The sphinx by the sea – the Slovenians’ Gordian knot?
There will be no Alexander, so we must start untangling it patiently.


 A difficult history

Trieste. Before us a marine bay, not too broad, on the edge of the Karst region, where our Slavic ancestors ceased their wanderings and settled along the belt of land between the present-day Devin (Ital. Duino) and Savudrija (now in Croatia), and also further inland, in continental Istria. They did not take control of the larger coastal towns, which retained their urban character and structure of authority after the collapse of the western Roman Empire, but they did occupy the lands around them. These regions they populated, forming easily distinguishable groups with a different language from the native Latin people but living with them in harmony. Their “natural” expansion, which remained unaffected even by the Habsburg occupation and seizure of the city and a length of the coastline from the Venetians in 1382, continued until Emperor Charles IV took the important decision in 1719 decreeing Trieste a free port. Slowly at first, but later, from the time of Maria Theresa, at an increasing rate, and by the 19th century at lightning speed, the small town of Trieste evolved into a huge conurbation comprising built fabric, the port and its facilities, factories, and people from all corners of the empire and the neighbouring Italian provinces. Its citizens engaged in all kinds of activity, both manufacturing and organisation of the “superstructure” that was to serve them: banking, insurance, and education at all levels. On the very fringes of Slovenian territory, with its few large towns that were slowly beginning to expand beyond their medieval origins, “something” was emerging that in the scale and grandeur of its architectural solutions could be compared only to Vienna and the vast Italian cities in the west. Trieste was a major project for the Habsburgs; it faced economic and political challenges, and the impact of this rapid expansion on the Slovenes, Italians and whatever other nationalities had been tempted there by the new economic potential were of little consequence to the city authorities.

Matters tended to follow their natural course, in Trieste as elsewhere in Europe, as long as the question did not arise of who was what nationality, spoke what language, and what rights thus accrued to them. According to an unwritten law, the official language throughout all the lands of the empire was Latin at first, and later, from the late Middle Ages, German. After Trieste was ruled a free port the city authorities adopted what was to some extent a more pragmatic position; as the lingua franca in Istria and along the Adriatic coast had long been the Venetian dialect of Italian, they granted permission for Italian to function there at least as a second official language. In practice, however, this meant that it was the sole official language. The Slovenes, the second-largest national group in the city, were relatively tardy to articulate a demand for the use of Slovenian in public life and in the municipal offices. Slowly, however, but with increasing confidence, emboldened by the economic success of their own business institutions and extensive network of educational and cultural institutions, they began to give outward expression to their presence in Trieste. This took most prominent form in the construction of the National House in 1904, to a design by one of the greatest architects of the empire and a compatriot from the Karst region, Max Fabiani. Conflict between Italian nationalist irredentists, who saw the future of the Italian citizens of Trieste within a united kingdom of Italians, and the Slovenes, whose political aims were naturally contradictory to this, was inevitable.

The Slovenes considered Trieste and its Slovenian hinterland, the Karst region and Istria, as well as the lands along the Adriatic coast as far as Tržič (Ital. Monfalcone), a natural part of (a united) Slovenia, and later, in the years leading up to World War I, part of a future state of southern Slavs. Other national and religious groups living in Trieste (the Jews, the Serbs, the Greeks, the Germans…) were not too irksome to the Italians because they fell in with the Italian-speaking majority in terms of language and even – particularly the Jews – lent it their political support. The Croats were treated as one with the Slovenes – both groups were known as Slavs (Ital. Schiavi). This, of course, was for a political reason – to create the impression that both national groups formed a vague, politically irrelevant mass. It was thus “natural” that two mutually exclusive political doctrines emerged and developed. The battle cry of the Italians was: “Trieste italianissima!”, and that of the Slovenes: “Trst je naš!” [Trieste is ours]. The aggression of Italian irredentism in Trieste and throughout Istria was in part historically conditioned. The Austrian authorities could not, or perhaps would not control it. The Italians’ realignment in 1915 from the Central Powers’ bloc to the Entente camp in exchange for the promise of Slovenian territory in the east of Italy brought the Austrians significant advantages. When the Italian troops marched into Trieste in 1918 the new authorities began to exert enormous pressure on other nationalities, in particular the Slovenes.

