Trieste: a walk through history

Canal Grande of Trieste.

Of all the Italian cities that I have visited in my life, Trieste has to be the most un-Italian. Trieste was an Austrian city for ages, had many non-Italian inhabitants and has only been part of Italy for a relatively brief period of time. Together with Trento it was the most important ‘war booty’ that the Kingdom of Italy acquired at the end of the First World War. But the price the country paid for the two cities – several hundred thousand soldiers killed – was exceptionally high. On 3 November 1918 the Italian destroyer Audace docked at the pier in Trieste now called the Molo Audace. As of that date Trieste was part of Italy. To commemorate this event, a monumental compass rose was placed on the pier in 1925.

Trieste under the Habsburgs

I have already discussed the earliest history of Trieste in a previous post. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, the city was under Gothic, Byzantine, Longobard and lastly Frankish rule. Then the bishops of the city took control of it and remained in power for several centuries. Apart from their religious and administrative duties their main task was to keep the advancing Slavs out of the city, converting them to Christianity in the process. In 1295 Trieste became a free commune, governed by its own citizens. The city had excellent access to the Adriatic Sea, much to the chagrin of powerful Venice, which did not tolerate any mercantile rivals. Several wars broke out over the years, which saw the armies and fleets of the Serenissima get the better of Trieste time and time again. In 1369 the Venetians even managed to occupy the city. Although this occupation did not last for more than a few years, the inhabitants feared that the Venetians would return one day. On 30 September 1382 they therefore formally placed themselves under the protection of duke Leopold III of Habsburg. This was the start of the Austrian chapter in the history of the city.

Quay in Trieste.

Leopold was a popular name among the Austrian dukes. The House of Babenberg spawned six Leopolds, including the well-known Leopold V who took the English king Richard the Lionheart prisoner. When the House of Habsburg took over, seven more Leopolds appeared on stage. It should be noted that the numbering of the Leopolds started from scratch again when the Habsburgs replaced the Babenbergs, which causes confusion from time to time. In any case, neither Leopold III of Habsburg nor his successors showed much interest in Trieste. This only changed in the eighteenth century during the reign of Charles VI, who was not just archduke of Austria, but also Holy Roman emperor (1711-1740). For Charles it was of the utmost importance that the Austrians got access to the Adriatic Sea. This access served military purposes in the ongoing war against the Turks, but the emperor was also eager to participate in the lucrative trade with the Far East. In 1719 Charles granted Trieste the status of a free port. Venice was not amused, but there was nothing the weak Serenissma could do.

Piazza della Borsa.

Golden Age and religious tolerance

Thanks to its free port status Trieste began expanding rapidly. There was a building boom and the population increased fivefold. In 1755 a stock market was opened and in 1781 the emperor Joseph II issued an Edict of Tolerance. The edict allowed Orthodox Christians, Protestants and Jews to freely practice their religion in the city, granting them the same rights as Catholics. Czechs, Greeks and Serbians subsequently settled in Trieste, and lived there alongside Italians, Slovenes and Croats. This  explains why opposite the aforementioned Molo Audace we find the Greek-Orthodox church of San Nicolò. The church was built in 1787 and executed in the Neoclassicist style. The interior of the church is beautiful, but unfortunately it was covered in scaffolds when we visited San Nicolò in the summer of 2022. Of even greater beauty is the church of San Spiridione, which is used by the Serbian-Orthodox Christians of Trieste. This church was completed in 1868. Regretfully it was closed to the public during our stay in Trieste, but the nineteenth-century mosaics of the exterior are stunning. It is hard to miss that this is a Serbian-Orthodox church, as the captions of the mosaics are in Cyrillic.

San Nicolò.

San Spiridione.

Façade of the San Spiridione.

Mosaic of the San Spiridione.

Trieste was a multi-religious city, but the majority of the inhabitants were Roman Catholics. One of the best-known Catholic churches of the city is the Santa Maria Maggiore, which was originally the church of the Jesuits. The church is beautifully situated against the slope of the Colle San Giusto and can be reached by climbing a double flight of stairs. The construction of the Santa Maria Maggiore started in 1627. The church was consecrated in 1682, but the construction of the dome was not completed until 1817. The Baroque interior of the Santa Maria is typically a matter of taste. Those who appreciate Baroque art will among other things find a painting that is attributed to Guercino (1591-1666). The façade, built in 1701, is often attributed to the architect Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709), who was himself a Jesuit. The small church of San Silvestro next to the Santa Maria Maggiore has been used by Swiss Protestants since 1785.

Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, on the right the church of San Silvestro.

A second important Catholic church is that of Sant’Antonio Taumaturgo. The church was designed in 1808 by the Swiss-Italian architect Pietro Nobile (1776-1854) and then built between 1827 and 1842. In 1849 the Sant’Antonio was consecrated. The building has a spotless white façade with six Neoclassical columns and an equal number of statues of saints. One of the saints is Saint Justus, to whom the cathedral of Trieste – which is obviously a Catholic church as well – is dedicated. Remarkably, there is no statue of Saint Antonius the Thaumaturge, to whom the church is dedicated, although his name is mentioned on the architrave of the façade. Saint Antonius the Thaumaturge is, by the way, none other than the famous Saint Antonius of Padova (1195-1231), one of the most important Franciscan saints in history. ‘Thaumaturge’ means ‘wonderworker’ and apparently refers to the miracles that are attributed to Antonius (see this post for examples). The church is not very special, but it does have a nice location at the far end of the Canal Grande of Trieste. Originally the water of the canal came all the way up to the church, but in the 1920s the last part was drained and a piazza was created in front of the Sant’Antonio, which is still lamented by many in Trieste.

Sant’Antonio Taumaturgo.

Trieste in the nineteenth century

The Golden Age of Trieste was rudely interrupted by the coming of the French under Napoleon, but then continued again when the occupiers had been expelled. Trieste mainly profited from its ship building and steel industries. Thanks to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 ships were able to reach Asia from the Adriatic Sea in record time. In 1833 Lloyd Austriaco was founded, also known as Österreichischer Lloyd or – as of 1919 – Lloyd Triestino. On the Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia we find the company’s former headquarters, the splendid Palazzo del Lloyd Triestino. The enormous palazzo was built between 1880 and 1883.

Palazzo del Lloyd Triestino.

Next to the Palazzo del Lloyd Triestino is a beautiful building from 1873 that currently accommodates a filial of the famous Venetian restaurant Harry’s Bar (the prices are very Venetian too). The restaurant is part of the Grand Hotel Duchi D’Aosta, which is located on the site of the inn where the well-known art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) was staying when, for reasons that have never become clear, he was murdered by an unemployed cook from Pistoia. On the same piazza we find the Palazzo del Municipio, or city hall, built between 1873 and 1875. Lastly I would like to mention the Palazzo della Luogotenenza austriaca. The original palazzo was built in 1764 on the orders of the empress Maria Theresa, but the current palazzo dates from 1901-1905.

Harry’s Bar.

Palazzo del Municipio.

Palazzo della Luogotenenza austriaca.

Statue of Josef Ressel.

Trieste’s successes in the field of shipbuilding and shipping can in part be attributed a man named Josef Ressel (1793-1857). He is considered the inventor (or one of the inventors) of the ship’s propellor, which is an essential element of just about any steam-powered ship. Ressel was the son of a German father and a Czech mother. As of 30 March 2022 he is honoured with a statue at the head of the Canal Grande. Apparently the statue is a popular attraction: when we visited Trieste, many people wanted to have their picture taken with Ressel.

Death and destruction

At the beginning of the twentieth century Trieste was the third largest city in the Habsburg Empire, after Vienna and Prague. Between 1890 and 1914 the population increased from 155,000 to 243,000 inhabitants. But while the rich were very rich, the poor were very poor. Moreover, tensions arose between the various ethnic groups, especially between Italians and Slovenes. Ever more Italian intellectuals began supporting irredentism, a belief in an Italia Irredenta, an Italy that was still unredeemed. The term referred to those areas outside the Kingdom of Italy where part of the population spoke Italian and was culturally Italian. This was the case in cities such as Trento and Trieste, but also in regions such as Istria (which had a large Italian population) and Dalmatia (which had just a few thousand Italian inhabitants). There were almost 100,000 Italians living in Trieste, but it seems that only a few hundred of them were active irredentists.[1] The vast majority of Italians saw themselves as loyal subjects of the Austrian emperor. This, however, did not stop Italy from entering World War One with the battle cry “Trento and Trieste”. Italia Irredenta had to be liberated.

Waterfront of Trieste.

