14 May 2014

Museums and Malaria on the Eastern Adriatic Riviera


 
Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn, Im dunkeln Laub die Gold-orangen glühn, Ein sanfter Wind vom blauen Himmel weht, Die Myrte still und hoch der Lorbeer steht? Kennst du es wohl? Dahin!
Dahin möcht’ ich mit dir, O mein Geliebter, ziehn.”
Goethe, Mignon
 
 
As an evocation of the tense and tender twilight years of the Habsburg monarchy, Versinkende Sonne, Egon Schiele’s 1913 painting of the setting sun near Trieste is hard to beat. Schiele’s friend and art critic Arthur Roessler remarked on it that “in front of the sun it is already dark and cold, every leaf on the branch is stiff and numb from the cold. A deeply melancholic sky makes me ask whether this same sun will ever return”. Did it predict as well the sun setting on Stephan Zweig’s “World of Yesterday”, an “ordered world with definite classes and calm transitions”? In the same year as Schiele’s painting, the Adria Ausstellung exhibition allowed Vienna’s population to visit the Adriatic to reflect on the waves of the monarchy without leaving the city. Sailing off the crepuscular cliffs of the world of yesterday, the exhibition recreated in the Habsburg capital the Austrian Riviera, showing visitors how the Danube monarchy had evolved into the Adriatic monarchy. Now, during the last winter before the 100th anniversary of the summer of Sarajevo shots, a Vienna museum basks in the reflective glow of its former canal to the Mediterranean. The current temporary exhibition at the Vienna Museum “Wien endeckt das Meer” navigates nostalgically along the Adriatic, resurrecting with a certain ambivalence an era that sunk in 1918, washing ashore picturesque paintings, colourful posters and other madeleines of the Österreichische Riviera.

A century ago, Vienna was still waltzing whimsically between the belle époque and “the age of extremes”. Stalin, Tito and Hitler trod the same baroque streets after all. The British historian of Europe Tony Judt described the Habsburg capital before 1914 as a “fertile, edgy self-deluding hub of a culture and a civilisation on the threshold of the apocalypse”. 1914 Vienna ruled an empire of 50 million people and 15 different nationalities, stretching from Lake Constance almost to the Black Sea. Detractors of the Empire called it a “prison of the people” however, where social harmony was only sustained through keeping everyone in a “mutual state of dissatisfaction”. The frustrated energy and dynamic diversity of the Empire’s most talented gravitated to Vienna making it the “engine room of European culture” through an explosion of art, science and ideas. In fin-de-siècle Vienna gestated, among other phenomena, the Secessionist art of Gustav Klimt, the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and the development of Zionism by Theodore Herzl.

A vital air vent had emerged from this laboratory of modernity in 1857 when the Südbahn railway was opened, connecting the Alps to the Adriatic. The Vienna–Trieste link opened up the eastern Adriatic as a decompression chamber for the empire.

New technology in the 19th century had greatly increased travel possibilities and horizons. The steamship company Austrian Lloyd (Österreichischer Lloyd) was founded in 1833. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 meanwhile meant that a passenger could step on a train at the Südbahnhof and finish his journey in Singapore. The link with Trieste also represented a geopolitical reorientation for the Danube monarchy, at a time when it was suffering losses of territory. Less than two decades after the Habsburg capital’s link to Trieste, the double-headed eagle was deplumed of its prized Italian territories of Lombardy in 1859 and Veneto in 1866. Bismarck himself had also driven the Habsburg eagle away from its roosting place in the Teutonic nest. Hence the decision to build the railway was also motivated by a need to lessen Austria’s dependence on the emerging ports of north Germany. According to Rusinow, the Austrians were “jealous of the economic threat from the new German empire and were eager to see Habsburg goods pass through Habsburg ports”. So it was that Trieste, the main city in the Austrian Littoral, was to become Vienna’s window to the world right around the time when the empire’s star began to fade.
 
