Roads & Kingdoms

The Free State of Trieste

Activists have a plan to make the Italian port city something much bigger.

Duino Castle, just north of Trieste, Italy.

Aconcagua/Wikimedia Commons

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Somewhere on the Adriatic between the Miramare and Duino castles just north of the city of Trieste, on a sailboat called the Punt e Mes, owned by an amateur historian of the Habsburgs, the filmmaker Luca Wieser said he had an “aforisma” (aphorism) to share with me. It featured prominently in the film he’s working on, an as-yet-unreleased documentary about Trieste during World War II, portions of which he screened for me on his laptop as the Punt e Mes lurched over the waves.

It was a quote from Milan Kundera:

The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long that nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. … The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

That, Wieser said, was what was happening to Trieste.

“Even in universities,” he insisted, professors taught a skewed version of history, claiming that Trieste was an Italian city. A lie, he said, designed to serve the interests of the powerful.

Wieser and his companions, all members of the fringe Free Territory of Trieste movement, have a dream for their city. They dream that one day, Trieste—a former Austro-Hungarian port city of 250,000, technically within Italy’s current borders but historically culturally amorphous—will be recognized for what it is: a free territory, neither Italian nor Slovene, neither Austrian nor Balkan, but its own distinct maritime capital, a sovereign and cosmopolitan nation.

But here on the Punt e Mes, Wieser’s friend and colleague Giorgio Deschi reminded me that political liberation was just the first step in Trieste’s story. Spiritual liberation came next.

After all, he said, Trieste is more than just a city state under illegal Italian occupation. Once his grand vision comes to fruition, Deschi believes, the city will become the New Jerusalem.

* * *

Deschi is involved in the Free Territory of Trieste movement, one of two rival Triestine separatist movements in the city. But he’s also the founder and head of the Agape Project, a quixotic urban-planning scheme to transform the city’s canal at Piazza St. Antonio—partially paved over in the fascist era—into what he believes will be the symbolic and spiritual nexus of the city. Rooted in Deschi’s own quasi-occultist mysticism, the Agape Project is at once a celebration of the city’s multicultural and imperial past and a profession of faith in a future in which this virtually untouristed border city becomes the center of the whole world.

When I first met Deschi in 2014, doing a piece for the BBC on the independence movement here in Trieste—a small but vocal force that traces its legitimacy to a 1947 U.N. Security Council Resolution that created a postwar Free Territory of Trieste as a buffer zone against then-Yugoslavia (the London Memorandum of 1954 returned the city to Italy; separatists deny its legitimacy and see Italy’s presence as illegal occupation)—Deschi described Trieste as a “lukewarm Jerusalem”: one of the few places in the world where Catholics and the Orthodox, Jews, Bosnians, Serbs, Greeks, Austrians, merchants, emperors, writers, James Joyce, Sir Richard Francis Burton, all lived together. It was, after all, a historic “free port”—designated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1719—one of the rare places when economic and religious restrictions alike were lifted to encourage commerce and cosmopolitanism.

Deschi spoke to me, vaguely, of the concept he called agape—Greek for love—and drew a diagram for me on scrap paper. Once, he said, the church of St. Anthony the Thaumaturge, which overlooked the canal stretching out toward the Adriatic, had been reflected in the water. Then came the Mussolini years, the fascist period that coincided with the Italianization of Trieste, including the forcible deportation, or worse, of its Slovene minority and the destruction of the Jewish ghetto in the old town. It was a construction project that led to the paving-over of the canal at the church’s base. The unity of water and sky had been interrupted. The unity of peoples in Trieste had been interrupted.

He quoted Hermes Trismegistus, the mythical author of a corpus of second- and third-century Alexandrian mystical texts: “As above, so below.” It’s known as the “Hermetic principle” in varying strands of occultist thought: the idea that symbolic ritual action can mirror, and effect, cosmic change. He drew for me the shape of the church and the canal: one phallic, the other distinctively feminine. He asked if I understood; the union of the masculine—the church—and the feminine—the water—would result in the birth of a new age, a new dawn, not just for Trieste, but for the entire world.

It was a jarring note in an interview otherwise about politics. I chalked it up to minor eccentricity—and quintessentially Triestine nostalgia—and wrote my article, focusing primarily on the political movement, and forgot about it.

But Deschi kept emailing me.

Trieste, he told me, was an important spiritual center. As a frequent visitor to the city— I’d come once, at 16 with a first love with whom I shared an elegiac passion for Habsburgs and literary exiles and Panama hats, and somewhat stubbornly, spurred on by perverse nostalgia, persisted in coming annually to write ever since—as someone who bore the same last name as Trieste’s adopted son Sir Richard Francis, surely I was uniquely placed, Deschi said, to understanding what he repeatedly called Trieste’s “synchronicity.”

Trieste was, in other words, the place where your past caught up with you.

Trieste is calling you, Deschi said in one email in March of 2015: a few days, coincidentally, before I was due to arrive in Trieste for another article. (“There is no such thing as coincidence,” Deschi later told me.) I didn’t answer that one.

In December, shortly after another piece I’d written came out, he wrote me again, addressing me as Gentile Tara Isabella Burton—Burton Francis Richard. In that message, he told me that it was vital I be part of his Agape movement, at least as a chronicler, though he felt my own connection to Trieste made me a far more significant figure. “You have power … nothing is by chance, there are people who ‘understand and participate in the case’ and make their own destiny: Synchronicity.”

He had me convinced.

