Panduri: the Mysterious Home Guards of Trieste

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by Alessandra Ressa

Have you ever wondered why many buildings in Trieste have menacing carved stone heads guarding their entrances?

The name of these heads, usually wearing Eastern style scarves or hats, and sometimes helmets, is Pandurs or Panduri.  

Very popular Pandur with a threatening expression in via Ponchielli

Usually placed at the center of the archway, Panduri are a typical feature of Trieste and a very common decoration in the city’s 19th century architecture. They often have threatening expressions because, according to historians,  their function was to guard the house – a sort of an early anti-theft system.

Pandur in Cavana decorating Palazzo Leo

The stone heads represented fearsome Hungarian warriors, enlisted by the Hapsburg starting 1740 to guard the borders of their vast empire. According to historians, they were cruel, merciless, fierce and fearless soldiers who owed their strength to having fought the Ottoman empire for centuries.

They then became frontier troops. The Austro-Hungarians recruited them in Hungary and employed them in areas where they believed tighter control was necessary to preserve the territory and the security of their people.

A friendly-looking, more exotic panduro in via Valdirivo

The origin of the word is unequivocally Magyar. During the Middle Ages the word “pònduur” was used to indicate guards who served noble landowners. It literally meant “policeman”.

In some areas of Eastern Europe the word is still in use today when referring to cops. According to experts, the word derives from the Pannonian village Pandùr, an area in Hungary bordering with Northern Slovenia, where these soldiers were recruited by Austrians for the first time.  

Although they were part of the Austro-Hungarian infantry, Pandurs donned a unique uniform. They often wore a scarf wrapped around their head like a Hussar turban, a long red cloak and plaited hair. They were armed to their teeth: pistols, arquebuses (a precursor of the rifle), sabers and sharp knives.  

A handsome Pandur in via Torino

These special infantry units were largely independent in strategy, defense and attack. Their task was not only to guard the borders, but to carry quick incursions and assaults against neighboring  countries. This tactic, they believed, kept adversaries in fear and avoided invasion.

Their strategic position along the borders also allowed the collection of important information about the movement of enemy troops. They often pillaged villages and killed civilians, thus the origin of their sinister fame.

A panduro in via Crosada

Not all carved heads on the buildings of Trieste are Panduri. Some owners preferred to see their own heads rather than the frightening Hungarian warriors. Some even chose to feature their wives, who may have been more effective at warding off thieves than Hungarian Hussars!   

The head of the lady of the house in via Lazzaretto Vecchio

Although there is unfortunately no official list, it is estimated that there are at least 150 stone heads guarding the doors of as many houses in Trieste, most of them Panduri. A sure-fire way to identify them is by their pointy mustaches and hairy eyebrows. Pandurs are one more reason you should always look up when you walk in beautiful Trieste.

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Alessandra Ressa
“Born to Italian-Scottish parents, an explosive combination, reason for my restlessness and love for good food, I’ve moved from San Francisco, California to Trieste 20 years ago. I have a degree in Mass Communication from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Master’s degree in International Cooperation from the Scuola Superiore di Studi Universitari in Pisa. In San Francisco I worked for several years as a journalist and press officer before moving to Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and other war stricken countries with the United Nations. I am a professional journalist and English teacher, I love the outdoors, exploring caves and unusual places, travelling, meeting people, the opera, singing, the scent of the sea and the whistle of the wind. No other city in the world other than Trieste can offer all this.”

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