The secrets of the Revoltella Museum in Trieste
The extraordinary residence of the baron, patron-of-the-arts, who dreamed of Egypt
Discovering the splendid residence of Pasquale Revoltella, a great Triestine industrialist and patron of the arts, and the Gallery of Modern Art which he donated to the city after his death.
One of the major protagonists of the imperial Trieste, at the time when Italy was part of the Austro-Hungarian kingdom, Pasquale Revoltella was born in 1795 in Venice. He began working in the family butcher’s shop at a very young age and, after losing his father, by the fall of the Republic of Venice, he moved to Trieste.
It is the beginning of a dazzling career that will lead him to manage a timber trading business and, by reinvesting the profits, to become one of the first shareholders of Assicurazioni Generali, born in 1831. He accumulates great wealth, becomes the protagonist of the public life of the country, getting very close to the Archduke Maximilian of Hamburg, and begins his activity as patron of the arts in which he finds great satisfaction and comfort.
Consistently with my secret thought, which was in me since the first moment, when I decided about erecting my building (…) I leave it (…) to the Municipality of Trieste, on condition that it is destined and preserved as a perpetual foundation (…) which perennially bears the name Museo Revoltella, and which is open daily to the public.
(Testament of Pasquale Revoltella)
In 1853 he entrusted the architect Friedrich Hitzig with the construction of his palace in the center of Trieste which, as he wrote in his will, he immediately conceived as a house-museum. Revoltella was, in fact, not only a great patron of the arts, but also a fervent visionary who opened his house to the public when he was still alive and founded a modern art gallery in 1872, one of the first of the kind in Italy.
On his death in 1869, he left the palace and all his possessions to his beloved Trieste, with the explicit request that part of his money had to be destined for the purchase of works for the museum.
The Revoltella Museum today has two souls: the baron’s private residence, still furnished exactly as he had conceived it, thus giving us the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing how wealthy people used to live at that time, and the modern art gallery.
Visitors are welcomed by a magnificent spiral staircase with the Fountain of the Nymph Aurisina, celebrating the Trieste aqueduct, made by the Milanese sculptor Pietro Magni, famous for his works in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the monument to Leonardo da Vinci in Piazza della Scala in Milan. The museum itinerary then unwinds through scenic dining rooms, elegant lounges, and “secret” gems such as the library that hides a secret door lined with fake books and windows equipped with a lens system through which it was possible to spy, unseen, the square below.
Everywhere, works of art, statues, precious objects. Some details, such as the Egyptian alabaster shelves and the paintings of oriental landscapes, reveal what Revoltella’s real obsession was: the completion of the Suez Canal, a strategic work for the development of Trieste’s economy based on maritime trade. Appointed vice-president of the Universal Company of the Suez Canal, he made a long journey to Egypt from which he returned with many memories, photographs and a travelogue still preserved in his library. A dream that never came true, however, because Revoltella died, unfortunately, only two months before the inauguration of the Canal.
The adjacent Palazzo Brunner, restored to an initial project by the great Carlo Scarpa, houses the Museum’s modern art collections, including a magnificent selection of early twentieth-century artists active in Trieste with, in particular, splendid and intense portraits of women.
Like the heroines of the colorful panels by Vito Timmel made in 1916 for the Cine-Ideal cinema, or the 1937 Portrait of a Lady by Marcello Dudovich, painter, illustrator and one of the first advertisers in Italy, or the splendid ladies of Gino Parin, including his 1915 Lady in White.
Possibly the most important work of the museum was purchased at the last Venice Biennale of Art before the Great War, that of 1914; it is the 1878 Lady with the Dog or Return from the races by Giuseppe De Nittis, a splendid portrait of Paris from the late nineteenth century, a true masterpiece.
On the top floor, another great wonder of the Museum is revealed to the visitors’ eyes: the splendid view of Trieste’s harbour that can be admired from the terrace and the panoramic windows, the highest legacy of Carlo Scarpa’s project at the Museum, which on summer evenings hosts a café open until midnight.