A great deal of fringe history centers on glorifying one’s own city, region, or country as the most important in the world. For believers, world-historical events conspired to occur right in the spot that he or she loves most. So, for many American fringe historians the U.S. is the center of the universe. In Britain, it is the U.K. where all roads converge. The pattern repeats wherever you go. It’s not universal of course—Atlantis, ancient Egypt, and whatever is trending in the news have their share of adherents around the world—but it is a consistent pattern. Today I’d like to look at an offbeat and minor key version of this pattern, coming to us courtesy of a Slate magazine and Roads & Kingdoms article by Tara Isabella Burton about the Adriatic port city of Trieste.
One wouldn’t really imagine Trieste to be tied to unusual claims about history, especially if one lives in the United States, where the city is not precisely well known. The city sits at the head of the Adriatic, at the junction of three cultural regions: Italian, Slavic, and Germanic. Older than the Roman Empire, it spent most of its modern existence as the most important port of the Habsburg Empire. It was, for a time, the seat of the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, better known as Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, and it is where he accepted the offer of Mexico’s imperial crown. After World War I, the city was annexed to Italy, where it remained thereafter, save for a brief seven-year period as a free state after World War II.
Since the Fascist period, the Italian government has worked to rewrite history in order to present Trieste as a primarily Italian city, and according to filmmaker and amateur historian Luca Wieser, this program of Italianization continues today. In the 1930s, this involved mass deportations of non-Italians and mass immigration of Dalmatian Italians, and now it involves using schools to teach an Italian version of history.
Wieser is a member of the extremist (and fringe) Free Territory of Trieste movement, which seeks independence for the city.
Another member of the group, Giorgio Deschi, has an even more extreme vision for the city: He believes it to be the New Jerusalem of the book of Revelation, and he quotes Hermes Trismegistus in support! Get a load of this description of Deschi’s plans to rebuilt the canal area now called the Piazza St. Antonio, which might have come from the pen of Scott Wolter or Alan Butler:
[Deschi] quoted Hermes Trismegistus, 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.
Deschi isn’t speaking merely symbolically. He truly believes that there is mystical energy running through his hometown, and that he can use this to remake the world in the presumed image of ancient occult beliefs. Specifically, he claims to have had a vision of a woman in the Piazza dell’Unita and to have seen Trieste as the key to transcending science and religion in service of the one truth, love.
He uses numerology based on such bizarre data as the number of religions practiced in the city and the number of Empress Maria Theresa’s children to determine that Trieste is, by alphanumeric substitution, the site of … wait for it … the GRAAL. Yes, the Holy Grail. Where have we heard about secret Grail codes before? (Cough ... Minnesota ... cough.)
“Of course I’m crazy,” Deschi told Burton. “But it’s a beautiful madness.”
I’m going to guess that the Italian government disagreed when it found out he was trying to get the attention of Vladimir Putin to foment Russian intervention in Trieste.
The disconcerting thing is that Deschi has created a cult around his occult beliefs, which he calls the Agape movement, and he has attracted a number of people in support of his quasi-mystical vision of the city. Imagine if our own fringe historians stopped caring so much for money or glory and instead turned their beliefs into a political movement. Deschi likely doesn’t have enough influence to interest Russia in Trieste, but imagine if crazier and more powerful celebrities ever tried to foment international intrigue in service of a nutty vision of occult triumph. Here we see in miniature the problems this can produce.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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