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  • Lee Elliott

Trieste: A Haunting

There are a few places left in the world that allow one to disappear. Trieste, tucked into a narrow corner of coastline of the northmost corner of the Adriatic Sea, and backed by an imposing wall of limestone that rises to a high plateau of the Julian Alps, is a city that invites a change of perspective, or a separation from the familiar. Its situation as a civic entity is a peculiar one: technically part of Italy, united to that nation by a mere thin bit of coast, but more intimately connected to Slovenia, bordering Trieste just five miles away to the east. The spot has attracted human settlement since Paleolithic times, followed by Celtic, Roman, Byzantine, Frankish, Austro-Hungarian and even French dominion. Much of what gives Trieste its character dates to its development as a great seaport for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Those days are long gone, since the end of World War One, and perhaps this loss of significance is part of what gives Trieste its quality of ambiguity. Over the centuries the city has acquired a mixture of personalities, with Austrian, Italian and Slovene influences at work. It is certainly a good place for exiles, as a backdrop for shifting fortunes, dreams, and ambitions.


Some have found Trieste a rather dull and somber place, but for others it holds a strange fascination. The great travel writer Jan Morris wrote a remarkable book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, that captures that paradox beautifully. Trieste is anchored by a splendid square, the Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia, which is one of the largest in Italy and flanked by impressive 19th century buildings. Also memorable is the “Grand Canal” reminiscent of Venice, but on a much smaller scale.


Piazza dell'Unita


Grand Canal


James Joyce is much revered in Trieste and the city served him well, as the place where he completed Dubliners and began work on Ulysses. He and his wife Nora lived a somewhat hand-to-mouth existence there for years; he taught English and tried to survive by means of other endeavors, such as opera singing and attempting to run the first cinema in the city. He enjoyed the taverns of Trieste to the fullest, and who knows what intellectual threads unraveled from his conversations in those agreeable retreats.


Statue of James Joyce on bridge over Grand Canal


A dark episode in literary history concerns the remarkable explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton who moved to Trieste with his wife Isabel in 1872, when he was assigned by the British Foreign Office to represent Queen Victoria there. The great scholar and writer, who spoke 29 languages and had been all over the world as an adventurer and observer, even venturing into Mecca in disguise, absolutely hated Trieste and resented the posting to the backwater city. His wife enjoyed the sedate milieu of Trieste, but Burton spent much of his time hidden away in a decrepit hostelry in nearby Opicina, translating The Thousand and One Nights, his greatest achievement. The literary scandal occurred after his death. Burton had been working on an explicit guide to sexuality entitled The Perfumed Garden, and his wife was appalled by the book, considering it pornographic and a threat to morality. After much soul-searching, she burned the manuscript, and many have cursed Isabel ever afterward. Burning the final works of important writers is generally a bad and unforgiveable practice. One of the worst criminals in this line of despicable behavior is Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra, who burnt hundreds of Jane’s letters after the great novelist’s death. Why do such a horrible thing? That is a subject for another post.


For another literary achievement linked to Trieste, consider The Duino Elegies of Ranier Maria Rilke. In 1911, Rilke was invited to stay at Duino Castle, a dramatically sited retreat high above the Adriatic,

near Trieste, by an aristocratic patroness of the arts. It had been a dreary and stressful time in Rilke’s life and when he first arrived at the castle, he felt burned-out and uninspired. At first, it seemed that nothing would come of his sojourn there. But one day, as Rilke walked along the coastal path with its splendid view of the sea, the first of the Elegies came to him in a transcendental moment. A few lines caught from the wild beauty of the place:


Beauty is as close to terror

As we can well endure.

Angels would not condescend

to damn our meager souls.

That is why they awe

And why they terrify us so.

Every angel is terrible!


Translated from the German by Robert Hunter


As a painter, I prefer to begin work on a toned canvas, rather than a plain white surface. Perhaps Trieste could be considered a toned canvas, a neutral ground with just enough interest to foster a creative direction. I guess you will have to visit Trieste yourself to come to a conclusion. Sometimes “nowhere” is just what the soul requires. And, perhaps appropriately, Trieste is a somewhat difficult city to reach.



Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris, DeCapo Press, 2001


Dubliners, James Joyce, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2014


The Duino Elegies: A New and Complete Translation, Ranier Maria Rilke, translated by Alfred Corn, W.W. Norton and co, 2021

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