Rijeka Port
© Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture

Reasons why Rijeka really is a 'port of diversity'

To present Rijeka’s current role as a European cultural ambassador, Peterjon Cresswell explores the city’s maritime heritage

Peterjon Cresswell

It was back in 2013 that the City of Rijeka embarked on the project that would see it named European Capital of Culture for 2020. The project quickly assumed the title that currently serves as the motto for a whole year of cultural initiatives around the city and beyond: Port of Diversity.

In its proposal, the strategic planning group made specific reference to the Rijeka of a century ago, when the then-named Fiume was a bustling port and a vital resource for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To underline this, the document describes Rijeka as ‘the gateway for hundreds of thousands of emigrés from Europe to North and South America’.

This was given added dimension in 1903, when the Cunard sailing line, whose top-of-the-range superliners were sponsored by the British government of the day, introduced a direct Rijeka-New York route. Calling at ports in Italy and Gibraltar, the service would be carrying 50,000 people a year to the New World by 1906 – the equivalent of Rijeka’s expanding population of the time.

Two years later, the route was renamed the ‘Hungary-America line’, served by a fleet of 11 ships, voyagers arriving directly from Budapest, using a direct train connection that exists to this day. A three-floor hotel, the ‘Emigranti’ was built to cater to those in need of rest before the long journey – or, perhaps, after it.

© Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture

The traffic was not entirely one way. 'Anyone visiting Rijeka in the early 1900s would have found a complete mix of nationalities', with Italians in the majority – it was here that later legendary New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia served in public office at the start of his career. Croats, Slovenes, Germans and Hungarians also lived here in large numbers. The conversations overheard along the waterfront and the main street, the Korzo, meant that Rijeka was a real Tower of Babel, the smatterings of Italian, Slavic, Magyar and Germanic languages interspersed by the occasional burst of English – it was here that Bolton-born engineer Robert Whitehead, the son of a Lancashire cotton bleacher, made his name by inventing the torpedo. He was paid in Hungarian forints for his trouble.

His fellow creator was Rijeka-born Giovanni Luppis, whose roots reflect the very diversity of his home town. Known to Croats as Ivan Vukić, he could trace his family origins to Poreč, Vis and Dubrovnik, with plenty of noble Italian blood mixed in.

Similarly, the man who introduced the two men to each other in 1864, Giovanni de Ciotta, was at one time a soldier in the Austrian Army, a Member of Parliament in Budapest and, perhaps most importantly, mayor of Rijeka for more than two formative decades in the late 1800s. De Ciotta, whose mercantile, multi-lingual father Andrija Ljudevit Adamić built some of the factories currently being reconfigured for European Capital of Culture Year 2020, was largely responsible for the urbanisation of modern-day Rijeka.

© Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture

De Ciotta worked with another Englishman, John Leard, then the British consul in Rijeka, to create the blueprint for an industrialised city of Central Europe, similar to how Budapest had developed 20 years earlier. The aqueduct that provided the burgeoning city with fresh water and dealt with its sewage took Ciotta’s name.

Leard, meanwhile, took up residence in the villa later named after Archduke Josef Karl of Austria. This Baroque pile, in Nikola Host Park, besides what is today Muzejski trg and site of the Rijeka City Museum, tells its own story. In the 1890s, as Rijeka was developing according to Ciotta and Leard’s plans, the Habsburg royal had the whole property revamped and expanded. To do this, he commissioned local architects, the father-and-son team of Pietro and Raffaello Culotti, to create new wings and loggias. Pietro Culotti, also responsible for Rijeka’s market hall, would pass away before the new building was unveiled, but Raffaello saw the project through to completion.

It was here that Archduke Josef Karl would host extravagant social gatherings, inviting prominent politicians, entrepreneurs, engineers and ship owners whose place of business was Rijeka. Their peers, meanwhile, would be convening in the hallowed institutions of Vienna and Budapest.