The extent to which the Italian authorities were irritated by the Slovenes’ National House, as a clear symbol of the presence and successes of the Slovenes in Trieste, became clear in the summer of 1920, when they allowed extreme fascist groups to set fire to the building (during the fire a volatile crowd prevented the fire brigade from reaching the place of the tragedy). The fascists, who took power by force two years later, tightened up this policy still further and, using the Slovenes as their example, demonstrated their intent to implement Europe’s first blanket liquidation of inconvenient communities in contemporary times: anyone who did not assimilate voluntarily, would not submit to the majority, could expect to lose all the rights and achievements accruing to a nation and an individual, from use of their own language in public life and political activity, through possession of property and representation by institutions, to active participation in culture and the right to use their own (Slovenian) given name and/or surname. The response to this fascist barbarism was first instinctive and later organised resistance. This was met by state repression, marshalled by the judicial system and a highly inventive criminal policy incorporating the death penalty and a system of prisons of various categories and concentration camps.

Only the victory of the partisan divisions over fascism and the invasion of Trieste in May 1945 brought the city’s Slovenes a rare interlude of respite and new hope. But not for long. Geostrategic (political) arguments wielded by the western allies forced the Slovenian (Yugoslavian) army and authorities to withdraw from Trieste, which was restituted to Italy pursuant to the London agreement of 1954. The new, democratic Republic of Italy undertook, in the spirit of democracy and respect for human rights, to take appropriate care of the Slovene minority living all along the eastern border zone. But the seed of intolerance and enmity – in particular towards Slovenes, and in particular in Trieste – remained and is nurtured to this day. It is still hard to find an inscription or a plaque in Slovenian, with the possible exception of the façade of a Slovenian institution or school. Rather than admission that the Slovenes were the victims of violence and injustice, rather than talking about how to express regret and repair the damage done, there is nothing but quibbling over wording. Take a look at the commemorative plaque on the former Slovenian National House – perhaps then you would find it easier to understand!

 The art history debt

When today we Slovenes on this side of the Slovenian-Italian border think about Trieste, we automatically see images in our mind’s eye of long, difficult centuries of humiliation, oppression, injustice, successive attempts at annihilation…. One might have the impression that we would prefer not to think about it, and that the revival of unsettled scores and animosities to which our attention is again being drawn provokes our irritation. Boris Pahor, a writer who truly tirelessly speaks out for the Slovenes living in Italy, has not been received with respect everywhere in Slovenia, either under the previous regime or at present.

Thinking about Trieste is hard. So I have to ask the question: why is it such a burden for us? Why can’t we change it? I would expect representatives of academia and culture at least on this matter to be capable of throwing off all the accumulated grudges and unpleasant personal experiences connected with Trieste and its Italianness, and then saying: if we let the constant problems with Trieste pass into oblivion, we will see that the city in itself is beautiful. Its older part is very well planned out, its historical centre boasts some splendid architectural monuments: Roman relics, the medieval hilltop Cathedral of St Just (San Giusto), adjacent to it the Renaissance fortress of the same name, several exceptional classicist edifices in the broader city centre, imposing townhouses in the late historicist style, and many other interesting features.

