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In a Quiet Corner of Italy ... Trieste

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Chiara Goia for The New York Times

Late afternoon soccer in the Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia, Trieste's central square. MEDIUM-SIZE seaport teetering on the edge of what we recognize as Italy, Trieste is a mysterious and puzzling place. Its iconic central square, the Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia, bounded on three sides by comically pompous 18th- and 19th-century buildings, most of them decorated like big, boxy wedding cakes, is wide open to the Adriatic, as though the ever-changing seascape were an entertainment staged for the city’s benefit. This vast, glorious piazza promises all sorts of civic delights, but in fact it’s one of the few immediately gratifying spots in Trieste. The rest takes time — exactly what most of us are unwilling to give up.

 

 With a convoluted history of serial conquest, culminating in a century-long tug-of-war between Italy and Austria, a melting-pot population, a street plan that ranges from serenely rational to bewilderingly crooked and steep, and a forbidding limestone plateau crowding it down to the waterfront, Trieste is like a modernist novel — complex, layered, ambiguous. It makes you dig for significance. But don’t worry, the story has a happy ending: the patient visitor will go away well satisfied (and wonderfully well fed), rewarded by an experience unavailable to those looking for a quick and easy foreign fix.

Trieste had been misunderstood and unfairly neglected by guidebooks (perhaps inevitably, with the distraction of glittering Venice just 70 miles down the coast), but it has nevertheless found a cult following; among its notable enthusiasts is the travel writer Jan Morris, who decided to devote her final book to a meditation on this “enclave sui generis.” Trieste’s greatest native writer, Italo Svevo, whose early career was marked by failure, has acquired a similarly ardent following. His comic masterpiece, once known as “The Confessions of Zeno” (1923) and recently retranslated as “Zeno’s Conscience,” a tender, devastating, hilarious portrait of modern man’s absurd delusions, is now safely established as a classic of Italian literature; the critic Paul Bailey went so far as to declare it “arguably the greatest comic novel of the 20th century.”

Svevo’s most famous sound bite comes from the mouth of Zeno Cosini, the charmingly unreliable hero of “Zeno’s Conscience,” who blurts out, “Life is neither ugly nor beautiful, but it’s original!” A life-size statue of Svevo stands on a Trieste sidewalk near the public library in the pleasant, leafy Piazza Hortis. There’s no pedestal, so the bronzed author mingles with the passersby, an immobilized pedestrian, with his character’s equivocal, highly quotable insight inscribed on a plaque at his feet: “La vita non è né brutta né bella, ma è originale!” Consider it a usefully compact judgment on Trieste, which certainly isn’t ugly, often fails to be beautiful and is proudly unlike any other city in Italy.

Svevo was born in 1861, when Trieste, whose port provided the Austro-Hungarian empire with its gateway to the wide world, was a teeming center of international commerce ruled by Hapsburg monarchs. Though populated by Italians (and Slavs and Greeks), the city was shaped by imperial Austrian design and flavored by a spirit of religious tolerance that allowed for a thriving Jewish community (Svevo’s father’s family was German Jewish and his mother’s Italian Jewish). When Hapsburg grandeur rubs up against a more relaxed Italian style and a higgledy-piggledy mix of ethnic elements joins the fray, the result — as Svevo would say — is original.

Trieste’s singularity should be savored slowly, at a relaxed tempo; Jan Morris called it “a loitering kind of place.” Other Italian cities at times give the impression that they’re preening, putting on a show of architectural splendor; even in the dead of winter they’re in a hurry to seduce crowds of chilly tourists. In Trieste, in the off-season, there are few tourists, which means that as you loiter you get the impression that what you’re seeing is entirely authentic — a town going about its business as it did yesterday and will again tomorrow.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: May 1, 2011

Two picture captions on Page 9 with the continuation of an article about the Italian city of Trieste are transposed and, therefore, misidentify the cafes shown. The large picture of a cafe with a dog is of the Urbanis, not the Super Bar Stella. The small picture of three people having drinks is at the Super Bar Stella, not the Urbanis.


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