Istrian Spring

Claudio Magris


The Istrian peninsula has been the home of many peoples, cultures and religions. It has formed part of the Republic of Venice, the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Yugoslavia. In its historical, cultural and social heterogeneity lies the essence of its soul, which is the very essence of the Mediterranean. Istria can boast a unique identity that it shares with several peoples: Pula’s Roman amphitheatre is as Istrian as its Venetian palaces and the minarets of the mosques; the history linked to the Austro-Hungarians is as Istrian as the mark left by the Italians, and the Italian speakers of the coast are as Istrian as the inland Slavs. Today, part of Istria is determined to compensate what the narrow world view of nationalisms (from both shores of the Adriatic) inflicted on this place in the past, and is trying to assert one of the many aspects of its multifaceted identity.

In Pula, two hundred metres from the Roman Arena, Guido Miglia showed me aunt Catineta’s house where, on Easter Sunday, he used to eat the pinza, a tall delicate sponge cake, golden yellow like a sunflower; today, in that house that has become a mosque, the muezzin proclaims that Allah is the only God and Mohammed his prophet.[1] The old elements of a city, like the Roman arches and Venetian palaces in Pula, look like facial features, while the fresh and recent marks, like that mosque, resemble a lipstick or hair dye that create the illusion that they can be removed without a change of face.

In the Hapsburg period, the Palazzo Stabal, behind the Arsenal, housed the Austrian navel engineers building and accommodated Admiral Horthy, a maritime strategist of a continental empire and future quasi-fascist Regent of Hungary, who loved the flat plains more than the high seas.

The shop of Colarich, the erstwhile terrible multi-homicidal outlaw and defector, accidentally captured after living in secrecy, was located in the Corso, previously Via Sergia and Prvomajska, at number 30. After being sentenced to life imprisonment, Colarich was pardoned after many years, and earned his living working as a glazier in this shop. Children sent by their parents to buy or repair something would chat to the old man, who spoke to them good-naturedly and indifferently as if those distant crimes no longer had anything to do with him and had become confused and lost in the obscurity of the years, like the races in the fields of his childhood.

James Joyce, professor of English, lived on the third floor of Via Giulia, now Matko no. 3, between 1904 and 1905; the plaque on the door, next to a wall with the chipped plastering, now bears the name Modrosan Rude. The first floor housed the office of L’Arena di Pola, the newspaper that the extremely young Miglia edited in the terrible days before the mass exodus during the winter of 1946 and 1947: 3,000 Pulan residents out of a total of 35,000 people living in the city. The lack of interest and ignorance concerning that exodus of the Italians of Istria, Fiume and Dalmatia – around 300,000 people between 1944 and 1954, at different times and in different ways, sometimes dramatic but always deeply sad because of the desolation of abandonment, poverty, uncertainty about the future and miserable accommodation in refugee camps – still persist in Italy.

The mistakes and culprits of fascist Italy and also the anti-Slav prejudices before fascism have been paid for personally by the people who lost everything and found themselves in the eye of the storm when the Slavs, oppressed by fascism, took revenge. As inevitably happens, a subjugated nation once again standing proud unleashes an aggressive nationalism, inflicting indiscriminate violence and at the same time violating the rights of others. The Italians, settled on the coast and in the cities that were jewels of Venetian culture and art, from Capodistria to Pula, were for centuries no less than fifty percent of the total Istrian population; the rural inland was Slavic, with a preponderantly Croatian part and the smallest Slovenian, and between the two areas there was a mixed intermediate strip.

A distracted Italy, as Noventa said, disregarded that historical tragedy and washed its hands of it; whereas Yugoslavia showed awareness and dedication. The best children of these lands are those that have been able to overcome the nationalism, forging, even in affliction, a feeling of common belonging to this complex border world, seeing in the other – the Italian and the Slav, respectively – a complementary and fundamental element of their own identity. Fluvio Tomizza’s epic poetry or Marisa Madieri’s Verde acqua are examples, although not the only ones, of this feeling that is the only salvation for the bordering lands, in Istria, in Trieste and wherever it may be.

The best children of these lands are those that have been able to overcome the nationalism, forging, even in affliction, a feeling of common belonging to this complex border world

This is recent history, little known despite eminent works. From Diego de Castro’s magnificent and fundamental book to the one published by the Institute of History on the Liberation Movement or those by Miglia and many others, including the recent Trieste by Corrado Belci, who at the age of twenty became editor of L’Arena di Pola on 10th February 1947, when the peace treaty was signed that assigned Istria to Yugoslavia. For this reason, the decisive and loyal antifascist Leo Valiani voted against it in Parliament and was incarcerated in Mussolini’s prisons, a participant in the armed struggle and an unconditional champion of the Slavs.

Now history is letting bygones be bygones, especially with the changes in Eastern Europe that brought down the Iron Curtain, behind which Istria had found itself after 1945. Throughout the following period the censuses indicate a decrease in the community of Italians that had stayed in Yugoslavia; today officially there are 15,000, but there are many more “Italian speakers”, at least 50,000, and enrolments in Italian schools, albeit mainly of Croatians, are rising.

