Somewhere on the Adriatic between the Miramare and Duino castles just north of the city of Trieste, on a seventeen-meter sailboat called the Punt e Mes, owned by an amateur historian of the Habsburgs, the filmmaker Luca Wieser said he had an “aforisma” 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, to liquidate Trieste’s history.
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 grey 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, 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, Free Territory of Trieste activist 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.
Some people call Deschi the pastor. Others call him crazy
Some people call Giorgio Descovich Deschi “the pastor.” Others call him “crazy.”
“I am not crazy,” he told me when we met two years ago, at a wood-paneled café called Stella Polare where James Joyce once hammered out drafts of Dubliners, with a wry and resigned smile.
It’s just that Giorgio has a dream of what Trieste might become.
Giorgio, a local activist in what appears to be his sixties, 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 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 United Nations 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 Catholic and 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 Saint Antony the Thaumaturge, which overlooked the canal stretching out towards 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 in turn 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 Trimegistus, 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 sixteen, 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, he said, to understanding what he repeatedly called Trieste’s “synchronicity.”
Trieste was, in other words, the place where your past caught up with you.
Given my personal history with the city, it perhaps amused me more than it should have.
Trieste is calling you, he 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 it, 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.
A view of Trieste in 1885. Photo courtesy of Horst F. Mayer and Dieter Winkler.
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 Tyrolian 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 September 18, 2008—50 years to the day 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 mockup 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.