Suffocated in the West and endangered in the East, the Austrian Empire’s one remaining lung breathed free in the turquoise, glass blue Adriatic. An 18th century oil painting at the Vienna Museum shows the last Holy Roman Emperor, Franz II as a new Caesar being admired by two confused, passive and star-struck ladies representing the newly acquired territories of Dalmatia and Venice. In the aftermath of the 1797 Treaty of Campo Formino, the lion of St Mark was replaced by the Habsburg eagle. By swapping its Northern Netherlands possessions for the Adriatic provinces, the double-headed eagle began its geopolitical move from the West to the East, calculating that flying towards the rising sun would make it immortal. On a trip to Dalmatia in 1820, Franz was said to have been so impressed by the variety of historical antiquities that he gave the go-ahead for the establishment of the Split Archaeological Museum, the first museum in Croatia. The Habsburgs had also “illuminated” the Austrian Littoral in 1818 when Metternich built the first lighthouse in Istria. Over the next century, the foamy azure waves of the Austrian Adriatic would frequently reflect the life and times of the empire.

Angelo Vivante, author of Irredentismo Adriatico, noted that the Trieste–Vienna railway arrived around thesame time as Italian irredentism. Geography had endowed the Austrian Littoral both with vital strategic significance and demographic diversity. Above Trieste, the Alpine barrier fades for a few kilometres. Thecrest line of Postojna, where the plains of Central Europe come closest to the Mediterranean, is just 600 metres above sea level. This feature made it the “shortest and lowest transit route to the European interior in the whole 1,300 mile stretch of mountains between the Bosporus and the Rhone Valleybreak”, Vivante wrote. The Eastern Adriatic was also where Europe’s three largest peoples met, Italian, German and Slav, all of whom harboured historic claims to the region. Dante’s Inferno rhapsodised that Italy lay “at Pula near the Kvarner, which encloses Italy and bathes her boundaries”. The German community in Trieste was organised meanwhile in the Schillerverein and saw Trieste as their “bridge to the Adriatic”. In 1910, Trieste had a bigger Slovene population than Ljubljana. One of Slovenia’s greatest novelists, Ivan Cankar famously stated that “if Ljubljana was the heart of the Slovenes, Trieste was their lungs”.

The Südbahn was also the midwife of a Slovene “rebirth”, connecting its heart with its lungs. Previously, Slavs who sought social elevation were assimilated through the magnetism of italianità but the railway was now facilitating rapid urbanisation in the Slavic hinterlands, prompting concerns that the Austrian government, more concerned about Italian irredentism, was ignoring a Slav advance. Trieste, with its 200,000 population, was the centre of the Austrian Littoral but was seen as the most unredeemed “Italian” city. The Irredentists reasoned that if italianità could be broken here, their cause might well be lost. For Italian nationalists, the threat was not just theoretical. Industrialisation and immigration had already made the suburbs Slovene, and boosted the Slovene share of the city’s population by 130 per cent between 1900 and 1910. The Italian population, counting some 900,000 people across the Habsburg lands, were not likely to be the “most faithful” subjects, as evidenced by an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Franz Joseph in 1882 on the 500th anniversary of the beginning of Austrian rule of Trieste.

Thanks to urbanisation, the Südbahn and its maritime extension the Österreichischer Lloyd, Trieste became the empire’s fourth largest city. Lloyd was founded by a group of merchants and investors who modelled themselves on the Lloyd’s Register science and engineering research foundation in London, and whose aim was to encourage the growth of the empire’s maritime commerce. As Trieste’s commercial sector boomed, local journalists Dall’Ongaro and Valussi set about reconceptualising their city as “the Hamburg of the Adriatic”. Lloyd also became an engine of the nascent tourism industry. In 1897 it financed the construction of Dubrovnik’s famous – and still operating Hotel Imperial. Not everyone in Dubrovnik welcomed the hotel’s opening however. Supilo, later one of the leaders of the anti-Habsburg Yugoslav Committee declared that the newly opened hotel was a “Teutonic fort in the middle of the historic republic”. For Supilo, the emerging Slavic rebirth trumped any flashy investment from Vienna. “We have in front of us something else which we find dearer than material progress, and that is the national question”, he argued. “For it is better to be your own master with a mere slice of bread rather than a servant eating a juicy roast.” Yet while trade increased, the new investment and infrastructure was undeniably leading to more opportunities for the subjects of the seemingly sclerotic empire.
 
