Although perhaps a little less Monty Python-esque than their neighbouring Bosnians, Croatians are ingrained with a rich appreciation for humour that is shared by all the peoples from the former Yugoslavian Republic. Laughing at misfortunes (bestowed upon themselves and occasionally others!) is part and parcel of a country which has been held by various empires and dynasties for thousands of years, prior to the Declaration of Independence of Croatia on 25 June, 1991.
This history of gleaning a humorous nugget from uncomfortable situations has forged some of the wonderful political satire produced by Croatians in modern times.
Croatian humour has been influenced by the various cultures which have passed through it over the centuries. Of course the northern peninsula of Istria, with its capital Pula cradling a Roman amphitheater second only to The Colosseum, is infused with literal and metaphorical Italian herbs and spices.
Under the emperor Augustus, most of the peninsula became part of the Roman Empire in 177 BC after two wars with the local ancient Illyrian tribe of the Histri, from whence the name Istria derives. The Italians took over governance again nearly 2,000 years later post World War I which heralded the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, at that time the rulers of Istria. In 1919 Italy again seized the peninsula.
It was during this tubulent time where Antonio Gandusio (1873-1951), born in Rovinj, became one of the most famous comic actors of twentieth-century theatre. With the onset of the silver screen, he also had a rich career in the 1930s and 1940s in Italian cinema, again often appearing in comedies, his name high in the credits of 34 films between 1914 and 1948.
His physical characteristics, a graceless voice, a slight hump, and an irregular face, led Antonio Gandusio into the role of a comedian. The joke was on the Austrian military court early in his career, when, upon refusing to join their army upon the onset of the First World War which earned him a death sentence, he stayed in Italy, survived and prospered as a household name.
But what has all this to do with the theatre in Rovinj and Croatian humour? The theatre of Rovinj, which sits astride the main square, close to the old port of Rovinj, bears the name of this Rovinjian-born comedic virtuoso from the twentieth century. Next time you’re in Rovinj visit The Antonio Gandusio Theatre’s baroque interiors, think of a good joke and smile. It’s namesake would approve.