‘Capo in b tanta special’ in Trieste

As the tourist guide says: “Trieste is no longer a place to pass through to somewhere else. It’s its own destination.” How true!

The city is not all memories of a rich mercantile century with its extravagant fin-de-siècle architecture. If one goes to the old Roman theatre and takes the road above it one enters a most attractive area reminiscent of a typical Italian hill town. This is the Colle di San Giusto area and if you carry on walking up the steep slope you eventually reach San Giusto cathedral. But there’s lots to see on the way.

For example there’s the baroque church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

There’s the sweet little Romanesque church of San Silvestro alongside it which is now owned by the Valdensian religious community, one of the oldest protestant sects in existence. (There’s also a Valdensian church in Lucca in Galli-Tassi Street. Our choir-master is a member of that church.).

The San Giusto steep winding streets are a delight and so free of traffic.

Round a corner one comes across the Arco di Riccardo – a real ancient Roman arch. There are different theories why it is called’ Riccardo’. Perhaps because it’s a corruption of the Latin word ‘Cardo’ for main street.

It’s in this area that one comes across the fascinating James Joyce and Italo Svevo museum. It’s so sad that Svevo’s family house in Trieste was bombed in the last year of the war, There are, however, four personal items remaining including the bits of his library that remained:

And his violin.

Svevo’s friend Joyce, who encouraged him to continue writing again, had a good tenor voice and almost considered becoming a singer in Trieste. He accompanied himself on the guitar. I often wonder whether the two ever played together. Guitar and violin is a very good combination and both Svevo and Joyce loved going to the music theatre. Indeed, one of Joyce’s poetry collections is called ‘chamber music.’

The museum is well documented and the curator was very helpful. We shared some photographs of Charlton Church lane where Svevo (or Ettore Schmitz as he was really called) lived when managing his father-in-law’s marine paint factory specially set up in London to supply the British navy.

It’s odd how James Joyce came to Trieste to escape from the constricting family life of Dublin and how Italo Svevo was so happy to come to London and get away from his claustrophobic in-laws in Trieste. As they say the grass is always greener….

Which reminds me that Trieste is also Europe’s coffee capital and ‘La Stella Polare is one caffé where the great litterateurs would meet up and chat over their cups of ‘gocciato’ (Triestine for coffee with a drop of milk in the centre) or perhaps they drank a ‘capo in b’ (an espresso served in a very small glass – B = bicchierino). Remember too that one doesn’t ask for a ‘cappuccino’ in Trieste, it’s ‘caffelatte’ instead (certainly not that ghastly London concoction called ‘latte’ in the UK). I go for a ‘capo in b tanta special’ which is an espresso served in a glass with hot milk and lots of foam and topped with some cocoa powder. Who knows what way Svevo and Joyce enjoyed best their caffé to be served to them? Understandably the young waiter didn’t know!

(Alexandra having her ‘capo in b tanta special’ at Joyce and Svevo’s favourite caffè ‘Stella Polare’).

 

 

 

Italy’s Death Camp

Yet again, and just within the space of a couple of weeks, we wake up to the news of another terror attack in the UK. Six innocent people are dead, many are injured and three suspects are shot dead by the police. The area of London Bridge and Borough market is well known to both my wife and I. We’d both worked in the area in the past and enjoyed our leisure hours experiencing this lively and historic area of London, famous not only for the glorious gothic of Southwark cathedral but for being the capital’s original theatre land where Shakespeare ‘s ‘Hamlet’, for example, was first performed in 1609.

My thoughts clearly go out to the victims and their families in this utterly pointless act of horror. Italy has luckily been free of Islamist terrorism. But, as we all know it’s had dark periods in its history, largely involving extreme right and left wing fanatics. Only yesterday we hear on the news of seven assassinations in ten days of camorra-members, some killed in front of their own children.

The 1970s for this country was an especially violent era. Italians refer to that period as ‘gli anni di piombo’ (the lead – bullet – years).  ‘Strage’ is a common enough Italian word: it simply means massacre.  The Bologna station strage of 1980 killed 85. The strage of the 904 train in 1984 killed 16 including a 9 year old girl. I’ve mentioned this strage in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/about-guardian-angels/  . This is because we had to alight at the station at the entrance of the tunnel where the massacre occurred in order to attend to our wrecked car also done in within a tunnel last month – an incident which almost involved us in our own mini-strage. …

The list of stragi goes on and on. There’s a full list of the major post-war Italian ones at

https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categoria:Stragi_commesse_in_Italia

Ironically, it seems that Italy is pretty good at massacring its own people without needing help from foreign sources.

When it comes to stragi committed during the Second World War the list is too horrific to contemplate. For Lucca Province and just for the years 1943-45 there’s the following list of ‘stragi’:

  1. Valpromaro, 30 giugno 1944, 12 victims
  2. Bagni di Lucca, 18 July 1944, 13 victims
  3. Monte S. Quirico (Lucca) – Montemagno, 27 July 1944, 6 victims;
  4. Nocchi di Camaiore, 27 July 1944, 3 victims;
  5. Mulina di Stazzema, 8 August 1944, 12 victims;
  6. Balbano, 11 August 1944, 13 victims
  7. Nozzano (loc. La Sassaia), 11 August 1944, 7
  8. S. Anna di Stazzema, 12 August, about 400 victims;
  9. Capezzano, 12 August 1944, 6 victims
  10. Seravezza, 16 August 1944, 7 victims;
  11. S. Maria a Colle, 23 August 1944, 6 victims;
  12. S. Lorenzo a Vaccoli, 24 August 1944, 5 victims;
  13. Camaiore (loc.- Matanna), 25 August 1944, 7 victims;
  14. Orto di Donna (Castelnuovo Garfagnana), 25 August 1944, 7 victims;
  15. Balbano-Compignano, 2 September 1944, 12 victims
  16. Massaciuccoli (Molinaccio), 11 victims;
  17. Certosa di Farneta, 2 -10 September 1944, 40 victims,
  18. Pieve di Camaiore, 4 September 1944, 10 victims
  19. Pioppeti (Camaiore) 35 victims
  20. Massarosa, 12 September 1944, 5 victims;
  21. Viareggio, 14-15 September, 6 victims;
  22. Pietrasanta, 15-16 September, 15 victims;
  23. Castelnuovo Garfagnana, 23 September 1944, 13 victims
  24. Seravezza, loc. Ranocchiaio, 27 September 1944, 5 victims;
  25. Seravezza, loc. La Cappella, 18 October 1944, 4 men 1 child
  26. Piazza al Serchio, 1 February 1945, 6 victims

Bagni di Lucca suffered thirteen executions during the guerrilla warfare between partisans and Nazi-fascist forces but this number pales before the horror of the four hundred victims of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, all women and children killed in cold blood by Nazi-fascists. (I’ve described this strage, one of the worst in the whole Italian civil war, in my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/despair-and-hope/ )

My family also suffered a strage. My mother, of Italian origin, had her cousin and her newly-wed husband on her mother’s side slaughtered by Nazi-fascists in Piedmont in 1944.

