Croatian medieval literature, unique in being produced in three languages (Latin, Old Slavonic and the vernacular) and three scripts (Roman, Glagolitic and Cyrillic) developed from the 8th to 16th century in the form of poetry, verse dialogue and representations of valuable literary works, mostly based on liturgical and religious themes. Towards the end of the 15th century, new poetic standards began to be accepted: themes, forms and types which characterised Renaissance literature, in accordance with Italian literary developments. The basis for this was the literary output of the Croatian Latinists, through whom humanism was introduced. Outstanding writers included the poets Ilija Crijević (Aelius Lampridius Cervinus) and Jan Panonac (Jannus Pannonius), who had a fine understanding of linguistic and literary traditions.
In the first decades of the 16th century, Croatian literature fitted perfectly in Renaissance European trends, particularly in Dalmatia, where several creative circles formed: in Split (Marko Marulić), Šibenik (Juraj Šižgorić), Dubrovnik (Šiško Menčetić, Džore Držić, Mavro Vetranović, Nikola Nalješković, Marin Držić, Dinko Ranjina, Dominko Zlatarić), Hvar (Hanibal Lucić, Petar Hektorović, Mikša Pelegrinović, Martin Benetović) and Zadar (Petar Zoranić, Barne Karnarutić). Marko Marulić was there at the inception, selecting many medieval themes, but adapting them in new forms and under the influence of lay ‘modern devotion’ (devotio moderna), creating works like the moralist essay De institutione bene vivendi, and epics like Davidias and Judita, for which he was acclaimed as a prominent representative of European Christian humanism and the Renaissance epic. Along with the dominant lyrical, Petrarchan expression of the period, Zoranić’s Planine stands apart, the first original Croatian novel, Hektorović’s Ribanje i ribarsko prigovaranje, a fishing eclogue written in the form of an epistle, and the dramatic works of Marin Držić, particularly the comedies Novela od Stanca, Dundo Maroje and Skup.
In the second half of the 16th century, the Renaissance gradually waned. Protestantism only touched the edges of Croatian literature, although Croatia produced one of the most eminent Protestant writers and ideologues of the day, Matija Vlačić Ilirik, whose Key to Holy Scripture was the most famous biblical lexicon of the time. Baroque literature of the 17th and early 18th centuries remained centred around Dubrovnik, and the greatest name to appear was Ivan Gundulić (a religious poem, Tears of the Prodigal Son, the pastoral Dubravka and the poem Osman), though Ivan Vunić Vučić (a collection of poetry called Plandovanja), Junije Palmotić (a drama called Pavlimir) and Ignjat Đurđević (a religious poem called Uzdasi Mandeljene pokornice) were also prominent.
During the 18th century Enlightenment, Andrija Kačić Miošić (a book of poetry and verse called Razgovor ugodni naroda slovinskoga) and Matija Antun Reljković (the poem Satir iliti divji čovik) led the field. The revivalist Illyrian Movement, headed by Ljudevit Gaj in the first half of the 19th century powerfully affected political and cultural life. The most important factor for Croatian literature at that time was the creation of a uniform Croatian language, laying the foundations for the continuity of creativity. Political circumstances meant its basic characteristic was a nationalist component, and eminent writers included Ivan Mažuranić (the poem Smrt Smail-age Čengića), Stanko Vraz (a collection of poems entitled Đulabije) and Petar Preradović . The transition from Romanticism to Realism was reflected most clearly in the works of August Šenoa (the novels Seljačka buna and Zlatarovo zlato), which influenced the cultural life of the age to such an extent that the period 1865–81 is called the Age of Šenoa.
The realist period was important for the overall shaping of Croatian literature, as writers and themes from all Croatian regions were represented. It was also the golden age of the novel, represented by Ante Kovačić (U registraturi), Ksaver Šandor Gjalski (U noći), Josip Kozarac (Mrtvi kapitali), and Vjenceslav Novak, nicknamed the ‘Croatian Balzac’ (Posljednji Stipančići). Silvije Strahimir Kranjčević (Trzaji) was the greatest poet of the 19th century and a bridge towards the Modern era in poetry, as the stylistically heterogeneous period at the turn of the 20th century was named, drawing its basic aesthetic views and stimuli from Central European literary centres and French literature. Alongside the poetry of Milan Begović (Knjiga Boccadoro – his prose belongs to the period between the two World Wars), Antun Gustav Matoš and Vladimir Vidrić, the dialect poetry of Dragutin Domjanić, Fran Galović and Vladimir Nazor reached anthological proportions.
The Modern era also gave Croatian literature valuable dramatic contributions, primarily the works of Ivo Vojnović (Dubrovačka trilogija) and Josip Kosor (Požar strasti). Janko Polić Kamov stood out as an avant-gardist before the actual arrival of the avant-garde, an innovator in terms of themes, ideas and linguistic style, who in the decades which followed achieved the status of a legend. The works of Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić (the novel Čudnovate zgode šegrta Hlapića and the collection of stories Priče iz davnine) were translated into over 40 languages (in English they are The Brave Adventures of Lapitch /or the Shoemaker’s Boy/ and Croatian Tales of Long Ago). She was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The novels of Marija Jurić Zagorka (Grička vještica) were also translated into many languages and played an important role in the continuity of Croatian historical novels.