To make a long story short: Italy would indeed annex Trento and Trieste, but it would be at the cost of much blood, sweat and tears. Led by their bizarrely incompetent supreme commander general Luigi Cadorna (1850-1928), the Italians engaged the Austrians in twelve battles at the river Isonzo. This suggests that the armies always clashed in the same place and never won any terrain, but this is not entirely true. The Italians were, for instance, able to capture Gorizia during the sixth battle of the Isonzo in August of 1916, and after the eleventh battle one year later they seriously threatened Trieste. In spite of all the horrendous losses on the Italian side, Cadorna finally seemed to be winning the war. But then the Italian house of cards came crashing down in the twelfth battle of the Isonzo, more famously known as the battle of Caporetto.[2] The weakened Austrian army had been reinforced with fresh German units, in one of which a young Erwin Rommel was serving. On 24 October 1917 the combined Austro-German forces started their offensive and the effects were devastating. When the battle came to a close on 19 November, the Italians had been driven back all the way to the Piave river, the Axis forces having advanced about 150 kilometres.

The losses for the Italian army in the battle were some 12,000 dead, 30,000 wounded and 294,000 POWs.[3] Austrian and German soldiers proudly paraded through the streets of Udine in the Friuli, where the authoritarian Cardona had set up his headquarters at the start of the war. Of course the general’s position had become untenable. He was quickly replaced by the much more competent general Armando Diaz (1861-1928). The tide was then quickly turned. The German units were needed elsewhere and left, and the Austrian army alone was unable to hold its positions. Supported by five British and French divisions Diaz won a resounding victory at Vittorio Veneto in October of 1918. On 4 November 1918 a ceasefire came into effect, but the previous day Austrian troops had already stopped resisting. This allowed the Italians to take control of Trento and Trieste. In the latter city, the Audace was able to dock unopposed. The central square was soon renamed the Piazza Unità and is now known as the Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia. Here every day the flag of the city – featuring the “halberd” of Saint Sergius[4] – flies proudly alongside the Italian tricolour.

Piazza Unità d’Italia.

Trieste after the two World Wars

Ships in the Gulf of Trieste.

With the territories it annexed in 1918, 1.4 million inhabitants were added to the Italian population in a single stroke. 650,000 of these were ethnic Italians, but the majority were German-speaking Austrians, Slovenes and Croats.[5] This quickly led to tensions. In 1920 the Slovene cultural centre in Trieste was burned to the ground, and a year later Mussolini’s fascists won almost half of the votes in the local elections. In 1922 they took control of the city. The economy of Trieste was in tatters by now, its Golden Age a thing of the past. The situation in the city became even more grim when, in 1929, education in the Slovene language was prohibited. A low point was reached with the outbreak of the Second World War. German and Italian troops fought against Slovene partisans on the Carso above the city, the Jews of Trieste were deported to concentration camps, and in 1944 the city was heavily damaged by Allied bombardments.

In 1945 Trieste was the last Italian city to be liberated. Yugoslav partisans under Tito AND New Zealanders under Bernard Freyberg almost simultaneously occupied parts of the city in May of 1945. This could have led to new bloodshed, but in June of 1945 it was agreed that the Yugoslav forces would depart. Then in 1947 the Free Territory of Trieste was created between Italy and Yugoslavia. It consisted of two smaller zones, Zone A under British and American control, and Zone B under Yugoslav authority. Zone A comprised the city of Trieste and its environs, and Zone B the area south of that, including the city of Koper (Capodistria in Italian). The 1954 Treaty of London disbanded the Free Territory again. Trieste was returned to Italy, while Koper and environs became part of Yugoslavia. Many Istrian-Italians left the peninsula, fearful of a future under Communist rule. The return of Trieste to Italy was, on the other hardly, celebrated exuberantly. The next morale boost was in 1963, when the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia was created and Trieste became its capital. Nowadays the city is mostly famous as a centre of scientific research.


  • Bradt Travel Guide, Friuli Venezia Giulia (2019), p. 44-52;
  • Mark Thompson, The White War.


[1] See Mark Thompson, The White War, p. 100-105.

[2] Now Kobarid in Slovenia, Karfreit in German.

[3] Mark Thompson, The White War, p. 324.

[4] This Sergius is a rather obscure martyr. His halberd is kept in the cathedral of Trieste. It should be noted that, strictly speaking, the weapon is not a halberd, but rather some kind of trident.

[5] Mark Thompson, The White War, p. 379-380.

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