Slovenian art history has little to say about Trieste, however. France Stele, whose contribution to the bibliography on this subject includes the fine thesis Umetnost v Primorju (The art of the Littoral, 1960), gave Trieste a wide berth in it, claiming that it is an alien city that “could not be transformed into an important centre of art with its own tradition, though thanks to its historical buildings it plays an undeniably significant role in art history. Trieste is truly only close and important to us insofar as it served to sustain local patriotism in the Littoral.” Luc Menaše, editor of Evropski umetnostno-zgodovinski lesikon (European lexicon of art history, 1971), devoted twenty lines to Trieste, and the entry focuses above all on the Cathedral of St Just (seven lines), and the Revoltella Museum and the modern art gallery in it (25 lines). Nace Šumi found more space for Trieste in the catalogue of places that forms part of his fundamental work Naselbinska kultura na Slovenskem (Settlement culture in Slovenia, 1995), though the illustrations here run to barely a page more than those on Maribor. The entry on Trieste in the Encyclopaedia of Slovenia (vol. 13, 1999) is far better. It is 15 pages long, 13 of which are devoted to history (Milan Bufon, Jože Pirjevec, Jože Žontar), half a page to archaeology (Božidar Slapšak) and a page and a half to the visual arts (Damjan Prelovšek). That, and Damjan Prelovšek’s “lone” thesis on Trieste in the times of Maria Theresa[1], is (practically) all that exists in the field of art history on art in Trieste.

Historians have had an unbroken interest in Trieste for over a century. This tradition goes back to Simon Ruter’s descriptions written towards the end of the 19th century and covers numerous works discussing specific events from the 19th and 20th centuries as well as broader treatises on the subject of Slovenes in Italy, and particularly in Trieste, over the past 150 years. Their authors include such eminent scholars as Milica Kacin-Wohinc, Jože Pirjevec and Nevenka Troha. There is a lot more journalistic output in the fields of the visual arts, literature, music and theatre, which has provided commentary, either on an ongoing basis or in the form of monographic sketches, much of it very perceptive, on important works by Slovene artists in Trieste, above all last century. It is understandable that the Slovenian humanities and art criticism are interested above all in their native art – indeed they should be; it is their duty, and it is expected of them. But it is hard to understand why, aside from this, they have never (or hardly ever) seen anything else in Trieste.

Even if the Italians and the local authorities elected by them wish to pursue their pointless, ineffective policy of putting the Slovenes down and failing to notice their presence and creative potential in the sphere of culture, the Slovenes of Trieste (and those the other side of the border) need to realise that doggedly blocking out the Italians, belittling their contribution to the history and culture of Trieste, and ignoring their aspirations and efforts in all areas of contemporary life, from science and art to the economy and politics, is having no benefit. In human terms it is understandable to want to wait for an apology for past and present acts of violence, and for redress of wrongs, but this cannot serve as a mechanism for unification of internal policy on national minorities, and it is certainly not a sensible political goal. There has long been no valid reason to wait and do nothing, not to act in the face of the huge, multidimensional phenomenon that is urban Trieste. We need to gather our courage, pull back the murky curtain of resentment and prejudice, and then with a refreshed mind and an authentic, unburdened, scientific curiosity stride into Trieste, examine all the layers of its physical form and delve back into all the vastness of its history and its social reality. Slovenes, both those who operate within present-day Trieste, and those of us who live elsewhere, are responsible in equal measure for working with integrity towards the successful achievement of the task that we have long known needs undertaking, for we have been avoiding and underestimating it and procrastinating for too long: discovering Trieste, studying Trieste, rethinking Trieste…!

An open, positive, dedicated scholarly approach to this issue has to be our rule. Only if we are prepared to believe that among the Italians, at least among certain of them in the cultural sphere, there is also the will to cooperate and generate friendly relations will we be able to engender the appropriate respectful reaction from the Italian side. I personally know several people with whom it has been possible to work well. And we undervalue Europe and the removal of internal borders between the European Union member states. Who is to stop us going to Trieste and putting forward serious economic proposals, for instance, or any other ideas? And Trieste is sure to realise before long that its Slovenian hinterland with its economic potential is perhaps the only chance left for its expansion, because the city itself and its wider environs has for decades been mired in economic and social stagnation. It is kept alive by Italian state policy, which still sees Trieste in its role of buffer protecting the Italians from influences from beyond the Iron Curtain.

