Travel June 2002

Trieste Elegies

Enigma and nostalgia on the edge of Italy, at the heart of Europe

That Trieste is an anachronism is brought home (literally) by the nature of its museums, which were private houses and are now open to the public. The Revoltella is a neo-Renaissance palace, built between 1854 and 1858, that displays a wealthy entrepreneurial owner's taste in furnishings and art. When I visited, the place was empty, and a docent followed me around like an anxious salesperson. In his day Baron Pasquale Revoltella, a shipping magnate, used a camera obscura in his study, upstairs, to keep an eye on people strolling in the square below, and a telescope to keep tabs on Trieste's other leading citizen, who lived across the bay.

The archduke Maximilian of Hapsburg was downsized, as it were, by the imperial powers in Vienna and sent off to Trieste, where his castle, Miramare, was completed in 1860. Three years later he was made redundant again and sent off to be crowned Emperor of Mexico, in which country he was promptly executed by republican insurgents led by Benito Juarez. His wife, Charlotte of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, obligingly went mad and was sent back to her native Belgium. Their tragic history sets the tone of Miramare, a nervously ornamented replica of a medieval castle built on a seaside promontory. Formal gardens organize the outdoor space, and throughout the park's fifty-four acres are plant and tree species collected from every corner of the world—an anxious hoarding by a dying empire. As I wandered from room to room, I read a tale of insecure power in the castle's interior-design survey of history: the medieval stone walls, the heavy Baroque and neo-Renaissance furniture. This is Second Empire bombast, persuading itself of its legitimacy, dismissing the elegant restraint of Biedermeier.

Upstairs, in rooms appropriated by the Duke Amedeo d'Aosta in the 1930s, the apartments are furnished in Italian Rationalism, with its ironic curves and perspective-giving angles. The effect upon entering is like that of following a goblet of hot mead with a martini. Even the statues of Maximilian (elegantly condescending to the Mexicans he would fail to rule) and the Duke (looking for all the world like Batman's The Penguin) appear to be at least five centuries apart in aesthetics, though they are only seven decades apart in history—a potent illustration of how history has accelerated the fates of the powerful in the past hundred years.

The Museo Morpurgo, the last of the museums I visited, was once the home of a rich Jewish merchant. Jews did well in the reasonably tolerant mercantile city until Italy surrendered to the Allies in World War II, and the Nazis swooped down on Trieste and the Croatian territories, deporting their Jews. Today only 600 or so members of a once thriving Jewish community remain. The museum had a morbid quiet; it seemed unused to visitors. Floorboards creaked, and shutters were drawn. As I walked through the rooms, they were illuminated one at a time by an impatient docent, who lingered in the doorways sighing and clicking her keys at me. I took my time nevertheless, and scanned the leather spines in the library, which seemed to me identical to the libraries at Miramare and Revoltella: Aristotle, Ovid, Cicero, Shakespeare (in German), Montaigne, Voltaire, Goethe, Schiller, reading like obligatory stops on a Grand Tour.

Like so much else in Trieste, the language now spoken there is mixed, ambivalent. Signs on the city's outskirts appear in both Italian and Slovene. A couple walking their bulldog on a big stone pier spoke Italian to each other but used Hrvatski, the language of Croatia, for the dog. My stumbling Italian did well, because the Triestini speak a more elementary version, and speak more slowly, than do most of their countrymen. James Joyce, who lived in Trieste for many years, dearly loved the local dialect, Triestino. Luciano told me that the Triestini speak so slowly because they are used to people's translating in their heads—from dialect, from German, from Slovene and Hrvatski—before speaking, negotiating pauses, reconsiderations, diplomacy, the fear of being misunderstood.

All the same, Trieste has a strong, proud tradition of literary life. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke spent an exquisite and celebrated period of creativity at Duino Castle, as the guest of the Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe. Her very name perhaps illustrates just how much the world has changed, and why something like The Duino Elegies is unlikely ever to be written again.

When I tried to visit the castle, it was closed to tourists. In fact, the house was on the market (though that's no longer the case). The family has sold its antiques and furnishings through recent Sotheby's auctions. But, I told myself, Duino is almost better this way—visible only from a footpath along the white cliffs, "towering against the sea, like foothills of human existence," as Rilke put it.

Probably the best James Joyce pilgrimage site is the Caffè San Marco, where bookshelves are lined with the works of the joint's onetime regulars, including Joyce, Magris, Italo Svevo, and Umberto Saba. Joyce lived in the city in "voluntary exile" (the poetic kind) for much of the twentieth century's first three decades, writing most of the stories in Dubliners, all of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and major sections of Ulysses here. Joyce loved Trieste and its contradictions, its sensuality and its indeterminism; it is a city he well imagined, his sense of exile blurry with myopia, the city itself stereoscoped through his spectacles.

The travel writer Jan Morris claims that her recent memoir of living in the city, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, will be her last book. As James Morris she was stationed in Trieste after World War II, during the Allied occupation, and her portrait of the city necessarily yearns after some lost state of mind. Morris charts Trieste as a cartography of melancholy, "an allegory of limbo." If Trieste is "nowhere," might a traveler come here to be lost, to experience abandonment, to play at being an exile? Trieste particularly appeals to travelers in search of the romance of exile, who look at the new world order with an ache for the old one, who seek out the scars of a homeland in a place that has never been sure to whom it belonged.

One of the great pleasures of travel is imagining living elsewhere, and Trieste obliges one with its ease, its mediocrity, its impurity, its crisis of identity and identity of crisis, with its contingencies, its nostalgia—but nostalgia for what? I sat for a few last hours speculating at Caffè degli Specchi, sipping a warming cognac against the breezes in the Piazza dell'Unità. The square, big enough that you can forget your thoughts or gather them in the time it takes to cross it, seems to lose visual depth, as an oozy fog breaks through any sense of dimension. The water laps lazily against the banks. Into it old Europe drains itself.

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