I’d visited the Nazi concentration and death camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Dachau earlier this century and thought that they were all located in the territory controlled by the Third Reich. It came, therefore, as a hideous surprise that Italy too had its large-scale concentration camps. I was aware of collection centres for what in Nazi ideology were known as ‘untermenschen’ – sub-humans (i.e. Jews, gays, Jehovah’s witnesses, and LGBTs). There’s one centre commemorated by a memorial quite near Bagni di Lucca at Socciglia and one even nearer at Bagni’s terme. (See my post for those at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/01/27/from-bagni-di-lucca-to-auschwitz/ ).

Italy had eight concentration camps .These were at

With the exception of the last all the camps were centres of deportation to the Reich’s killing centres at such locations as Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka and Birkenau.

The Risiera di San Sabba, located in the industrial quarter of Trieste, was Italy’s only death camp where the detained were shot, hanged or gassed. After the 1943 Cassibile armistice, which theoretically ended the war between Italy and the allies, the country was divided into three parts.

The first, southern, part came increasingly under allied control as the Eighth army (in which my father was a tank driver) advanced like a red-hot rake up the Italian peninsula. The second part became the puppet republic of Salò under the restored dictatorship of Mussolini. The third part, which included the provinces of  Pordenone, Udine, Trieste, Gorizia, Pola, Fiume and Lubiana  (the last three now part of Slovenia and Croatia) became the  Operationszone Adriatisches Küstenland, otherwise known as OZAK, under the direct control of the Führer himself.

‘Risiera’ means a rice husking mill and, like so many things associated with Italy, and particularly with Trieste, its transformation from a factory into a death camp remained unmentioned until the truth came out in the 1960’s when the Risiera was declared a national monument to the memory of those killed by extremist ideologies.

I took the no 10 bus from Trieste’s Piazza Goldoni, alighting at Lidl, and walked to this gloomy place as I too wanted to pay homage to the victims of this saddest part of Trieste’s history.

The entrance to the death camp was nightmarish. I’ve never had such a feeling of inevitability and imprisonment. Here was the entrance to the abandonment of all hope for Trieste’s Jewish population, its political opponents, its Romanies, in other words its ‘untermenschen’.

 

I entered the death cell.

 

I also saw these specially built cells where up to half a dozen prisoners were crammed in each one awaiting their fate which, although it could be forced labour, always ended up in assassination in the Risiera or transportation to a more efficiently provided extermination camp like Treblinka with its more advanced extermination technology.

 

Other prisoners were kept in the block called the house of the crosses. It originally had three floors but the planking dividing the floors has been removed creating a poignantly stunning effect.

 

In the centre of the Risiera is a large courtyard where the furnaces used to stand. The retreating Germans blew them up at the end of April 1945 in an attempt to leave no trace of their holocaustic activities (just like they attempted to do at Birkenau II where the crematoria I saw there had collapsed but still discernible in their concrete rubble.

Execution was by three main methods,

  1. Firing squad.
  2. A blow on the head with this mace (only rediscovered during excavations in 1975)

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  1. Gassing, largely by placing the victims in a sealed hut which was then fed by a tube connected to a lorry’s exhaust. Zyklon-B may have also been used.

Not all detainees were killed here, however. Trains using the excellent Hapsburg railway system transported the prisoners, mainly to Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Chelmno.

In place of the blown-up crematoria there is a symbolic sculpture by Frattini.

 

In place of the gassing chamber there is a large metal-floored square with a memorial, always full of flowers.

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In another detention building there’s a museum which has been very well re-presented recently and displays the history of one of Italy’s most horrific places together with relics and witness statements.

 

There’s also a film of Mussolini inaugurating the promulgation of his ‘leggi razziali’ (racial laws) to keep up with his mate Adolf. Unbelievably, Benito declared this edict of shame from the balcony of Trieste’s own town hall in 1938. Trieste of all places! Trieste, cosmopolitan, welcoming, with a place of worship for every community that had settled in it: Armenians, Russian Orthodox, Valdensian, Greek Orthodox, Muslims, Anglicans, Catholics… Trieste where so many different communities lived in harmony.  And all this happened in the same year that the mayor of Trieste was Paolo Emilio Salem, a Jew!

 

The commander of the Risiera  was SS officer Odilo Globocnik, born in Trieste, who worked in close collaboration with chief co-ordinator Reinhardt Heydrich who formulated the ‘final solution’ at the infamous Wahnsee conference of 1942. (‘Operation Reinhardt’ exterminated around 1.2 million Jews).

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(Globocnik)

Globocnik avoided capture and trial at the end of the war by swallowing a cyanide pill. Bastard!

I thought of the once-multicultural Syria, now a daily blood-bath, and my thought swam down into the maelstrom of the darkest dejection. And today I find that, yet again, another multicultural, multi-ethnic city – a city I was born and bred in, a city which gave me my education, helped me gain my daily bread, provided me with my beautiful wife, a city which still remains so essentially in my heart, is being newly threatened by tenebrous, evil forces.

Why? Why? Why?

 

Weltschmertz im Triest

Trieste had its hey-day from the second half of the nineteenth century to the 1914-18 war that changed Europe for ever. During this period it was a major port city with a bustling mercantile, financial and commercial activity hardly equalled by any other world city. It was, in many respects, the hub of Europe’s communication network. Travellers from Britain would travel by train to Trieste to board liners heading across the Mediterranean and through the Suez Canal (which the Triestine bankers and insurance companies largely financed – see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/05/25/luxury-living-in-trieste/) to parts of the empire on which the sun never set: India, Malaya, Australia, and the East and South African dominions. The city’s architecture reflects its essentially Mitteleuropean cosmopolitan nature:

Not only was Trieste the commercial centre of the European continent, it was also a major cultural heart. In those days it was possible to combine great wealth with great culture. As in the United Kingdom (e.g. the Tate Gallery) and the United States (Carnegie) the rich donated and endowed to the nation great institutions, galleries, museums and foundations. Being rich wasn’t enough to gain status – one had to display social ethics – a regard for the community in which one lived and made money from.

