Trieste: The Duomo

Duomo of Trieste.

The signs in the streets of Trieste not only give directions, but also mention the number of steps to take before reaching an attraction. I must say the signs are very helpful, but if it is 37 degrees centigrade outside and one has to climb the hill where the Duomo of the city was built, they can be quite depressing too. Under these circumstances, “another 614 steps to the cathedral of San Giusto” seems like a walk of about a week. Fortunately we managed to reach the top of the hill in one piece, albeit puffing, panting and extremely thirsty. After catching our breath again, we went into the Duomo to explore the building. We quickly concluded that the climb had been well worth the effort. Especially the two medieval apse mosaics in the cathedral are splendid.


The Duomo is dedicated to the local martyr Saint Justus. He is a rather obscure figure who died a martyr at the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century during the persecutions of the emperor Diocletianus. According to tradition he was drowned in the Gulf of Trieste. In the fifth or sixth century a church dedicated to him was built in the city, which was still called Tergeste back then. This church arose next to the Roman forum of Trieste, probably on the spot where previously the temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva had stood (the so-called Capitoline triad). Not much later the church was destroyed during the Longobard invasions, but it must have been rebuilt at some point. In the eleventh century a church dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta was built against the north side of the church of Saint Justus. Then between 1302 and 1320 the two buildings were merged, and in 1385 the current cathedral of San Giusto was consecrated.

Side view of the Duomo.


Entrance of the Duomo, with the remains of the tomb of the Barbii.

The Duomo has a simple façade with two conspicuous elements: the beautiful Gothic rose window and the decorations of the main entrance. These decorations are originally from a Roman tomb that belonged to the Barbius family. The gens Barbia was originally from Aquileia and several members of the extended family were active in the iron ore trade with Noricum in present-day Austria. The ore was used, among other things, to produce the famous Roman arms. To the left and right of the main entrance we see six heads of Barbii. They are four men and two women. The letters LL in several inscriptions suggest that we are dealing with freed slaves here (LL = Lucii libertus, ‘freedman of Lucius’). The name of the bottom left woman was apparently not Barbia, but Tullia.

The cathedral has a rather squat bell-tower, which like the cathedral dates from the fourteenth century. The tower was built on the spot where previously the propylaeum (a kind of vestibule) of the aforementioned pagan temple had stood. Roman sculptural work was used to embellish the tower. We mainly see reliefs of captured shields, suits of armour, helmets and other tools of war, perhaps once part of a Roman victory monument. Also part of the decorations of the tower is a statue of Saint Justus. He has been placed under a Gothic arch supported by two columns. Justus is holding the palm branch of a martyr in his left hand and a model of the city of Trieste in his right. The statue is somewhat older than the tower, as it dates from the tenth or eleventh century.

Statue of Saint Justus.


Interior of the Duomo.

The interior of the Duomo is quite sober and also rather sombre. This must have been very different in the past, as high up in the nave we can still see a few traces of colourful medieval frescoes. They represent the Annunciation, Birth of Christ and Adoration of the Magi. In the nave we can furthermore admire pieces of a mosaic floor. This is actually the floor of the original building from the fifth or sixth century.

Clearly of a very recent date is the central apse mosaic, which features the Coronation of the Virgin. I would not call it beautiful, but there is an interesting story behind it. The mosaic is accompanied by an inscription that states that it was made in the year 14 (ANNO XIV) after the inhabitants of Trieste (Tergestini in Latin) had returned in mother Italy’s lap. The inscription is a reference to the annexation of the city by the Italians at the end of World War One. This annexation was effected in 1918, so the mosaic must date from 1932. Although my travel guide states otherwise, I do not think the mosaic is directly associated with Fascism. It certainly does not refer to the year 14 of the Era Fascista (E F), as that would have been mentioned explicitly. The angel to the left of the coronation can be seen holding a sign with the Latin text VENI CORONABERIS FILIA SION (“Come and you will be crowned, oh daughter of Sion”). The mosaic replaced a similarly themed fresco from the fifteenth century, which was unfortunately lost in 1843.

Remains of frescoes in the nave.

