Trieste is one of those cities that is beautiful to look at; the stunning blue of the sea, the packed marinas with mast dancing in sync, the broad expanse of Piazza Unita’ facing the open gulf, the ornate and very pretty Viennese style architecture dotted with interesting and sometimes unusual scultpural details — everywhere you look it seems, there is something new to see and that instantly piques your curiosity.

One day, as I was walking to meet a friend in Piazza della Borsa, I noticed an imposing figure ove the entrance of a small dark alley. As I stopped to photograph it, an elderly gentleman yelled at me, “Xe un panduro rumen!” I had no idea at the time what a panduro was …. 

All around Trieste, there are these representations of (mostly) male heads over the entrances of many buildings — even over the entrance of the building where I live.

Of course, there are conflicting reports of who these are representations of, and, their origin story… but what I was able to cull from several friends, local bloggers and “historians” and some good old fashioned research is the following :

In the 17th and 18th centuries, soldiers in the Habsburg military who served to protect the border against the Ottoman Empire, were called pandurs  or panduren— mostly they were Croatians, Romanians, Serbs and Hungarians. In these countries, they served as police forces. Even today, in Serbia,  “pandur” is the derogatory name used for police officers. The term “pandur” is probably derived from the Banderien (forces created by the Hungarian nobility, with each one serving under their own banner) but in the 17th century, the pandurs were transformed into a light foot militia.

As for the origin of the name; in Hungarian, pandur means “men at arms”, it is said that many were recruited from the island of Pandur-sziget in Hungary and it is also speculated that the name pandur is derived from the fact they were often paid in a sort of hardtack (stale bread) pan-duro.

The most famous pandurs were those under the command of Baron Franz Freiherr von der Trenck accused of pillaging and looting during the Silesian wars.  Trenck composed his troops mainly with inhabitants from Croatian villages, which, before having been incorporated into the Habsburg Empire, had been under Turkish rule for 150 years. It is for this reason that they favored turkish military garb and culture.

They wore Turkish rifles, sabers, various types of pistols and long ” Jatagan ” knives.  Trenck believed that this foreign appearance had a corresponding psychological effect on their opponents. Because of their red coats, the pandours were also sometimes called “Rotmäntler” or “Rote Kapuziner”  — red capes/hoods. They were known for their disobedience, breaches of military discipline and stubbornness and unpredictability.

The pandurs, upon dismissal from the army, were often hired by nobles and wealthy bourgeois as bodyguards and gatekeepers. Many of them came to Trieste attracted by the prospect of finding well-paid employment serving the rich bourgeois and mercantile class. They became a real status symbol, and some said that they brought good luck. 

So why did these ruthless mercenary men become fixtures in Trieste’s architecture? These heads started to appear above doorways in Trieste at the end of the century – the custom of placing these large intimidating heads with animal skins or military head coverings and the requisite large moustache was used at the time as a deterrent to would-be intruders — much the same way that today you would install a video camera to ward off potential trespassers. Perhaps the Triestine locals found it easier to keep and maintain these stone guardians over the actual menacing and unmanageable pandurs.

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