I’ve already described the mansions some of the ultra-rich of Trieste donated to their city – people like Revoltella and Sartorio (if you haven’t do read my posts on them at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/05/26/the-sartorios-aristocratic-triestine-villa/). This sense of generosity, of truly helping others I recollected anew as a special Triestine virtue when the allure of this undefinable city drew me back to it last week-end.  I just could not resist returning to lovely Trieste.

And yet what major monuments does Trieste have to attract people? No Rialto Bridge like Venice, no Colosseum like Rome or Brunelleschi dome like Florence. What is the archetypal Trieste monument? Is it the halberd which graces its arms? Is it its travailed history which must be sadder than most other Italian cities? Is it the fact that so many Italians don’t even realise it’s actually part of Italy? (Strange but true!) What feature represents Trieste?

There is such a similarity between the Italian word ‘Triste’ meaning ‘sad’ and ‘Trieste’ that for me it cannot be casual, at least in my mind. For Trieste imparts, so often, a melancholic feeling of loss, even of being out of place in today’s world. The city’s streets are redolent of memories of a once glorious period, of a time when the western world was full of assuredness and everyone knew their place and was satisfied with it.

I often have a despondent feeling of what in German is known as ‘Weltschmerz’, loosely translated as ‘World Weariness’, in a few other places: Shanghai’s bund for one, Willesden in London for another, Lyme Regis and Llandrindod Wells – which brings me to mention another spa town, the one I’ve lived near for the past twelve years: Bagni di Lucca. It is indeed a place of supreme ‘Weltschmerz’ – a place constantly trying to comfort itself with memories of a past when it was the favoured summer location of kings, princes, counts and barons, the centre for so many, as indeed Trieste was.

For Trieste represented a model, a precursor of, an ideal for what the European Union is attempting to stand for. Dirty politics played its game of course. Before 1914 Trieste was cosmopolitan, its beautiful bay open to the world. Robert Browning might have said ‘when I am dead, you’ll see Italy engraved in my heart’ and James Joyce, who lived there for over ten years, also said ‘Trieste is in my heart.’

I captured a deep angst from the Triestini and Triestine that I spoke to; they felt their city was inexorably declining further into a world they had little care for.  The glories, extravagance even, of past architecture was a constant almost unbearable reminder of what their city once was – now tacked on at the end of an Italy bereft of any of the higher values of civility and incorruptibility that the Hapsburg empire had shown them Italian Trieste, or Austrian Triest, or Slovene Trst, as the Mediterranean’s major port was the gateway to a truly multi-national, multi-ethnic, multicultural European empire.

Not too long ago the father of a dear Austrian friend of mine with whom I collaborated on a Comenius project (happy days when I still imagined Britain believed in Europe) passed away. He’d been born in 1913 and would tell me (in a manner of speaking, of course) that his nursemaid had been the Empress Maria Theresa and that his father had been the Emperor Franz Joseph I. That was his sentiment and  through history and through feeling, especially  when, in 2014, I visited the imperial capital, Vienna, with Colombini and his Lucca Philharmonic orchestra in the great golden concert hall that is the Musicverein, I sensed that the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the greatest tragedy that befell Europe’s previous century; a tragedy because that empire was a model for conviviality between different nations – an empire now divided up between the Czech republic, Slovakia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Montenegro . It was indeed a blue print for a European union so barbarically shattered by the ambitions of a handlebar-waxed moustached Prussian and, if that wasn’t enough, by the chaplinesque moustached Austrian.

Trieste was cut off from its dominating position as the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s main port after the First World War when its hinterland was diminished to being just the province of Venezia Giulia. It was further cut off from being even part of Italy after the second world conflict when its environs were diminished even further to just five miles wide at its point of entry and when it almost became part of the other side of the iron curtain.

Trieste is reasserting itself today, Thanks to the entry of Slovenia into both the EU and the Schengen countries; the looming sense of an impenetrable border around this enclave has largely disappeared. Thanks to the rise of the fashion of marinas the port has found a new life as a centre for the rich and not-so-rich yacht class.

Trieste can never disappear. It remains not just as one of Europe’s most extraordinary cities. It remains as a place in one’s mind to which one can return to both in joy and, melancholy.

There is one building, an apartment, that for me encapsulates everything of the essence of Trieste: its sense of the ‘borghesia illuminata’ (enlightened middle-class), when to be bourgeois was not a term of disparagement but of good breeding of ‘comme-il-faut’ or as the Italians say of ‘per benismo’ (so badly translated into English as ‘good breeding’). This building is the town flat of the Morpurgo family.

If one wants to experience a total time-warp then this is the place to visit. The apartment’s furnishings, its ambience, its books, its diaries and curtains, its miniatures and paintings, its crockery and cutlery communicate a lost time to one that is quite unforgettably wonderful and so tragically sad too. For how many of us are really in tune with the times we live in? We’d love to escape to a fantasy world. As Wordsworth wrote regarding the decadent material cynicism of his time ‘the world is too much with us.’

This fantasy world can be found on the corner of Trieste’s Via Imbriani and Via Mazzini where the Palazzo Morpurgo is situated. The word ‘palazzo’ in Italian doesn’t just mean a palace: it can also mean a city apartment block, in this case one built for the Morpurgo family by architect Giovanni Berlam in 1875. Like all money-sensible people the Morpurgo let out two floors of the block of flats they had built for themselves and lived in the other two.

Again, evidencing the innate generosity of the Triestini, the heirless Mario Morpurgo de Nilma donated his apartment and its valuable collections to the comune of Trieste in 1943 – a fateful year for Italian history, and especially for Trieste as my next immensely tragic and horrific post will show.

The apartment, now the Museo Morpurgo, is only open on Tuesday mornings by appointment and I was lucky to find it open on my second visit in a month to a city which continues to attract me like a supremely beautiful woman. It is a superb example of a residence of the enlightened nineteenth century cosmopolitan Italian bourgeoisie furnished opulently in eclectic styles ranging from neoclassical to baroque to nineteen thirties

The Morpurgo name derives from Marburg the German city from which the family of Jewish origin originated and whose branches extend throughout Europe. (There’s even a well-known Morpurgo in the UK, Michael, writer of children’s books.)

