No less a literary personage than Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, has asserted that James Joyce’s writings are informed more by Mitteleuropa than Ireland. The reason he would make such a seemingly sacrilegious claim is that Joyce wrote nearly all of his masterpieces–The Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and most of Ulysses–while living in what was then the port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Trieste. It is said that Leopold Bloom in Ulysses is based largely on Joyce’s Triestine Jewish student Ettore Schmitz, who would, with Joyce’s encouragement, become, as Italo Svevo, a beloved writer himself. As Burgess wrote, ”’Ulysses’… is a product of that huge culture whose center was Vienna but whose extremities touched the Adriatic. ‘Ulysses’ may be about Ireland, but only turbulent and cosmopolitan Trieste could have given Joyce the impetus to start setting it down.”
People keep asking me why we have come to Trieste, that most non-Italian of Italian cities. And I say it is precisely because of stories like this, these literary conundrums that blend so many ethnicities and cultural directions. Trieste has been an ethnic melting-pot since the 18th century, when the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II declared that all nationalities and religions could settle here free of restrictions or pressures to assimilate or convert. I have wanted to come to Trieste ever since I read Triestine Claudio Magris’s magisterial book on the Danube, and then, most urgently, after devouring Jan Morris’s delightful homage, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, her last book written about the time when she, as a he, was a young soldier stationed in this port city after the War. Finally, our old friend Giorgio Perissinotto grew up here, and we were always intrigued to know more about this place that has fallen under so many ”nations” and that most people don’t even know is now in Italy.
We drove here up the Adriatic coast from Dubrovnik, having had a relatively sunny time during our stay in Croatia. As soon as we crossed over into Italy, we were hit by a forceful and cold wind with rain. We have since come to learn that we have been
experiencing the Bora, Trieste’s legendary Alpine winds that can blow as hard as 180 km/hour for days on end and lead to Trieste’s reputation for melancholia. So much for sunny Italia! We have now had some sunny days, but the winds always return.
But within 15 minutes of crossing the border into Italy, we were already eating the most splendid grilled food in a wonderful restaurant filled with happily chattering families, while we waited to figure out where our sweet little apartment was (it turns out it was about 10 meters from where the restaurant is located). I had never thought of grilled meat when I thought of Italian food. Thus began our introduction to this fascinating place, an amalgam of the three great European cultures: Germanic, Latin, and Slavic. Slovenia is about 20 km. away, and Croatia is just over the other end of that border.
Along with being a literary town, Trieste is also known as a Jewish city. As Jan Morris describes it: ”In my mind Jews and Trieste go together, and the long and fruitful association of the two has made the city what it is—or at least, what it seems to me to be… In Habsburg times people in Vienna considered Trieste a Jewish city, and in a way I still do.” At its boomtime height in the early 20th century, the city had 6,000 Jews, some of them extremely prominent, having established the insurance companies and shipping firms that brought about Trieste’s riches. The community built one of the biggest and most opulent synagogues in Europe, and the city’s most fashionable cafes served kosher food. When the troubles began for Jews in Europe, Trieste was the port from which those who could escape boarded ships for Israel and America. But Triestine Jews didn’t think they would need to flee their tolerant city; by the time the exterminators came, it was too late to escape. At the end of the War, only about 600 Jews were left in the region. But the synagogue remains, with services in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions, as does a first-rate museum, located in what was the synagogue for those in transit while awaiting ships to depart for their new lives.
We have spent most of our time here so far wandering in the streets of the Old Town, which is easily walkable, albeit disorienting because the streets are a tangle once you leave the broad piazzas. The main piazza, the Piazza Unita d’Italia, has what must be Europe’s most ill-conceived public monument, an incomprehensible fountain representing the Four Continents, with an angel hovering peculiarly over an allegorical figure of Trieste talking to an Oriental merchant sitting on–what? A pile of rocks? Truly baffling and badly designed to boot. A friend of mine posits that perhaps it was commissioned when Trieste wasn’t that important (it was built in the 1750s) so couldn’t afford a good sculptor to make it. Once the town became prosperous, the merchants and other citizens kept it on out of nostalgic affection. Or something like that.
