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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
Economic Geography
Vol. 7, No. 2 (Apr. 1931), pp202‑209.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p202  The Italian Harbors on the Adriatic Sea

Bruno F. A. Dietrich
Geographer, Hochschule für Welthandel, Wien

In her post‑war program of economic and political expansion, Italy has inaugurated a number of new projects that are revolutionizing her whole policy of national life, and not least of these is the establishment of whole series of harbors on the Mediterranean and particularly the Adriatic, all based on economic and political considerations. The established dominance of Genoa and Naples in western Italy has heretofore kept her Adriatic ports in eclipse, but with her enlarged maritime vision, Italy recognizes the value and significance of her Adriatic ports, and prepares to realize them to the full.

The Adriatic constitutes one of those long narrow thalassic tributaries to the Mediterranean which have played so vital a part in the development of the lands dependent upon them for marine outlet. These thalassic continuations of the Mediterranean have shared in the activities of the mother sea, and have formed a complementary unit with her which has reflected the prosperity of the major sea, and in this relation­ship as its affects Italy's future, the influence of the Adriatic bulks as large as any time in its history.

[image ALT: A somewhat schematic map of the Adriatic coast from Ravenna to what is now central Croatia.]

Figure 1.a — The littoral of the upper Adriatic where Fascist Italy is developing ports and harbors on a grand scale to restore Italian merchant marine to an important rôle in the nation's economy.

Because of the proximity of the two coasts of the Adriatic, the enclosed character of its basin, and the outlet upon the Mediterranean, the ports situated upon its shores have ever been important in the sea‑trade of the Mediterranean, though throughout history the relative importance, the activities, and the prosperity of these ports have varied with the rise and fall of the powers bordering the sea. The successive declines and advances of the merchant marines and navies of Genoa and Italy are thus attributable to their relation to the Mediterranean as a whole; both these harbors despite their disadvantageous coastal locations have developed to ports of first rank, measured in terms of tonnage handled, both in the past and the present. The definite isolation of the Adriatic has permitted the rise and fall of similar port city states with their own merchant marines and navies, as one or the other gained the ascendancy.

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Figure 3. — The hinterlands tributary to Venice and Genoa, rival Italian ports.

The northern ports — Venice, Trieste, and Fiume​b — represent different types of coastal environment and adaptation. Venice, with 200,000 inhabitants, is situated on a group of islands in the center of the so‑called active laguna, a shallow coastal bay‑region behind the long sandy barrier of the lido, a typical lowland harbor. The enlarging delta region of the Po and Etsch​c Rivers, in historical times, has changed the ancient port of Ravenna into an inland city. The moving sand, gravel, and mud deposited along the coast by coastal streams, and the detritus brought into the laguna by the small Brenta River always have been a menace to the port of Venice. The main problem overnight has been to assure an outlet to the sea.

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Figure 6. — Small craft in the bay along the Lido near the village of Malamocco.

 p203  Trieste, the ancient Tergeste of the Romans, is quite another type, situated on a very small foreland of the calcareous Karst Mountains of the peninsula of Istria. Land in Trieste has ever been at a premium. The rocky mountains covered with maquis and other shrub vegetation rise abruptly from the shore up stony slopes to a plateau with poor vegetation.

Fiume, now sharply separated by a political boundary from its Jugoslavian neighbor and rival, Sušak, the smallest of the Italian harbors on the Adriatic, has a situation similar to Trieste. A small land area gives the site for city and harbor at the base of the Dalmatian karst ridges, with series of small islands along the Dalmatian Coast, the crests of a submerged mountain chain.

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Figure 7. — Trieste at the foot of the Karst plateau; Miramare; Barcola; and Muggia.

The lowland harbor system of Venice includes some rivals of ancient times which now are small island cities or special harbors for fisheries, as Chioggia. Venice is a harbor with a far‑flung economic background — the entire area of Mediterranean vineyards of Northern Italy, with its intensive horticulture, its rice fields, and its silk industry based upon the great groves of mulberry trees for feeding the worms.

The other two harbors are situated in bays, with a background of mountains among which all plateaus and ridges from Istria to Dalmatia have no agricultural significance. Only a very small Mediterranean coastal zone set with olive trees and orange groves reflects any Mediterranean economic character. Rough in relief and poor in resources, the mountains increase the difficulties for connection of the coastal region with the central  p204 European background and the Danube valley.

Historical Development

The history of the two main harbors on the Adriatic begins in Roman times. Since then the harbors have been rivals on the Adriatic.