Lloyd’s founders hoped that it would reorient Austrian trade towards the seas and give fresh impetus to the Austrian economy. Frank’s research on Habsburg mercantilism reveals merchants like Revoltella who argued in 1863 that “if we escape from the narrow circles into which Austrian traffic is now banished, a wide boundless horizon opens – a world lies before us which until now has only been known in Austrian schoolrooms… a world full of the liveliest activity, the playground of all other civilised people – where the spirit of commerce daily celebrates unheard-of triumphs”. Soon, Lloyd ships were connecting the Danube monarchy to all parts of the world. Trade melted barriers as the Habsburg Empire increased trade with its hereditary enemy, the Ottoman Empire. By the time the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, the Ottoman Empire was Austria–Hungary’s second most important trade partner, after Germany. Trieste became known as the “third door to the Suez”. Sailing regularly to Constantinople, Bombay and Hong Kong, Lloyd became the maritime branch of the Südbahn.

Lloyd – portrayed in an oil painting in the Vienna Museum as the sea god Neptune – came to rule the waves but sometimes waived the rules. Despite being a reliable and comfortable steamship operator, it was no stranger to international scandals as Frank’s research reveals. Druskovich, captain of the Lloyd vessel Mars, sparked a diplomatic furore in 1870 after the British consul in Smyrna, Robert Cumberbatch, discovered slaves onboard. Slavery was illegal under Austrian law, but the connectivity of the “corrupting sea” meant it became a sensitive issue in Austro-British relations. Frank asks a revealing question whether Cumberbatch was trying to “lame the powerful competition that Lloyd ships give the English merchant marine in the seaports of the Levant”? The British Empire may have been trying to stamp out the slave trade, but Cumberbatch was “scolded not commended by his superiors”.

Aside from slaves, human traffic onboard Lloyd ships also came in the form of tourism.
Travellers were now able to reach the Adriatic coast in less than a day from Vienna, and Habsburg royalty were trailblazing tourists. Sharp-eyed observers in Franz Joseph’s office in Vienna’s Schönbrunn palace will notice a picture of Rovinj on his desk, gazing upon his Riviera from afar. In Trieste itself, the Kaiser’s brother Maximilian built the sugarcube-shaped castle Miramare and a mansion on the island of Lokrum near Dubrovnik where Maximilian’s nephew, the crown prince Rudolph, would later spend his honeymoon. Following the lead of the royal family, the subjects of the Danube monarchy, keen to get away from the high prices and long distances of the C^ote d’Azur but also from the polarising politics of fin-de-siècle Austro-Hungary, began to flock to the newly fashionable resort destination, the eastern Adriatic coast.
 
The ranks of summer tourists were also bolstered by TB patients and others sent by Viennese doctors like Dr Billroth of the Vienna School of Medicine to convalesce during the winter in the mild coastal climate like Opatija. By the dawn of the 20th century, Opatija, where the modern hotels, elite villas and parks of Mitteleuropa met the Mediterranean had become one of the most popular and developed resorts on the entire Adriatic. The Trieste writer Magris wrote that “Danubian travellers love the sea and cross the vast Mitteleuropean plains under heavy skies to arrive at the sea shores to meet with a broad breadth of life, which opens us to great questions of destiny and the meaning of good and evil; the sea makes us confront ambiguity, it invites us to brave it”. Vienna’s Mediterranean front yard soon gained an international reputation as “Brighton-in-the-summer” or “Cannes-in-the-winter” and began to attract writers such as Chekhov and Bernard Shaw as well as the controversial, multi-term Vienna mayor Karl Lueger, who even while on holiday, could not leave polemical politics at home. Upon visiting the Pula maritime museum, Lueger declared that “Vienna has secured its foothold on the Adriatic, the irredentists can exclaim evviva as much as they like but this is Austrian territory and Austrian it shall remain”.

