Saturday, 26 June 2010

Triestine temples

That's to say, of worship, commerce, consumerism, refreshment and feline sanctuary. Where better to start than the west front of Trieste's Duomo on the hill and down to the synagogue, one of the biggest in Europe and flamboyantly constructed in 1910?

Ancient Trieste plays little part in Jan Morris's inspirational meditation on city and self because, as she fairly says, 'I long ago conceived my own idea of this city's real purpose', and that essentially begins with Maria Theresa's Hapsburgian free port. The Romans do of course briefly come into it, because Mussolini's Fascists made quite certain to draw parallels with their own regime, restoring the forum in front of the cathedral and plonking their giant headquarters bang opposite the similarly reconstructed Roman theatre. Most Triestine's favourite ancient sight is the misleadingly called the Arco di Riccardo - but the Lionheart never was confined here, apparently - put up to honour Augustus in 33 AD.

Anyway, since Morris doesn't purport to be a guidebook, you won't learn from her that the Duomo boasts, either side of its hideous 1930s-decorated chancel apse, two of the loveliest old mosaics in Italy. This one, from the 13th century, depicts Christ flanked by one of Trieste's two resident Saints, Giusto, drowned in the bay with a lead weight attached to his neck, and St. Servulus.

Note the fabulously pretty decorated border, especially the bit beneath Christ's dove-refreshed feet:

Like everything else in Trieste, the Duomo is a bit of this, a bit of that. Essentially its Byzantine pillars are fine and its atmosphere, at least when we visited on a warm evening, very peaceful (oh dear, yes, the word everyone writes in church visitors' books, but isn't it what many of us agnostics want from a space like this?)

There's a chapel with a tomb for the last of the Spanish pretenders - the Carlists were here - and an eccentric bit of 20th century composite work on the west front, incorporating - rather brilliantly, I think - six busts from a Roman tomb, three on either side of the entrance.

Winckelmann's monument next door I'd better save for another entry: its surrounding sculpture garden is surely the most enchanting corner in all Trieste.

And what of the synagogue? It holds itself proudly, not hidden away as it would be in other cities, symbol of an unusually proud and happy diaspora, an invaluable mercantile input, for 150 years.

Sadly, a civic committee which tried to get them all out to Palestine in the early 1930s went unheeded by many, and 700 were deported and/or killed. But there's now a thriving Jewish community in Trieste which helps to keep the massive synagogue going (and millions must have been spent on the restoration, which looks as new). A Greek congregation also packs out the Church of San Nicolo on Sunday mornings, a favourite ritual for James Joyce to attend when he was here. We popped in briefly on our way to the station, but the previous day we'd inspected and been made very welcome by the attendant.

Within a couple of hundred yards there's also the Serbian Orthodox church of San Spiridione and the neoclassical Sant'Antonio, another thriving hub of worship when we visited and closing the view up the Canal Grande.

We broke up our tour of this part of town with a coffee and tramezzini in one of Trieste's two most celebrated cafes, the Tommaseo.

It's the earlier of two major irredentist haunts and named after the celebrated patriot who launched many of his most impassioned speeches here.

Despite the presence of a few old locals here, I much preferred the darker haven of the Cafe San Marco just around the corner from the synagogue (many of whose worshippers were welcome here).

It was opened in 1914, burnt down in an anti-Austrian protest and now retains its atmosphere, again a little bit for tourists but mostly for the residents, who enjoy film shows and concerts in one of its long halls.

The San Marco feels very Viennese, partly by virtue of the Klimtian gilding but also because of the celebration of world theatre in its little round panels.

Svevo and Joyce both loved it, and so did I.

A quick whizz, then, through other churches of sorts: mercantile splendour

furs with reflected art nouveau extravagance in the heart of the shopping district

and finally sanctuary for the city's enormous cat population. We saw a number of little old ladies, one very elegantly dressed in twinset and pearls, putting out lavish fish and pasta suppers in bowls. In the courtyard of the huge old Hapsburgian hospital, still in run-down use, numerous shelters have been made for the feline inhabitants - do they keep the mouse and rat population down, I wonder? - and food is never short.

And this complacent puss was to be seen night and day basking beneath his protector's shrine high on the hill every time we walked past.

Morris has got it exactly right, I think: 'in Trieste animals are rarely scared of humans, to my mind a sure sign of civic integrity, come wealth or poverty, fame or ignominy, empire or dictatorship or Autonomous Region'. Brava.


Willym said...

I love it when I get to see things through your eyes - even if they are thing with which I have a passing familiarity. Thanks for helping me relive my memories of a city that I enjoyed immensely and so want to go back to. And that cat... that cat... she was there every time we walked past.

David said...

How funny - or spooky. I guess quite a few things don't change much over time in Trieste...and for once I think I rather like that.

Minnie said...

Reading this, one has a very strong impression that you've caught the essence of the city. I love all the evidence of eventual acceptance + oecumenical nourishment for body and soul, for eye and mind. And why not 'peaceful' - it is both 'le mot juste' and the necessary condition for any form of spiritual connection, so your instincts are spot-on.
I really want to see those medieval mosaics, and have coffee @ San Marco (where I bet much time could be spent trying to identify the cartouches!).
Animals at ease (as opposed to either threatened or pampered as they are here)? Yes, definitely a mark of civilisation, D!
Looking forward to the Winckelmann mem/sculpture park post. But thank you for an enlightening (and enticing) introduction to Trieste so far: really want to go there!

Gavin Plumley said...

Am HUGELY envious of your Trieste trip... that Morris book is one of my desert island books. I feel I know the place without having been there, and your post adds yet more to that picture.