Episode 318 – Museo Revoltella: Art, Opulence, and the Suez Canal

We traversed the Suez Canal twice this spring, and heard lots about its importance as a shipping route, its effect on Egypt, its general history, and its French developer Ferdinand de Lesseps, but we didn’t ever hear the name Pasquale Revoltella. Even Wikipedia’s entry on the Suez Canal fails to make any specific mention of him.

Bust of Baron Pasquale Revoltella, in the entrance to the museum.

And yet, this entrepreneur, businessman, philanthropist and baron of finance (and, later, actual Baron) was a major player in facilitating the opening of the Suez Canal, which he believed to be crucial to developing Trieste’s sea trade economy. In 1858, he travelled to Paris specifically to offer Trieste’s participation in and support of de Lesseps’ grand plan; in 1861 Revoltella became Vice President of the Universal Company of the Suez Canal and spent time at the canal’s operations site, returning to Trieste with souvenirs of Egypt and a travel journal which are conserved in the library we visited today. He continued to work in support of the project until his death on September 8th 1869, only a few months before the inauguration of the Suez Canal that November.

All that is just background to put into perspective the wealth and influence of the man whose “townhouse” we toured today. The Palazzo Revoltella was a multi-story home and office right in the centre of the city, steps from the government buildings, port authority, and the Stock Exchange of which Revoltella was a deputy.

Revoltella never married or had children, so he bequeathed his properties and huge fortune to his beloved city – hence the Palazzo Revoltella’s transformation into the Museo Revoltella. The estate he left behind has allowed Trieste to continue to grow the impressive art collection he began.

The exterior of the building is lovely (although pretty much impossible to photograph from the narrow street below), but it’s the interior where it becomes truly spectacular. The whole thing was designed by Berlin architect Friedrich Hitzig, a disciple of the celebrated Schinkel (who was responsible for Charlottenhof, the Altes Museum, the Berlin Cathedral and more), so it’s “royalty quality”.

The museum tour has an awesome app, in both Italian and English, that comes with the price of admission (just 5 euros for those of us over 65). Although our cell service was sporadic, I could still access the app when we got home to help me learn more about what we’d seen.

We started our tour in the atrium, which used to be the carriage entrance through the palazzo to the courtyard, stables and servants’ quarters that no longer exist. The ceiling here is two stories tall, leaving plenty of head room for horses and carriages – and the ceiling itself is stunningly decorated, with the first of many large chandeliers we’d admire during our tour.

Because the carriage entrance is “inside”, it has direct access to the grand 3-story winding staircase, with its ornate finials and red-velvet-covered bannisters.

At the bottom of the staircase is a large marble “group”, representing the construction of the Trieste aqueduct. The seated female figure is Trieste, receiving water from the nymph emerging from the caverns; the angels drinking water symbolize the workmen and sailors of Trieste quenching their thirst.

The app directed us through the first floor rooms, starting with 2 relatively small rooms containing artwork.

Plaster cast of Napoleon by J.J.Houdon

One room featured ultra-realistic portraits by Giuseppe Tominz, who also did several portraits of Revoltella.

L: Tominz self-portrait. R: The deBrucker family, circa 1830, highlighting the fashions of the wealthy merchant class of the time: “towers” of hair braided with pearls, huge puffy sleeves, deep décolletage, and yards and yards of satin, while the men look relatively sombre by comparison.

We moved into a centre room which once housed a billiard table, but now also features art, specifically two large paintings of significant episodes in Trieste’s history.

Top: Trieste’s dedication to Austria in 1382 (painted in 1856)
Bottom: The proclamation of the free port in 1719 (1855).

Revoltella’s library is also on the first floor. The glass-door bookcases are filled with first editions and the Baron’s own travel memoirs. At one end of the library is a “secret door” disguised as one of the bookcases, that used to lead to the Baron’s bathroom!

That’s the “hidden door” open !

Up the sweeping stairs we went. On the staircase wall is a plaster medallion with the Baron’s watchwords: Honour, Reflection, Resourcefulness, Perseverance, and the date 1858.

On the second level of the staircase (the “primo piano”) is a marble statue related to the cutting of the Suez Canal, with medallions of Ferdinand de Lesseps and Mohammed Säid Pasha of Egypt on either side of the base.

This level of the palazzo is where Revoltella’s private apartment was. The rooms are nice, but not over-the-top opulent.

The private dining room is lined with (original) wallpaper that looks like wood – even up close. The ceiling is wood-wallpaper too.

Next was the Baron’s bedroom, featuring the original brass bed and Biedermeyer furniture made of American maple. The style of the furniture in this room is the simplest in the entire palazzo.

Notice the iconic Biedermeyer-style table in the top photo. Like modern-day hospital tables, it is designed to slide under one side of the bed to provide an eating or writing surface.
Two small anterooms followed the bedroom itself. We were awed by the way that in each of them the silk upholstery, drapery, and wall coverings all matched perfectly. Notice the ornately inlaid wood floors – they’re all original (and very creaky) too.