The Triestine Morpurgo branch made their money through banking, even arranging loans to the titled houses of Prussia and the Hapsburg. They also proved to be excellent diplomats but, above all, their house became a meeting place for cultivated circles, artists, writers and musicians. Among their guests was Liszt, for example.

All in all the last of the Triestine Morpurgo Mario, born in that city in 1867 and who died in Pordenone in 1943 left the equivalent of 279 million euros to the City of Trieste for, in addition to his apartment and its valuable collections, he donated his agricultural company of Sant’Andrea di Parsiano and many bank titles, deeds and investments.

But let’s get to visit the flat where the Morpurgo lived their happiest times:

Let’s start with the staircase up to the second floor flat:

Let’s open the front door into the entrance hall:

We face a corridor with rooms to explore on either side:

The music room with its Bösendorfer grand and its busts of Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini and Bellini on its door portals:

The ladies’ room with a superb Murano chandelier:

The dining room:

One of two drawing rooms and the curtains are really Chantilly lace..

The red room, the study, the bedrooms, the men’s room. But it would be already too much to feast on!

What’s amazing is that the majority of this house and its possessions survived the most brutal years of the war for Italy. As my kind hostess remarked ‘the Germans were good at taking things away from Trieste, like the carpets, which ones adorned these floors, and most of the family silver. The English, on the other hand, were good at carpet- bombing Trieste.’ (In fact the brits flattened the whole of the dock and industrial area which unfortunately included some fine villas including the Veneziani house where Svevo lived  – but I anticipate.)

How many of the world’s rich and super rich today can boast that they are well-read, cultivated, connoisseurs in the arts, elegant in their tastes and generous to all? (I can think of a handful but it is indeed so regretful that the present presidential incumbent of one of the world’s great powers has none of these qualities as he has so amply demonstrated since taking office).

(Portrait of a Triestine Lady in the Morpurgo House)

Two Triestine Castles

It was the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa who laid the foundations of modern Trieste. She decided that the city should become a free port – a gateway between East and West – and planned that part of the city which to this day is called the ‘Città Teresina’. The picturesque grand canal, the church of Saint Anthony and all those other churches, temples and synagogues serving different religious communities sprang up and are testimony to the immense religious tolerance this city has been famous for.

Maria Teresa also took down the walls of the old town built around the cathedral and the castle which dominate one of Trieste’s hills. We decided we’d take the bus to the top of the hill. First, we passed the old Roman theatre.

At the Piazzale della cattedrale the view was already extensive. Before San Giusto stands the remains of a Roman basilica and, indeed, the base of the cathedral tower is built on a Roman temple. The cathedral itself is fascinating. Basically it’s two churches banged into one so it has two apses, one of which has magnificent byzantine mosaics, and double aisles too.

The best thing about San Giusto, however, is its magnificent rosone or rose window.

We almost thought we’d come to the conclusion of our Trieste town visit but were encouraged to visit the castle where we were promised the best views of Trieste bay. This was quite correct!

We enjoyed visiting the armoury, the dungeons now filled with roman statuary and walking along the bastions themselves.

It was difficult to tear ourselves away from this wonderfully windy spot. A slight bora – Trieste’s notorious wind which blasts its way through the mountains from the east and is meant to drive people mad – was starting up and we needed to make our way back home.

But we still had to visit the haunted Miramare castle.

Just outside Trieste is probably what must be one of Europe’s finest preserved 19th century summer palaces: the Schloss Miramar. The walk to it is via a dramatic piece of coastline.

Thanks to contemporary drawings and designs the interior has been restored with all the original fittings and furnishings making a visit to the palace a truly time-warping experience.

Miramare was the scene of some of the most passionate and most tragic episodes in the history of the Hapsburgs. It was built by Emperor Franz Joseph’s younger brother the archduke Maximilian. This young man was one of the brightest sparks in an otherwise staid and stuffy dynasty. He reformed the Austrian navy, rebuilt Trieste port, went on several expeditions, issued liberal reforms and fell in love with Charlotte, a Belgian princess.

Maximilian_and_Charlotte

Still on his idealistic bent Max took up Napoleon III’s offer to restore the empire in Mexico. Despite his best intentions he failed to attract support from Juarez and his rebels and was executed at Queretaro in 1867 – a scene dramatically illustrated in Manet’s famous painting.

download - Copia

Understandably Charlotte, now called Carlotta, became insane after the incident and spent much of her later life under care or, as they now say in Italy, ‘in una struttura.’  She died in 1927 having regained some of her sanity.

The palace was subsequently used by the emperor himself and his wife Elizabeth. Nicknamed Sissi, Elizabeth was a paragon of beauty with a highly fashionable sixteen-inch waist, and always kept her weight below fifty kilos. She was also Europe’s best female equestrian and adhered to a strict regime of exercises and walking. Sissi preserved her skin by sleeping with a slice of veal and strawberries on her face.  Her shampoo was a mixture of cognac and eggs and she took over three hours every week to wash her flowing locks. She would also take her bath in heated olive oil. Anybody tried it out there?

220px-Empress_Elisabeth_of_Austria - Copia

After producing a male heir in the shape of Rudolph, Sissi never again slept with her husband and instead entertained a sequence of handsome aristocratic lovers (including an English noble) within the velvets and brocades of Miramar’s love nest, well away from the stiff formalism of Vienna’s imperial court which she could never stand.

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But tragedy did not end here. Her son, Rudolph, unhappy with his marriage to Belgian princess Stephanie, fell desperately for the baroness Mary Vetsera. Opposed to the liaison by his autocratic father he and Mary entered into a murder-suicide pact and their bodies were discovered in the family’s hunting lodge at Mayerling on 30th January 1889.

Actually the mystery has never been properly cleared up. Some say that Mary Vetsera died as a result of a botched abortion: she was just eighteen at the time. Others say that she shot Rudolph first. There is also a murder theory by a jealous third party. The facts, hushed up when they occurred, were never fully revealed and the Mayerling “incident” remains one history’s great mysteries. (Incidentally the wonderful Macmillan Ballet danced by London’s Royal Ballet takes another yet another slant on the story).

As if the death of his son, the crown prince and heir to the throne, were not enough, Emperor Franz Joseph had to witness his beautiful Sissi murdered in 1898 by Luigi Luchesi, an Italian anarchist near Geneva. We visited Sissi’s tomb in the imperial Hapsburg vaults in Vienna way back in 1991.