Like the Austrian Littoral, Dalmatia was marked by a cultural dualism born of its mixed Slav and Latin heritage. Until the geopolitisation of nationality, Dalmatia was seen as an interpreter and intermediary between East and West. According to the Dalmatian writer Tomasseo, an 1848-er and participant in the Risorgimento, the province was a “ring between east and west, between the Slavic and the Latin worlds”. Before the Slavic rebirth, Italian was the language of administration, education and the courts. Though Italians counted for less than 5 per cent of the population, Italian remained the official language until 1909.

Political representation was heavily tilted in the Italian community’s favour. The Dalmatian Diet was elected on an unbalanced franchise with 20 deputies assigned to 400,000 South Slavs and 21 for 20,000 Italians. Despite the imbalance, Austrian ethnographers persisted in showing how Dalmatia was an exotic land where Italians and Croatians coexisted in harmony, and largely ignored the growing tensions between the two communities. For a large part of the 19th century, national emancipation through the Italian Risorgimento had been seen as a viable possibility for the “Slavo-Dalmatians” living in the Eastern Adriatic, a handful of whom had participated in Garibaldi’s Sicilian expedition.

Then in 1866, Italian irredentism posed a major threat to Dalmatia, when the Italian and Austrian fleets clashed in the naval Battle of Vis (also called the Battle of Lissa). By taking Vis, the Italians were hoping to capture Dalmatia and at least part of the former Venetian territory from Austria in order to complete the Risorgimento, arguing that the influence of the Venetian empire on the coast had given many of the cities an “Italian” physiognomy. The outnumbered Austrian fleet scored a spectacular victory over the Italians however in what was the first major sea battle involving iron and steam ships and also one of the last to involve deliberate ramming. A painting in the Belvedere palace shows the nonchalant and tactically astute Austrian admiral Tegethoff with his hands in his pockets casually observing his ferociously vigorous crew. Dr Christian Rapp, curator of the current Adriatic exhibition explains that the victory was “irrelevant for the result of the war”. The historian Vrandečić describes the Battle of Vis as “the 19th century’s second largest naval battle after Trafalgar, and decisive for the national crystallisation of the local population”. Although it did forestall an Italian invasion of Dalmatia, Austria was forced to concede the Veneto to the Italians. Traces of the Kriegsmarine are still visible in Vienna; the building of the former headquarters is located near Landstrasse and is still decorated by the fading coats of arms of the 12 main Adriatic ports. Near the former royal hunting grounds of Vienna’s Prater is the monument to Tegethoff. The eagle-eyed skipper, armed with a telescope and sextant, longingly looks south, still guarding Vienna from a mast.
 
Defeat at Vis, political reform and changes in the political landscape took the wind out of the Risorgimento’s sails on the eastern Adriatic. The new constitution of 1867 granted civil rights to the empire’s nationalities. Article XIX prescribed that “all races of the state have equal rights, with the inviolable right of maintaining and cultivating their nationality and language”. The year 1874 marked a turning point for Slavo-Dalmatian fortunes, with the anti-Croat autonomist party redrawing its programme with a more explicitly Italian orientation. In the same year, the first Croatian section of the pan-Slavic Sokol youth movement was founded and a Croatian language university was opened in Zagreb. Less than half a century after the unification of Italy, the number of Italian-run municipalities in Dalmatia decreased from 84 in 1861 to just the one in 1914. Tomasseo’s death in 1874 meant that the autonomist experiment, arguably a predecessor of contemporary European regionalism, would have to wait until the 21st century before another serious attempt was made.
 
