Croatian-European links in the Carolingian period retained the characteristics of links with wider western culture overall; the Carolingian Renaissance gave that culture a general European significance within Croatia too. The tangible forms of such links can be seen in preserved examples of Pre-Romanesque church buildings, which in Croatia, particularly in terms of ornamentation, display interlaced carved motifs. The Church of St. Donatus (Donat) in Zadar may be singled out for its monumentality and other architectural features, modelled on Charlemagne’s chapel in Aachen. It is well known that Bishop Donatus of Zadar (after whom the church was later named) paid a visit to Charlemagne in 805–06.
Contact with French culture was first introduced by French Benedictine monks, who built many monasteries in Croatia. When the Diocese of Zagreb was founded in 1094, liturgical books and reliquaries were brought from French regions. The scholarly monk Hugo de la Scura de Franza became abbot of the Benedictine monastery on Mljet, while the 13th century debates of the French Dominican Laurent d’Orleans (La Somme le Roi) were copied in Glagolitic script. Though littera francigena still meant the Frankish script, i.e. Carolingian, lingva francigena began to refer to the French language. Geoffroi de Villehardouin, chronicler of the Fourth Crusade, wrote in this form of Old French, describing the Crusaders’ conquest of Zadar in 1202 on behalf of Venice, which paid for their journey to Constantinople. In his description of the event (La conquête de Constantinople), he stated that Zadar was “one of the best fortified cities in the world (...) that no more beautiful, stronger nor richer city could be found”. In the 14th century, some of the inhabitants of old Vlaška Street in Zagreb spoke French, as this was where the French and Italian craftsmen engaged on the building of Zagreb Cathedral were accommodated. Those who spoke Romance languages at that time were referred to as Vlachs among the Slavic peoples, which is where the name of the street came from.
Along with the widely renowned 12th century Croatian theologian and translator of texts from Arabic into Latin, Herman Dalmatin, and several other aristocratic scholars, Juraj of Slavonia, a man of humble origins who was a Glagolitic scholar, received his master’s degree at the Sorbonne in the 14th century and in 1401 was appointed an emissary of the University to Queen Elizabeth of Bavaria. Among those who appeared in France at that time, men from Dubrovnik were particularly prominent. The first to study at the Sorbonne was Ivan Stojković (15th century), while the Latinist Ilija Crijević (Cervinus) was also working in Paris. Saro Gučetić negotiated on behalf of the French King Francis I with Suleiman the Magnificent and was granted the authority to conclude secret pacts. The first known translation of a Croatian writer into French was the sonnets of the Petrarchian Dinko Ranjina, and the translator was Philippe Desportes (1546–1606). A work by Benedikt Kotruljević, O trgovini (On Trade) appeared in a Venetian edition and was later translated into French and printed in Lyons in 1613. The most translated Croat was Marko Marulić from Split, with seven editions in French of his Latin work De Institutione. Men from Dubrovnik were also active at court and in French cultural and scientific life. The most prominent was Ruđer Bošković, who arrived in France in 1773 when he was appointed Director of Optics for the French navy. He became an honorary member of the Academy of Science in 1748.
While Dubrovnik was building diplomatic relations in France, the French opened a consulate in Dubrovnik. One consul married a Dubrovnik woman and their son became the famous Croatian poet Marko Bruerović (Marc Bruère Desrivaux). The passionate obsession with French literature which caught hold in the city, along with its particular lifestyle, was dubbed frančezarije. From the early 18th century on, 24 plays by Molière were translated, sometimes with interpolations specific to Dubrovnik. But the first person to translate Molière actually came from the north, the Croatian Duke Fran Krsto Frankapan, who translated George Dandin into the Kajkavian dialect while waiting his end following his death sentence for conspiracy against the emperor (1670).
Many new ideas, including the first Masonic lodge in Croatia, spread from France. Count Ivan VIII Drašković founded L’amitié de guerre (Military friendship) lodge in Glina in 1769. The ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution became more prevalent, and after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen(1789), and the Convention on supporting the oppressed nations of Europe, Jacobin clubs were formed in Zagreb and Dubrovnik.
In the era of the Napoleonic Illyrian provinces, cultural links grew stronger, and many French expressions entered the Croatian language, particularly in administration. The French writer Charles Nodier took an interest in Croatian literature and his novel Jean Sbogar (1818), which was highly successful in France, was inspired by the character of an Istrian rebel. Along with the printing of the first newspapers in Croatian (Kraglski Dalmatin, 1806), and the predominantly Italianate vocabulary of the “Illyrian” language, Šime Starčević, a parish priest from Lika, wrote the first Croatian handbook for French: Nova ričoslovica iliričko-franceska (1812).
As it became fashionable in Western Europe to travel to the more exotic East, including the “wild Balkans”, more and more French writers published their notes and impressions from the Croatian regions. The most popular were the luxury edition of Voyage by Louis-François Cassas (1802), and the illustrated Les bords de l’Adriatique et le Monténégro with 257 outstanding engravings, written by Charles Yriarte, a French nobleman of Basque origin. Prosper Mérimée achieved the highest degree of popularity in terms of “Illyrian” themes, with his La Guzla (1827), named after the Croatian (and Balkan) stringed instrument (gusle) played by folk singers to accompany epic or lyric poems. Mérimée included in his work Fortis’s original rendition of Tužna balada plemenite supruge Hasan-age (The Mourning Song of the Noble Wife of Hasan Aga). Although he never visited Croatia, he presented some of his own poems as “Illyrian”, said to have been collected in “Dalmatia, Bosnia, Croatia and Herzegovina”. The most important translation of a Croatian work into French was Gundulić’s Osman (1838).