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Franz Joseph died in 1916. At least he was spared seeing the break-up of the thousand year old Hapsburg Empire. His son Charles succeeded him but gave up the throne after World War One when the old empire was carved up between the newly emerging countries of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia. In 2004 Charles was, unusually, beatified by Pope John Paul II in spite of the fact that he had ordered the use of poison gas in the Great War against Italy. He is now known as “the blessed Charles”.

One would never guess all these tragic and often weird events wandering through the luscious rooms of Miramare (literally “Sea view”) and traipsing across the summer palace’s exotic gardens. I hope that in some way this beautiful setting gave solace to Austria’s last imperial family so often beset by calamity and recriminations.

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No wonder, however, that the castle od Miramar is haunted…….

 

The Sartorio’s Aristocratic Triestine Villa

I first thought in my ignorance that (hinting at its name) the Museo Sartorio dealt with fashion or even needlework. I need not have worried. The Sartorio, which is just a short distance uphill from the Revoltella museum (see my previous blog) is another fine nineteenth century Triestine aristocratic villa.

The Sartorio family originated from Sanremo but moved to Trieste in 1775 where Pietro Sartorio bought the beautiful villa from the Faraon family, originally from Alexandra Egypt. Like too many noble families, the family was extinguished when the last heir Baroness Anna Segrè Sartorio died issueless and left the villa and its furniture to the comune of Trieste with the wish that it be opened to the public.

Sartorio’s villa is also important politically in that it became the headquarters of the Allied government after World War Two. It’s not often realised that it was only in 1975 that Trieste fully became part of the Italian Republic with the signing of a treaty with Tito. In the last days of the war atrocities were committed when both Italian and Yugoslav partisans fought it out for possession of the city. The Allies smartly stepped in to stop the bloodshed and declared Trieste a free city dividing it into territory A and territory B.

In my philatelic collection I have Italian stamps stamped with the initials AMG-FTT standing for Allied Military Government – Free Territory of Trieste. It was only in 1954 that a peace deal was finally agreed with the former Yugoslavia to allow territory A to return to Italian government, where it formed part of the new region of Friuli Venezia Giulia and for territory B to be returned to Yugoslavia. I must have received these stamps from an ex-military commander of Trieste who became almoner of London’s Italian Hospital (alas now no longer in existence). He regularly spent half his year living in his flat overlooking a Kensington square and the other half in Trieste, which he swore was incredibly beautiful (I now believe him) and had the best quality of life on the Italian peninsula. According to a recent survey it still does…

We do not need to be reminded too much of the horrible Balkan wars of the1990’s that split Yugoslavia up into the countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia. Now Trieste’s immediate neighbour is Slovenia, part of the Schengen group. These are countries in the European continent that have agreed to ‘the abolition of their internal borders with other member nations and outside, for the free and unrestricted movement of people, goods, services, and capital, in harmony with common rules for controlling external borders and fighting criminality by strengthening common judicial system and police cooperation.’

It’s interesting to note that three non-EU countries – Switzerland, Iceland and Norway – are part of Schengen and that five EU countries – Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the UK and Eire are not.

After 2019, under the present administration, the UK will be the only country in Europe not just not to be part of the EU but also not to be part of Schengen. What this will do for the economy and international relations of a country which has always lauded itself for having the mother of all parliaments (although the Icelandic Althing is actually the world’s oldest parliament) and a refuge for persecuted people God only knows!

To return to the Sartorio museum. The villa has fine rooms on its piano nobile  including some decorated in a ‘baronial gothick style.’

There is an exquisite collection of mediaeval and renaissance paintings from the Istrian peninsula (where Trieste is situated) which show how important the influence of the Venetian school (especially Bellini) was to them.

The majolica and jewellery collections are also worth a look.

The Villa has a glyptotheque (plaster cast room) in which both the famous and the infamous are lodged in safety from their detractors and admirers alike.

There is a marvellous collection of Tiepolo drawings used as models for the painter’s grander frescoed ceilings.

Museo Sartorio is yet another aristocratic villa in Trieste fully worthy of a visit and its gardens make a welcome stop on one’s walk-about in this fascinating city.

The villa’s web site is at http://museosartoriotrieste.it/

Luxury Living in Trieste

Trieste has thirty two museums listed. Clearly it would be impossible to visit them all in a couple of days and some of the museums are of truly specialist interest. It’s best to pick a couple which appeal to you and just spend your time in those.

Trieste’s museums can be put into the following categories. I’ve listed the more important ones under each one:

Art museums:

Museo Revoltella

History and art museum

Museum of oriental art

Theatrical museum

 

History museums:

Castle museum

Fatherland museum

Risorgimento museum

Archaeological museum

Postal museum

 

Science museums:

Natural history museum

Aquarium

Maritime museum

Botanical gardens and museum

 

Literary museums:

James Joyce museum

Italo Svevo museum

Petrarch and Piccolomini museum

 

Historical residences:

Sartorio museum

Morpurgo museum

 

Other museums:

Railway museum

Jewish museum

The James Joyce museum also has material related to Sir Richard Burton (see http://www.burtoniana.org/trieste/index.htm). There is, therefore, an important double connection between Bagni di Lucca and Trieste!

First, is the painter Rietti, friend of Triestine Italo Svevo and Bagni di Lucca’s frequent visitor Giacomo Puccini. (See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/01/20/giacomo-puccini-and-italo-svevo-only-connect/  for more on this fascinating connection).

Second, is the fact that the Victorian explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton was British consul in Trieste between 1872 and 1890 and that Colonel Henry Stisted (founder of Bagni di Lucca’s ex-Anglican Church and buried in Bagni’s protestant cemetery) was the father-in-law of Burton’s sister, Maria Katherine Eliza Burton. Richard Burton visited Bagni di Lucca as a young lad during his family’s peregrinations. (To read more about this connection see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/tag/richard-francis-burton/ )

Anyway, with this amazing plethora of connections we clearly had to focus on just a few things and happily found that ignorance was our best arm. I only found out how many museums Trieste had afterwards but, luckily, chance and friendly locals directed us to some of the best ones while we stayed there.

The museums we prefer are those which form part of historical residences and, therefore, have a double allure in presenting not only a collection of fine items but also giving us an indication of how people lived in former times. That’s why London’s Wallace collection, Soane and Wellington museums – to name just a few – are so appealing.

The first Triestine museum we visited was the Revoltella which combines the luscious nineteenth residence of Baron Pasquale Revoltella (who left all his property and collections to Trieste upon his death in 1869) with two other houses adapted to form an art museum by the pioneering modern architect Carlo Scarpa.

