By Alessandra Ressa
It is an unfortunate coincidence that two of the most beautiful neoclassical buildings in Trieste have been in a sorry state of abandonment for decades. What’s even more staggering is that they were both designed by a genius architect Pietro Pertsch more than two centuries ago.
Palazzo Carciotti (between Rive and Ponterosso) and Rotonda Pancera (located at the end of Via San Michele, crossing Via della Rotonda) share the same father, the same glorious past, the same birthday and the same miserable present.
They have both been for sale at municipal auctions and real estate agencies for years. Apparently, what scares potential buyers are the renovations that the buildings need, as every inch inside and out appears to be protected by the Ministry of Fine Arts.
The long and complicated Italian bureaucratic process to obtain permissions for renovation has dissuaded even the bravest of potential investors from going any further.
And the economic aftermath of Covid19 is probably not going to encourage investments for a long time. So there they stand, in different but equally elegant parts of Trieste, waiting for a miracle.
This contribution to InTrieste will focus on Rotonda Pancera in Via San Michele. Many expats who have moved to Trieste and enjoy that particularly appealing area between San Giusto and Cavana, with its cozy cafés and restaurants, have often wondered about this beautiful building. Its columns and statues blackened by smog immediately capture the interest of an attentive eye. And there is quite a story behind this long neglected beauty.
Commissioned by businessman and magistrate Domenico de Pancera, it was build in 1805 on an irregular and steep lot greatly in contrast with the rest of the more linear Austrian urban plan. It had great columns, rich bas reliefs inspired by ancient Greece and ancient Rome, and the stunning statues of the gods Mars and Minerva by Venetian sculptor Antonio Bosa. You can still marvel at their beauty today. Inside, the circular dome hid spectacular frescos by renowned Trieste painter Giuseppe Gatteri.
Most of the frescos inside the main building were painted over to protect them from deterioration several decades ago. To bring them back to life would today be an extremely expensive and difficult procedure.
Around 1850 municipal counsellor Felice Machlig bought Rotonda Pancera as his private home. There is a halo of mystery around this man, who was a known and influential member of the local freemason lodge.
Story goes that he built a great underground hall to be used as a temple for secret freemason meetings. Witnesses of the time told of beautiful frescos decorating the temple that included traditional symbols of masonry, such as the square and the compass. If you look very carefully, you might see those same symbols among the bas reliefs behind the front columns.
Many local legends originated from those underground meetings, and it was believed that under Rotonda Pancera secret narrow passageways led to the Jesuit tunnels under today’s imposing church Santa Maria Maggiore, on the hill overlooking the Roman amphitheater. Local historians believe that in the Jesuit tunnels the Inquisition tortured and killed people. The connection between the two buildings, according to some legends, proved that Satanic rituals also took place in the great underground hall. Freemasons were in fact believed to also worship the Devil. No wonder people still believe the place is haunted.
Recent underground explorations of Rotonda Pancera by local speleologists found deep wells and passageways under the building. However, the tunnels, much older than the building itself, went nowhere and were mostly used for water storage of underground streams. In later years the building was occupied by shops and apartments.
Rotonda Pancera has been uninhabited and in its pitiful state since 1987. You’ll need about 3 million euros to buy it, and, according to estimates, another 3 million to restore it to its original beauty.