4.1 Maria Maddalena, Barbara and Maria Theresa

Home Women of the Waterfront Maria Maddalena, Barbara and Maria Theresa

Trieste, its Port and Female References

The history of Trieste, its port, and the women and men who worked there, prospered or, rather, failed and became impoverished, is linked to a female figure: the Empress Maria Theresa of Habsburg.

Maria Theresa is undoubtedly a symbolic character of women’s history. However, although she was undoubtedly a woman endowed with enormous power, her story appears entirely typical of the aristocratic world and the rules for passing down the ‘name’.

However, at that exact point in time, in the 18th century, Trieste was populated by numerous working-class women who had sought their autonomy in the world of commerce and work. In this way, they were able to express their protagonism as women, and their lives appear extraordinary to us only because – perhaps – women are rarely mentioned in the sources. For example, in the second half of the century, there was the case of Maria Maddalena Rattichin, who came to Trieste from Gorizia when she was only twelve years old. Maria Maddalena successfully ran a haberdashery shop on her own – while still a minor, without parental protection and unmarried. Or the case of Barbara Capuz from Štanjel, who went to Trieste and found work as a maid at a merchant’s house. There, she met a foreign merchant who frequented her employer’s home, and fell pregnant. Without offering an explanation, she fled her birthplace and she gave birth. One year later, she returned to Trieste and started a dispute with her employer and the foreign merchant. She obtained 45 ducats to support herself and her child.

Daniele Andreozzi
University of Trieste


Trieste before the establishment of the Free Port

Map of Trieste before the transformations brought about by the establishment of the free port 1857
Fig. 4.1.a – Trieste before the transformations brought about by the establishment of the free port. There are still salt pans in Borgo Teresiano; the present-day Cittavecchia is still an agricultural area.
(J. Löwenthal, Geschichte der Stadt Triest, vol. 1, 1857)


Charles VI and the Free Port of Trieste

On March 18, 1719, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI decreed Trieste as a Free Port of the Empire. From that moment on, Trieste began the development that made it one of the largest Mediterranean emporiums by the end of the century.

 Charles VI
Fig. 4.1.b.1 – When the Free Port was proclaimed, Charles VI was 34 years old. His daughter Maria Theresa was only two years old.
(Column of Emperor Charles VI in Piazza Unità d’Italia in Trieste – Ph. Erica Mezzoli, 2022)
Map of Trieste at the beginning of the 18th century
Fig. 4.1.b.2 – At the beginning of the 18th century, Trieste was still a walled city that preserved its medieval appearance.
(Alberto Rieger, Trieste in the 18th century)
The moment of the proclamation of the Free Port as portrayed by Cesare Dell’Acqua
Fig. 4.1.b.3 – The moment of the proclamation of the Free Port as portrayed by Dell’Acqua in the mid-19th century. The figure on horseback is Giovanni Casimiro Donadoni, who comes from Vienna, enters Trieste’s walls and delivers the news of the granting of the status of Free Port.
(Cesare Dell’Acqua, La proclamazione del Portofranco di Trieste (1855), Museo Pasquale Revoltella)


Modern Trieste

Map of Trieste in the 1870's
Fig. 4.1.c – In the 1780s, Trieste began to look like the city we know today. The salt pans have been reclaimed. The Borgo Teresiano – part of the city that takes its name from Empress Maria Theresa – was erected in their place. The Charles VI pier (today Molo Audace) and the Grand Canal were also built.
(Pianta della Ces[are]a Reg[i]a Marittima Città e Porto franco di Trieste (ca. 1780), via Wikimedia Commons)


“Being myself Barbara…”

Fragment of the notarial document
Fig. 4.1.d –Fragment of the notarial document in which Barbara Capuz asserts her reasons and testifies on the circumstances that made her a mother.
(ASTs, Notarile, notaio Gabbiati (1751-59))


Business correspondence for ladies too

handbook of business correspondence Il corrispondente Triestino
Fig. 4.1.e – In the famous handbook of business correspondence Il corrispondente Triestino (trans.: The Trieste’s Correspondent), there are at least five examples of business letters on which a woman – particularly a widow – in business could use for their own purposes.
(Il corrispondente Triestino, 1798 – NKČR, via Europeana)


Trieste is/and a Lady

Since the 19th century, Trieste has been juxtaposed or personified by specific female characters or types. The 20th-century misogynist and violent rhetoric had presented Trieste as a maiden constantly under threat and sometimes even as a lewd and cruel prostitute. For those who deal with Trieste’s history – maritime, gender or other types of the city’s history – the risk of running into clichés, simplistic, ideological or mannered, and artificial representations is routine. In reality, the city was populated by courageous women who took advantage of the opportunities offered by the Free Port and of the climate of freedom that reigned in Trieste. There, they managed to realize dreams that elsewhere they could not even aspire to and, at the same time, free themselves from oppressive bonds.

Empress Maria Theresa
Fig. 4.1.f.1 – Naturally, the most automatic and “natural” juxtaposition is that with Empress Maria Theresa.
(M. van Meytens, Empress Maria Theresia of Austria (1759), ABKW, via Wikimedia Commons)
mannered and artificial representation of Trieste
Fig. 4.1.f.2 – An example of a mannered and artificial representation of Trieste. In this great allegorical work, people come from all over to Hapsburg port to do business and pay homage to the well-read and lover of the arts, Trieste, who, with her banners, welcomes those people and encourages them to prosper.
(Cesare Dell’Acqua, La prosperità commerciale di Trieste, 1877)
Maes painting
Fig. 4.1.f.3 – Among all the possible depictions of Trieste, perhaps one of the most consistent with reality is that of a tired lady, probably worried but certainly bored with accounting. Maybe it is just like the Maes painting, which portrays how, since 1795, the widow Zuppani spent her evenings: trying to make ends meet on the sail loft that her husband founded in Trieste just over a decade earlier.
(N. Maes, The Account Keeper (1657), Saint Louis Art Museum, via Wikimedia Commons)


The Women’s Friend

Boudier de Villemert - L’Ami Des Femmes (1758)
Fig. 4.1.g – It is difficult to speak about feminism in the 18th century; nevertheless, some “women’s friends” did exist. Although he was a moralist and certainly not a “progressivist”, Boudier de Villemert was one of them. The 1781 German edition by Heyden of his L’Ami Des Femmes (1758) also lists Trieste among the places of publication.
(L. J. Heyden, Der Freund des Frauenzimmers, 1781)