As the threat of Italian irredentism in the eastern Adriatic receded, more tourists began to visit. The growth in tourism also coincided with an upturn in artistic activity and visits by artists. While Van Gogh and Paul Signac were painting fishing boats on the Co^te d’Azur, Austrian artists Egon Schiele, Emil Jakob Schindler and Albin Egger Lienz were capturing similar southern serenity on the Austrian Riviera. Central European culture was undoubtedly benefiting from the fusion found on the Austrian Riviera of the Mediterranean and the Mitteleuropean. Contemporary posters inviting people to visit the Adriatic show the significant influence of the Vienna Secession. As the pupils of the Austrian architect Otto Wagner were busily building villas, hotels and hospitals along the Adriatic coast, the young Gustav Klimt in 1885 painted three frescoes “Religious, military and concert music” in Rijeka’s Ivan Zajc theatre. Klimt’s first ever commissions singularly represent the symbiosis between the Mitteleuropean and the Mediterranean worlds.

The connections to the provincial ports of the Austrian Riviera however also revealed to the world the sheer backwardness of the outlying provinces of the Habsburg Empire. In 1844 John Wilkinson Gardner, the famous British writer and pioneer of Egyptology, described Dalmatia as “the Siberia of the Austrian empire”. While the former industrialist Kuppelwieser and the Nobel Prize winning bacteriologist Koch had helped rid the Brijuni Islands from malaria, conditions in Dalmatia were more African than Austrian. In stark contrast to the intellectual powerhouse of Vienna, Dalmatia had a 73.3 per cent illiteracy rate in 1900. Smodlaka, a Dalmatian MP and PhD graduate from Graz University, told the Austrian parliament in 1910 that “the most basic needs of my country are ignored… medieval conditions have survived... Dalmatia has become a land of beggars... the population is decaying today – especially in the north where there is malaria. Over 300 Dalmatian villages have no school at all; in half the country the proportion of illiterates is not 50 or 60 but 99 and 100 per cent. More than half of the country has no drinking water”. Smodlaka would certainly not have been impressed at the ethnographic element of the 1913 Adriatic exhibition. He noted in his parliament speech that “we have no wish to play the part of an archaeological cemetery or an ‘Indian reservation’ with the authentic Dalmatian Red Indians in their gay costumes”. According to Dr Christian Rapp, curator of the current Wien endeckt das Meer exhibition, “the Austrians did not really understand the problems of the eastern Adriatic well enough to even begin trying to solve them”.

Austrian economic policy meanwhile did little to help the agriculture-based economy or shipbuilding industry of the desolate province, and in many cases even made conditions worse, triggering mass emigration and even revolts. Austria’s 1891 trade agreement with Italy for example allowed the import of Italian wine which severely undercut Dalmatian exports resulting in catastrophic consequences for local wine production. Furthermore, the switch to iron and steel ships ruined Dalmatian shipbuilding as there was not sufficient capital to finance the restructuring of the existing wood-based shipbuilding industry. In despair, many Dalmatians opted to board a Lloyd steamer in search of a better life elsewhere. Skilled craftsmen from islands like Korčula went to work on the construction of the Suez Canal. Unskilled labourers took to gumdigging in New Zealand. In 1896, Parengarenga near North Cape was termed “Little Vienna”, as Dalmatians were often labelled Austrians. Contemporary New Zealand newspapers protested against “these swarms of Austrians who are now in festing our gumfields. At the moment, we have hundreds of these nuisances taking the gum out of the land and sending nearly the whole of their earnings to Austria”. Disciples of the temperance movement also disapproved of the fortified wine the Dalmatians produced and dubbed it “vile Austrian wine”. A picture taken of the Dalmatian gum-diggers, photographed posing in front of the Austro-Hungarian flag in 1896, shows that despite hardship and exile, a sentimental attachment to the Habsburg Empire perhaps prevailed. Lloyd had made large-scale migration possible to every continent. People left to escape poverty but also avoid conscription. In 1882, Arthur Evans, the English archaeologist, then living in Dubrovnik Raguza and working as a reporter for The Guardian, was arrested during anti-conscription protests. An intervention from Gladstone secured his release, but the Austrian government had accused him of instigating the insurrection and soon after his release deported him.

