SURVIVAL GUIDE: SYMBOLS OF TRIESTE

So many Italian cities, towns and regions have symbols to represent them. Some are associated with an historic landmark or a cathedral. Others use their heraldic seals to represent them and for some, there are architectural details or decorative items that represent them like the winged lion of Venice or the Pomo of Puglia or the Moors’ heads of Sicily.

Trieste has a combination of both. The official seal of the city is the Alabarda, a spear against a red background and the other, lesser known symbol is the “melon” of Trieste.

The melon is simply an acroterion, an architectural detail that once graced the bell tower of the Cathedral of San Giusto. In 1421, the tower was struck by lightning suffering significant damage. The following year the melon was taken down and moved to different locations around the city until finding its final resting place at the entrance of San Giusto Castle.

The Melon is a sculpted decorative feature made of sandstone and carved into twelve segments, giving it the look of, well, a melon, hence its name. Sticking out of the top is a copy of the famed Alabarda di San Sergio, Saint Sergius and that brings us to the main symbol of Trieste…

The heraldic symbol of the city of Trieste is a white or silver spear or alabarda on a bright red background. It is ubiquitous throughout the city gracing doorways, engraved in stone, wood, represented in ironworks, on flags, team jerseys and even stickers on cars. The Triestine people LOVE their city and they display the symbol everywhere and with pride.

The alabarda is both a civic symbol and a symbol of Christianity (representing the Cross). From what I can tell, the story is derived from a much contested hagiography particularly noted for its inconsistencies and which may have been further locally “edited” in the era of martyrs and persecutions at a time when the evangelization of Trieste was taking place.  Nonetheless, the general idea is as follows:

“Sergius and Bacchus were Roman citizens and high-ranking officers of the Roman army as part of the tribune of the Legion stationed in Tergeste (the Roman name for Trieste). It is here where they secretly converted to Christianity and were discovered when they attempted to avoid accompanying a Roman official into a pagan temple. Sergius was recalled to court but, before leaving, he promised his Christian friends from Trieste that a “sign” would come to the city to communicate his death.

 

The two men were then sent to Barbalissos in Mesopotamia to be tried by Antiochus, the military commander there and an old friend of Sergius. Antiochus could not convince them to give up their faith, however, and Bacchus was beaten to death. The next day Bacchus’ spirit appeared to Sergius and encouraged him to remain strong so they could be together forever. Over the next days, Sergius was also brutally tortured, forced to drag an ox cart through town with nails driven through his feet and finally executed at Resafa, where his death was marked by miraculous happenings.

According to local lore, on the day Sergius was beheaded (October 7),  an alabarda fell from the clear sky above the Triestine forum, (today it preserved among the treasures of the Cathedral of San Giusto) and, in honor of the late Sergio, was proclaimed to become the symbol of the city. The website of the Dioscese of Trieste states that this alabarda never rusts and it cannot be polished. It is said that the metal is made from was collected from fallen meteors (some say this is derived from ancient celtic legends). It also appears that the spear is enriched with phosphorus, a result obtained by piercing a human being with the newly forged weapon.

The close friendship between Sergius and Bacchus is strongly emphasized in their hagiographies and traditions, making them one of the most famous examples of paired saints, and both are honored on 7 October with San Sergio being one of the patron saints of Trieste.

 

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