Modernism, which in Croatian literary history comes after the Modern era, was expressed mostly in poetry and prose, and particularly in the essayist creations of Matoš and the work of Miroslav Krleža, Antun Branko Šimić, Tin Ujević and others in the 1920s. It prevailed until the turn of the 1960s and later, with the arrival of generations gathering around different literary magazines, known as the krugovaši, razlogovci, offovci, or who followed various literary streams, such as the borgesovci, etc. The central role in literary life after the First World War, not only as a result of his writing, but also because of his wider public involvement, was held by Miroslav Krleža, the author of one of the most diverse opuses, in terms of themes and genres, and one of the most copious in terms of output (Balade Petrice Kerempuha, the drama Gospoda Glembajevi, the novel Povratak Filipa Latinovcza, and many essays and memoirs).
Krleža shares the modernist throne with Tin Ujević, in whose opus the best Croatian and European traditions are reflected (Ojađeno zvono). Alongside them is A. B. Šimić (Preobraženja), who is credited with popularising free verse and the finally bringing Croatian poetry into alignment with European literary trends. The popularity of the poet Dragutin Tadijanović was clear from the great number of editions and translations of his works (Srebrne svirale), while wider circles of readers were attracted to the musical poetry of Dobriša Cesarić, which breathes spontaneity and simplicity (Voćka poslije kiše).
Participants at the 59th World PEN Congress in Dubrovnik in 1993. The Croatian PEN centre was founded in 1927. Other literary societies in Croatia include the Croatian Writers’ Association (DHK), founded in 1900, and the Croatian Writers’ Society (HDP) (2002).
After the Second World War, several writers gained repute as their literary output characterised the second half of the 20th century. Petar Šegedin was a representative of intellectual prose in a certain existential, poetic style (the novel Djeca božja). The opus of Ranko Marinković, a representative of Croatian Modernism, was not large, but in terms of its quality it belongs at the peak of Croatian literature in the later 20th century (the novel Kiklop, the prose collection Ruke). Marijan Matković was one of the most productive Croatian playwrights and a worthy successor to Krleža (the dramatic cycle Igra oko smrti), while Radovan Ivšić was the most prominent representative of surrealism in Croatian literature (the grotesque farce Kralj Gordogan). The vast poetic opus of Vesna Parun (Ja koja imam nevinije ruke), the most translated Croatian poetess, forms one of the most important chapters in contemporary Croatian poetry. The novel Mirisi, zlato i tamjan by Slobodan Novak is regularly cited as one of the best Croatian novels ever written, particularly as an example of existentialist literature.
Some authors left their homeland in the context of political and ideological circumstances after the Second World War, but continued writing abroad (so-called émigré literature) among whom the most prominent were the poets Vinko Nikolić, Viktor Vida and Boris Maruna. The generation which gathered around the magazine Krugovi in the 1950s (Slobodan Novak, Slavko Mihalić, Ivan Slamnig, Antun Šoljan and others) advocated freedom in writing and aesthetic pluralism, confronting the poetics of socialist realism, while adherents of the magazine Razlog in the 1960s strove for intellectual and theoretically aware poetic utterance and hermeticism (Danijel Dragojević, Zvonimir Mrkonjić, Nikica Petrak, Tonči Petrasov Marović, etc.).
The last three decades of the 20th century were marked by pluralistic expressions in the postmodernism literature. Prose appeared linked to Jorge Luis Borges, producing a generation of so-called Fantasists (Pavo Pavličić, Goran Tribuson), so-called Jeans Prose (Alojz Majetić, Zvonimir Majdak) as well as new-historian novel (Ivan Aralica, Nedjeljko Fabrio). In the 1980s, the magazine Quorum gathered together a large number of younger authors (Damir Miloš, Delimir Rešicki, Branko Čegec, Anka Žagar) and stimulated intermediality.
The 1990s produced exiled writers whose work attracted international attention. The prose writer and essayist Dubravka Ugrešić has won several reputed international awards for her work, in which exile is one of the crucial literary themes (Ministarstvo boli). The novels and essays of Slavenka Drakulić, characterised by a high degree of feminism and political involvement, have run into hundreds of editions worldwide (Kao da me nema). The plays of Slobodan Šnajder are mostly performed in German-speaking countries (Utjeha sjevernih mora). Ivo Brešan has achieved international success with his plays (Nečastivi na filozofskom fakultetu) as well as Miro Gavran (Čehov je Tolstoju rekao zbogom). Among the generation of Croatian prose writers who emerged in the 1990s, one of the most esteemed is Miljenko Jergović (Sarajevski Marlboro). The literary scene in the “noughties” has been marked by a series of new prose writers, poets, playwrights and authors whose work appears in New Media, partly because of the crisis in publishing.