For economic and political reasons, pan-Slav unity appealed as a solution in Dalmatia. As the First World War broke out, the British historian and political activist R.W. Seton-Watson observed that Dalmatian Croats will play a great part in the new South Slav State. Indeed, large numbers of Croats from Dalmatia such as Supilo, Trumbić and Meštrović got involved with the Yugoslav committee that lobbied the Entente on behalf of the South Slavs. This became more urgent with the signing of the secret 1915 Treaty of London. Britain and France promised Italy most of the eastern Adriatic on condition that it joined the Entente. Italy’s arguments were national and strategic, claiming that control of the Eastern Adriatic would allow it to hold the keys of the Adriatic and be secure from all military attack behind two impregnable mountain walls on the northern Alps and the Dinaric Alps. Italy’s demands, tapping the Venetian heritage of the coast, were presented as necessary to complete the Risorgimento, calling it “the fourth war of independence”. This had found a sympathetic ear within the British establishment, for which the foundations had been created centuries before during the Venetian days.

Shakespeare had marvelled at the Venetian society in his plays. James I had written a pamphlet in defence of Il Serenissima, a constitutional, maritime and mercantile empire fortified by nature. In the 19th century, the city of the lagoons continued to inspire the imagination of Byron, Wordsworth and Ruskin. Writers played a part in legitimising Italian territorial claims on the eastern Adriatic. Travellers like the Oxford architect Jackson felt that the region possessed an evident and unchallenged superiority over all other lands in the Danube–Balkan region because of the enduring links to Italy, which meant the local population retained the language and political traditions of “civic liberties, civic order and settled law” as well as “the ancient culture in the face of barbarian colonisation”. This affinity gained new energy during Italian reunification that infused the existing affinity with Venice with a certain strand of British liberal Whig politics. Elements of the liberal party, following the anti-Austrian heritage of Gladstone, would have seen the Risorgimento as an anti-clerical, liberal and progressive movement.

David Laven’s research on the legacy of Venice for Italian imperialism reveals that Italian journalists like Villari subtly inserted irredentist claims in the British public sphere through articles in the English Illustrated Magazine. “Of the many travellers who annually spend a few weeks in Venice only a very small proportion push on a little further and visit the former territory of the Venetian republic. There a group of towns may be seen that are thoroughly Italian in character”, Villari wrote. Despite the Establishment’s role in the Treaty of London, other Britons like Seton-Watson, Evans and the future editor of The Times Henry Wickham Steed took a distinctly anti-treaty position. Writing in his newspaper, New Europe, Seton-Watson stated that “Italy has as much right to Dalmatia as England has to Bordeaux. By promising Dalmatia to Italy, we shall galvanise Austria-Hungary into new life. Germany has more right to Belgium and Holland than Italy has to Dalmatia”. The British Habsburg Empire historian Robin Okey said in a recent interview that the reason why Britain and the allies overlooked the obvious injustice was that in 1915 small nations like the “Croats were seen a bit like Kurds today”.

The Italo-Slav boundary would continue to be a major source of rancour beyond the First World War. With Trieste under Italian control after Versailles, irredentism evolved into Fascism. In 1920, the first incident of Fascist violence in Europe occurred, with police looking on as a mob burned down the Slovene cultural centre in Trieste. Mussolini celebrated, while his friend and editor of Trieste’s Il piccolo Alesi wrote: “with the vigour of her patriotic traditions Trieste placed herself at the head of Fascism”. The English historian and journalist A. J. P. Taylor suggested that “Italian rule over the South Slavs in the littoral had no parallel in Europe until the worst days of the Nazi dictatorship”. The Slavs’ response was to organise Europe’s first anti-fascist resistance movement, TIGR, which contained the ideological embryo of the Yugoslav partisans. In 1945, the Slovene 9th corps could have written the great Slovene writer Ivan Cankar’s dictum on their tanks when they entered Trieste on 1 May 1945, indicating triumphantly to the Allies that “Trieste is ours”. The next day, they came face to face with the British 8th army. Within a year, Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech established Trieste as the first true frontier of the Cold War. The question of the Eastern Adriatic border would not be resolved until the Treaty of Osimo in 1975. After Osimo, the Yugoslav–Italian border, according to the Slovene historian Repe, became the “most open border between a capitalist and a socialist state”. Trieste would recover some of its Habsburg trading traditions as the nearest shopping centre to Belgrade.
 