* * *

When I returned to Trieste this summer, I called him.

I met him at Stella Polare, off the canal. He ordered me a Hugo: a quintessentially Triestine cocktail of Tyrolean elderflower, prosecco, and mint. In a quick, sharp Italian I could not always follow, he explained to me the history of Agape. He had never been interested in the occult, he said, never studied anything obscure. Then on Sept. 18, 2008—70 years after Mussolini announced his anti-Semitic racial laws in Piazza dell’Unita, Trieste’s massive, Austro-Hungarian wedding cake of a central square—he took his usual walk along the Grand Canal and he had a vision:

The church, shining in a canal since paved over. A woman with the answers. A Trieste that transcended science, religion. A Trieste returned to its glory, and yet so much more glorious than it had ever before been.

Agape was born.

For Deschi, the Free Territory of Trieste movement was a means to an end: the first step in preparing Trieste to become what it once was, and what it could be again. He showed me a YouTube video he’d had made: an elaborate digitized mock-up of Piazza St. Antonio as he believed it should be. He showed me the numerology he has developed, writing out the numbers 7, 16, 1, 1, 10.

Seven, he said, for the seven different religions in Trieste (he counts Serbian and Greek Orthodox separately; he counts Armenians but not Muslims). Sixteen, for the number of Empress Maria Theresa’s children. He spoke quickly—too quickly—for me to make out the rest, but the result, using a simple numerical-alphabetical conversion, is the word GRAAL.

It took me a minute.


Deschi showed me his cigarette case. It belonged to his grandfather, he said, a Descovich, who fought with the Austro-Hungarians against the Russians. He showed me old war medals, memorabilia of the empire. He had another one, he says: a gift from a Russian prisoner of war to his grandfather, his captor, who had shown mercy by sharing a potato with him. This, he said, he had returned to Russia as a sign of goodwill on behalf of the people of Trieste. As thanks, he’d been personally invited to the Russian Embassy in Rome to hand it over.

What was striking about Deschi was less the fervency of his belief than its infectiousness. During our time together, he introduced me to several other believers in Agape, including the aforementioned Wieser: a satirical cartoonist, a woman running a nongovernmental organization in the region, a district councilor.

None was as specific as Deschi about numerology, the precise shape that the new canal would have to be to reflect St. Antony’s church properly. But all seemed to share a sense that Trieste was a center for synchronicity, that there were no coincidences here. Acknowledging Trieste’s independence meant acknowledging how singular such a city really was.

Deschi informed me that he’d planned an excursion. We’d take a historic sailboat out to Duino and back; we’d see the Free Territory by sea. He’d let me know when. When I expressed concern about scheduling, he reminded me to trust in Agape.

We took the boat out in mid-July. A friend of Deschi’s—Paolo Tarabocchia, the cartoonist—brought me from the canal to the port in the sidecar of a 1990s Russian motorcycle. (“Not technically mine,” he told me. “I gave it to a friend for tax reasons”; like many Triestine separatists, he refuses to pay taxes to Italy at the national level, providing only commune taxes and a letter designating civil disobedience; to his knowledge, nobody has ever been prosecuted for this).

Another friend, whom I knew only as Gianfranco, supplied the boat—Punt e Mes (its previous owner was a founder of the drink company)—nestled in the relentlessly modern port of Portopiccolo in Sistiana, just outside of town.

“You haven’t seen Trieste,” Luca Wieser said, as we set sail, “until you’ve seen it from the water.”

The karst limestone cliffs, the intense darkness of the greenery. The old low beach walls from Austro-Hungarian days, which separated bathers by gender and which are still unofficially enforced by those who would prefer that things stay the way they had always been.

“You see,” Gianfranco announced, once we were aboard. “We are between the two castles.” He motioned across the bay. Miramare, white and square, to our left, was built in the 1850s for the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian; to our right, the 14th-century Duino Castle, still inhabited by nobility.

* * *

As Gianfranco and Deschi stood at the sails, Luca Wieser came to sit with me, to express excitement at my interest in Trieste, his anger that the rest of the world refused to pay attention.

What Trieste needed, he said, was a powerful country, a country without a stake in the region or its outcome, to support it. “Someone like Russia,” he says. “Putin!” Vladimir Putin’s recognition of Trieste, he murmured, could go a long way toward legitimacy on the world stage.

And Putin knew about their cause; Deschi had made sure of that when he returned his grandfather’s Russian medallion, arranged that visit to the embassy in Rome.

It was, Wieser said, the first step. Once Putin took an interest in them, who knew what would happen next?

Gianfranco, motioning to the castle, launched into a litany of the old, noble families he knew—connected, often, by his passion for sailing. He told me about going to Greece with one such family, about racing with another, a princess here, a duchess there.

He brought out an Austrian-style chocolate Sachertorte and sparkling wine. I went over to Deschi, gazing out over the horizon. I asked him what it was about Trieste that made it so spiritually significant, so primed to be the next Jerusalem. I asked if it was just Trieste’s history—its nebulous cultural grounding, its nostalgic tendencies, a former capital seeking to regain what it had lost?

Deschi shook his head.

“It’s in the earth,” he said. It was in the karst limestone, in the cliffs. Cycles of history— Habsburgs, fascists, wars—these were only a result of a fate he believed had already been written. Borders were etchings, easily smoothed over.

“Of course,” he laughed. “I’m crazy.”

The others laughed, gently, with him.

“But it’s a beautiful madness,” he said.