Baron Revoltella was a shrewd entrepreneur who struck it lucky when he became vice-president of the Suez Canal Company whose project  revolutionised world trade. Now, trade routes from the East to Europe could pass much more quickly via the Mediterranean and include Trieste (which still remains Italy’s major port) instead of rounding the Cape. There are several documents in the museum relating to Revoltella’s role in constructing the Suez Canal.

The Revoltella museum has truly something to please all tastes. You can enjoy insights into the interiors and furnishings of a rich nineteenth century Triestine town house:

You can delight in paintings from an earlier era:

or more modern times:

or enjoy one of Trieste’s finest town views.

 

The Revoltella museum is a surely a must on any visit to exquisite Trieste.

 

PS There’s more information at the museum’s web site at http://www.museorevoltella.it/

 

 

Return to Trieste

Ten year have passed since I last visited wonderful Trieste and Sandra had never been there at all! It was time to return and show her a city which, above all other European towns, showed the way to a cosmopolitan European continent where different nationalities could meet in harmony and where progressive ideas could be formulated.

Described by “Lonely Planet” guide as “the most underestimated of Italian tourist destinations”, Trieste is a truly fascinating place to discover, not least because of its location at the crossroads of three worlds, the Italian Mediterranean, the Mittel-European Austrian and the Slavonic Balkans.

Trieste was also James Joyce’s favourite place and Italo Svevo’s birthplace too (who was taught English by Joyce before setting out to our London borough of Greenwich to run a paint factory – the subject of my talk which you can read about at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/two-italian-connections-in-my-old-se-london-work-place/)

We approached Trieste via the old coast route which passes by such mythical places as the palazzo Miramar and Duino castle, where, as guest of the Princess Marie Von Thurn und Taxis, the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote his transcendental Duino elegies. Here is a favourite extract from these great reflections on life and death:

Once for each thing. Just once; no more.  And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing. 

The entry into Trieste and its bay was truly spectacular as we drove along the corniche.

Our hotel was right in the centre of Trieste and, as it was the week-end, not only did we find a parking-place in front of it but also paid nothing for it. Here is our dear little car with its even dearer driver before where we stayed.

In the late afternoon and evening we walked around lovely Trieste and met old book-friends like James Joyce and Italo Svevo.


Trieste could be described as Vienna-by-the-sea. Its impressive buildings do have a strong taste of classic Ringstrasse architecture.

But Trieste is also typically Italian with its narrow streets in the old town and its beautiful cathedral dedicated to San Giusto which we would visit the following day.

The evening sunset over the great Piazza Unità d’Italia was spectacular. We voted this among the very best Piazze of Italy ranking with Saint Marks, Palmanova and il Campo di Siena.

Our evening ended with a great impromptu rock concert outside a bar in the old quarter which included Joyce’s favourite red light district. Who needs to pine for Stones tickets when such exciting free events happen in Italy?

‘My heart is in Trieste’ said Joyce and it remained with him until the end as it still does with us!

 

Goodbye Lio!

The grapes are clustered juicily on their stem. The vines are ready for their vendemmia but the hands that tended them for so many years will never pick them again. Those hands have gone to another vineyard, God’s own.

Lio Lucchesi, long-term resident of Longoio, after a short illness died on the 15th of this month. I attended his funeral yesterday.

The smaller the community the greater the impact of that fate we must all attend at the end of our lives – the one-way journey to a land so distant that no face-to-face meeting can possibly be attempted while we who remain have their legs still firmly on this earth.

Lio was one of the first locals I’d met when I arrived in Longoio and I found him a convivial person with a very racy sense of humour. Often this humour was, I feel, used to disguise a rather more serious person. It was perhaps a mask for covering some of the pain in his life. One aspect of this may have been his batchelorhood. I was surprised at this since Lio had an endearing way of getting along with women of all ages. I just wonder why he never found the right companion or whether he never had the certainty of choosing the right one. He would have made a very good father.

With Lio I embarked on several organised coach journeys covering different areas of Italy and often lasting some days. I was keen to discover new parts of the country, especially when I decided to settle here permanently here over eleven years ago.

One of the journeys I remember was to the north-east part of Italy and beyond.  We visited Trieste where this photograph of Lio was taken on the waterfront of that wonderful mittel-european city:

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We also visited the battlefields and war graves on the eastern front. This was taken in the bar near the monumental Redipuglia First World War memorial.

This one shows a somewhat dubious Lio on the little train that rushes at break-neck speed through the immense caves of Postumia, formerly Italian but now in Slovenia.

There are doubtless other photographs, including some of a trip to Naples and the royal palace of Caserta but I’ll have to spend more time looking through the photographs I have.

My wife and I last spoke to Lio last summer when he was resting from his labours on his beloved vines. He spoke cordially to us and especially thanked us for having time to talk to him. The jokey sense had been somewhat diluted and I felt that a shadow had already fallen on him. Lio had previously jested that he’d sold his vineyard but I’m glad he still kept onto his passion until the very end. For some days Lio was confined to his bed in Longoio’s Piazza dell’Amicizia. Relatives then took him to ‘la Vigna’ (appropriately translated as, ‘the vineyard’), a large house a little distance outside Longoio towards La Serra.

Around 6 am on the 15th of this month Lio’s condition worsened and a Misericordia ambulance was called. Shortly after ten on the same day he’d left us for ever at ‘la Vigna’

The funeral was well-attended with many relatives and friends being able to be present. (Italian funerals occur rarely more than three days after the death of a person because Italian undertakers do not embalm the body). Something I found strange, however, and which our local parish priest, Don Franco, also noted, was that there were quite a few people waiting outside the church where there were still many seats available. I recognised two of them as being Jehovah’s Witnesses, for which attendance outside a Catholic church is normal in the case of funerals, but I couldn’t believe everyone waiting outside the church was of that persuasion. Never mind. At least they were near Lio for his last journey.

Goodbye Lio old boy! You’re another one of that traditional country-man stock which is literally fast-dying out of our part of the world taking away some of the history of this part of the world for ever. We’ll truly miss seeing you again and we’ll always wish we’d recorded some of the traditional songs you used to sing in the piazza of Longoio – those improvised ‘stornelli’, for example, which you would sing and make up with delicious gusto.

For how long will your chair remain empty now and for how long will your grapes have to wait for devoted hands to pick them now that you are in the hands of God himself? God only knows, dear Lio!

