When I am planning an Art Nouveau trip abroad, I try to prepare myself as well as possible. I would hate to find out, after having returned home, that I missed the most beautiful building! And I always look-up the local bars and restaurants as they often still have their beautiful fin-de-siècle interiors.
Caffè San Marco in Trieste ís such a historical café; you can sit down there for hours, have a coffee with some delicious pastry and daydream about the 100-year-history of the place. After all, Trieste was at the time the most important port of the Austro-Hungarian empire, often referred to as Little Vienna of the Adriatic.
Most of the information I found about this café is in Italian; I couldn’t understand any of it. Fortunately though, I discovered that Claudio Magris wrote a book Microcosms about caffè San Marco (and some other café’s) and this book was translated in English!
So here’s what I pieced together…
On 3 January 1914, Marco Lovrinovich (1875-1969), who was originally from around Poreč, opened Caffè San Marco despite resistance put up by a consortium of Trieste café-owners who in an attempt to obstruct him had turned – in vain – to the Royal Imperial authorities. The café was located at the ground floor of Casa Napp at Via Battisti 18, a building designed by architect Giorgio Polli in 1902, and owned by insurance company Assicurazioni Generali since 1910. The L-shaped café was decorated in the floral style of the Vienna Secession, with fresco’s by Guido Marussig (1885-1972).
The café immediately became a meeting place for young students and intellectuals. But it wasn’t just that. It also hosted irredentist youth (the term irredentism is a derivative of Italia irredenta, a movement that wanted to unite all regions with an Italian speaking population, with Italy; Trieste was seen as the center of irredentism) and functioned as a laboratory for the production of false passports that enabled the flight of anti-Austrian patriots to Italy.
For these reasons, on 23 May 1915, a group of Austro-Hungarian soldiers penetrated the café, destroyed everything, and decreed permanent closure. Lovrinovich himself was brutally kicked, and later imprisoned at a punishmentcamp in Liebenau (near Graz) because he had deliberately caused himself a bacterial infection in both eyes. Reason being he didn’t want to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army and fight against Italy.
After the war, the café was restored and adorned with some new paintings. But other than that, the interior remains practically unchanged since it opened in 1914. Painted masks look down on us from high above the counter of black inlaid wood that is said to have come from the once renowned Cante workshop. In fact there are 36 theatrical mask paintings, all over the café, some of which are attributed to the Viennese painter Vito Timmel.
Also interesting are the nudes painted in the medallions on the walls. They’re accredited to illustrious artists, not always confirmed. Certainly to Napoleone Cozzi, a decorator, writer and mountaineer irredentist and possibly to Ugo Flumiani.
The nudes are said to be a metaphor of the rivers that flow from Friuli, from Istria and from Dalmatia, into the Adriatic Sea, and into the sea of San Marco.
Flumiani’s seascapes and lagoon paintings are bright; sand and mud, too,
gleam in the sparkle of the midday sun. (Microcosms, Claudio Magris)
Officially, Lovrinovich said he had named his caffè San Marco in his own honour, but as he took every opportunity to repeat the image of the Venetian lion, the irredentist Italian symbol, you might question his explanation. The symbol even recurs in the little marble tables with their cast-iron legs that flow into a pedestal sitting on a lion’s paws.
The Café, repeatedly restored in the past decades thanks to the generosity of Assicurazioni Generali, was reopened (again) on 16 June 1997 and continued to be as impressive as ever! The countless golden coffee leaves are a constant in the decoration, as are the 36 actors masks. Another consistent element is the intellectual clientele of the place. Over the years, the majestic café has built up an impressive list of regulars. In its heydays, it was frequented by writers like James Joyce, Italo Svevo, Rainer Maria Rilke, Scipio Slataper and the poet Umberto Saba. And in more recent years Trieste-born novelist and cultural philosopher Claudio Magris often works from the café.
But when the café’s manager Franco Filippi died in December 2012, owners Assicurazioni Generali (currently Italy’s largest insurance company, based in Trieste) had trouble finding a replacement, and for a while Caffè San Marco faced an uncertain future. Magris, amongst others, campaigned passionately for months and urged the owners to save this rendezvous for intellectuals and writers… and he succeeded! Saved from demolition in 2013, the café is now a vibrant cultural hub with beautifully restored decor, young staff and an in-cafe bookshop.
The hours flow… amiable, carefree, almost happy.
(Microcosms, Claudio Magris)
Caffè San Marco, Via Battisti 18 in Trieste, Italy
A Place in my Mind Blog in English
Book about Caffè San Marco in Italian
Caffè San Marco on Facebook
Il Caffè San Marco – Trieste Revista in Italian
Microcosms by Cladio Magris
The Guardian about Caffè San Marco in English
The Trieste of Magris in English
Website Caffè San Marco in Italian and English
Wiki-page of Caffè San Marco in Italian
Wiki-page of Caffè San Marco in English
Wiki-page of Caffè San Marco in German