Sculptures on Belgrade’s buildings were created in the relatively narrow period of time. Out stone and bronze citizens were all born in the stretch of about 80 years, between the end of the austere Balkan architectural style in mid-19th century (which, following the Islamic custom forbade depiction of people) until the final victory of modernism in Belgrade’s architecture, when Tito broke away from Stalin and his socialist-realist style in 1948.
In the beginning they aped Western European models and obsession with classical motifs. Indeed, the first notable facade sculptures in the city are those of Athena and Apollo, located in the niches above the entrance to Kapetan Miša’s Mansion (now the main building of the University of Belgrade), built in 1863.
Soon after, though, like in the rest of Europe they stopped only being allegories, but were used to signify the trades of families of societies that erected them. This was especially prominent in 20th Century, when Art Nouveau style freed the architecture from the obsession with the classical models, and allowed for more fanciful and intimate decoration.
One of the most egregious and cutest examples of this is a relief of two fairies taking a photo of each other on the building in Terazije which was originally occupied by the court photographer Milan Jovanovic, and was designed by one of the pioneers of Belgrade’s Art Nouveau, Milan Antonovic.
A pig’s head, hiding at the very top of an ornate facade of an apartment block built in 1937 at the intersection of Svetogorska and Takovska was put there by Sima Nikola, a pig merchant, to signify his trade. For the same purposes a cauldron hangs above another building in Kolarceva, while a drunken gent sits on the barrel in Dusanova 4, where Jovicic family of wine merchants from Smederevo used to own the City’s largest wine cellar until WWII. Then of course, there are countless serpents writhing on the facades of old pharmacies and winger Mercuries flying around the old banks.
It was not only the tradesman that wanted themselves immortalised on the architecture. On the old Ministry of Posts building in Palmoticeva, Momir Korunovic, included a sculpture of himself holding a model of the building, as an homage to the Serbian medieval practice of depicting builders and founders giving churches they designed to saints.
Then there are other, more cryptic decorations which still conjure speculation about the intended meaning.
The building of Craftsmen’s Hall (present-day Radio Belgrade) has a sculptures of a shirtless man and boy standing behind a pillar with tools and two doves. Some interpret this as a symbol of the Freemasons (who were very popular in inter-war Belgrade), while others just see it as a reference to the trade of the building’s owners and the name of the kafana which stood on its spot (called “Two White Doves”/ Dva Bela Goluba).
Even more cryptic is the relief above the entrance to the present-day Swiss embassy where two figures are looking up to an all-seeing eye.
While the post-war socialist aesthetic frowned upon bourgeois symbolism, and even destroyed a sculpture of Sima Igumanov with orphans which looked over Terazije from the his art deco palace, designed by Petar and Branko Krstic, there was a brief fad for muscular proletarians to appear on buildings. However ,as this was reminiscent of the Stalinist style, it quickly fell out of favour when Tito set off on his own, and sculptures were no longer a common feature of Belgrade’s buildings.