Trieste in Italian cinema and television

This part of my research at the present is developing into unforeseen, and unexpected ways. This is an example:

Before the First World War, film had already established a significant presence in Austrian Trieste. Cinematography arrived in the 4th larger city of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1896. The first frames were shot in 1897 at initiative of local pioneers, and 1908 saw the first attempt to produce a feature film. Between 1897 and 1918, 105 actualities and features were filmed in Trieste (Kosanović 1995:263-271). The oldest surviving footage is Ljubljana o Slavnostni dnevi slovenskega delavskega pevskega društva Slavec v Ljubljani/Ljubljana, on the celebration of the labour choral society in Ljubljana, an actuality made by Salvatore Spina in 1909 (Kosanović 1995:125).

Before 1918, the people of Trieste had access to a wide range of cinema made by pioneers in Europe and America. The enthusiasm for the medium was such that James Joyce and his associates ‘exported’ cinema from Trieste to Dublin, leading to the establishment of the latter city’s first cinema – the Volta – in 1909. In the same year, films produced in Italy started to be projected in Trieste, by which time the city had become the centre for the distribution of films and associated projection technology in the North-east of present day Italy, as well as in Slovenia and Croatia (Kosanović 1995: 133). However, between 1910 and 1914, several ‘captains’ of the Italian film industry (Ricci: 2009, 39) were investing their capital in the realisation of productions promoting the annexation of Trieste to Italy. Initially, the principal sources of feature film scripts came from pre-existing literary texts, as exemplified by the first Italian blockbuster Quo Vadis (Guazzoni, 1912) and Cabiria (Pastrone, 1914). The success of these productions served both to satisfy the industry’s economic aims and to promote the national and ideological project, creating, as explained in 1914 by Italian literary critic Giuseppe Prezzolini, “a cinema which would make Italians know our country, its glories, its shames, its joys and its pains” (Ricci 2008:42).

Within this milieu, Trieste is represented as an Austrian port on July 2nd 1914, when it witnessed the arrival of the remains of Franz Ferdinand, Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia, and his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg. Assassinated on June 28th 1914 in Sarajevo, the royal bodies travelled back to Trieste on the Viribus Unitis and were then transported by train to Vienna. Pathé Frères filmed the event as an actuality under the title of Die Einholung der Leichname Sr. k.u.k. Hoheit des Erzherzog – Thronfolger und Gemahlin/The collection of the royal body of the Archduke and successor to the throne and spouse. 

In stark contrast, only one year later Trieste was being presented as ‘Italianissima’/’Intrinsically Italian’ in Emilio Ghione’s feature film Guglielmo Oberdan, il martire di Trieste/William Oberdan, martyr from Trieste (1915). As an expression of the Italian Irredentist movement, the film contextualises the Italian national struggle within Imperial Europe and offers an early example of patriotic melodrama. One among a group of 6 films developed in 1915 by Italian producers to promote the annexation of Trieste to Italy, the film focused on the last months of Guglielmo Oberdan’s life, the fervent irredentist and anti-Austrian conspirator executed for plotting to assassinate Emperor Franz Joseph (1882) when in visit in Trieste to unveil a monument commemorating the 500 anniversary of its request of annexation to the Austrian territory.

Indicative of how in “choosing our past, we choose a present; and vice versa” (Hayden White, 2010:135), Ghione’s film embraces the tropes of the Italian romantic movement, as established in the historical novel I promessi sposi/The Betrothed (Alessandro Manzoni, 1827), considered the most important literary representation of the Italian struggle for national unity.

In 1918, Italy would enter Trieste to liberate it from the Austrian tyranny.

Untitled1 Trieste and Trento liberated from the Austrian Empire offer image to Italy (see the symbolism of the Eagle tossed away by the Italian knight).

However, Trieste, was far from being an Italian city. Italy would only then start its stubborn and prolong attempt in making Trieste Italian.


A good introductory book to go for would be: Maura Hametz, Making Trieste Italian, 1918-1954, Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press.









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