The Slovenian state recognises its obligations to those of its nationals living in Italy, Austria and Hungary, but as far as I am aware there is no clear-cut policy in respect of either Trieste or its broader economic base or neighbouring regions. The whole area lying along the western border is in need of a concept for its functioning and economic cooperation that would take into account the existence of the Slovene minority and its development potential, as well as its rather poor social and economic infrastructure. The main thrust of this article, however, is that in order for Trieste and its intriguing problems, which over the ages have grown up into a unique set of socio-historical issues, to become a transparent subject for research, we need to develop a special relationship with representatives of the social sciences and humanities. It is in the mysteriousness and insularities surrounding Trieste that I see the greatest challenges. Below I set out the overall task in the restricted thematic scope dictated by the discipline I represent.

 A few words on the architecture and urban layout of Trieste

We Slovenes, though we have a permanent presence in Trieste, have considerable difficulty with this city, even with its physical scale, and yet more so with its more complex “meaning”. Stele wrote that Trieste is an alien city to us. After so many centuries, we still do not know how to treat it; we observe it, admire it, it attracts us in a strange way, but it still seems to be too much for us to handle. Are we not underestimating ourselves and the fact that we too, in the course of history, have grown up and matured, that today we can look upon Trieste from the road from Opčin (ital. Opicina), on the fringes of the Karst, without any ballast, cast our eyes right across the bay, take in the buildings on the nearby hillsides, and press on towards the city with new impressions and expectations? We have no such problems with Vienna and other metropolises that we visit as citizens of the world these days. When we look along the Ring in Vienna, when we look at its palaces and monuments, including those within the bounds of the former city walls, we sometimes say to ourselves: how much Slovene money, effort, knowledge and talent contributed to this! We are flattered that even ordinary Viennese know of Plečnik and his Zacherl House, and of Fabiani and his Artaria and Urania.

And it should be no different when we look around at Trieste, except that here we can say louder: Trieste is our home, too – or, in the words of Pahor: Trieste is a Slovenian city, too! We are not talking here about a revival of appropriatory sentiments but about cool historical constatation: what happened and how, and why it is that so many Slovenes still live here. For the historical truth is that in the days when Charles IV took his decision to implement a new policy on Trieste and made it a free port, and also later, under Maria Theresa, when the first serious action was taken to safeguard the city’s expansion and attract traders to it – hence the drive to furnish it with everything a new centre of trade needed to function and be profitable – the Slovenes were non-existent as a political entity. Neither did any of the neighbouring Habsburg crown lands where there were Slovenes living play any political role in this process. They were simply mute observers and executors of imperial decisions. Trieste was in its entirety a project of the imperial House of Habsburg, which saw itself in the city, and in the new urban fabric to some extent a mirror image of Vienna. Igor Škamperle[2] rightly pointed out that Trieste is not a Mediterranean city at all, though what he had in mind was the urban layout and built fabric of the quarters built in the times of Maria Theresa, Joseph II and Francis I.

Of all the projects of Charles IV and his successor Maria Theresa, the preparation of land for a new district of the city intended for merchants and representatives of other trades connected with the functioning of the new port, on the site of the former salterns to the north of the old town, was the biggest and most ambitious in the entire empire. And though at first it was a slow and thorny process, ultimately proving too disheartening for one of the first chief contractors, Franc Henrik Rakovec, a native of Ljubljana, it was nevertheless, in terms of the design itself, the size of the edifices and the resultant scale of the urban layout, the greatest achievement of the Vienna court outside the capital of the monarchy. Scholars (Marko Pozzetto, Damjan Prelovšek) claim that in Trieste there is barely any of the authentic baroque or Rococo that prevailed in Vienna, and was no less present in Ljubljana. The genesis of the urban concept underpinning the Theresian quarter, and its continuation in the western part of the old town, in the Josephine quarter, lies further in the past, in classicism. At the same time, it had been the intention from the outset to erect opulent buildings such as were few and far between, even in Vienna, aside from the imperial palace in Schönbrunn or Eugene of Savoy’s smaller Belvedere. One prime example is St Anthony’s Church, along the axis formed by the Canal Grande, which marks the divide of the Theresian quarter into two virtually symmetrical halves. The original church was a smaller, temporary affair, but at the beginning of the 19th century it was superseded by a monumental classicist edifice (1826–1849) by Pietro Nobile, that occupied all the space along the axis of the canal. Before that, new public buildings had also been designed, including the Stock Exchange palace (Palazzo della Borsa, 1802) by Antonio Mollari and the Carciotti palace (Palazza Carciotti, 1802–1805) by Matthäus Pertsch. Alongside the increasingly numerous edifices in the Theresian and Josephine quarters, in the first half of the 19th century the Franciscan quarter also grew up, bounded by the imposing new Torrente Avenue (now via Carducci) and the townhouses, most of them square, stretching away to the east. Also during this period a true urban infrastructure was developing, incorporating mains water and sewerage systems, as well as new quays, piers and all kinds of other improvements in the port. The hospital, built on the edge of this district, was one of the biggest of its kind in its day. Construction of a huge new lighthouse in the southern part of the port was also entrusted to Pertsch.

