During the customarly Wensdays dragon feasts (events, lectures) in the Tower over the Stone gates on 18 January 2023, a lecture entitled “Milan Sunko – (almost) forgotten heraldic artist of world renown who was revered by the old dragons” was held by Master of Ceremonies of the “Brothers of the Croatian Dragon”, Lt. Colonel Dr. Željko Heimer, head of the Dragon Heraldic Office – herald of the Society.
The well-attended lecture was participated also by members of the Croatian Heraldic and Vexillological Society and guests from the Slovenian Heraldic and Flag Society Heraldica Slovenica (HS).
The lecture is based on his recently published scientific work in the journal Review of Croatian History (see On Great Croatian Heraldic Artist Milan Sunko, 15 December 2022) in which Heimer rediscovers the importance and influence of this artist from the end of the 19th century on Croatian heraldic heritage and on the history of the Dragon Society.
Namely, soon after the founding of the Dragon Society in 1905, the old Dragons launched a broad international campaign to collect funds for the transfer of the remains of this artist, who died and was buried at the expense of the state at the Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb in 1891. In order to prevent the transfer of the bones to the common tomb during the then-planned expansion of Mirogoj, the Society collected funds and transferred the remains to a grave it received from the city. This is one of the first such activities of the Society, along with the much more famous ones of the transfer of the bones of Petar Zrinski and Fran Krsto Frankopan, first to a grave in Wiened Neustadt, then in 1919 to the Zagreb Cathedral, Ljudevit Gaj and his family to Mirogoj’s Arcades, Eugen Kvaternik and his comrades from the Rakovica Rebellion also to the Cathedral. The author was intrigued by how this heraldic artist found himself among the aforementioned greats whose names are part of general education and what he owed to the Croatian heritage and the members of the Dragon Society, especially since that name is completely unknown or forgotten in today’s Croatian heraldic scientific community.
In the lecture, the author told an almost crime novel about the research that started from short notes in the Dragon Chronicles by Milovan Petković, the Dragon-Restorer of Veliki Tabor II, through the research of mentions of Sunko in foreign heraldic literature from the end of the 19th century, through his mention in monographs on in German and English from the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, which mention him as one of the three most important Viennese artists who made ex libris (bookplates), along with the world-famous names of heraldists such as Ernst Krahl and Hugo Gerhard Stöhl.
The co-founder of the Dragon Society, Emilij Laszowski, notes in his records that through Ivan Bojničić de Knin, he inherited from Milan Sunko a significant collection of seal impressions, which he supplemented and systematically stored in the city archive. The investigation in this direction led to the return of the company’s collection of seal impressions in plaster and tinfoil, which had been stored neglected in the attic of the Croatian History Museum. This collection is still waiting for systematic processing. In any case, Sunko, who was 8 years older, had to make a strong impression on the newly graduated Laszowski, who in 1891 got a job as a lawyer in the then Crownland Archives, and we can guess that he was also a kind of mentor who introduced him to heraldry.
In its activity until World War II, the association collected a significant number of Sunko’s works, including the watercolor for the title page of Bojničić’s Der Adel des Königsrech Croatien und Slavonien, 1899 (which was eventually signed in the published version by Sunko’s contemporary Italo Kamilo Hochetlinger).
Unlike heraldists, Croatian art historians have not forgotten him, and Milan Sunko has a note in the Encyclopaedia of Fine Arts, 1966, and the author also found a series of exhibition catalogs during the 20th century where his works are exhibited, which, apparently, are from the Dragon Society’s collections ended up in Zagreb museums and galleries.
After his birthplace in Zidani Most, Slovenia, Sunko is also considered a fellow compatriot by Slovenians living in Zagreb, who in the 21st century mention him in several publications dealing with Slovenian painters who worked in Zagreb. Academician Josip Bratulić, Dragon of Sumpetar of Istria, honorary member of the Dragon Society, mentions him as an important ex-librist along with famous Croatian painters Menci Clement Crnčić and Mirko Račko.
However, the Sunko’s grave, where he was taken by the Dragons in 1910, has unfortunately not been preserved. It seems that after the changes of states after the First World War, the new city administration did not continue to guard his grave, so the city cemeteries “ceded” it to another user in 1930, and Sunko’s remains ended up in the common ossuary on Mirogoj.
Most of Sunko’s preserved works are today in Zagreb’s National Museum of Modern Art (until recently the Modern Gallery), whose collection includes 36 works, mostly studies and sketches, watercolors and graphics. Among them are five works with heraldic compositions, and among them also a beautiful photogravure on copper plate ex libris for Viennese councilor Jospeh Leidinger from 1886, which the German and English monographs mention as the most significant work of Sunko.
(Photos Dražen Opalić, Dragon of Kustošija and Dominik Černelič, HS)