THE APOTHEOSIS OF THE CITY
or leafing through an old album
The last panoramic view of Rovinj has been closed shut in front of us, dispersing in the blink of an eye the unusual enchantment of the past brought almost to tangible life.
Just a few seconds ago, it was as if everything was here with us: the ancient City untouched by the teeth of the modern age, the breath of life stamped into the old, cramped architecture; the fates of these anonymous people, the serious faces of the children staring into the lens of the camera; Valdibora and the jetties with fishermen and innumerable batana and sail boats, with the occasional powerful naval cruiser visiting the Rovinj harbor; the Tobacco Factory and the always lively “tobacco girls”, along with the factories for liquor, pasta, and canned fish; the shipyards, the chance people passing by and the squares full of life; and certainly, the inns and the first hotels, but also the intimate quiet of the streets and small squares of Rovinj with refined gentlemen and fashionable ladies who had come from the noisy European capitals to Rovinj so as to imbibe as much as possible of the bewitching Mediterranean atmosphere and sunshine.
What is whispered to us by time in this unusual album, lavish in the thrilling pictures of the past and steeped in emotions which give rise to touching, sentimental feelings? Perhaps merely that the ephemeral nature of life is not so terrible when memories are so beautiful.
At the end of the 19th century, the fashion of printing postcards became popular in Rovinj, a picturesque Istrian town of exceptional beauty and irresistible charm. This was, however, much more than a mere fashion, in fact it represented an ever stronger and more intensive necessity, an almost unfettered form of communication which was to acquire almost planetary dimensions from the period of the fin-de-siècle to the beginning of the First World War. Art nouveau, as the final expression of the aesthetics of the relaxed and pampered society of serene and somnolent Europe, was adopted as a model even in the artistic conception of these first postcards, which travelled everywhere and equally arrived from the entire world, competing in their decorative abundance, fireworks of color, and the beauty of views of towns, small settlements, various hotels and spas, country palaces, and even tiny villages. In this whirlpool of aesthetics, but also touristic propaganda, all elements were important to everyone, and postcards were published and printed not merely at the places they presented, but also in completely different states, even at entirely opposed sides of Europe or the world. The affirmation of photographic artistry added its own dimension to this creative awakening, and the widely varied combinations of drawings and photographs, handcolored photographs, lithographs, and copperetched engravings were thus created. But the imagination of the European publishers was not limited merely to this, and postcards were also produced with exquisite motifs stamped in the form of watermarks, or with reliefs on several levels, silk and other applied elements, including fine gold dust, or even unique encrustations in the paper itself.
The earliest postcards of the socalled “long address” type were specifically conceived, and they in fact clearly emphasized what was important to the senders, addressees, and the printers of fashionable Europe in this period: the back held merely a space for the calligraphically perfect handwritten address to which it was being sent, officially to be written from the far left side. The front side usually contained only a small area for greetings, the date, and a signature somehow fit in among the luxurious view. The senders were thus making it perfectly clear, in the mannerisms of refined communication, in what a fine place they currently were, and what fun they were having.
The luxurious nature of the first postcards, which were printed in small amounts and using very expensive technical means, were to die out almost entirely with World War I, and never again would they reach their earlier acquired level, although the period between the two world wars resulted in very attractive creations in this branch of applied arts.
The publication of postcards of Rovinj was closely tied to the general development of the town in the second half of the 19th century. Rovinj was a significant economic, political, and cultural center, and the intensity of social life was such that it could be compared with much larger urban centers. All of this, along with the gradual increase in elite tourism, encouraged the appearance of the first postcards of Rovinj and its surroundings. From this point onwards, up to the beginning of the second world war, they were to be created at an unbelievable speed in innumerable editions and variants.
Truly, in comparison with the then fashionable centers of Küstenland or “the Austrian Coast” - Dubrovnik, Opatija, and Pula - Rovinj was shown on a far lesser number of postcards. Nonetheless, in a span of some seventy years, various printers - from Rovinj to Vienna, Munich, Dresden, and Leipzig, and from Budapest and Klagenfurt to Trieste, Venice, and Milan, or Poreč, Pula, and Zagreb - published postcards of Rovinj and its immediate vicinity with almost a thousand different motifs, although this number was further increased by reprinted and somewhat modified editions. Even if it could not compete in this period numerically with then more prestigious touristic centers, it should be noted that this number is still imposing, particularly since Rovinj was least presented in the form of a routine view from one angle or another. The photographers and printers seemed to have been competing in immortalizing real life, something intrinsically strong in this town of distinctive beauty, where the modus vivendi was never a question of chance, but rather always a matter of choice by its always committed inhabitants. The sea, the fishing boats, the fishermen, the lively narrow streets and squares with the straggling crowds of children, contemplative strollers, the stylish gentlemen and ladies, factories with towering smokestacks working at full power, the loading and unloading of merchant ships, the maneuvers of powerful battleships, the intact tranquillity of the surrounding archipelago and the pastoral hinterlands, and again the boats: the batanas, the schooners, the smacks, and sails and more sails... All of this is exhibited in an exquisite series of postcards of which not many towns can boast. The early local photographers, as well as those who carted their large wooden camere obscure to Rovinj so as to marvel through the lens at the unbridled authenticity of life, sang odes to Rovinj, returning the love that it showered with full force upon them. But we don’t need to avoid strong words, when they are not forced. This is shown and attested in the most direct manner by the unrepeatable photographs, miraculous distant moments preserved from oblivion in these unique pictures of the past.