The expansion of ambitious new construction designed by pre-eminent architects contributed to the growth – at least among the Italians – of a creative self-awareness, and generated a positive attitude towards the important new ideas and people flowing into the city. In 1808, on the fortieth anniversary of the tragic death in Trieste of Johann Winckelmann, the Trieste lawyer and politician Domenico Rossetti proposed the foundation of a memorial to the outstanding archaeologist. Owing to the siege of Trieste by the French army (1809–1813) and other unfavourable circumstances, the idea to erect the memorial (a cenotaph, a bijou classicist temple with a splendid figural tombstone) adjacent to the Cathedral of St Just was not carried out until 1833, which testifies to Rossetti’s unusual persistence and the romantic sensitivity characteristic for the period.

So Trieste grew in an international spirit that bound together anything linked with doing business, as well as grand construction designs and their executors – architects and engineers from both nearby Italy and faraway Vienna, and even from further regions, often, though not only, in central Europe. At this time the Slovenian lands and Ljubljana had nothing to offer that could be blended into the Trieste cultural context. The great game that was Trieste was run by Vienna, which had broad German and Bohemian backing. When in the mid-19th century the construction of the Southern Railway began, it was above all with Vienna and Trieste in mind (given all the advantages, particularly economic ones, of the countries it would run through); in this light Ljubljana was for its constructors merely one of the stations en route to Trieste. The very idea of a railway line, not to mention the speed and audacity of the project, are indicative of its significance and the magnitude of expectations surrounding this connection between two centres, one in the heart of Europe and the other on its edge, the connection of the Danube with the Adriatic. The man appointed to manage this masterpiece was an outstanding engineer, a genius, Carl Ghega, a Venetian by birth. He was a high-ranking official in the monarchy, groomed to carry out some of the greatest projects of his time in the empire. In those days rail routes usually ran across flat plains and gentle inclines. Ghega undertook to build a railway line in mountainous terrain, and overcame two of the most formidable obstacles on the route to Trieste: the Semmering pass, and the steep edge of the Karst above the Gulf of Trieste. To deal with the angles of the sharp bends he came up with a new construction for the carriage chassis, comprising two small mobile platforms, and to scale the steepest of the slopes he employed far more powerful locomotives. His viaducts, such as the one near Borovnica, or the one on the edge of the Karst near Nabrežina (Ital. Aurisina) and Barkovelj (Ital. Barcola), are comparable with the most imposing Roman structures, and were deservedly considered the pinnacle of achievement in their time.

Now that Trieste had been brought so close to Vienna that it only took half a day to reach the sea by train, the decision was taken in the capital to have a permanent court residence built in Trieste or the surrounding area. In 1856 the architect Carl Junker built a lodge, Miramar, set in a park with exotic vegetation and a view of the port, for the emperor’s brother and later emperor of Mexico, Maximilian, and his wife Charlotte. In a period dominated by classicism, this magnificent edifice gave rise to a new style termed by Italian scholars “square Gothic” (gotico quadrato). This, together with other new trends in art, considerably broadened the palette of “historical styles”. The sudden boom and increased wealth that came to Trieste towards the end of the century were accompanied by intensified development of architecture; splendid new buildings virtually groaning with rich ornamentation and architectural detail were going up all the time.

