History of Trieste

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The history of Trieste is an intricate patchwork of myth and legend, flights, passion and races, of culture, peoples and painful victories, of elegant worldliness, successes and failures, of surprising contradictions, lives of artists, commercial traffic and pagan rituals.

Traces of its earliest past have almost all been lost, but according to scholars, the first inhabitants of this region lived in large caverns in the upland plains at the beginning of the Ice Age.

However, it was only in two thousand B.C. that a settlement of sorts began to take shape on the summits of the hills. These were the first villages or castellieri which were surrounded by defensive walls, designed to keep out both invaders and bears which were frequently spotted in the surrounding areas. Inhabited by people of Indo-European (rather than Venetian or Gallo-Celtic) descent, these villages rapidly became commercial trading ports, as they were a natural gateway between east and west and between land and sea.

It was on the site of one of these castellieri - probably the one that dominated the hill where the San Giusto Cathedral stands ' that the village of Trieste originated. Its name (derived from the Latin Tergeste) indicates its original purpose: Terg is a Paleo-Venetian word meaning 'market' and este means 'town'. There is no shortage of myths and legends surrounding the place: according to ancient texts, it was here that Jason and the Argonauts were said to have landed on their quest for the mythical Golden Fleece; it was also the place where Antenore and Diomedes were said to have disembarked during the battle for Troy.

Next came the Romans. The area was conquered and in 52 B.C. Tergeste became a colony of the Eternal City. Commerce and trading began to increase at an astonishing rate, particularly during the second century A.D. This went hand in hand with rapid architectural development. Many remains from this period are still visible to this day including the Arco di Riccardo, the Teatro Romano, the patrician villas and the Basilica Forense.

The fall of the Roman Empire heralded a period of great uncertainty. After a succession of Barbarian invasions, the region passed through the hands of the Goths, the Longobards, the Byzantines and the French. The situation was barely any better throughout the Middle Ages. Violent battles for control over the Adriatic lead to Trieste pledging allegiance to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or rather to Duke Leopold of Austria.

In 1382, an indissoluble bond was created between Trieste and the Hapsburgs. It was a bittersweet bond based on love and hate, respect and submission. It was indeed the Austrians ' towards whom many people of Trieste still feel conflicting emotions ' that ordered the construction of the castle on San Giusto hill, between 1470 and 1630. This castle has now become one of the principle symbols of the city.

It was in accordance with the wishes of the Hapsburgs (a huge international power) that Trieste was swiflty transformed from a sleepy seaside village to a large European port. With the exception of a few other periods of foreign rule ' Venetian, Spanish and finally Napoleonic ' Trieste remained subjugated by the Hapsburgs until 1918.

Merchants, entrepreneurs and adventurers from all over the world flocked to Trieste and the city was radically restructured in the eighteenth century by the energetic Empress Maria Teresa. By the end of the nineteenth century the city numbered over one hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants. Large insurance and shipping companies began to appear and shipyards and factories also opened their doors.

Trieste became an important port under Viennese control and numerous economic and cultural initiatives were set up. Thousands of people arrived here from Greece, Turkey and other countries even further afield. This migration gave rise to a multi-ethnic community unpararalled in the rest of Europe. Numerous religions and corresponding places of worship were welcomed to the area ' many of these remain standing to this day. Great writers such as Italo Svevo Scipio Slataper, Rainer Maria Rilke and James Joyce lived here. The city's streets are laiden with charm, charisma and mystery; it is full of places of historical interest such as the ancient café or bookshop owned by the poet and intellectual Umberto Saba.

In keeping with the irredentist movements that were taking hold all over Europe, many inhabitants of Trieste began to show their support for Garibaldi's forces and the Risorgimento. By the end of the First World War, Trieste had become part of a united Italy. However, the upheavals did not end here. The Second World War brought with it new tragedies. Italy lost the war and Trieste was invaded by Tito's Yugoslavian troops. The thousands of Italians who spoke out against the Communist regime were incarcerated in large underground rock cavities called foibe. They were eventually released thanks to the interventention of Allied troops and the city ' with feelings of both euphoria and disorientation ' came under U.S. military rule until 1954. It was at this time that Trieste was finally and defintively returned to Italy and it became the administrative seat of the smallest province in Italy and the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region.

When the Ameicans left however, there were further problems. Many people found themselves being made redundant and the region underwent a progressive de-industrialisation. The crisis facing the port and the undeniable lack of business acumen among the citizens of Trieste were the final straw. The city's economy was transformed into an anomalous phenomenon. Regaining the wealth and prosperity of the past was to be a difficult task. Even today, the percentage of unemployed in Venezia-Giulia is one of the highest in Northern Italy.

It has only really been in the past twenty years that Trieste has been able to carve out a new niche for itself. It has now become the most important centre for scientific research in Italy and this is a sector which is providing work for an increasing number of young people. Numerous research institutes can be found in the city including the Area di Ricerca (one of the largest technology parks in Europe), the Sincrotrone Elettra, the International Centre of Physical Theory, the Laboratory of Marine Biology, the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology and many others, as well as the avant-garde university which was built under Fascist rule in the 1920's.