allowed people to speak openly and express themselves. In order to avoid riots, city leaders allowed people to let loose and celebrate.

As in 1813 when Karolina helped liberate the town from a siege, she continues to liberate the town spirit every year during carnival. People just want to forget everyday problems and celebrate life. Usually, a figure of our Lady in Black appears at the main carnival ball organised each year in the Governor’s palace. As in the late nineteenth century, the carnival ball was organised for the nobility in the same palace where Belinic’s famous portrait currently hangs.Today, the Governor’s palace is the Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral.

Even though the actual events happened during the summer, it’s traditional to talk about the Lady in Black in February – Carnival is a time when all boundaries just go away for a few days. Whether it’s a matter of love or free and daring spirit. She embodies all!

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