The two headed eagle
© Clement Peiffer

The return of Rijeka's two-headed eagle

A much-loved symbol of Rijeka returns, fully restored, to its rightful place

Written by
Marc Rowlands

No matter how solidly constructed they are, monuments and statues live a precarious existence. They can incite pride or fear, stirring to the extremes the emotions of those who live within their view. And their destruction can equally cause severely polarized reactions.
In recent memory, who could forget the triumphant cheers that accompanied the toppling of the 12-metre high statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, Baghdad at the end of the battle for the city in 2003. Alternatively, consider the global outrage sparked by the cultural cleansing undertaken by Islamic State extremists throughout Syria and Iraq, particularly the losses at the World Heritage site of Palmyra.

Croatia itself has seen the destruction, removal and reinstatement of many statues and monuments as governing regimes have changed. One of Croatia's most famous statues, that of ban Josip Jelačić on horseback, was removed from Zagreb's main square in 1946 when Communists assumed control. The statue has since returned, although these days the sword wielding Jelačić faces south, perhaps signifying the now friendly relations between Croatia and Hungary.

Jaw-droppingly beautiful Communist era spomenici (monuments), constructed as memorials to Partisan fighters and those who died at the hands of fascists, are a rich part of postmodern art heritage all over the former Yugoslavia. Yet in Croatia, some of them have fared better than others.

Monument to the Revolution of the people of Moslavina in Podgarić

The stunning Monument to the Revolution of the people of Moslavina in Podgarić, Berek and the incredible flower at Jasenovac, designed by architect, university lecturer and one-time mayor of Belgrade, Bogdan Bogdanović, still stand. But in 1992 the gargantuan Monument to the revolutionary victory of the people of Slavonia in Kamenska, Brestovac was destroyed, perhaps shortsightedly, by sections of the army in revisionist rejection of the country's Communist past.

The Bogdan Bogdanović designed flower at Jasenovac

One of Rijeka's most famous and enduring monuments, the statue of the eagle that sat above the City Tower for several hundred years, lead a not untroubled life. On June 6 1659 and at the request of the people of Rijeka, Emperor Leopold I issued a charter with which he approved a coat of arms for the city. Central to the design was a two-headed eagle which since has become a symbol of the city, much loved by its inhabitants.

Rijeka's clock tower at varying points in history, under different regimes

The first eagle sculpture atop the City Tower was probably installed in 1754 but this tin sculpture was removed in 1890. This was during a time of conflict between city authorities and those in the then governing Hungary as to whether a city flag or Hungarian flag should fly above the city clock.

Needless to say, locals were distressed at the loss of their eagle and a second sculpture was installed on July 1 1906 to huge local celebration. This new two-headed eagle was 200cm tall with a wingspan of 300 cm, and together with its plinth weighed some 2000kg.

Korzo in Rijeka in 1910

The eagle survived in this form until the arrival Italian nationalist and proto fascist, Gabriele D'Annunzio, who in 1919 sought Rijeka's independence. Believing the two-headed eagle to be an emblem of Austria, one of its heads was brutally cut off. It remained in this condition until 1949 when Communists, who viewed it as a bourgeois and anti-socialist symbol, removed it altogether.

Rijeka's Eagle under regime change

Rijeka's City Tower has been bereft of the beloved statue ever since. But in 2009, investigations began into the possible restoration of the two-headed eagle. The project has not been without its challenges.

Firstly, it was necessary to assess if the aged City Tower could still take the burden of a reinstalled statue. Secondly, no remains of either of the previous sculptures existed. Neither did their casts or any models of them. However, archival sources and photographs were found and based on these, the Academy of Applied Arts created a small scale model of the 1906 sculpture which was used to create the full-size version.

The two-headed eagle of Rijeka stands in contrast to many other removed or destroyed statues and monuments in that the local population have always held it dear. To the people of Rijeka, it was never an imposition, but a source of pride and identity. A unique symbol for a unique city, its reinstatement has not come too soon for those who live beneath its wings.

Rijeka's restored two-headed eagle in 2018

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