Heritage of Diversity

by Jacopo Ibello and Maja Kamenar
pictures by Jacopo Ibello

I visited Rijeka (and Croatia) for the first time 3 years ago. I was surprised by two characteristics of the city: its mostly untouched industrial landscape and its multicultural identity. We talk a lot today about multiculturalism in our cities as one of the effects of globalization, but Rijeka experienced an inverse history. Today it’s a Croatian city mostly inhabited by Croatians, but before the First World War, it was a melting pot of nationalities which led to a prosperous industrial development driven by several innovations.
As an Italian, I approached that first journey with a bit of fear. The ties between Italy and the countries of the former Yugoslavia are often represented as contentious in the media, due to the Italian invasion in WWII and the subsequent repressive regime of Josip Broz “Tito”.  Rijeka was also the backdrop of another controversial episode: the occupation of the city by the poet and war hero Gabriele d’Annunzio in 1919 and his group of rebel Italian soldiers. But despite this complicated past, the city retains a strong Italian flair. There is still widespread knowledge of the Italian language and the way of life is surprisingly familiar to me.
So when European Heritage Volunteers proposed a two-week workshop about industrial heritage in Rijeka, I seized the opportunity to return and experience the city in more depth. There to introduce me and the other volunteers to the city and its culture was Maja Kamenar. She’s an architect born and raised there and we started talking about the relationship the city has with its Italian and industrial heritage. It’s especially important looking towards 2020, as Rijeka prepares to be one of the European Capitals of Culture.

The architectural diversity of the Korzo, the main street in the old city, is a heritage of Rijeka’s multicultural history.

Jacopo: What’s your relation with the Italian identity of Rijeka? Even if it belonged to Italy for only 20 years, the city’s population was mostly Italian during its history. When it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the official name was Fiume, the Italian one. But since 1945, even if there is a small minority of Italians living here Rijeka has been a fully Croatian city. Do young people like you, born decades after the war, feel that the Italian identity still has some influence in Rijeka’s contemporary culture?

Maja: Yes, definitely. We all learn Italian in school, even from a younger age in private classes. Somehow understanding Italian (that is my subjective vision of course) is a very important deal. There is Circolo which is a place where Italian community gathers, and lots of happenings are there, also there is La Voce del Popolo, the newspaper of the Italian community in Croatia and Slovenia. Many people also go to study in Italy. Maybe Rijeka is not an Italian town anymore but I believe it’s still a cohesion of nationalities, just not as expressed as it was.

Honestly, for younger generations, I feel that the link somehow is getting lost. We were more aware and connected to every aspect, Yugoslavian and Italian. Surely, what is getting more and more present is the awakening of the Italian community, as they are asking for more rights, like having events and cultural aspects of both nationalities in the same ratio.

Jacopo: This is interesting because the post WWII rhetoric in Italy focused only on the conflicts between Italians and Slavic populations, which were exacerbated by the nationalist politics of the fascist regime and then this was avenged by the Yugoslavian partisans, but I think there were also stories of cohabitation and collaboration among the ethnic groups.

Traces of the Italian past: on a warehouse of the port,…
…inside the WWII air raid shelter…
…and outside the oil refinery, where a plaque remembers the deaths of two Italian communist partisans.

Maja: I believe there were conflicts after the war. But I never felt any conflict with anyone belonging to the Italian community, just the opposite. As far as I remember nearby cities like Trieste and Udine were sending help during the Croatian War of Independence in the form of food and supplies. Even some descendants of Yugoslavs living in Italy joined the war. But what’s your impression about Italians and Croatians living togetherWere you able to see some differences or do you see it as a normal life without making any borders?

Jacopo: I can’t answer about the cohabitation of Italians and Croatians because I don’t have direct experiences with that. But, for example, the first time I was here 3 years ago I was surprised how many people still speak Italian and also that they prefer to speak in Italian rather than in English.

Maja: How do you see people in RijekaDo you think they valorize industrial heritage?

Jacopo: I have the feeling that the way of life in Rijeka is not much different from other Mediterranean cities. Honestly, I don’t feel much difference walking here or in an Italian port city. The situation of industrial heritage looks the same in other formerly socialist countries. A lot of sites survive because they were “frozen” by the socialist system, while in Western Europe the post-industrial transition started in the 1970s causing the loss of many industrial heritage sites.

View of the city from the oil refinery
The closed Hartera paper mill

I feel that there is some interest and awareness among the citizens. In the past, I heard news about cultural events in some of the abandoned industrial areas like the Torpedo factory or the paper mill Hartera. Or even looking at some street art around the city, they are inspired sometimes by industrial heritage.

Maja: Which one of the many interesting sites in the city fascinated you most?

Jacopo: I really like the area around the Torpedo factory…

Maja: Oh yes! My mother worked there, producing tractors!

Jacopo: It’s a truly unique site, with the launching ramp. A pity it’s falling to ruins! It’s a witness of an important invention (the torpedo) made here by the Fiuman sailor Giovanni Luppis and the British engineer Robert Whitehead. You see that the ramp is a very important landmark for Rijeka since people come here, despite the decaying conditions of the structure, to fish or simply staying here enjoying the beautiful view over the Kvarner Gulf. But here you can also find another industrial monument of Rijeka: the first oil refinery in Europe, which opened in 1883.

Tell me what your favorite place in Rijeka is.

Maja: I enjoy walking on the Molo Longo. From there you can see the old port with the warehouses and the huge Silo. And in 2020 the Galeb, Tito’s former yacht, will be anchored there. Now it’s under restoration, but when it will be ready it will host a museum and a hostel!

Jacopo: Do you think that Rijeka 2020 will have a positive impact on the cityWhat’s the involvement of the citizens in this huge event?

Maja: I hope so. We need to relaunch this city, both from the economic and cultural points of view. People should understand that reuse and valorization of heritage can boost our economy and improve our quality of life. The authorities and project managers of Rijeka 2020 have to better involve the citizens in the process, as many of them still look at some heritage critically.

Jacopo: In what sense?

Maja: Objects like the Galeb have a controversial past, many link it with Tito and issues with the socialist period, and not everybody agrees with the tourism valorization of this. Or the reuse of some abandoned industrial sites is seen as a money hole, or at least not a priority for the future of Rijeka. But both politicians and people need a changeover of their mentality and look at the positive experiences of post-industrial cities throughout Europe.

Jacopo: I hope the positive pushes I saw from the people working for industrial heritage and Rijeka 2020 will motivate most citizens as possible, to show a city that looks forward without forgiving its complex, multi-layered and multicultural heritage.

Trsat Castle