It’s been over a year since I last visited this little gem of a museum in Trieste, and like the mummies in their sarcophogi wait to be awakened, we await the end of the COVID-19 emergency to be able to venture out once again to visit Trieste’s museums.
Located in San Giusto, the Museum of Antiquities is composed of 3 main locations within the grounds of the castle. There is the main building, an elegant yellow-hued villa, established in 1873, then there is the outdoor Lapidary Garden and finally, the Lapidario Tergestino under the bastions of the castle.
To be honest, I wasn’t quite expecting such a vast collection of ancient Egyptian and Roman treasures, nor did I have much knowledge of the fascinating history of Trieste’s ties to Egypt and J.J. Wincklemann, “the prophet and founding hero of modern archaeology”.
Trieste has a rich Roman history, which I have written about in previous articles, the Roman Theater, the ancient sites of worship and many artifacts are proudly featured in the Lapidario Tergestino — among them a vast array of sculptures, mosaics and honorary stone monuments.
The basement under the bastions is home to 130 stone monuments from ancient Trieste’s (Tergeste) Capitoline area, the sacred buildings, the Theater and the Necropolis featuring important stone monuments found in the city including: the inscriptions posted at the gates of the ancient city commemorating the construction of the walls and towers as well as the base of the equestrian monument of Lucius Fabius Severus, a Roman senator. There is also a collection of materials from the Roman Basilica, whose archaeological remains are still visible in the square at the foot of the Castle and sepulchral monuments that recall the names of the citizens of Ancient Roman Trieste. The lower room features intricate mosaics taken from the luxurious seaside villa found along the coast, near Barcola. Dating from the end of the first century B.C. to the middle of the first of A.C., they document the refined taste of the rich owners who wanted to imitate the imperial villas. Yet another room houses items from places of worship dedicated to Jupiter, Cybele, Silvanus, Bona Dea, Hercules and Minerva. And the last part of the collection features items found in the excavations of the Roman Theatre with the exceptional series of statues that decorated the stage: Venus, Bacchus, Apollo, Minerva, Hygea and Aesculapius.
Trieste’s long history linking it with Egypt, also dates back to Roman times and runs throughout the early 1900s. The two continents were bound by trade which resulted in a cross-pollination of cultures and worship as evidenced in the inscribed fragment (now located in the Cathedral of San Giusto) dedicated to Isis Augusta and found in 1863 in the area of worship located in the Triestine neighborhood of Gretta. From the Early Christian age, through the reign of Charles VI and beyond, the trade route with Egypt was essential. In the 1700s under Austria’s Maria Theresia, several decrees were signed furthering trade with Egypt and “promising maximum protection” to merchants traveling between the two countries. Following the Napoleonic Wars, Trieste returned to the Austrian Empire in 1813 and continued to prosper as the “Imperial Free City of Trieste” (Reichsunmittelbare Stadt Triest). It became the capital of the Austrian Littoral region, the so-called “Kustenland”. The city’s role as the main Austrian commercial port and shipbuilding center was further cemented by the foundation of the Austrian Lloyd merchant shipping line in 1836, whose headquarters stood at the corner of Piazza Grande (now Piazza Unità d’Italia). Commerce was so well established between Trieste and Egypt, that triestine banks and businesses flourished in Cairo. The Trieste-Alessandria sea route was started in 1837 and maintained thanks to Austrian Lloyd Shipping Company. Sailors, employees, mechanics and tradesmen traveled back and forth to Egypt often bringing home small and large finds. The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 brought the city even closer to the Indies and the Far East. It is during this time that the fashion for collecting and displaying “exotic treasures” came into vogue throughout the salons of Trieste’s upper class and nobility, often featuring egyptian treasures or asian silks, vases and other novelties. Among the most notable local collectors; Barone Revoltella, the Archduke Maximillian and famed italian egyptologist, Joseph Passalacqua.
When the Civic Museum of Antiquity was officially established in 1873, many donated their treasures to the museum, some genuine and others which were later revealed to be fakes.
The ground floor of the museum houses the Egyptian Collection and the archaeological finds from the Roman period unearthed from both the Tergestino and Aquileian dig sites.
On the first floor, is an exhibit describing in detail the timeline of the Karst, Eastern Istria, San Canziano del Timavo and the Isontino from prehistory to protohistory.
The second floor features Greek vases; specimens of the Corinthians, Attic, Apuli and Etruscans, alongside specimens from the island of Cyprus and Taranto. The centerpiece of this collection is the silver rhyton with a fawn head dating back to 400 B.C.
There is also a Mayan room thanks to the donation, by Cesare Fabietti in 2002, of a significant Mayan ceramic collection from El Salvador which offers a looks into pre-Columbian civilizations of Central America.
Just outside the museum , is the “lapidary garden” Orto Lapidario, a jumble of epigraphs, monuments and sculptures from the Roman era, as well as the neoclassical temple, a monument to J.J. Winckelmann.
That the museum takes its name from Wincklemann suggests that he somehow had a hand in its founding or played a pivitol role in its planning, or at the very least had spent years in Trieste. Instead, the story is far stranger. J.J. Wincklemann, was indeed considered the “the prophet and founding hero of modern archaeology”. Winckelmann’s masterpiece, the Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (“The History of Art in Antiquity”), published in 1764, was soon recognized as a permanent contribution to European literature. In this work, “Winckelmann’s most significant and lasting achievement was to produce a thorough, comprehensive chronological account of all antique art—including that of the Egyptians and Etruscans.” In 1768 Winckelmann journeyed north over the Alps, but the Tyrol depressed him and he decided to return to Italy. However, his friend, the sculptor and restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi managed to persuade him to travel to Munich and Vienna, where he was received with honors by Maria Theresia. On his way back, Wincklemann stopped in Trieste where he planned to take a boat to Ancona to continue his journey to Rome. In Trieste he stayed at what is now the hotel Duchi D’Aosta just off of Piazza Unita’, where he met another traveler, Francesco Arcangeli, a part-time cook and unbeknownst to him, a petty thief. They spent a week in the city often dining and walking together. According to accounts, “On 7 June, Arcangeli accompanied Winckelmann to buy a pencil and a penknife. Arcangeli returned alone that day to the same shop to buy a knife, then in another shop, a rope. The next day, 8 June 1768, he visited Winckelmann in his hotel room after dinner as he was used to. It was there that he threw himself on the intellectual to strangle him: Winckelmann pushed him away and Arcangeli pulled out his knife, they fought. In his testimony, Arcangeli said that he stabbed Winckelmann not only on the chest, but also “lower down”, which is not without sexual connotations. Arcangeli then fled, leaving Winckelmann screaming down the stairs: “Look what he did to me! “. Winckelmann spent his last hours writing his will and, in his last moments he forgave Arcangeli. Arcangeli was arrested, however, and sentenced to death and on July 20th he was beaten alive on a wheel on the square in front of the inn. The true reasons for the murders are not known. One hypothesis was that Arcangeli wanted to steal the medals given to Winckelmann by the Empress Maria Theresia. Another was that Arcangeli killed Winckelmann over unwanted homosexual advances. And that is how Wincklemann came to be buried in the churchyard of San Giusto.
photos mostly by BOT, Google and courtesy of the Museum of Antiquities JJ Wincklemann.