We raise the sails as we delve deep into the archives of Perast, a maritime jewel of Montenegro facing Boka Bay. Once a great ally of the Venetian Republic, seemingly tiny Perast has huge history and a rich maritime background. It was made in the crucible of war and prospered with the wind in the sails of its trader sea-captains. But most importantly, it was made prominent by its many renowned citizens. And the most illustrious name of Perast is undoubtedly Count Vicko Bujović, a very wealthy trader and a skilled military commander famous throughout Montenegro, even today.
Vicko Bujović Was Part of Perast’s Wealthy Trading Nobility
Arguably the most defining feature of the maritime port town of Perast are its prominent noble families. There were twelve noble houses in total, which cooperated as a brotherhood, for the lack of a better term. In the local dialect, they were known as kazade, from the Italian casada.
Each of these kazade noble houses produced a number of important families, each one rising to prominence mainly through seafaring. Maritime trade was the number one source of income for almost all denizens of Perast. Ever since the early Middle Ages, when the town acquired shipbuilding rights, the vast sea beckoned to the citizens of Perast, and they ventured onto it, step by step. By the 16th and 17th centuries, the richest families of Perast owned large ocean-worthy ships, some many-masted.
View of the town of Perast, Montenegro from the west. It was in this setting that Count Vicko Bujović grew up, prospered, gained military fame, and died. (Marcin Konsek / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
It is said and agreed upon by most scholars that the twelve noble houses of Perast were established or came to prominence in the early medieval period. This is attributed to as early as 1186 AD, when the town came under the rule of the Serbian Kingdom , and it remained under its rule until 1371. The agreed theory is that the noble families became established in the town in the late 1100’s. Either way, Perast was important from that point on.
It began as a fishing village, a tiny port. But by 1336, it was a trading port with its own shipyard. Having the ability to build its own ships was a sign of Perast’s quickly rising prosperity. And for the noble houses of this seaside town, the haziest tales of their familial origins date to the medieval period.
It is known that the citizens of Perast, never numbering more than several thousand, always worked together, a sure recipe for success. But it was not always so. With the onset of the era of the Republic of Venice , under whose rule Perast came in the early 1400s, the tiny port enjoyed great privilege and wealth. And over the course of the centuries, the noble houses often competed with one another. Envy was not uncommon. And it is that rivalry between families that leads us to one of Perast’s most iconic historical figures: Conte (Count) Vicko Bujović.
One of the very few existing images of Count Vicko Bujović of Perast by Tripo Cocoglia, 18th C. ( Muzejikotor)
The Thrilling Tale of Count Vicko Bujović of Perast
Born in January 1660, Vicko Bujović or Vicenzo Bujovich in Italian, and his family, belonged to the Stojšić casada (noble house). The Bujović family are documented in the manuscript Annali di Pirusto (Annals of Perast) as originating from the Serbian Bjelopavlići tribe, who migrated to Perast early on.
The young sea-captain Vicko was destined to greatness and prominence from childhood. He built his wealth not only through maritime trade, but also by serving the Republic of Venice in its many wars. He quickly rose in rank and became a seasoned commander with a reputation for bravery and daring feats.
During the Morean War of 1685-1699 (the Sixth Ottoman-Venetian War), Vicko Bujović was the commander of a light Perastian company and became the commander of the town’s fleet. He famously offered his services to the Republic of Venice for no monetary gain, a sign of his loyalties. For this, he would receive great privileges later on.
During the Morean War in 1686, he fought with distinction at Crete, near the fortress of Souda. Likewise, he was a prominent leader during the conquest of Herceg Novi in 1687 and Trebinje in 1689. During these events, he also commanded a Venetian force.
From 1694 he was active as a commander of part of the Venetian war fleet, commanding the ship “Santa Croce” in Albanian waters. In the following year, Vicko Bujović was named the governor of the fleet that was tasked with protecting Venetian waters from pirates. It seems, by all accounts, that he was noted for his achievements against the many North African and Ottoman pirate groups that infested the waters of the Adriatic.
He was also a major threat to the neighboring Republic of Ragusa , i.e., the city of Dubrovnik. This town was the traditional foe of Venice, and Vicko did not spare them, seizing their ships on several occasions. For this, he was declared “persona non grata” by the Ragusans, in absentia in 1699.
From 1694 to 1708, he was repeatedly elected a captain of the autonomous community of Perast. However, his most important promotion came on March 28th, 1704, when the Republic of Venice granted him the hereditary title of count ( Conte Feudatario ). This was not the only privilege he acquired for his many feats in his service of the Venetians. He amassed substantial wealth as well and owned many properties around the Bay of Kotor where Perast lies.
In 1694 the personal palazzo (palace) of Count Vicko was erected in Perast. It was immediately known as the prettiest palace in the entire Bay of Kotor region. It was built by the Venetian architect Giovanni Battista Fonte, and was the most lavishly decorated palace in the town. However, all this wealth gained him many enemies and the envy of the other noble families of Perast.
