A Reckoning with the Past in Present-Day Trieste

by Jeremy F. Walton

[1] View of the bar at Caffé San Marco in Trieste. Photo by author. 

Throughout the globe, cities are discovering that their pasts resonate with increasing potency and vibrancy in the present. This has been especially true in the Mediterranean basin, where the erstwhile modes of social, linguistic, religious, and ethnic plurality that defined daily life in port cities and entrepots speak to the contemporary longing for more capacious, flexible forms of cosmopolitan citizenship. Nostalgia is also a big business—tourists longing for the aromas and textures of bygone times find them surprisingly available as commodified consumer culture in the “historic” districts of urban cores from Istanbul to Tangier, from Palermo to Dubrovnik. Yet it would be archly dismissive to reduce recent urban exhumations of the past to bald material or political instrumentalism. Urban pasts can also function as a spur to incisive, urgently-needed critiques of forms of urban inequality and erasure in the present.

[2] The special issue of the journal Edinost on 
display at Caffé San Marco. Photo by author.
On April 22nd of this year, the “Empires of Memory” Max Planck Research Group, based at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, had the unique opportunity to contribute to a public discussion of these questions in Trieste’s exquisite Caffé San Marco. [Fig 1] We gathered to launch a special issue of the journal Edinost, titled “Finding Place(s) for the Past in Trieste”. [Fig 2] 

[3] Alessio Mazzaro, artist and
curator of Edinost.
Edinost was originally a publication devoted to Trieste’s Slavic communities during the late Habsburg era prior to World War I; it was shuttered by the Italian Fascist government in the 1920s. In recent years, Triestine artist Alessio Mazzaro [Fig 3] has revived the journal as a forum to reflect publicly on the city’s multiethnic and multi-religious past. Our special issue, co-edited by Empires of Memory members Giulia Carabelli, Annika Kirbis, and Jeremy F. Walton, [Figs 4 & 5] curated a series of articles on the ambivalences and effects of Trieste’s public monuments, especially those dating from Habsburg times. The conversation in Caffé San Marco—once a haunt of both Italian Irredentists and James Joyce—was lively, clearly only one moment in a longer reckoning with the past that animates Trieste today. Above all, the launch constituted a unique moment of synthesis between scholarship and its objects: our discussion of public space, memory, and plurality was itself one moment in the long history of a space that entails these very questions. 

[4] Giulia Carabelli (left) and Annika Kirbis (right), co-editors of the recent issue of Edinost, at the launch event in Trieste.

[5] Jeremy Walton says a few words at the meeting in
Caffé San Marco.

Jeremy F. Walton is director of the research group "Empires of Memory: The Cultural Politics of Historicity in Former Habsburg and Ottoman Cities" at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity.

***The English version of the special issue of Edinost can be found here.


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