Saturday, 23 November 2013

Odessa - an "Italian" port city

The port of Odessa. (Photo published in the Swedish magazine Allers Familj Journal in 1905)

The Black Sea port city of Odessa - now the third largest city in Ukraine - has a fascinating history, much of which has for various reasons remained unknown for decades. The city, founded by a decree of Empress Catherine the Great in 1794, was a major international free port (1819 - 1858) and the fourth largest city in Imperial Russia in the 19th century. In the 20th century it was the most important port of trade in the Soviet Union and a Soviet naval base.

"Odessa" ,anonymous engraver,published by James S. Virtue about 1842.

What is not widely known, is the major role Italians played in the economic and cultural development of Odessa.

In his book Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, professor Charles King (Georgetown University) describes the Italian influence in Odessa in the early 19th century:

As the owners of the major trading houses and with strong family and business connections with the Mediterranean, Italians dominated city life, a recapitulation of their role when Genoese and Venetian trading centers ringed the Black Sea. Italian became the city's lingua franca, lilting through the commercial exchange and wafting up from the docklands. Street signs—another innovation of Richelieu's tenure—were written in both Italian and Russian, a practice that lasted well beyond his days in office. An eight-hundred-seat opera house, established by Richelieu only three years before the plague and designed by Jean-François Thomas de Thomon, one of the great shapers of St. Petersburg, featured a visiting Italian company performing a standard repertoire of classics. The company offered an early-nineteenth-century version of surtitles: a Russian actor would helpfully summarize the libretto for any audience members who happened not to speak Italian. Even the city's ubiquitous carters and petty traders, or chumaks, were known to break into choruses of "La donna è mobile"—that is, unless they were singing their own ditties about the glories of the city at the end of the drover trails...

For those who would like to explore even in more detail the role played by the Italians in Odessa,
Dr. Anna Makolkin's book A History of Odessa, the Last Italian Black Sea Colony, should be great reading.

Here is some information from the publisher:

Italians were not just another wave of Odessa immigrants, not just another part of her multicultural mosaic, they were her founders and colonizers of the region.

The study reconstructs the Italian protohistory of Odessa, founded in 1794 by the immigrants from Genoa and Naples, Venice and Palermo. For the first time and upon the lengthy and elaborate archival research in Italy and Ukraine, the Odessa of Alexander Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova, battleship Potemkin and Eisenstein, Babel and Kandinsky enters European historiography as a world of the dynasties of De Ribas and Frapoliies, Rossies and Bubbas, Bernadazzies and Riznich, Molinaries, Iorini et al.. Having revised the narratives of the tzarist, Soviet, pre- perestroika and post- Communist past, the monograph not only reclaims the first Italian settlers, but examines the process of forging Europeanness, a cultural identity, beyond the traditional East and West, nation and people. European culture has been notably influenced by Italian civilization, and Odessa is one of the important manifestations of this phenomenon

Here is what University of Toronto professor (emeritus) Michael Ukas says about Makolkin's book:

“Dr. Anna Makolkin’s monograph is a carefully researched and accurate account of the foundation of the port city of Odessa(1794), and tells of the part, played by the Italian immigrants in this historical event which lead to the successful exploration of the Black Sea frontier - Novorossiia/New Russia. The materials about this obscure migration have been scattered in archives of Italy and Ukraine, and most 19th and 20th century historians, intimidated by radical nationalism, politics and geopolitics of Europe, and post-colonial trends did not have sufficient courage to address the topic. Italians were not just another wave of Odessa immigrants, not just another part of her multicultural mosaic, they were her founders and colonizers of the region. None of the so far available historiographical materials have ever suggested this, and it is the main accomplishment of Dr. Anna Makolkin and her timely, elaborate, well-researched and erudite monograph.--

Historians of music and theater will be interested in Odessa’s Italian operatic tradition, the legacy of Rossini and Cimarosa, performances of Tati and Brambilla, Fabbri and Guerini, Salvini and Duse, Ristori and Di Grasso and the lasting impact of Italian music on the cultural ethos of Odessa. The Italianness has forever shaped the Odesseans, imparting the aesthetic sensibility, the elegance, taste in music, attitude to life, their wit and specific speech.”

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