Must be before the 6th century AD, and legend tells it was on a death day of St Euphemia, protectress of Rovinj, exactly on 16th September immemorial year 304 AD, a peninsula with famous town named Cissa violently disappeared into the sea deep. In a horrific underwater earthquake peninsula broke in numerous new islands. It can be said nowadays Rovinj lives on these islands – St Catherine and St Andrew (Red Island) are the most famous, but Figarola Big and Small are well known as well, as it is Sturago, Pirusi, Two Sisters, St John, little island Seven Hairs (Banjole) …
Between St John, an island with small bell-tower of deserted church, and the nearby small rocky island of the same name St John on the Deep Sea, where in 1853 during Austro-Hungarian times a lighthouse was erected and it stands up more than 70 feet above the sea, deep under the sea lies a big Adriatic mystery, an assumption for ancient beginnings of the city of Rovinj, a mystery which even today invites many questions and varied answers.
This coast was hit again by earthquake at the end of 6th century when it got its outlines and the city of Cissa sank deeper into these depths.
”Just like today, the sea has to be as still as oil”, fishermen of Rovinj are saying. “Then down in the deeps of the sea”, they say, “You can barely make out the contours of stone walls.”
Webs and thoughts interweave here and old books say that long time ago, in the middle of the 8th century AD, a city disappeared into these depths: Cissa, or old Ruven, Ruvin, or Rubino. It had its own streets, its squares, and its swarm of life. It was famous for the production of paints but it disappeared abruptly, so that after horrific underwater strike, a tsunami, the Rovinj we know today would be settled.
Famed Trieste historian Pietro Kandler (1804-1872) criticized the ancient historians for having placed Cissa first here, and then there, «floating on the ship of imagination through seas of geographic maps.
Kandler sailed by boat to the place itself. “We went there”, he wrote, “but the depth of the water did not permit us reach a building or a ruin.”
Gathering information from earlier writers, from Pliny to more “modern” ones, Kandler summed up the available knowledge, stating that looking from the tower of St Euphemia, the sinking city would have been located between the islands of St John and a small reef, at a distance of 500 Venetian feet from the first and 100 from the other. And he specifies: it is located in the circle of 500 feet, at a depth that varies from 18 to 20, 25, and even 30 Venetian aquatic feet, which could indicate the slope of a hill at a height of approximately 12 meters. The subsidence of Cissa is such, he continues, that it could better be attributed to a sudden rather than a gradual decline «for reasons that cannot be determined». He states that this site is avoided by fishermen, as the underwater walls tangle and destroys their nets. He mentions objects taken out of waters of Cissa: tiles, square stones, grooved stones, and even a window jamb was brought to light with a small metal eye where, who knows when, a window casement swivelled…
But the story of Cissa begins yet earlier. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder (1st century AD) speaks in his geographic texts of the famous islands at the mouth of the Timavo (an upper Adriatic river), and then, alongside the land of Istria, mentions Cissa, the Pullaries and the Absirtides. Kandler says that Cissa could have been famous in Pliny’s days due to its numerous inhabitants but it was not yet possible to speak of some fame on the basis of producing paints.
Centuries later “fabula cissana” gained new support with the citation of bishops from Cissa. At a Church Synod in Grado (to the north, in the lagoons of Italy) in 579, one Vindemius was listed, titled in the chronicle of the meeting as “Episcopus Cesetensis”, and elsewhere “Cenensis” or “Cenetensis” and again in the fragments of the council records preserved from a similar meeting held in Mantua in 827 – which would mean from Cissa.
The search for Cissa has not yet subsided! The nets of Rovinj fishermen still get tangled. Saint John, San Zuane, trawl on the high seas!
Beneath a picture of Emperor Francis Joseph the First, the captain of the Rovinj harbour Carlo Covacevich decided to get the interest of the government for underwater investigation of Cissa. The Austro-Hungarian Admiralty in Pula sent the ship «Laudon» into the mysterious waters of Rovinj in January 1890. On it proudly stood the «official state diver» in equipment like those of 19th century illustrations of astronauts. The exploration was carried out with the seriousness of Austro-Hungarian endeavours, in the presence of captain Covacevich. After the diver’s exit from the sea, a report was composed in German.
The diver said the following: “Just as soon as I entered into the depths of the sea, I came to a place covered with the remains of walls, which convinced me, as soon as I saw them, that they were deliberately constructed. Since I am a bricklayer, I could confirm the presence of mortar traces. Continuing my search of the surrounding underwater area I noted extensions of the lines of walls and alongside roads.”
The exterior wall of Cissa, according to the records, was followed by the state diver in a length of 30 meters. He could not follow it further as sections of the bulky diving equipment got in his way, and a more detailed survey of the coast on that side could not be performed, as the depth did not permit it.
“Other than one stone which certainly came from a constructed wall,» said the diver, «and which was covered on one side with plaster, there was no other object that I could take with me, given that the walls formed a firm obstacle, which given the lack of necessary tools and limited time available could not be demolished.”
The departure of “Laudon” and the proud diver disturbed at the end of the 19th century the theses of certain then well-known Cissa scholars; but hypotheses, refutations, and questions still existed further and they do exist today as well. In spite of the guiding words of St Jerome, who in a letter advised a blind traveller not to go further than Cissa …
(Based on: „Rovinj: na starim razglednicama“, Zavičajna naklada „Žakan Juri“, Pula, 1998.)