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The Imperial Coastal Country Istria on the Southern Railway

© Der Welt
June 5, 2001

In the Kittsee castle in Burgenland (near Hainburg) this summer exhibition is dedicated to Istria, the Venetian, Austrian, Yugoslav coastal country, a multiform reality and pure utopia of Hans Haider. In his last years Fulvio Tomizza, the writer who died in Trieste in 1999, was dreaming about a "Republic of Istria": Istria as a vision of peace in the middle of nationalistic conflicts inflaming once more the Balkans, and at the same time reminiscence of the peculiarity and prosperity attained in the last century by the imperial-royal monarchy (of the Habsburg).

Istria, a peninsula between the Austrian Trieste and the Hungarian Fiume, was at that time nothing more than a small entity in the immense Croatian coastal line, but a nearest maritime park just in front of the hinterland of Graz and Vienna. Today a small part of Istria is Slovenian (Koper [Capodistria], Piran [Pirano], Portoroz [Portorose]). The larger part is incorporated in the Republic of Croatia (Porec [Parenzo], Rovinj [Rovigno], Pula [Pola], Pazin [Pisino], Opatija [Abbazia]).

From Stefanie to Moskow

At the extremity of Istria, in Pola, the Austrian navy was protected from the open sea by the islands of Brioni. Its private owners, the steel industrialists Kupelwieser, had created in Brioni a public garden and animal paradise. After the Second World War the communist leader Tito reserved the island exclusively for himself. The hotel "Kronprinzessin Stefanie" in Abbazia was renamed "Moskva" since Tito was at that time still faithful to the Eastern Block. Under Tito, however, the people of Istria were allowed to go back to their old customs and traditions, which the victorious Italian had wanted to erase there, as well as all the German characteristics in the Alto Adige. Kristian Sotriffer, as a South Tirol person who sadly trusts such population mixing strategies, wrote a beautiful book about Istria and the Karst in 1972.

This year the Austrian Ethnographic Museum selected Istria in its branch office of Kittsee as its summer topic. The exhibition will move to the main house of the Laudongasse in Vienna from October until the following January. Then in spring it will move to the Croatian town of Pazin (the local Etnografiski Muzej Istre is the co-organizer), and perhaps further to Zagreb. A inexpensive instruction book ("Istrien - Aspects") guides you through it. In the late 19th century the young Viennese disciplines of ethnography wanted to make the peoples of the monarchy more interesting to each other: in doing so, ethnography carefully modeled the special out of the total.

In the region which was directly subordinated to the crown in 1848 (before the Romans a part of the Kingdom of Illyria still idealized by Shakespeare) they were looking for the Ur-Istrian, and believed to have found him in the Romanic or Croat-Romanic mixed population of the Cici, retreated from the coastal pastures into the mountains. They should have - according to an anxious Austrian authority report in 1830 - in their isolation "in total silence set up their own government and constitution".

A Cici couple (two dolls in folklore costume) were, like the "Istrian kitchen", early attractions in the ethnological museum of Vienna that opened in 1917. As the Viennese scientists wanted to design their Istrian people, also-communist Yugoslavia looked for the unique one - and encountered original unglazed forms of rural ceramic(s). The today's tourist Istria takes the stone-built round hut (Kazun) as the advertising signpost.

No matter how imperative it is eventually to look for purity, the Istria-traveler baron von Czoernig had already detected in the last century. He diagnosed "the fusion of different departments... even of opposite races, whose spoken dialect consists of the most diverse, hard to untangle elements. One meets right there not only croatized Serbs and serbatized Croats, but also croatized Walachs, furthermore italianized Croats, who partially forgot even their native language, then croatized Italians, with whom this is likewise the case, finally a mixed people, whose costume is Italian, whose custom is Slavic, whose language is a mixture of Serbian and Italian words".

Marine Casino in Pola

More could be offered from the collection of past theories. The Istrians would be directly related to the Kolchern [?], because of the "Semitic sound" of many place names; they would be of Kelto-Illyric descent; they would be Illyric and as such related to the Albanians; they originated partly from Bulgaria, they would be descendants of the Romanian Ciribiri. In 1374 the Istrian hinterland fell under the Habsburg, eight years later Trieste voluntarily fled under the same protection. The Republic of Venice remained the joint owner of Istria up to its fall in 1797, after the short appearance of Napoleon, and from 1815 up to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, Istria was part of its Coastal territories [Kurstenland].

In 1857 the Southern Railway reached Trieste, in 1873 Fiume, in 1876 Pola. Thanks to the Southern Railway, Abbazia evolved into the seaside and healthy air resort of the nobility. In many Istrian families pieces of memory have been kept: the military service, the reliable gendarmery, the social life in the middle class cure halls of the Marine Casino of Pola. Around all that there was work for the farmer and craftsman, and an (Italian) poor person's poetry after the railway construction said: "Now, since we have an iron route, the food in the pot will never be missing again".

Sixty private owners from Istria and many public collections have made this first retrospective possible, on their own country. A land which is geographically clearly understandable, which fascinated with its vagueness and blossomed politically only in Fulvio Tomizza's poetic mind: as a transnational utopia.

Translated by:

  •  © Alberto Martinuzzi for ©

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