The Archduke himself passed away in 1905, a significant date as this was also when the so-called Fiume Resolution was published here in Rijeka. This was the first call for a united land of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia. It failed but it helped spread the notion that would lead to an independent Croatia nearly 90 years later.

The archduke’s villa would pass into the ownership of the City of Rijeka and today it houses the state archives, a vast collection of historical documentation, the earliest dating back to 1201.

© Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture

The concept of Rijeka as a port of diversity is amply illustrated here – and also in the long list of luminaries who would emerge from this cultural melting pot during the Habsburg, Italian, Yugoslav and independent Croatian eras. The country’s current (and youngest) president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, was not only born here but returned to Rijeka from North America to embark on her political career. The long-term leader of post-war Communist Hungary, János Kádár, was a Rijeka man, as was his significant dissident opponent Miklós Vásárhelyi. Giovanni Palatucci, the so-called ‘Italian Schindler’, is thought to have saved thousands of Jews from the death camps while serving as Chief of Police in Rijeka during World War II. Rijeka-born Claudia Scrobogna took the stage name of Oretta Fiume from her home town to become a star at Rome’s Cinecittà, the Italian Hollywood, either side of the war, bowing out with a part in La Dolce Vita. Award-winning Austro-Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth, early X-ray pioneer Peter Salcher, renowned composer Ivan Zajc, prodigious Hungarian mathematician Paul Felix Nemenyi, within 50 years or so Rijeka produced a whole range of pioneering personalities from diverse ethnic backgrounds who would make their mark in the fields of science, politics and the arts.

Equally, as also stressed in the proposal that would allow the city to come full circle and become European Capital of Culture for 2020, as a port, Rijeka has a tradition of tolerance. Even today, long after Hungarian and Italian rule, their influences can be felt around the city. Certainly, in terms of architectural grandeur and coffee culture, you still find echoes of Habsburg Europe and an Italianate lifestyle. A slow stroll down Rijeka’s Korzo reveals palatial façades and terrace cafés, tucked in from the deep-water port that attracted so many ambitious cosmopolitans to the city from the 1860s onwards.

© Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture

Of all the many initiatives set up as part of Rijeka 2020, perhaps the one that most mirrors its overriding motto of Port of Diversity is Lungomare. Essentially a meeting point for contemporary artists to reinterpret Rijeka’s historical and social heritage, Lungomare also brings in urban, maritime and industrial communities along the surrounding Bay of Kvarner – along with the 2013 ECC proposal, the City set out a long-term plan to develop Primorje-Gorski Kotar County along with Rijeka, during the seven years running up to 2020. Thus the hilltop village of Bršec, the gastronomic hub of Volosko, the island of Mali Lošinj, the classic resort of Crikvenica and Rijeka fish market will all host art installations and inspire short stories while forming part of a year-round cultural tourist route.

Curated by Czech academician and art critic Michal Koleček, the project also involves the collaboration of prominent bodies such as Rijeka’s Maritime & History Museum and Natural History Museum, stately institutions ranged around the Archduke’s Villa where Habsburg monarch Josef Karl would once gather the leading lights of the day.

Today Rijeka is the gateway to the Adriatic, the sleek, white Jadrolinija ships not bound for Ellis Island but rather the booming tourist meccas of Dalmatia. The city where a unified Croatia was first declared is a national transport hub, connecting Zagreb, Istria and the picturesque islands dotting the Kvarner Bay. But it remains open to international influence, its annual carnival attracting tens of thousands of foreign visitors, its renowned Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art a showcase for subjects as diverse as industrial art, classic rock album covers and award-winning Czech experimental art over a period of several weeks in 2018.

Like Trieste, Genoa, Marseille and Naples, the other main ports of the Mediterranean during the boom years of the late 1800s, Rijeka is having to reinvent itself from its industrial and occasionally troubled past. And, as its former maritime rivals are also discovering, art and diversity are the cornerstones in this process.

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