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Melancholy but Marvellous

The capital of nowhere – could anywhere be more tantalizing? For those of us increasingly blasé or wary about visiting ‘somewheres’ the world over, many of them the target of hordes of other tourists hellbent on pleasure (and often compromising the particular qualities of their destination in the process), nowhere sounds the ultimate place to go. And, as it turns out, this place does have its own geographical co-ordinates, and is even accessible by public transport. It’s just that on arrival you may experience a sudden sense of dislocation, an overwhelming wistfulness for an elusive past, and a present that feels curiously like limbo. For in the words of its chronicler, Jan Morris, in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001), the Mediterranean port ‘stands above economics, or tourism, or science, or even the passage of ships, or if not above them, apart from them’. And it is a city whose precarious geographical position and contested imperial history have, she thinks, bred a civility rare in our hectic times, a simple decency that makes the place a ‘half-real, half-wishful Utopia’. That was certainly our experience on a recent visit; we were tactfully absorbed into the gentle mêlée of city life, and warmly welcomed into the quirky museums and houses that keep the city’s complex history alive.

It is hardly surprising to discover that Morris’s elegiac meditation on Trieste, published at the turn of the century after a lifetime of acquaintance with the place, stands as her own favourite among all her many works, and that Trieste was the model for her imaginary ‘favourite’ city of Hav. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere was to have been her swansong, which adds a layer of poignancy to any reading (in fact, she has since brought out a delightful short tribute to Vittore Carpaccio, that most irresistible of Venetian artists). Her affection for the place is so contagious that I was immediately seduced on a first reading, and felt I was being re-introduced to a forgotten but once familiar friend, despite having no Austro-Hungarian antecedents and little knowledge of Mitteleuropa. I was soon on a train from Venice, her book in hand.

Although Morris never tells you how to find such-and-such a square or when that favourite watering hole is open for business, I felt the need for no other guide. For she conjures up such a rich experience of the city, past and present, that it enfolds you like a cloak, and propels you through streets and squares alive with ghosts and charged with layers of history.

Appropriately, the book begins in a haze of uncertainty and deprecation:

I cannot always see Trieste in my mind’s eye. Who can? It is not one of your iconic cities, instantly visible in the memory or the imagination. It offers no unforgettable landmark, no universally familiar melody, no unmistakable cuisine, hardly a single native name that everyone knows.

How different from Morris’s paean to Venice, written forty years earlier (when Jan was still James), which is muscular, almost baroque in comparison. That city, too, was liminal: ‘half eastern, half western, half land, half sea, poised between Rome and Byzantium, between Christianity and Islam, one foot in Europe, the other paddling in the pearls of Asia’. It was surely that very quality of ambiguity that so captured Morris’s imagination at that particular point in his life.

It was as a young army subaltern that James first visited both cities in 1946, en route for Palestine, and it was Venice that lingered then in his memory, its deserted squares and crumbling palaces ‘clothed always . . . in a pale green light’ and beckoning return. Trieste on the other hand inspired, even in a 19-year-old, a ‘maudlin essay’ on the subject of nostalgia, written in a dog-eared notebook and since mislaid. It now seems curiously prescient, for then ‘I pined for a Europe that seemed in my fancy to form a cohesive whole, sharing values and manners and aspirations, and when I looked around me at the Trieste of 1946, I thought I could see the ghost of that ideal.’ However mistaken that notion turned out to be, Morris has returned to her capital of nowhere at regular intervals, exploring its topography, conjuring up inhabitants past and present, and trying to nail its essence, an essence so elusive that even she cannot entirely pin it down.

In doing so she doesn’t romanticize the city; she is brisk about its shortcomings: its ‘damned monotonous summer’, in the words of James Joyce who spent fifteen indigent but creative years there, writing most of Ulysses; its roiling bora, the ferocious wind from the Karst that scours its streets and scatters its citizens in disarray; its brooding sea and ‘weeping’ castle of Miramar.

