Having written of Kaiserlich und Königlich ennui a little while ago, I would now like to write of sadness, melancholy, spleen or – to invoke the official language of one half of the Empire – Weltschmerz.
Not far from the Serenissima’s borders, where the Austro-Hungarian coast came to an end, Maria Theresa was gripped by the desire for her own Venice: a large, multicultural port with picturesque canals. And since the Austrian Empress approached every task in an orderly and systematic fashion, after issuing toleration edicts abolishing customs duties to attract settlers (adherents of a variety of faiths but of a single, mercantile religion), she decreed that canals be designed in a straight line, for she abhorred the Venetian mess. The result was a city that was neither fish nor fowl: neither Italian nor Austrian; neither Alpine nor Adriatic, but instead one poisoned by a kind of underlying sadness caused by who knows what, perhaps the very closeness of ‘Trieste’ and ‘triste’, perhaps some water-borne fungi and bacilli, or perhaps by the incurable ambiguity that gets more and more penetrating as years pass.
I could write of the gloominess of Caffé San Marco, the desolation of the last remaining canal (the rest having been gradually squeezed out by urban development), of the melancholy of an empty church or synagogue, the dolefulness of Slovenians in Trieste and Italians in Capodistria – but all that you will have read in Magris. Relics of a bygone glory, the peeling stucco, the empty quayside warehouses: all this has been said a hundred times before. I did, however, come across something I have never read about and never encountered in any other city in such abundance: gloomy family museums.
An Italian-Greek-Slovene-Jewish-Austrian-Serbian-and-who-knows-what-other oligarchy, with its own distinctive customs, interests and leisure activities, was created in this Pseudo-Venice through a joint effort of the affluent members of the shipbuilding profession, the merchants and owners of major insurance companies (the mightiest buildings in the city still belong to various Assicurazioni). They have constructed enormous palaces with opulent staircases, vast ballrooms and airy salons. Although he never set foot outside his native United States of America, Edward Gorey showed great intuition in his limerick about the salons de la ville de Trieste, where people talked only of diseases, disfigurements and pests [on cause de malaises, des estropiements, et de pestes].
And indeed, the rooms, staircases and hallways of the numerous family museums that the last heirs of these families have bequeathed to the city of Trieste impart precisely this gloomy impression. Thick carpets, funereal ebony furniture with brass fittings, gigantic candelabra, fireplaces of porphyry with bell glasses containing clocks that have long stopped ticking. 600-metre-long halls. The music room, where every inch of wall and ceiling is overgrown with crazed neo-Gothic dark wainscoting. The master bedroom: a black desk surrounded by black chairs with black coats of arms, with a dark wall behind and sombre curtains hanging from a black curtain rail. The bedroom of the lady of the house, decorated in baby blue and white, quite pleasant at first sight, with mirrors and porcelain vases – but if you look more closely, every shade is refracted and everything is enveloped in a thick layer of sadness. A cast of someone’s hand on the mantelpiece. Everything smells of smoke and disintegration. Separate marital beds. Portraits of spooky, desiccated relatives. Murderous pompoms on the curtains, lethal cushions on the armchairs, every piece of furniture apparently imbued with arsenic.
Perhaps in the days when shipbuilders and bankers in stiff tailcoats used to sit here and ladies in ample crinolines eased themselves into these armchairs, they did let in little more light; but since light might damage golden and magenta-coloured damasks and silvery-black wallpaper, the rare visitor now has to pass through rooms that are even darker than they used to be, in the bleak electric light that seems to have been installed only a minute ago. All that remains is to enter, crawl into a corner and within fifteen minutes succumb to galloping consumption.
The Museo Revoltella boasts a kitschy painting by Giani, suggestively entitled ‘The Last Leaf’: beneath a large expanse of parchment bearing the family tree, reclining in an armchair, there sits the last offspring of the family, a green-eyed girl (she will quite clearly not continue the line) gazing melancholically into the future. Her real-life counterpart can be seen on the wall of the Count of Morpurgo family bedroom, in the photograph of the young Matilda, her body corseted in a white dress; neither she nor her brother Mario procreated and, thus sans issue, they spent their days in the dark interiors of the Palazzo Morpurgo until, on their deathbed, they bequeathed to their city all their paintings and wardrobes, their candelabra and kneeling benches as well as their enormous bathroom reminiscent of a slaughterhouse. A cold, white-tiled bathroom with a bidet in one corner, a tub in another, a sink in a third and a toilet in the fourth, the distances and deathly pallor recalling Napoleon’s retreat from the gates of Moscow.
However, the most horrendous sight in this gloomiest of all the family museums of Trieste awaits us in the adjoining room. Here on massive shelves is stored a collection of over a hundred chamber pots: European and Asian, faience and china, flowery and trimmed, many featuring little scenes and inscriptions, from the smallest to the most enormous. A large plaque set in the wall above announces for all eternity that this is the collection of the noble Constantinides family, Greek merchants or shipbuilders, and that Mrs. Fulvia Constantinides has bequeathed this exquisite collection to the city of Trieste in memory of her husband Giorgio. P. and I stood in the little room, motionless, as if under a spell. For if there is hell on earth, it must have been the life of Mr. and Mrs. Constantinides, who out of the multitude of things to which one can dedicate one’s life, chose the collecting of chamber pots. Nothing else we saw in Trieste – not the Morpurgo family salons, the peeling stucco, the exiled Bourbons’ gravestones, the unfortunate Emperor Maximilian’s hunting trophies – none of these matched the frosty sadness of this room with its hundred or so deathly pale reflections of light on these rounded vessels of faience and china.
Translation: Julia Sherwood
The original of this article appeared in the Polish weekly Polityka.