As the Eastern Adriatic swims towards the 100th anniversary of 1914, what remains today of the Austrian Adriatic? Franz Joseph’s birthday is still celebrated in Friulian villages such as Bračan and Giassico. Along the coast, Austria showed how tourism could modernise the Adriatic, thus making tourism Austria’s most enduring legacy on the Adriatic. Structures such as the Hotel Kvarner in Opatija, the Hotel Imperial in Dubrovnik and the Hotel Korčula are still popular with tourists, many of whom are from Central Europe. Boats owned by well-heeled Austrians, these days called pleasure crafts, still cruise along the Adriatic shores. The Süd Autobahn has replaced the Südbahn as the gateway to a weekend plunge in the Istrian waters. Austria was also the keenest champion of Slovene and Croatian entry to the EU, their Habsburg heritage continually emphasised as an anchor of Europeanness. Aleš Debeljak, a Slovene poet working at the Vienna Institute of Human Sciences, states that “it is not easy for Vienna to forget about its Riviera. This continuity can be observed in the successful penetration of Austrian banks, construction companies and cultural projects on the eastern Adriatic in post- communist times, a certain soft reconstruction of their hegemony over the area”. In 1914, the Südbahn rattled through faded railwaystations sporting pictures of Franz Joseph on their walls. In 2014, Central Europeans race along the Süd Autobahn to the Adriatic, tanking up at OMV, shopping at Billa and banking with Erste. A look at the territory covered by the Habsburg Empire in 1914 and the distribution density of the Erste Bank branch network in 2014 shows a remarkable similarity.

The current exhibition in the Vienna Museum hence is a valuable X-ray of the past that resuscitates a unique historical moment when the 600-year-old Habsburg Empire was both contemplating retirement and reflecting upon itself in the calm waters of the Adriatic. Like Schiele’s Versinkende Sonne, it had arrived at its own sunset. The wizardly political waltz it had performed for centuries was approaching its finale. The subtle message of the 2014 Wien endeckt das Meer exhibition is that Austria had laid down strong foundations for the development and prosperity of the Adriatic which the start of the war in 1914 then abruptly terminated. It built ports, established a land registry and institutionalised the use of the South Slav languages. Yet its abandonment by the South Slavs in 1918 shows that although it did a lot for the Adriatic, Austria–Hungary did not do enough for the peoples that lived there. Its twilight years saw the last moments of the shrivelled, plucked double headed eagle. It had nested unsteadily for decades ontheKarst,persistentlytryingtotakeoffagainunderthescorchingsun.In 1914, it tried to fly east but would collapse four years later, drowning like Icarus in the “age of extremes”. The Vienna exhibition cleverly combines history and geography to capture a fundamental truth about the Adriatic. The sea is at its most breathtaking when the sun sets, bathing and marinating its shrub and Karst surroundings in a lava glow of sublime sunlight. Austria at its sunset was like Schiele’s sun near Trieste: more charming, absorbing and elated than the cold dawn that would arrive after. The exhibition reveals thus how the bitterly cold Austrian winter was able to give way to a warm Adriatic glow, reawakening Goethe’s longings for glowing sunsets, lemon blossoms and golden oranges, and carrying on what the Südbahn started: the melting of Mitteleuropa melancholy by merry Mediterranean memories.

Note: the pre-First World War postcards for the article were selected by Attila Balázs.



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