Built atop a promontory overlooking the city by the idealistic young Maximilian, younger brother of the Hapsburg Emperor, and intended as a love nest for his Belgian bride, Carlotta, the castle was abandoned when he sailed for Mexico, there to meet his death at the hands of a firing squad (so shockingly imagined by Edouard Manet). Ever since, this landmark has been so haunted by gloom that all who have lived there seem to have come to a sorry end, some (like the unfortunate Carlotta) going mad along the way. With its elaborate white towers and crenellations, it shines like a beacon through sun and sea mist on the horizon; close to, it looms over its precipice in the golden Mediterranean light like a fantasy by Claude Lorrain.

As Vienna’s grand seaport, a pivot between Europe and Asia, Trieste enjoyed its golden age in the nineteenth century. It was the quintessential melting-pot, containing half the peoples of Europe, who spoke in as many languages: Latins, Slavs, Greek ship-owners, English aesthetes, German barons, Marxist adventurers – all found a berth there. Money was the lure. Newly enriched merchants held sway, and mercantile and civic buildings shot up, each more extravagant than the last. Protocol and frequent parades were the order of the day, the latter believed by the Emperor Franz Josef to be the best way to tame dissent.

But this era of pomp and not a little pretension did not last. With the Risorgimento gaining ground, Garibaldi’s Italian nationalists were soon at the city’s gates. This once complacent Austrian satellite became a hotbed of revolutionary fervour, a seething swamp of irredentists hanging out in the Caffè San Marco and fomenting bloodshed. Subterfuge was rife, explosives were ubiquitous; according to the Victorian writer and traveller Isabel Burton, if Austrians gave a party, Italians would throw a bomb into it, and members of the Imperial family visiting from Vienna were greeted with ‘a chorus of bombs, bombs on the railway, bombs in the garden, bombs in the sausages’. A statue of Verdi (whose very name was an acronym for Italian nationalism, standing for Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia) was erected to cock a snook at the Austrians, and Franz Josef, taking the hint, sorrowfully gave Trieste a wide berth thereafter.

Nevertheless it was to Trieste that the corpses of his nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie were brought by battleship following their assassination at Sarajevo, en route for Vienna. The shock of their funeral procession, its stiff formality caught by a local cameraman, distilled the trauma of a continent and foretold the end of an empire. With memories like these, Morris observes, ‘melancholy is Trieste’s chief rapture’. But never once does her book lower the spirits; instead, it serves as an intriguing and upbeat exploration of the very nature of melancholy.
For Morris, the city is an allegory not just of limbo but of life, and she sees her own reflected in its changing fortunes: ‘After a lifetime of describing the planet, I look at Trieste now as I would look in a mirror,’ she writes from the vantage point of her declining years.

Wedged between the sea and the looming Karst, Trieste is still a cosmopolitan city but one without a hinterland, let alone an empire. Unhooked from its imperial past, its heyday was brief: after a bright blast of celebration at gaining its freedom in 1918, and a few months in the public gaze as the launch pad for Gabriele d’Annunzio’s extravagant raid on nearby Fiume, it sank back into its habitual torpor. Its streets and squares bear grandiose Italian names that date from decades of unopposed nationalism, shading into sycophantic fascism during Mussolini’s sway. When he paid a lightning visit in 1938, ‘uniformed functionaries by the thousand, formidable or ridiculous, fat or weedy, paraded here and there in jackboots and tasselled hats, swelling out their chests’. But by then the city had become essentially a backwater, and for all the braggadocio of this brief episode, so it has remained: Italian in name but fundamentally amorphous and unaligned in nature.

It has also lost its principal raison d’être, and how can it make up for that? ‘If it were not a port Trieste would have been nothing much,’ writes Morris, ‘and the sense that it is nothing much, now that its great days seem to be gone, is what has made it feel so wistfully unfulfilled.’ So if you are experiencing a little wistful unfulfilment, ‘a fragrant sense of might-have-been’ in these stark post-referendum times, there can be nowhere more in tune with your mood. Book your passage now.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 58 © Ariane Bankes 2018

About the contributor

Ariane Bankes is the author of a monograph and co-curator of an exhibition about David Jones. She would like to revisit Trieste at regular intervals, each visit bringing a deeper unravelling of its resonant past.

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