Seated on a worn and silvery metal bench, on a quiet tree-lined terrace in Zagreb’s Gornji grad (Upper Town), a lone figure gazes out over the red-tiled roofs and Secessionist facades of the city below. He sits, evidently lost in thought, his arms flung languidly across the back of the bench. The man is seemingly quite untroubled by the traces of graffiti on his chest and legs. Sometimes a passer-by joins him on his bench, perhaps leaning against him or slinging an arm loosely around his silvery neck, and on such occasions it is not always entirely clear who is keeping whom company.
The figure is Antun Gustav Matos (1873-1914), poet, critic, journalist and essayist, writer of short stories as well as travelogues and one of the most celebrated figures in Croatian literature. He is to be found on his regular bench throughout the year, lightly dusted with snow on a cold winter’s morning, silhouetted against the warm golden light of a summer evening. The statue is arguably one of the most beloved in a city rich in outdoor sculpture. It is not just by chance that we find him here, though his final resting place is in the great cemetery at Mirogoj. Matos was especially fond of this spot on Strossmayerovo setaliste (Strossmayer’s Walk), writing in 1909 that "there is a bench, from where Zagreb is most beautiful in its autumnal days".
The statue is the work of Croatian sculptor Ivan Kožarić. And it is just one of the many sculptural works which grace Zagreb’s public spaces — from street corners to squares, gardens and fountains. Often standing at street level rather than raised on a plinth, they seem — despite their silence — to interact with the everyday life of the city, as if they are somehow still very much part of Zagreb today.
What is remarkable about these statues is the high proportion of literary figures and intellectuals. Most European capitals celebrate their rulers, soldiers and kings. Zagreb takes a different tack.