Like everything else in Trieste, its architecture shows evidence of the cultural mixture of its past, with everything from Roman ruins to early Austrian Empire to Jugendstil. Looming over the town is the Castello di San Giusto, on the hill of the same name. Along with displaying remnants of Roman occupation, the hill is also the site of the Cathedral of San Giusto, Trieste’s patron saint. Even in Romanesque times, Triestine artists appropriated at will: the builders of the Cathedral incorporated two Roman funeral stele into the doors of the church, trying to make the figures into saints by adding a halo or two! The city contains as well a myriad of churches for every religion–the picture below is inside the Greek Orthodox Church–as well as amusing reuses of Austrian Imperial buildings (the K.u.K. Gymnasium is now a Nautical Institute). And the massive and beautiful old fish market building on the harbor is now a museum space (currently displaying a somber exhibition on Trieste’s tragic fate during World War I).
For us, the two most fascinating and enjoyable examples of Trieste’s polyglot, multi-ethnic culture are its cuisine and its literary legacy. Food here mixes elements of Italian, Slovenian, and Austrian cooking, with a bit of Greek thrown in as well. While seafood understandably dominates, grilled meat and heavier kinds of Nordic and Slavic dishes have also been assimilated into the Triestine diet. When we first knew Giorgio, he made for us a fantastic sauerkraut and bean soup that we have never forgotten. He told us it was peasant fare, and that his mother would be aghast that he was making it for guests. We now learn that this was his version of the Triestine staple called Jota, made with a particular kind of delicate sauerkraut. We haven’t been able to find it here yet–it is essentially a winter dish–but we have eaten the delicate sauerkraut. And what food!
Combinations I have never thought of, such as squid and polenta. Restaurants tend often to be either strictly seafood or meat restaurants, but so far we haven’t had a bad meal anywhere.
Food also began our journey into Trieste’s literary life. The tourist office–which provides excellent information without the hype of the more touristy cities–hands out brochures for walks to see places related to James Joyce, Italo Svevo, and even my poetic hero Rilke, who wrote his Duino Elegies at the Castle in Duino not far from here. While I have never been a fan of the drunken womanizer Joyce as a person, this kind of walking tour seemed a good way to get to know the city. The first place we found on the Joyce tour was the Pasticceria Pirona, above which the author lived in 1910, and where he ate presnitz–a little fig-and-nut pastry–every morning for breakfast. We have now become avid customers! This shop is still making pastries that no longer appear in Vienna, but are as Austrian as they can be: little apple-filled tarts, almond cakes, and the presnitz, which Pirona himself made for the Empress Elizabeth, the famous Sissi. The atmosphere is delightful–one stands at the counter to eat the pastries and drink coffee. Pirona is worth the trip to Trieste and they are justly proud of their magnificent products.
The literary pamphlets also introduced us to other Triestine writers who are now lionized in their own town, and hardly known outside of it. Preeminent among these is the Jewish poet and bibliophile Umberto Saba (1883-1957), whose works have been compiled in a famous Songbook collection. Saba was part of the intellectual circles that Joyce and Svevo frequented, and became best known for having run a rare-book shop for years. The shop is still there, run by the son of Saba’s partner Carletto Cerne. We had to make a pilgrimage here, where the owner was more than pleased to arrange for the photo of Saba’s poster with the reflection of the bookshop sign visible in the glass. We also were able, in very fractured Italian, to lament with him on the precarious fate of rare books in this modern world.
Given its proximity to Venice–only an hour away–it may be understandable that Trieste has never been an enormous center for art, but even here, we found some fascinating treasures at the Museo Revoltella’s Gallery of Modern Art. The Museum is like the Soane or the Wallace Collection, in that it grew out of the private art purchases and the villa of Pasquale Revoltella, a self-made merchant who was involved in the building of the Suez Canal. When he died, he left his house and collection and a generous endowment for the purchase of ”modern art” to the city. We were impressed to find here a work in progress, in which the curators have looked at all the art by local painters in storage and have begun to exhibit as much of it as possible. While there may be few masterpieces among the works displayed (a very early Morandi is an exception), this experiment allows the viewer to see Triestine artists of the 19th and 20th centuries that, together, create a picture of a lively art scene. Our favorite discovery was a Viennese-born, Trieste-raised Vito Timmel (1886-1958), whose paintings look like they should have been the posters for a sci fi movie. In true romantic style, Timmel went insane and spent the last years of his life in a mental institution.
I hope that this verbosity conveys why we wanted to come here, and why we have found Trieste very much to our liking (except for the Bora, which would drive me insane in the winter!). We have found the people dignified and tolerant, open but not intrusive, more introspective than even we expected. Trieste is benign but complex, disorienting but calm. It is a place that makes you recognize the illusion of ”nationality” and even ethnicity. So let me end this essay with Jan Morris’s summary of what she meant by Trieste and ”nowhere”:
“There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones. They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They may be patriots, but are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to believe that its natural capital is Trieste.”
And, of course, an Italian cat.