Floor mosaic.

Coronation of the Virgin (1932).

Medieval mosaics and frescoes

Much more beautiful and infinitely more interesting are the mosaics in the left and right apse. The left mosaic was originally part of the church of Santa Maria Assunta. It therefore dates from the end of the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century and was made by craftsmen from Venice. In the conch we see the Virgin Mary on a throne, with the Christ child on her lap. Mary is wearing a blue dress called a maphorion. The mosaic closely follows the Byzantine tradition and depicts Christ not as a child, but as a miniature adult. Mary is the Μήτηρ Θεοῦ, MP ΘY for short, the Mother of God. She is flanked by two archangels, Michael (left) and Gabriel (right). Note the attributes they are holding. These resemble a cross and globe. Below Mary, Christ and the archangels we see twelve apostles, with Saints Peter and Paul in the centre.

Left apse mosaic.


Madonna and Child / the archangel Gabriel.

The right apse mosaic is of a slightly more recent date. It was made in the thirteenth century and represents Christ with Saints Justus and Servulus. Justus – the saint to whom the cathedral is dedicated – is holding the palm branch of a martyr, while Servulus is holding a cross. Christ is trampling the asp and basilisk, the symbols of evil, with his feet. He uses his right hand to give his blessing and is holding a book in his left hand. The text on the pages reads:


Right apse mosaic.

Scenes from the life of Saint Justus.

This should probably be translated as: “The life of the soldier is equal to that of the blessed father (i.e. the priest)”. The text apparently stresses the similarities between the lives of Justus and Servulus. According to tradition Justus was indeed a soldier. It has not become entirely clear to me who Servulus was. In the sixth century there was a saint called Servulus of Rome, but he was actually a beggar and not a priest. The Servulus in Trieste is most likely a local saint, with an information panel in the cathedral claiming he was also a martyr from Trieste.[1] Also of great interest are the capitals and imposts (pulvini) in the apse. These go all the way back to the sixth century, and two of them feature the monogram of a certain Frugifer, the first known bishop of the city.

On the back wall below the right mosaic we find a couple of damaged frescoes about the life of Saint Justus. These frescoes date from the beginning of the thirteenth century. One of them shows us how a certain Saint Sebastianus finds the body of the drowned Justus on the beach. The body of the martyr has been weighed down by his executioners. More damaged frescoes, this time from the twelfth century, can be found in the apse in the far right corner of the cathedral. One of the frescoes features the Hetoimasia, the empty throne that refers to the Second Coming of Christ. The apse is dedicated to Saint Apollinaris, the legendary first bishop of Ravenna.

Carlist chapel.

A peculiar part of the cathedral is the so-called Chapel of the Carlists in the right aisle. The chapel is dedicated to Saint Carlo Borromeo, the famous archbishop of Milan in the sixteenth century, but the name ‘Carlists’ derives from Don Carlos, count of Molina (1788-1855), the younger brother of the Spanish king Ferdinand VII. When Ferdinand passed away in 1833, Carlos believed he was entitled to the throne of the country. However, his adversaries supported Isabella, the daughter of the dead king, who was just two years old at the time. The result of the conflict was the First Carlist War (1833-1840), which would be followed by a Second and a Third War (in 1846-1849 and 1872-1876 respectively). Much blood was shed, but neither Don Carlos nor any of his successors ever succeeded in becoming king of Spain. The Austrian authorities allowed the family to settle in Trieste, which explains why Don Carlos himself, his sons Carlos VI and Juan III, and his grandson Carlos VII were all buried in the Chapel of the Carlists.

In the far left corner of the cathedral visitors can visit the Tesoro (treasury), which contains a slightly odd mix of religious art and relics. To see all the objects well one has to insert a coin in a machine that controls the lights. Those who do not have an endless supply of coins (paying by card is regretfully not yet possible) are well advised to save their money for the apse mosaics. There can be no doubt whatsoever that these are way more beautiful and interesting than the oddities of the Tesoro.



[1] Just across the border with Slovenia is a village that is called San Servolo in Italian (Socerb in Slovene).

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