"O my dark day! O my black destiny!” - The 200th Birthday of the Prince-Bishop of Montenegro, statesman, philosopher and poet Petar II Petrović-Njegoš in 2013

13 November 1813, 200 years ago, the Prince-Bishop of Montenegro, statesman, philosopher and poet Petar II Petrović-Njegoš was born in the village of Njeguši.

“My people sleep a deep and lifeless sleep; / no parent's hand to wipe away my tears. / Above my head the heaven is shut tight; / it does not hear my cries or my prayers. / The world has now become a hell for me, / people have turned into hellish spirits. / O my dark day! O my black destiny!” (Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, “The Mountain Wreath”)

A photograph of Njegoš by the Serbian artist and pioneering photographer 
Anastas Jovanović (1817-1899), taken shortly before his death in 1851.

500 years of whole peoples on the march, old empires falling, new ones arising, religions that developed and bred their varieties, all in a region of the size of an average U.S. state brought forth a small, independent principality in a remote mountain area when the hold of the Byzantines on the Balkans crumbled at the end of the 11th century. The Duklja or Principality of Zeta, for a few decades part of the Nemanjić dynasty’s Serbian Empire, was caught in the middle when the Ottoman Turks finally reached out their hand to the borders of Austria from the 15th century onward, lost its coastal regions, but was never fully controlled by the Porte. Ottoman power was predominant in the region that became known as Montenegro, but the unruly mountain tribes who fought Turkish, Venetian and Habsburg dominance with teeth and claw were at least nominally controlled by the vladika, the Orthodox prince-bishop of Cetinje, a quasi-hereditary position held since 1697 by the Petrović-Njegoš family.

Giuseppe Tominz (1790 – 1866): “Njegoš as vladika” (1837)

During the first half of the 19th century, a scion of the Montenegrin vladikas, Radivoje Tomov Petrović proved to be a game changer in local affairs. The aftermath of the French Revolution had its impact even in remote areas of Europe, nationalism was on the rise and while every other ethnic group in the neighbourhood dreamed of independence from the multinational empires ruling them and of their own modern states, Petrović, since 1830 vladika Petar II. Petrović-Njegoš, didn’t see why the mountain clans of his native country should be at the back of the queue for  the achievements of the 19th century. Taking his bearings politically with the idea of forming a single South Slavic state, moving Montenegro closer to Serbia and seeking protection from the Ottomans under the the Russian Empire’s idea of Pan-Slavism after he learned the hard way that his hajduks were, outside of their mountains, no match for Turkish regular troops, even in the backyard of the sick man of Europe.

Caryatids from Njegoš’ mausoleum at Mount Lovćen in southwestern Montenegro

Besides laying the foundations for a modern Montenegrin state, achievement enough for regular politicians, Njegoš was a remarkable poet as well who did not only introduce the first printing press to Montenegro but wrote epics and poetry on the passage from a heroic to a bourgeois age, taking the Romantic viewpoint of weaving folk poetry and Serbian classicism into an oeuvre that can stand its ground with the better-known European works, especially since Njegoš was largely an autodidact and had no opportunity to participate in the literary salons of the European cultural centres. His magnum opus, Gorski Vijenac (“Mountain Wreath“, 1846) became the national epic of at least Montenegro and is a masterpiece of South Slavic literature, a polyphonic verse epic telling a grim tale of a mass murder of Montenegrins who converted to Islam from the days of Njegoš’ ancestor Danilo around 1700. The controversial sujet has been discussed under the various aspects and turns history took on the Balkans during the last 150 years from quite different angles of reception history, but, at the bottom it remains a supra-temporal and –cultural work of art beyond the ethnic conflicts of the region.

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