Marjorie Eisenach shares her experiences with all things Italian during her international travels.
I knew Trieste had been important in the development of James Joyce as a writer, but I was also intrigued to visit this city that had been home to several famous Italian writers like Umberto Saba and Italo Svevo. How did one town situated on the Italian edge of the Austro Hungarian Empire give birth to so many twentieth century literary geniuses?
Trieste is an architecturally beautiful city located in northern Italy, between Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea. A mixture of Italian, Slavic, and Austro-Hungarian cultures make it a melting pot of languages and a port of cultural diversity.
Trieste was ruled by the Venetian Republic up until 1374. When the citizens of Trieste grew tired of paying steep taxes to their Venetian rulers, they petitioned the Duke of Austria to allow them to become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an interesting way to obtain some autonomy and become a city no longer shackled to La Serenissima.
On a recent walking tour of Trieste, I learned about the city’s history and culture as well as some interesting anecdotes about the literary giants who once inhabited this place. Joyce lived in Trieste from 1904 to 1920, writing The Dubliners as well as many of the key parts of Ulysses while living from hand-to-mouth as an English teacher working for Berlitz.
Our guide enjoyed telling us the story of Joyce’s arrival in Trieste with Nora, who was to become his wife. Allegedly, Joyce parked Nora on a bench near the train station and went alone to find the Berlitz School, where he was to teach. En route he became sidetracked by some English speaking sailors and ended up drunk and in jail. What a horror Nora’s life must have been living in Trieste, never really wanting to learn Italian or become part of the local cultural scene.
From the age of 22 until 36, Joyce and his family lived in eight apartments in the city. Many of them have plaques attesting to his residence within. He became a friend and English teacher to Italo Svevo, often meeting him in the Stella Polare, a bar that still exists at the edge of the former Jewish ghetto. Our tour guide also mentioned that Joyce was known to be a frequent visitor at a particular brothel in the red light district of the Old City.
What I had forgotten was that Umberto Saba, a famous Italian poet, had to leave Trieste because he was a Jew. He sold his bookstore to a longtime friend and associate leaving Trieste in 1938. Because of the Italian racial laws, he sought refuge first in Paris, then in Rome, hiding in Giuseppe Ungaretti’s home, and finally in Florence where he was cared for by Eugenio Montale, before leaving for Milan and eventually settling in Rome after the war ended. It was Saba’s love of Trieste that first awakened my interest in this area through his poems, “Ulisse” (Ulysses) and “Trieste.”
Trieste has many points of interest: the Cathedral of San Giusto, dedicated in 1320, has incredible mosaics and a beautiful wooden ceiling; the Arch of Riccardo built in 33, is a well-preserved Roman arch with a lovely story that connects it, in folklore at least, to Richard the Lionhearted, who may have stopped here on his way back from the Crusades; the Roman amphitheater is lovingly preserved, and then there is all the neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Liberty and Baroque-style architecture which immediately captivates the visitor. Certainly impressive is the Piazza Unita’ d’Italia, the central square, which captured my heart when we first arrived a few days ago. The magnificence of the buildings, that encircle the square on three sides with the Adriatic Sea making the final side of the square, makes this the most impressive piazza that I have ever seen.
Marjorie helps American and British travelers build their Italian language skills and learn about Italian culture, sites and events so they can get the most out of their time spent in the country. Visit www.italyanditalian.com to get in touch with her!