One group of typical proponents of various brands of this new decorative style were members of the Berlam family, a dynasty of famous architects to whom Marko Pozzetto devoted an exhaustive monograph (1999). For nearly 80 years this plethora of projects supported three members of this Jewish family: the father, Giovanni Andrea (1823–1892), his son Ruggero (1854–1920), and his grandson Arduino (1880–1946). There were many other architects also working in Trieste, of whom at least Enrico Nordio deserves a mention. Giovanni Andrea Berlam distinguished himself with the design for the Gopcevich palace (Palazzo Gopcevich) and a unique design for its decorative façade with ceramic tiles filling the space between the rows of neo-Renaissance windows spread symmetrically over four floors. Having built his own villa in 1854 in the Venetian Renaissance style, he was in demand from the most illustrious of clients, for whom he built dozens of palaces and villas. In 1882 he designed and built the monumental architectural backdrop to the exhibition of Austro-Hungarian agriculture and industry in Trieste. Ruggero worked with his father for a while, with considerable success, and later went on to design many villas and other buildings in his own right; there are also works by him in Krmin (Ital. Cormòns), Gorizia and Vidma (Ital. Udine), and others across the border in Poreč. The Trieste hippodrome (1890–1892), the new Berlam villa (Casa Berlam, 1896), and above all Casa Leitenburg, with its corner arcaded niche (1900), are just a few of the most prominent designs among many other outstanding works that formed the “new Trieste style”, as Pozzetto called it. This style encompassed all kinds of derivatives of late historical styles with the exception of the Sezession, the brand of Art Nouveau that held Vienna in thrall at the turn of the century. It was only Fabiani who brought the first tentative suggestions of this style to Trieste.

Ruggero and Arduino made a few works together in the imposing new Trieste style. Among them were the Giants’ Steps (Scala dei Giganti, 1908) and the synagogue (1906–1912). They also made several separately – those designed by Arduino included the huge Victory Lighthouse (Faro della Vittoria, 1919–1927) near Barkovelj. He also decorated and furnished in the spirit of the new style the salons on the ships Saturnia and Vulcania, built in Tržič for the Cosulich seagoing society. Ruggero’s contemporary Enrico Nordio (1851–1923) represented exactly the same style as the Berlams and all the other architects working in Trieste. His buildings for the Savings Society (Cassa di Risparmio di Trieste, 1894), the Creditanstalt palace (Palazzo della Creditanstalt, 1907) and the court (Tribunale di Trieste, 1913) are in no way inferior to other designs of the time, but totally and utterly submit to the unwritten diktat of the new Trieste style. It was probably for this reason that Stele could not summon up positive sentiments about a Trieste of this nature, instead thinking of it as an “alien city”. But this is the image of Trieste that is still part of our imagined world.

The Slovenes’ national consciousness and the Slovenian National House in Trieste

It was only in later periods that the echelons of successful Trieste entrepreneurs, merchants and bankers began to include Slovenes, among them Janez Nepomuk Kalister and Josip Gorup, the proprietor of the largest construction company in Trieste, Martelanc, and the shipfitters Žbokelj, as well as other, smaller business owners. It was these people, conscious of their Slovenian roots and united in Slovenian organisations (including political ones), who were the core of the well-functioning Slovenian community, and they wanted to demonstrate their economic potential and political presence in Trieste to the outside world as well, within the image of the city. It was they who had the ambitious idea to build a National House in the heart of the city, on what was then piazza Caserma.