The Palace of Count Vicko Bujović today. (Aleksa Vučković)
The Tragic Vicko Bujović and Matija Zmajević Family Feud
This envy gave rise to the well-attested feud between Vicko Bujović and the Zmajević family. It originated when Vicko, ever so passionate and headstrong, eloped with a young girl from the Zmajević household. However, this was no ordinary girl. She was the daughter of a prominent Ottoman agha, given to the Zmajević household to be raised in a modern, educated manner. Vicko fell in love with her, and in spite of all these complications, married the girl after she changed her faith to Christianity.
Admiral Matija Zmajevic from the collection at the Maritime Museum of Montenegro. The feud that led to Vicko Bujović’s death was with the Zmajevic family. (Unknown author / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The event caused great clamor in the town and was seen as a major insult to the old and powerful Zmajević family. Other noble families likewise disliked Vicko, mostly for his wealth, his headstrong attitude, and a boisterous character. One could call it envy.
This lasting feud with the Zmajević house culminated in bloodshed. The members of that family, alongside several other persons, stumbled upon Vicko Bujović on the night of May 6th, 1709. The latter was strolling along Perast’s promenade with his son Ivo and two Venetian bravos, i.e., bodyguards. It is attested that Vicko was provoked into a petty quarrel, which was a front for his orchestrated assassination, ordered by the Zmajević family. All the men that met on the promenade fought with their rapiers in a mass brawl. In the end, Vicko Bujović and his two bravos were left dead on the spot.
It was said in the trial following the murder, that the final killing blow was done by the hand of Ivo Štukanović, the member of the powerful Štukanović family, who planted a dagger in Vicko’s back. This was seen as a major scandal, as Vicko Bujović, just a few years before his tragic death, helped retrieve a stolen ship of the Štukanović family.
In that historically documented event, Vicko took command of a small tartane ship, “ San Gio. Batta. Buon Pastore,” of his own accord, to pursue Tunisian pirates that stole two ships belonging to Štukanovićs. These were a tartanelle with its crew, and a polacca filled with trade goods. The ships were stolen in the night between the 23rd and 24th March 1702, and supposedly had a young daughter of the family on board. This was the reason for Vicko’s selfless attempt to rescue the ships.
He managed to do this, defeating the Tunisian pirates close to Cape Volujica near Budva. For this, he received thanks from the Venetian representative Bartolo Moro, and the praise of Badoer Federico. But seemingly, no praise was given by the Štukanović family.
The presumed resting place of Count Vicko Bujović is at the St George Monastery, Perast, Bay of Kotor, Montenegro. (Diego Delso / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
A Dagger In the Back
The assassination of Vicko was a scandalous affair, and one of the best-remembered in Perast’s history. Sadly, his grave was never found afterwards, but it is suspected to be on the small island of Saint George, opposite the town.
In a trial following the murder, all the men accused of being involved in the brawl were forced into exile. These were notable members of the Zmajević house, and their companions. The young sea-captain, Matija Zmajević, only twenty-eight and an heir of that noble house, fled to Constantinople and from there all the way to Imperial Russia . There he established himself at the court of Peter I (or Peter the Great), becoming his lead shipbuilder and the admiral of the Russian Baltic fleet. He constructed a major fleet at Voronezh and was an instrumental commander in the Great Northern War.
And thus ended the tale of the foolhardy, stubborn, and daring swashbuckling count, Vicenzo Vicko Bujović. His great feats, his wealth, his attitude, and his stellar rise to prominence all earned him the enmity of the competing nobles. For that, he paid with his life. Surviving letters tell us that he was well aware of that enmity. This famed snippet from a letter by Vicko shows an important insight into his proud and just character. It is addressed to the whole of Perast.
“You have measured what is justice, the laws, and God. I am afraid to be on the opposing side. Maybe the sea has poisoned me, the world that I saw, or the knowing that everything right is everything that isn’t the Zmajević family. I had my own laws, my own freedom and my own God. They haven’t, and they will not meet with theirs. Not with your own either, my dear and proud Perast. There, after all, as a first – until now – amongst equals, I admit that we are not equal, and that we haven’t been, nor will we ever be one for another. You can raze my palace, you can founder my ships, you can erase my name from the city’s memory. I won’t forbid it…”
The stately palace of Count Vicko Bujović in Perast, Montenegro today. (Janusz Czekala / Perast Museum )
Perast is Struggling to Have Its Rich History Heard
Alas, modern times have a tendency to cloud the memory of men, to pile up dust over old stories and old books, hiding them from view. Over the time, the noble families of Perast lost their influence, and history took over. With the rise of Napoleon , Venice was no more, and the prosperity of the town quickly faded.
Nowadays, that once prominent port is a popular tourist hotspot. Luckily its medieval character is fully preserved, whispering of times when the worn-out stone pavements were trod upon by daring sea-captains, vagabonds, swashbucklers and poor fish sellers. Seagulls still cry above the water, small boats still rock in the harbor, and waves still wash over the pier, as they have for centuries.
Only the times are different now, and the people too. The noble’s old graveyard in Perast rests quaintly in the shade of old trees, the heraldic coats of arms on them long ago worn away and faded. But their stories, their feats, and their adventures at sea all await rediscovery and retelling.
By Aleksa Vučković