Young anthropologist believes Trieste nostalgic for Habsburg times

Trst, 20 August - Young researcher Daša Ličen has stumbled upon an interesting find while researching the 19th-century identification practices of the citizens of Trieste for her doctoral thesis. She believes the city is imbued with nostalgia for the Habsburg Empire, to which it belonged for centuries before the First World War.

Trieste, Italy
Young researcher Daša Ličen.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Ličen, a PhD student in ethnology and cultural anthropology, sees this nostalgia in Trieste in all things, from the monuments that are erected in the city and literature to simple things such as restaurant menus.

In Trieste, a port city in Italy, restaurants offer goulash, polenta and desserts such as presnitz instead of typical Italian dishes such as pizza, various types of pasta and tiramisu.

"It all tends to make [Trieste] appear as German-speaking or Viennese, because this still ranks high on a non-existing list of nations," Ličen, who lives in Trieste, told the STA.

She believes the nostalgia stems from the fact that the city was under the rule of the Habsburg dynasty for half a millennium before it was handed over to Italy after the First World War.

With the shift, Trieste immediately lost the status of the most important port in the empire and the imperial trade hub, and became an unimportant town on the periphery of the Italian kingdom.

Nostalgia, which according to Ličen tells more about the present than the past, is "an answer to this crisis in Trieste and at the same time a potential political solution that could take Trieste on the path of its former glory".

It is hard to say when this nostalgia appeared in Trieste, but Ličen believes it was decades before the feeling gained a foothold in the city. She believes it gained the most support after the Second World War and later in the 1980s.

It still exists today, which can be seen in monuments that are reclaiming their space in the city, for instance the recently reinstated sculpture of Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

There is another aspect of the nostalgia - marketing. Trieste is a popular destination for Austrians, who "are equally nostalgic for the Habsburg Empire, but can hardly say it out loud", says the young researcher, who received a Fulbright grant last year.

"They like to visit Trieste and link it to Vienna. They seek features in the city that are similar to Vienna of the past and of the present, and to other imperial cities."

According to Ličen, it seems that people with Hungarian, Jewish or Greek roots are the most nostalgic for the imperial times, while the feeling is much less prominent among the Slovenian community.

"People of Trieste in the 19th century were not simply Slovenians, Italians, Germans or Austrians, they were simply citizens of Trieste. If we had to divide them in different categories, we would sooner talk about classes - those who were better off and those who weren't.

"When we talk about the 19th century, we like to think of it from our, national perspective, but that is wrong," Ličen explains.

The contemporary perspective, which usually understands multiculturalism as a mosaic of isolated ethnic groups, does not have much in common with the Trieste of the 19th century, when national communities did not exist yet.

Looking from today's perspective is also problematic because the new discourse only highlights selected communities that live in Trieste, for instance the Jewish and Armenian communities, and neglect others, including Slovenians.