For the design, as mentioned above, they approached Fabiani, who created a magnificent Italian-style “palazzo” with dedicated spaces for all kinds of institutions – a café, a hotel, a bank, a theatre auditorium, offices for politicians and law firms, and even apartments. Never before had such a modern, multifunctional building been made. Its façade was decorated with ceramic tiles and a monumental Sezession-style entrance incorporating stained-glass windows by the eminent Viennese artist Koloman Moser. Construction of this unprecedented manifestation of the Trieste Slovenes’ economic might and spiritual culture was completed in 1904. The contractor was Martelanc’s construction company, and the work was overseen by Fabiani’s partner, Josip Costaperaria, who came to fame in his own right a few years later as the designer of the Czech bank (Živnostenská banka) on via Roma. Fabiani scaled his design to the dimensions of other Trieste buildings; it was just slightly taller than the adjacent townhouses, so striking an unmissable pose on the square. As in Vienna, in Trieste too he had no problem harmonising his work with the dominant urban structure and exploiting its attributes, outlines and dimensions. In his eyes Ljubljana, another urban project in which he was also involved, designing many buildings within the plan created after the earthquake, was also a modern city, but on a far smaller scale, with townhouses for the most part two to three storeys lower. And though in Ljubljana he was deservedly hailed for the most innovative urban plans of the age – despite the fact that he planned the future university complex on the site of the present railway station and shunting yard – it must be said that he slightly underestimated the symbolic role of Ljubljana as a national centre. This was something that was better understood twenty years later – admittedly in different times, when Slovenia had become a recognised national and political concept within the first Yugoslavia – by Jože Plečnik; some of the most important, symbolically significant buildings with which he was commissioned (the Church of St Francis in Šiška, the Mutual Assurance Society, and slightly later the National and University Library) were far larger in scale.

Art and culture in Trieste – potential pointers to the future

But let us return to Trieste, which particularly in the 19th century seemed like a model, state-of-the-art city, with many examples of even world-class architecture. What is more, it was devoid of the visible nationalistic traits that became more pronounced towards the end of the 19th century. Although most of the leading proponents of Trieste culture in the 19th century were Italians, the external face of the city was more cosmopolitan than purely Italian. It was only the heightened national conflicts on both the Italian and Slovenian sides that caused the national (linguistic) criterion to start being applied to art. Alongside the group of Italian painters that included Adolfo Levier, Gino Parin, Umberto Veruda and Carlo Wostry, there was also a more modest Slovenian group, which included artists such as Gvido Birolla, Pavel Klodič Sabladoski, Ernest Sešek and Albert Sirk. While the Italians enjoyed strong support from the Revoltella Museum, which had a fine collection of paintings and a policy of buying even at the Venice Biennale, the Slovene artists had to be content with the help of a few individual patrons and exhibitions in private homes. The first public display of Slovene art in Trieste – an exhibition of Slovene Impressionists at the Slovenian National House – took place in 1907. Not until 1920 did Sešek manage to stage a one-man public display of his own, while the last such exhibition was organised by Milko Bambič in 1929 in the house at Škuna near St Ivan; where he showed his works alongside others by Franc Gorš, Sešek and Sirk.

But this was in the “new age”, after World War I, when the centuries of Austrian (or Austro-Hungarian) rule in Trieste were coming to an end and the city was part of the Kingdom of Italy. As a city it was undoubtedly a very desirable war trophy won by the Italians in the Great War, even though it lost the privileged position it had enjoyed in the Austria of old. It was stripped of its immediate (Slovenian) natural resources and broader economic context, which had stretched deep into the heart of the continent. From the point of view of Rome it was merely a rather unimportant provincial border town, a blind alley for the Italians and their culture, though this sentiment was concealed beneath pompous declarations. In this new situation, which was now, as mentioned above, yet more difficult for the Slovenes and their organisations, the organisations that did continue to function proved exceptionally tenacious. The uninterrupted awareness of the value of their own culture and art brought the Slovenian national community together, forming a foundation that, while in the eyes of the Slovenian motherland might not have seemed too sure, was able to create a vibrant bond with all that was best in Slovene culture, and produced outstanding works of art.