The publication of postcards of Rovinj at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century could certainly not have been particularly profitable from the commercial point of view. The printing runs were limited, and the printing techniques exceptionally expensive. This represented, before all else, a question of civil and cultural prestige. A town with such a rich past and distinctive traditions, but also a town of such economic and political liveliness, had an image to live up to, a component part of which was certainly the recently invented, lovely, luxuriously floral and otherwise imaginary ornaments of the decorated pictures. If well known publishers like Mioni from Mali Lošinj or Weiss & Dreikurs from Vienna condescended to print postcards of Bale or Kanfanar - what must it have been like for the first Rovinj postcard publishers, Benussi and Daveggia?! They not only spared no expense, but they did everything they could so that the postcards would be received in Vienna and in Budapest as well as everywhere else throughout Europe with appreciation, and would be preserved, with equal if not greater interest, in the very first collections of postcards. It is difficult to state today with certainty whether the only collectors of that period were female, but undoubtedly one of the first collections of postcards of Rovinj was founded by a noblewoman, the Lady Aurelia de Calò, who stamped them with her very own collection seal.
The postcards of Rovinj published between the two wars were definitely stripped of the civic enthusiasms of the first Art Nouveau cards. The turbulent times and the changes that had occurred brought with them an entirely different, somewhat more pragmatic attitude to postcards, but what no one could change, not even new aesthetic or political designs, was again the life and liveliness of the town, the constant seething and interior exhilaration. Again there were festivals, people, women, children, the occasional policeman, the putting in of ships, the poorer sections of town, the Tobacco Factory and other firms, and yet again the magical docks with innumerable boats and sails, with fishermen gathered about their nets and their concerns about the next catch.
The appearance of new postcards did not suddenly cause a break with the earlier tradition. In fact, photographs several decades old appear on many of them. It is possible to attribute to the publishers the occasional attack of Austrio-Hungarian nostalgia and wallowing in times gone with the wind, but it seems that to the Rovinj inhabitants, everything was always important, especially that which was and remained an inseparable and irrepressible part of the cultural and historical past. And thanks to just this feeling for the long continuity expressed on the old postcards, we today have a unique photographic documentation of the town, a layered historical x-ray, not merely for the architectural or urban segment, but also the economic, social, cultural, and especially ethnographic circles.
What actually happened to all these postcards in a period longer than a hundred years can only be guessed at. Where they all were sent, who had them in their possession from the Lady de Calò to the present, in what dusty attics they had been tossed into a forgotten corner and then rediscovered, which collector passed them on to another, and at which antique fairs they constantly gained in value - all of this will remain a hidden secret. This is not merely because it truly is difficult to find out such facts, but also because these antiques, for good or for evil, are still not valued as highly as other antiquities, and it is thus impossible to begin even to trace their provenience.
Nonetheless, it should be noted that nearly all the postcards of Rovinj, particularly those from before World War I, are truly unique, and they only rarely occur in the collections whose material has been used for this publication. This is probably also true for old postcards of other small towns throughout the world, although the collectors, guided by the entirely amateur requirements of their hobby, are very rarely aware of this. However, there is no doubt whatsoever that the main collections of postcards of Rovinj and its surroundings (Stener, Cherin, Radossi, Pauletich, Erdeši, Ursič, the Regional Museum of Rovinj) evolved as an expression of a distinct selfreliance of the collectors, lacking, however, neither light emphasis, nor gentle pathos, nor reasonable doses of nostalgia, in fact nothing of all that makes collecting old postcards so pleasant and so useful.
The book “Rovinj on Old Postcards” represents the final form of this gift of selfexpression handed from generation to generation. Turning its pages, we are in fact leafing through the history of the uninhibited life force of Rovinj and the undisguised love expressed by and towards it.
English translation: Barbara Smith-Demo, Branka Žodan