The town acquired its present urban plan and architectural appearance during the prosperous years of the 17th and 18th centuries. Although damaged by a long period of economic stagnation, the construction of a coastal road and various incursions on old towers and palaces, Perast today represents one of the most beautiful examples of baroque architecture on the Adriatic coast.
Two primary factors have influenced the urban character of the place: a historic need for strong defenses and the blending of monumental and minor stone structures with sacral buildings of outstanding beauty.
Under Venice (1482-1684), no continuous defensive barrier was erected around this exposed and fragile settlement on the border of the Ottoman Empire. In 1570, only the fortress, St. Cross, rose above the town. However, within the town a chain of ten watchtowers, called “cardaci”, presented a well-devised system of checkpoints to protect against attacks. These characteristic towers contributed to the unique appearance of Perast.
Of the more than three hundred (300) houses and palaces crowding the coast and slopes of the hill, two hundred and seven (207) buildings were classified in the 18th-century as being of architectural significance, one hundred and seventeen (117) as ordinary structures and fourteen (14) churches were noted as associated with the patronage of noble families.
Of the churches, the unfinished parish church of St Nicholas deserves special mention. Its architecture, though incomplete, reveals the monumental design of Giuseppe Beati, who created a Venetian-Romanesque variant of baroque in the 17th century. In 1691, Ivan Scarpe began the construction of an impressive, 55m (179 feet) tall belfry with five stories and a divided series of loges at a cost of 55,000 ducats. An inscription on the belfry proudly reads that the Turkish threat ended after the Venetians conquered Herceg Novi and Risan. Although left open to the sky, the great apse of the main altar with its two sacristies makes a significant contribution to the coastline of Perast.
Other churches of note include the church of Our Lady of the Rosary with its outstanding octagonal belfry, built in 1687 on the high ground adjoining his palace by Archbishop Andrija Zmajevic; the church of St. Mark, dating from 1760, with a richly decorated facade, once the church of the Confraternity; the monastery and church of St. Antony, built near the fortress by the Mazarovic family in 1679; the church of St. John the Baptist; and the church of St. Anne.
Outstanding examples of palaces must include the sumptuous Bujovic palace, today the Museum of Perast. It was built in 1694 and decorated with five harmonious balconies opening off paired arcades on three sides of the building and fronted by a spacious cross-vaulted porch supported by massive pillars carved in the bugnatto technique. Although the newly constructed coastal road gives the palace the impression of being “sunk” and its overall artistic value compromised, the Bujovic palace is still one of the most beautiful edifices on the Montenegrin coast.
Besides the Bujovic palace, the following palaces also beautify the coastline of Perast: the Smekja palace, with a large terrace projecting towards the sea, balconies ornamented with baroque balustrades and a third floor of narrow proportions which takes the form of an extended belvedere; the Bronza palace decorated with a marble relief depicting the scene of the Annunciation; and the palaces belonging to the Viskovic, Balovic, Mazarovic, Sestokrilovic and Brajkovic families
The aesthetic values of baroque Perast have been highly appreciated by modern art historians: “… in Perast, without going into poetical phrases, the Dalmatian baroque achieved its apotheosis in every stone with its coating, every elegantly carved portal, contributing to an eternal atmosphere of province to be lost. Here, the unity of the town, more than individual monuments, creates an atmosphere that connects into one chord church domes and pillars of balconies, as well as gold coating of time… Perast represent a culmination of the Dalmatian baroque.” (Dr. Kruno Prijatelj). It was from maritime trade and customs privileges obtained from battles, especially against piracy, that Perast garnered the wealth that financed such beauty.
Although it was an ancient settlement, Perast enjoyed greater economic, political and cultural development only from the middle of the 15th century. At that time, the Boka became part of the Venetian Republic (1420). About sixty years later, Ottoman forces advanced on the Gulf of Kotor, determining its fate for the next two centuries. Before these events, Perast was just a small village possessing a shipyard and a number of modest fishing and trading ships. Kotor, the far larger, fortified city at the end of the bay, held jurisdiction over the island and the abbey of St. George (9th century). At that time, St George was the only island off the coast of Perast and the abbey sustained itself from properties it owned there. The overlordship of Kotor became a burden to Perast as the town began to acquire a higher degree of economic independence and power. Following the Turkish conquest of the Boka from Herceg Novi to Risan (1482), Perast attained a strategically and politically significant position as a border town. Because of this new role, important economic and political privileges were bestowed on it which the inhabitants of Perast soon used to their advantage.
Venice encouraged the development of a local fleet for the purposes of trade as well as to do battle with Ottoman pirates. The skilled mariners and traders of Perast gained fame both for their chosen professions and for their prowess as warriors. Due to this reputation, they earned the honour of guarding the Venetian gonfalon (standard) of St. Mark in time of war. Perast held this privilege until the fall of the Republic in 1797.
Despite the dramatic circumstances of constant conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Venice, which were particularly fierce in this area, the town continued to develop culturally and architecturally. The construction of luxurious palaces, chapels and churches, the importation of works of art and the ongoing literary activity give evidence of an intense industry out of proportion to the size of the town and the number of its inhabitants.
Noble Families of Perast – Casadas – According to tradition, Perast had twelve distinguished families. During the Middle Ages and afterwards, these “casadas”, patrician clans or brotherhoods, were called by the names of the original families. They were an integral part of the commune of Perast and their chiefs were elected as members of the town council every few years. The following casadas were active in Perast: 1) Studeni, 2) Dentali, 3) Vukasovic, 4) Brajkovic, 5) Sestokrilovic, 6) Bratica, 7) Stoisic, 8) Smilojevic, 9) Silopi, 10) Cizmaj, 11) Perojevic and 12) Miokovic. Each also had a flag bearer. This was in addition to serving as the bearers of the gonfalon of St. Mark.