 

 

 

Giacomo Puccini and Italo Svevo – only Connect

I was desperate to find a link between Italo Svevo and Giacomo Puccini when preparing my lecture on Italo Svevo’s experiences in England for Bagni di Lucca’s branch of Unitre (University of the Third Age). After all, both geniuses were virtual contemporaries: Puccini was born in 1858 and died in 1924 aged 65:

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and Italo Svevo was born in 1861 and died in 1928 aged 66.

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Like bears to a honeypot the Lucchesi (I include myself here) will generally be attracted by anything to do with Giacomo Puccini. It would be nice to find some connection between the two.

Both great Italians were born before Italy was unified (as far as such a country as Italy can be ever be said to be completely unified). Puccini was born in Lucca when it formed part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany which only became joined to the new Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Svevo was born when Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had to wait until the end of the Great War in 1918 to become an Italian.

Both Puccini and Svevo were Wagnerian acolytes and would go to great lengths to hear his music. Svevo, although an amateur musician, was good enough a violinist to play in a string quartet and Puccini was no mean pianist. There are many mentions in Svevo’s letters of his attending and loving the theatre and opera. However, ploughing through his epistolary I have yet to come across the name of Giacomo Puccini. Might the connection be that they were both nicotine addicts and could never give up smoking, even stealing as teenagers (Svevo, his dad’s money, and Puccini his local church’s organ pipes) to feed the habit?

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(Italo Svevo’s long-suffered violin)

The connection, however, was looking at me all the time on my desk. The clue? If you’ve attended one of Andrea Colombini’s gorgeous ‘Puccini e la Sua Lucca Festival’ concerts you’ll have been given an elegant folder with the copy of this lovely pastel portrait of Puccini on its cover:

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Have you ever asked who painted this portrait? It was, in fact, a Triestine painter, Arturo Rietti (1863-1943) and one of Svevo’s best friends.  Not only did the two share similar ideas about art and a Trieste re-united to Italy but they were also fluent in German and came from a Jewish background.

Svevo, affluently working for his father-in-law’s paint factory in Trieste and in Charlton, London, financially helped Rietti who was having money problems but who eventually won fame as one of Italy’s most fashionable and psychologically penetrating portrait artists. Rietti offered to pay him back but Svevo wasn’t at all insistent. So Rietti repaid Svevo in the best possible way an artist can, by painting a lovely portrait of Svevo’s wife, Livia Veneziani. Here is a preparatory sketch for the portrait:

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And here is the finished work:

ARiettiLIVIAVENEZIANI

There is also a gracious portrait of Livia painted by Rietti in 1895, one year before Svevo married her:

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Why didn’t Rietti paint a portrait of Svevo? He almost did but when the busy failed-writer-turned-successful- industrialist was told that he’d have to sit still for four hours he politely declined. However, Rietti was also an acute and quick caricaturist and this sketch is surely of Svevo himself.

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‘My last cigarette’ is a recurring theme both in Svevo’s letters and, of course, in that famous chapter on smoking in his seriously-comic masterpiece “The Conscience of Zeno”.  Svevo/Zeno seems to be desperately enjoying yet another ‘last cigarette’ in this sketch! I wonder what brand it was?

Svevo and Rietti, incidentally, were friends of another artist, Umberto Veruda. When Veruda tragically died at the age of just 36 in 1904   both Svevo and Rietti attended his funeral.  Veruda is another member of that school of Triestine painters which has only been recently revalued. Here is his gorgeous portrait of Svevo with Svevo’s sister Ortensia painted just one year before Veruda died, probably of ‘la tisi’ (TB).

05 Svevo e Sorella Ortensia Veruda

Svevo truly appreciated the way Rietti had by now established himself as both a sought-after and a highly sensitive artist mainly using a mixed pastel and charcoal medium. Bestriding the style of Boldini and the modernist currents of the twentieth century, Rietti managed to develop a style, already considered old-fashioned into new heights of perceptiveness. As he said a portrait must reveal a secret and deep truth in the subject’s soul (una verità segreta, profonda, dell’anima del soggetto).

An equally deep friendship and great regard existed between Giacomo Puccini and Arturo Rietti, never better expressed in a note the great composer wrote to Rietti:

‘Dear Rietti, I had a commitment today at 9 am and I didn’t think about it the other evening when I said I’d visit you. Sorry – but I think it’ll be better in the morning like last time – and then let me know when it’s convenient. I really care so much to be targeted by your great talent (i.e. to be painted by you)… Affectionately yours, Giacomo Puccini’.

(Carissimo Rietti, avevo un impegno oggi alle 9! e non ci pensai l’altra sera quando ti dissi di venire da te. Scusami tanto – ma io credo che sarà meglio la mattina come l’altra volta – e allora dimmi quando ti è comodo. Io ci tengo troppo ad esser preso di mira dal tuo grande talento. Aff. Tuo Giacomo Puccini)

Rietti painted Puccini three times. The portrait that appears on Colombini’s Puccini e la Sua Lucca brochure hangs in Milan’s La Scala Theatre museum.

There’s also this one which Rietti’s son donated to Rome’s Opera House:

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Much closer to home is this third portrait dating from 1910 which you can find if you visit Puccini’s villa at Torre Del Lago.

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Like Italo Svevo, Giacomo Puccini was not quite in tune with the current modernist trends in portrait-painting. Geniuses are always above their time. Puccini had gone beyond verismo into something magically new and never more ecstatically expressed than in his Turandot. Svevo had gone beyond the naturalism of Zola and Verga into unexplored psychological depths which wrote a new chapter in the history of the Italian novel.

Arturo Rietti was not only the connection between Italo Svevo and Giacomo Puccini because he’d painted portraits of them or their family. Rietti was also the only possible artist of the time who could truly enter into the wistful melancholia which surrounds the auras of two of Italy’s (and the world’s) most original creative men. If a picture is worth a thousand words then Rietti’s representations are worth an infinite number of his sitters’ biographies.

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Arturo Rietti: self-portrait

PS Incidentally if you are in Bagni di Lucca tomorrow and are free from 4 to 5 pm then you might like to attend my talk on Italo Svevo’s Impressions of England. He lived just a few blocks away from where we lived and worked, and both of us moved and also worked in a paint factory. If your Italian is up to it you’re more than welcome to attend. The talk is in the library, Bagni’s former Anglican church.