Leaving aside the fact that children of mixed marriages are more frequent, it is worth noting that many Italians hesitated for many years to refer to themselves as such, among other things because of fear of the Italian/fascist equation, doubly foolish for those who had decided to remain in Yugoslavia. Moreover, the Italian minority is not located in a compact area but scattered in small groups like leopard’s spots, making it more arduous to conserve their own identity, in any case attested by the literary production, cultural initiatives, newspapers such as La voce del popolo and Panorama or important magazines such as La Battana de Fiume.

In 1987 an authentic political “Istrian Spring” began that sprouted the Gruppo ’88, formed by stubborn intellectuals under the guidance of the young and charismatic Franco Juri. Helped by the derivations of the Slovenian and Croatian glasnost and concerned about the decline of the Italian minority, the Gruppo ’88 vigorously confronted the taboo of the preceding history and the humiliations suffered in the past. Eschewing any irredentism, it not only called for a more effective protection of the minority, but also an active role in the general Yugoslavian context, without excessively withdrawing into itself.

The Gruppo ’88’s activity led to a series of initiatives, meetings and debates with clear postures. At the moment two trends are in confrontation within the Italian minority. One of them, traditionally represented by the Union of Italians of Istria and Fiume, looks towards a more intense cultural relationship with Italy, and it is shared by Antonio Borme, former member of the Federal Parliament and former president of the Union ousted in 1974.

The other trend, expressed especially by the Gruppo ’88 and part of the process of Eastern Europe that pressures and dismembers communism, has a transnational vision and proposes an Istrian identity, based on a close union of the three ethnic groups – Italian, Croatian and Slavic – that have coexisted for centuries in Istria and have been reduced to approximately 40% of its population, while the remaining 60% is made up of new arrivals following one another from 1947: Slavs from the south, nomads or Muslims like those who pray looking towards Mecca in the surrounding areas of the Roman Arena.

Opatija, Istria.

The ingredients are many: an Istrian inter-ethnic diet is running for the Slovenian elections to defend, from within the “diversity” proclaimed by Slovenia, an Istrian peculiarity. There are also groups of this kind in other places, for example the Club Istria, the Italian community of Piran stood as a minority party, the creation of the Constituent Assembly of the Italians of Yugoslavia proposed in Fiume and, above all, the assemblies of the Gruppo ’88, such as the one held recently in Galižana. An inter-ethnic awareness is being formed among people that often induces the “Istrians” to define themselves as such rather than as Italians or Croatians, in a hotchpotch even reflected in the menu of the Hotel Riviere that offers njoki sa sguazetom and that does not indicate crossbreeding but the joint conservation of the specific national physiognomy.   

The native Istrian identity has nothing to do with the municipal chauvinisms we have seen emerge throughout Europe, narrow-minded leagues that are more regressive than the accentuated nationalisms

The native Istrian identity has nothing to do with the municipal chauvinisms we have seen emerge throughout Europe, narrow-minded leagues that are more regressive than the accentuated nationalisms.Undoubtedly, this 60% has arrived later, to take up vacant roles and posts and fill deserted cities, but the children and grandchildren of the recently arrived will also feel at home in the places where they were born, in the streets or the delightful beaches where they played as children.

As happened in other European countries, the future of Istria is also rightly in the mosque in aunt Catineta’s house; although it may be a difficult future, because any uprooting brings harsh conflicts and, particularly, the current Muslim expansionism involves an all-encompassing intolerance that triggers defence mechanisms.  

In Yugoslavia, particularly in Croatia, there is a feeling today that the Italian exodus has involved a loss for everyone. Italy must specifically help the Italian minority of Istria in all possible ways, who with the exception of the worthy local efforts of the Università Popolare di Trieste and other similar institutions, has been neglected for so long. In 1989 it reshuffled the cards and revealed new truths also about Istria. Perhaps the novel Martin Muma by Ligio Zanini, prohibited for years, will be published, which tells the story of the Goli Otok lager, the island where the orthodox communists were deported who, like Zanini, in 1948 did not want to follow Tito in his decisive split from Stalin. Zanini believed in the communism of rigid observance; I don’t know what he believes in today, but, certainly, in freedom – beginning with that of his intense poetry, a lyrical poetry in the Venetian dialect of Rovigno in which, after retiring to live as a fisherman, he speaks with the sea and the gulls. This poetry is also a sign of multisecular Venetian civilisation.

“If the spirit of the world decides to erase the Istrian-Venetian presence from the Adriatic,” Biagio Marin once said to me, “I will incline my head and say ‘fiat voluntas tua‘ but afterwards, to myself, I will add ‘…damn…,” and here he let out a beautiful, classic blasphemy that not even our ferocious secularist times and the anticlerical battles will allow us to repeat in the Corriere della Sera.


[1] This article was published for the first time in Corriere della Sera on 20 February 1990.