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)