In the corner of the “corner room” (below) was a picture frame that looked uninteresting until we noticed that the “picture” was actually a view of the streetscape below! The Baron had two of these “peepholes”, one on this floor and one on the next, to allow him a view of what was going on without being seen to be looking out his window. Apparently he was very interested in photography, telescopes, and all manner of scientific equipment – and in keeping up with what was going on around him!

In the centre of this level, visible from the staircase, was the sitting room, also called the “green room”. Its walls are entirely decorated in Venetian stucco, and its furniture gilded and embellished with Egyptian alabaster. The incredible chandeliers are all original.

There were two more rooms open to the public on this level. The first was the room that served as a “waiting room” for those coming to see the Baron on official business. I found his choice of paintings for this room interesting, given its function. The room is home to a series of female portraits by the painter Natale Schiavoni (Chioggia 1777-Venice 1858) and were partly purchased by Revoltella himself at local exhibitions. The same model is used in each of the paintings, which are meant to evoke specific states of mind, like Melancholy and Jealousy.

The second was Revoltella’s office, done in “the English style”.

Next it was up the staircase again to reach the piano nobile, the prestigious and elegant public rooms for entertaining the rich and powerful.

L: At this level of the stairwell, statues representing the 4 seasons surround the balistrade. R: looking down from the top of the staircase to the atrium level.

The formal dining room, with its gold upon gold decoration, reminded me of the dining rooms in royal palaces we’ve toured. We read on the room’s info sheet that the Baron’s parties and dinners were the premiere events of the Trieste social season, and featured incredible elaborate menus (a butter sculpture of hounds hunting a full sized boar; “crocodiles” made of 20 kinds of fish and seafood; wines from all over Europe; oranges imported from Sicily and pineapples from Syria and Lebanon) and “party favours” like Belgian lace and Japanese fans for the ladies in attendance.

The dining room is not huge, seating “only” 36 – although I can’t imagine how – making invitations to dinner even more coveted.

Next on this level were a number of sitting rooms for after-dinner conversation, digestion of all that rich food, or perhaps hiding from the activity in the ballroom.

The “blue sitting room” dominated by the portrait of Archduke Maximilian (painted by Augusto Tominz in 1868, one year after Maximilian’s execution in Mexico). We were especially impressed with the majolica stove in the corner.
The small “red sitting room” in the far corner of the floor, with the palazzo’s second peephole for looking out. The upholstery in this room is original.
Maybe my favourite sitting room, although it was tiny. In the corner niches were almost life sized allegorical figures of (L to R) Comedy, Harmony, Dance, and Song (with her gilded score of Bellini’s Norma in her hand). I really loved the way the drapery fabric colour and floral motif was carried into the ceiling frescoes.
The “yellow sitting room” had the most beautiful cornice moulding I think I’ve ever seen, although I’m not sure how much time I could spend in a room THIS yellow.
The ceilings in every room on this level were unique and ornate.

In the centre of the piano nobile is the ballroom (below) entirely covered with fake green and red marble and lit by a second skylight and French windows opening on the façade’s terrace. We were impressed with the crystal candelabra that were as tall as we are.

Having viewed the Baron’s palazzo, we moved on to the rooms that have become an important gallery for 19th and early 20th century Italian painting. Here are a few of my favourite paintings, and a sculpture that just spoke to me.

Both these paintings and the triptych (done as a memorial to Baron Revoltella) are by Eugenio Scomparini (1845-1913, Trieste). The soft-focus effect made the paintings feel very intimate and inviting.
Top: Seated Woman by Antonio Mancini (1852-1930, Rome)
Bottom: I wish I’d had Ted take a picture of the label showing the artist’s name. This is one of the museum’s newer acquisitions by an Italian sculptor, and I’m sure they had their own words in mind, but in my head I hear my mom yelling “YOO HOO, Willy!” down the street at my dad.
Maybe my favourite painting in the entire gallery. Entitled “Dopo la Prima Comunione” (After First Communion) and painted in oil on canvas in 1892 by Karl Frithjof Smith (Oslo 1859 – Weimar 1917) the brushstrokes are absolutely invisible, and even up close and zoomed in it is as vibrant and detailed as a photograph. Absolutely stunning.

That’s it for Trieste museums for us. We have only a couple of days left here, which we’ll spend walking, eating, and prepping for our move to England. I’ll post some final thoughts on this summer “on the continent” before we leave.

3 comments

  1. Omg!! The bust of napoleon was the most life-like I’ve ever seen! The paintings of the girls were so real; you. Want to hug them!

    Sending the blog to Margie. She’ll love the rooms!! Xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an interesting museum, Rose. And, as always, Ted’s photos make us feel like we are there with you. Enjoy your last few days in Trieste, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

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