PPS The great actor, Robert Rietti (AKA Rietty), the person known as the man with a thousand voices because of his great versatility and  who sadly died last year was, I learn, related to Arturo Rietti. Both from Jewish backgrounds, their religion has continued through Robert’s son, the influental Rabbi, Jonathan Rietti. My wife worked with Robert and also his father Victor. She has commented thus:

“Your article is all thanks to my connection with Robert Rietti himself since childhood and his Father Viktor with whom I worked. It  seemed like playing really in my pyjamas listening to the ‘Racconti del Nonno’. I had the star role as I was in charge of the puppet Pulcinella. This was all in aid of the English at the time who wanted to learn Italian. Imagine, I did not realise the enormity of this connection you found this due to poor Robert, no longer with us since April of last year. Well, he was talented indeed. I have fond memories of my work which I thoroughly enjoyed.”

Thanks, Sandra.

 

 

Of San Marco, Joyce, Svevo and Plenty More

One of the pleasures of being a blogger is, of course, to link up with other bloggers with similar (or sometimes, very different) interests and viewpoints.

It dawned upon me that I have little time now to prepare my ‘lezione’ to Bagni di Lucca’s Unitre on ‘Le Esperienze inglesi di Italo Svevo’ i.e. The English experiences of Italo Svevo, due on January 21st In case you’re wondering what all this is about I’d like to point to two recent posts from bloggers whose quality of writing I regard as very high indeed and who have given me some direction as to what I shall be talking about.

One blogger is Ishita Sood who is particularly enamoured of the city which was the birthplace of Italo Svevo. You can read her blog at https://ishitasood.wordpress.com and I have nothing but praise for her articles especially regarding a city which ‘Lonely Planet’ has described as the most underestimated tourist location in Italy.

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Ishita’s post on Trieste as Italy’s caffeine capital, the unforgettable charm and opulence of its historic Caffé San Marco and its association with James Joyce lead me to consider the great friendship which started up between the two men.

 

Originally Svevo (or to give him his correct name Ettore Schmitz – he changed it to Italo Svevo, not just as a nom de plume but also to reaffirm his dual Austrian-Italian background) had come to Joyce for English lessons Joyce being a teacher at the Berlitz school first in Pola (now Pulek) and then Trieste. But this teacher-pupil relationship blossomed into something much greater – perhaps one of the supreme creative friendships of the last century.

James Joyce had already confirmed his wish to be a writer and had written poems, plays and short stories. He needed, however, to get away from the constricting Dublin life, paradoxically, to be able to reconstruct it in even more detail in his forthcoming ‘Ulysses’ which reads like a giant social map of that remarkable city on the river Liffey.

How many writers seek to get away from their place of origin to write about it elsewhere in even more meticulous detail (and love) I wonder?

I can think of P. G. Wodehouse, an old Alleynian from my school, Dulwich College, who moved to the USA (Long Island to be exact) and, from 1947 until his death in 1975, never set foot in England again. It is believed by many critics that this actually improved ‘Plum’s’ writing since he was free to remember an England that had largely disappeared after World War II and was, all the more, able to give credibility to his own brand of inimitable humour within a legendary land of sensible butlers, great aunts and loveably silly young aristocrats.

 

Travel writers, it seems, need more than most litterateurs to live abroad. Leigh-Fermor, who a dear friend was privileged to meet and even cook for, was a prime example and there are many others one can think of.

Some writers move to different places not so much because they love their new location but because they couldn’t stand their place of birth. D. H. Lawrence comes to mind but then he still wrote so beautifully and so nostalgically about a country he’d forsaken years before, even until the moment of his death.

Returning to Joyce: it was he who encouraged the disillusioned Svevo to take up writing again after the complete neglect of Italo’s first two novels, Una Vita of 1890 and Senilità of 1897. They would meet at one of Trieste’s great caffés: la Stella Polare, Il Caffé degli Specchi, Caffé Pirona and il caffé San Marco. How I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in one of those venues where Joyce and Svevo would be discussing over their steaming cups.

The Caffé San Marco leads me to another blog I greatly enjoy reading. This is the art nouveau page at https://aboutartnouveau.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/caffe-san-marco-via-battisti-18-trieste/ which talks about the extraordinary history of this most beautiful caffé which had been vandalised during the first world war by Austrian soldiers and was again very recently in danger but happily saved from demolition in 2013.

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Re-reading my own post on Trieste at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/04/29/seaview-trieste-style/ prompts me to catch the first train there as the city is such a magical place. I would definitely take the famous Opicina tramway. again marvellously described by Ishita Sood at https://ishitasood.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/a-historic-ride-on-the-opicina-tram-in-trieste/

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I remain fascinated by people’s views of another country. English language books on Italy abound in almost nauseous profusion but what about Italian writers’ books on England? There is, in fact, a great tradition to in this type of literature. Of more recent Italian writers I would recommend Severgnini and Caprarica for example.

However, there is little to beat Italo Svevo’s own reflections on a country he found so different from his own Trieste.

As some of you, who have read that amazingly seriously comic book, “The conscience of Zeno” may know, Italo Svevo, alias Ettore Schmitz, seemingly gave up his attempt to become a literary figure after writing those two abortive novels and accepted his brother-in-law’s offer to set up a branch of the family marine paint factory in Charlton, South East London. I taught for many years at a college in Charlton which was only a few steps away from the Veneziani paint works and just up the hill, in this modestly distinguished area of London, there’s the house, now adorned with the blue plaque customarily affixed to dwelling of famous people, where Svevo spent, on and off, over twenty years of his life directing the factory.

 

Svevo’s letters from London to his wife and relatives and his set of essays on what was then the world’s greatest imperial city make fascinating reading. Svevo had taken English lessons from his teacher in that cosmopolitan city, then under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, James Joyce, but somehow found it very difficult at first to understand English as she is spoke in London. Perhaps a shade of Irish brogue didn’t prepare him too well for the sharp machine-gun-fast utterances of inner London cockney.

Anyway, Svevo eventually managed to come to grips with a country he found so “differente” and actually grew to love it very much. He especially appreciated the escape from Triestine snobbery into the matter-of-fact working class camaraderie of a Thameside factory. He enjoyed London’s parks and the great art collections and was able to comment very usefully on the structure of British society at the time. Being also an amateur musician Svevo set up a chamber music group which was especially appreciated in the days before hi-fi and cd. Last but not least, Svevo was a loyal supporter of that great football team, Charlton Athletic, above whose stadium I also taught some of my own students.

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Only connect, as the preface of E. M. Forster’s ‘Howard’s End’ reminds us. Life is full of connections, some inevitable, others surprising.

Now let’s try to get down in writing everything I’d like to say about Italo Svevo’s connections within forty minutes for January 21st  and in impeccable Italian!