The Illyrian Movement considered the French to be the foremost nation in Europe (Adolfo Veber Tkalčević). The Pole Adam Mickiewicz popularised Southern Slavic themes at the Collège de France, and his successor, Cyprien Robert, visited Zagreb, where he met the Croatian politician and cultural activist Ljudevit Gaj. Hippolyte Desprez (who spent time in Croatia in 1845) spoke up for Illyrianism (i.e. the Croatian national cultural and political revival) in France, through his public activities and book, Les peuples de l’Autriche et de la Turquie; histoire contemporaine des Illyriens, des Magyars, des Roumains et des Polonais, which included an introductory study on Croatia and the Illyrian Movement.
In 1861, the Croatian Sabor began attempts to introduce French into Croatian schools, but only succeeded in 1876. A French lectorate was founded at the University, and respectable French-Croatian dictionaries and grammars were printed. It became a tradition to elect prominent French Slavic Studies scholars as external or honorary members of the Academy of Science, and vice versa. The Croatian theatrical expert Slavko Batušić claims that between 1840 and 1940, 553 French plays were translated and performed. Among them, in addition to the inevitable Molière, were works by Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine. The path was cleared for a wide acceptance of French literature primarily by the Croatian classicist August Šenoa, who published several French authors in the newspaper Vijenac. In addition, Šenoa’s novels began to be published in French in 1879. It is hard to list all the literary translations which followed: famous French writers were translated into Croatian, with Victor Hugo becoming particularly popular, as a defender of human rights, but there were others who also had an influence on Croatian writers, particularly Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola (whose father was descended from a Venetian/Zadar family). Vinko Šeringer noted 780 Croatian words of French origin in his 1889 Dictionary of Foreign Words (Rječnik stranih riječi).
As Paris turned into the leading cultural centre of Europe, so Croatian artists turned further away from German and other centres and gravitated towards France. The most significant example was the writer Antun Gustav Matoš, who lived in Paris between 1898 and 1904, and who brought back not only the spirit of French literatures, but also the principles of literary criticism (Jules Lemaître, Anatole France). Other important Croatian writers followed him (Tin Ujević, Josip Kosor, Janko Polić Kamov), meeting and sharing in the atmosphere of the Café du Dôme and La Rotonde. Some of them blended perfectly with French artistic trends, such as Radovan Ivšić, an adherent of Breton’s surrealism. In the fine arts, Vlaho Bukovac exhibited several times at the Paris Salon, where he won awards. Vladimir Becić, Miroslav Kraljević and Josip Račić produced paintings influenced by Manet, while the world famous sculptor Ivan Meštrović was influenced by Rodin, whom he met in person.
The activities of the French Institute in Zagreb (founded in 1924) began with the serious task of acquainting the French public with Croatian culture. In 1928, Krleža’s literary output and the performances of his dramas were being written about. In his bibliography of works translated from Croatian into French (1813–1968), Stanko Lasić listed 312 authors. Linguistic links were strengthened by the establishment of L’Alliance Française (The French Alliance) in Zagreb in 1952, in which Petar Guberina played a vital role. He was the creator of the acknowledged system for developing speech, known by the abbreviation SUVAG, which is actually a French term (Système universel verbotonal d’audition – Guberina).
At the end of the 1950s, Zagreb became an interesting European cultural centre, partly because of the particular political position of the then (non-aligned) Yugoslavia. Jean-Paul Sartre visited Zagreb in 1960, meeting Krleža and other Croatian writers, and appearing before a wider public. Along with the Musical Biennale, which for the first time opened its doors to avant-garde music, in 1961 in Zagreb a separate movement in the fine arts, named the New Tendency, appeared, gathering artistic groups from Western and Eastern Europe, and from France the Grav group. One of the joint exhibitions of the New Tendency was held in the Paris Museum of Decorative Arts in 1964. In music, Croatia was linked with France by the composer Ivo Malec, who taught at the Paris Conservatory from 1972 to 1990.
At a time when Croatia was struggling for international recognition, accompanied by the attempt to present a true account of the events linked with the collapse of Yugoslavia, French intellectuals played a crucial role, represented in particular by the cultural and scholarly efforts of Mirko Dražen Grmek, a native Croat and naturalised Frenchman, and heir to the legacy of the physiologist Claude Bernard, at the Chair of Biological History at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (in Croatia, he was one of the initiators and later the editor-in-chief of the grand Medical Encyclopaedia). His global scientific status in the history of the biomedical sciences, his considerable publications and public activities (along with Marc Gjidara and Neven Šimac, among others) attracted figures in French culture such as the historian Jacques Le Goff, the philosophers Alain Finkielkraut and Pascal Bruckner, and the writer Louise Lambrichs. Within this setting, and a wider one, in March 2000 in Paris, the French edition of a large encyclopaedic work published by the Croatian Academy, Croatia in Europe, was presented, and the pièce de resistance was the festival Croatie, la voici, which was held from September to December 2012 in Paris and the surrounding towns, and included over 60 cultural and tourist events presenting Croatian cultural heritage.