Without this foundation, would it be possible to imagine the avant-garde work of Avgust Černigoj and his group of constructivists in the second half of the 1920s? On his return from the German Bauhaus, Černigoj resolved first in Ljubljana, not in his native Trieste, to engineer a revolution in art, in this way bestowing the status of centre on the capital. At the same time, he was the first to succeed in persuading Italian artists to cooperate. In 1927, under the auspices of the Art Circle and the Fine Arts Syndicate, as the official visual arts organisations were called, together with his own Trieste Constructivist Group, as part of an exhibition in the Municipal Park (Giardino pubblico) he staged a constructivist artistic space that was of significance on the European scale (it was reconstructed in full in 1991 – not by the Contemporary Art Gallery in Ljubljana, but by the Revoltella Museum!). In later periods he devoted considerable effort to promoting Slovenian art on the international arena (in 1928 in Berlin and in 1929 in Walden’s periodical Der Sturm). We must not forget, either, about the unique character of this city as a city, and the marked influence it had not only on the works of the avant-garde Černigoj and the late modernist Lojzy Spacal, but also on younger artists such as the sculptor Čel Pertot, the painter Bogdan Grom, the print artist Marjan Kravos, and the versatile Franko Vecchietto, not to mention the world-famous media artist and doyen of computer art Edvard Zajc.

This last point of my musings probably harbours the key to a new angle on Trieste and its reality. It shows that the issue of creativity in the context of the relationship between Ljubljana and Trieste points to the potential to develop a new formula for a broader overall role for Trieste in culture, the economy and politics. Ljubljana will ultimately realise that in the past years it has benefited from both its status as a city and its political significance, that it has matured, and that in relation to Trieste it must become the new Vienna, with allowances, of course, for its size, the nature of its position in the new balance of power in the European Union, the contemporary concept of partnership, and reasonable expectations on both sides. And the main points of departure should be formulated to a profoundly considered plan by representatives of the social sciences and humanities, who need to start coming to grips with Trieste, from the most rudimentary of levels: learning the geographic structure of the land it is built on, its geographic conditions, and the toponymy of the city itself and its environs. A knowledge of its history must be enriched by a familiarity with the development of its urban layout and architecture from its beginnings to today. Particular attention should be paid to the culture and art of both its Slovene and its Italian populations.

This article shows that neither Trieste nor the role of its Slovenes and Italians are clear-cut phenomena. The example of Černigoj shows that a well-developed artistic stance, self-awareness, strong will and openness can overcome visible, invisible and imagined barriers, or at least seek a way to overcome them. The imperative to “rethink Trieste!” yields a new imperative: to write a history of the culture and art of Trieste, a city with two cultural organisms of differing significance and weight to the nations to which they belong, and which ultimately have to see themselves in the city together.


[1] Damjan Prelovšek, “Terezijanski Trst – primer hasburškega uradniškega urbanizma 18. stoletja”, Kronika. časopis za slovensko krajevno zgodovino 1985, no. 33, pp. 28–41 [ed. note].

[2] Igor Škamperle, “Trst je lep, vendar ga ni lahko razumeti”, Pogledi 2010, no. 8–9, pp. 14–15 [ed. note].

About authors

Peter Krečič

Art historian and critic, for many years director of the Museum of Architecture in Ljubljana. In the years 1988–1998 he lectured at the Department of Landscape Architecture in the Biotechnical Institute at the University of Ljubljana, and in 1998 he moved to the Architecture Department at the same university. He has also lectured at the architecture departments of universities in Lund, London, Warsaw, Sarajevo and the USA (UCLA Los Angeles, Catholic University Washington, Virginiatech, Blacksburg, Princeton University, and Minnesota State University). His main interests are issues connected with European and Slovenian modernism, post-modernism and the avant-garde. In this context he devotes particular attention to the life and work of the Trieste painter Avgust Černigoj, a graduate of the Bauhaus, and the architect Jože Plečnik, subjects on which he has written several books.


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