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"People of San Spiridione", the cultural and religious legacy of the Serbians of Trieste

The Castle of San Giusto in the capital of Friuli is hosting an exhibit dedicated  to the Serbian Orthodox community that from the middle of the eighteenth century had an important role in the develoment, not only economic, of the city

An exhibition to trace the history of the Serbo-Orthodox religious communities in Trieste, in occasion of the 140th anniversary of the consecration of the church of San Spiridione and of the 240th anniversary of the first mass celebratated in Trieste in the ancient ecclesiastical Slavic language.  It is “People of San Spiridione. The Serbians of Trieste 1751-1914”, promoted by the City of Trieste and on display in the Castello di San Giusto, in the Cathedral piazza.

The first Serbian settlements in Trieste date back to the 18th century. This was the period during which the city, thanks to Emperor Charles VI, rose to the status of free port in an Adriatic sea in which unfettered navigation was finally allowed, therefore Trieste became the main commercial harbor in the Austrian Empire.

, businessmen and shipowners were drawn to and established themselves in Trieste, helping in the rapid economic growth of the Adriatic emporium: around the year 1770, between 5 and 6 thousand cargo ships reached Trieste and the exported goods which exceeded 6 million guilders of value.

Although it did not boast of large numbers, (from a few dozen to a few hundred people), the Serbo- Orthodox community had a meaningful role: maritime pursuits were the primary but not exclusive activities of the merchants of the Illyrian community, who preferred to invest the large sums of capital they held into diverse sectors of trade. Beyond the mere buying and selling of goods, they took care of the shipments by using their own fleets. They established the first private banks to finance purchases, and to insure their goods they founded the first insurance companies.

When, on February 20, 1751, Maria Teresa emitted the first official proclamation of recognition, with which the Greeks and Illyrians obtained the right to establish their own religious community and build a church, the people decided to erect a church dedicated to Saint Spiridione. The area chosen was in the heart of the new Trieste, next to the Grand Canal. A rather instable area, as after one century the church and the bell towers were so damaged that they needed to be demolished. The competition to win the right to build the new church was won by Carlo Maciachini: a monumental building inspired by Byzantine architecture topped with a great central dome with four bell towers surrounding it. Famous artists of the time rom the Lombardia regiona were summoned to decorate the church in what is a profusion of mosaics and precious marble which are being returned, through the latest restoration work, to all of their original beauty and celebratory power. The temple was to confirm to all the economic and cultural might of a small but prestigious community with great relevance. A communty whose members were also erecting at the time some of the most important private buildings of the new Trieste.

The exhibition intends to underline, in fact, precisely the importance of the cultural and economic role that the Serbian community had in the development of the city, highlighting the historical and artistic events as well as the familial ties in the community.

Through different sections of the exhibit, rich documentation emphasizes the most representative of the figures that contributed to the economic success of Trieste, those active in the commercial sector or in the maritime and insurance fields, as well as in politics, in philanthropy and in collecting: the biographical events, the faces, the palaces, the sailing ships belonging to the families like the Gopcevich, the Popovich, the Opuich or the Skuljevich – to only name a few – are recreated through portraits, photographs, projects, books and historical documents from the archives. Ample space is decicated to the architectural series of events involving the church of San Spiridione, starting from the original 18th century building leading to the current restorations. The watercolors that give testimony to the 18th century appearance of the church, the plans entered in the contest for the 1859 rebuilding, all the documentation of the important restoration work that has focused on the facades, the mosaics and the replacement to the roof and will conclude by the end of this year.

Also displayed are various liturgical handiworks of the time: books of the gospels and works in gold from the 17th and 18th centuries, and antique, delicate icons, allow us virtually to enter into the rituals and religious cerimonies of the Orthodox faith. Two other sections are dedicated to the library and to the school of the Serbian Orthodox comunity of  Trieste, important cultural institutions that promoted through time the cultural wealth of the Serbians in the city through the collections of precious documents and antique books.
Giuseppe and  Pompeo Bertini, San Spiridione, circa1880, mosaic in the lunette of the main door. Trieste, Church of  San Spiridione, exterior
Giuseppe and  Pompeo Bertini, San Spiridione, circa1880, mosaic in the lunette of the main door. Trieste, Church of  San Spiridione, exterior

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