Venice, founded on the island of Rio Altusº and constructed in the years 452 to 568, was for one thousand years ruled by the Doges. The lion in her coat-of‑arms indicates her position as the mightiest sea power on the Adriatic and after the final decline of the Roman Empire, in the whole Mediterranean.​d

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Figure 2. — By the waters of Venice; a view of the Campanile, the palace of the Doges, and the Piazza between.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the dominant sea power on the  p205 Adriatic lapsed to Trieste, at that time a possession of old Austria (from 1382 to 1919), the center of the "Holy Empire of the German Nation." Trieste harbor contained as many as 6,000 ships in its basin in 1763, among them 12 East India merchantmen in regular service. In 1866 the province of Venetia was lost and Venice ceded to the new kingdom of Italy. The economic hinterland of Trieste was thus divided between two different countries. Venice became the Italian harbor on the Adriatic Sea, while Trieste remained Austrian. The ancient rivalry between Venice and Trieste was revived on a new political basis. About the same time the dual monarchy of Austria and Hungary agreed that Fiume should be developed as a special harbor for Hungary.

Thus, the three harbors became oriented in three different directions with different potentialities to develop, Venice for the North Italian lowland, Trieste and Fiume for the countries beyond the mountain ranges. The natural commercial frontier line between the two harbors, Genoa and Venice, lay across the North Italian Lowland (Lombardy). The two Austrian-Hungarian harbors were connected by rail with Central Europe. In 1854 the Semmering railway from Vienna across the Alps to Trieste started the development of Trieste as the foremost marketplace on the Adriatic Sea, with the result that until the World War the spheres of economic influence of the three harbors were as follows: Venice had commercial relations with the eastern part of the North Italian Lowland and across the Alps to the upper Inn River; Trieste had a broad commercial field in the Alps, by way of Munich with Southern Germany and by way of Vienna with Bohemia, at that time belonging to Austria; Fiume remained the harbor for Hungary  p206 with its special field in that land.

The status broke down with the end of the World War, the post‑war cessions, and the formation of new nations. The most important change on the shore of the Adriatic Sea was that Trieste, formerly often called the "German harbor on the Adriatic Sea," was ceded to Italy and Fiume, the foremost special harbor for Hungary, was also granted to Italy. The frontier line was sharply drawn between Fiume and Sušak.

The most important fact in connection with the cession of these two harbors was that their commercial hinterlands were cut off. The frontier of Austria, now an inland republic, lay only about 60 miles from the Sea. The frontier of the newly constructed kingdom of Jugoslavia lay on a line north of Fiume, of which the Dalmatian coastal region belonged to the new State, now a new neighbor of Italy on the Adriatic Sea.

The remarkable change caused by this new geopolitical situation resulted in the loss by both Trieste and Fiume of their connection with their commercial backgrounds. Sušak, the port neighbor of Fiume, became the Adriatic harbor of Jugoslavia.

The new era of the changed post‑war political situation inaugurated new types of harbor developments. The decline, clearly indicated by the accompanying diagrams, leads to new developments of all kinds, for while none of the cities have adequate commercial fields, there are two geographical reasons for a rather hasty development. The need for a balance of power in the Mediterranean between Italy, France, and Jugoslavia, the new neighbor on the other shore of the Adriatic, imbued the premier of Italy, Benito Mussolini, with the idea of making supremacy of the Italian harbors on the Adriatic Sea part of his imperialistic policy. The Italian government inaugurated the construction of  p207 an up‑to‑date and most remarkable system of harbors on a large scale and with most advanced technical methods. In any appraisal or criticism of this new harbor development, this policy must be kept in mind. The scale of all the harbors, that is, their capacity, is quite incommensurate with the present need, for they are much larger than their use warrants; they are built for the future!

The Present Situation

The situation of Venice harbor as has already been described is that of an island harbor behind a natural sandy wall (the lido). Most of the streets of Venice are waterways such as, for instance, the famous city canal (canale grande). Compared with the palmy days of the régime of the Doges, the present traffic is slight. Half the way to the shore in the southwest of the island group, a small canal leads between parts of the lido to a small harbor opposite the famous Piazza (place) of Venice and then to the city harbor. Here have been built since the war many warehouses and new basins, all on that large scale characteristic of the new Adriatic harbors. Great refrigerating storage, and warehouses for rice, tobacco, salt, and phosphates, give a distinctive character to this harbor. Most important of all is the pitcoal harbor with its many cranes, coal reserves, coaling stations, and special coal trains to provide Italy with full equipment. It indicates what superb construction can be carried on even with such an unfavourable foundation of alluvial sediments and only shallow waterways.

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Figure 4. — Venice on its island location; Mestre; Chioggia; Porto Marittima; and Porto di Marghera.

But there was not enough space for development as the Italian government wished to carry on in Venice, and so the modern Porto di Marghera near Mestre was begun as a new harbor, the third in Venice. This new harbor is situated west of the railway trestle that since 1846 has connected the lowland with the islands for a distance of about 2.3 miles. It was a laborious work; 80,000 piles of larch had to be set into the soil to give ground for building this dam.º Porto di Marghera with many basins has become the main harbor of Venice. There is a special petroleum basin with refineries for oil and a series of pipe-lines for different kinds of oil running directly either to the special railway cars or to the oil wharves. Most of the tonnage is import and only in recent years has export tonnage increased.

The idea in constructing this new harbor was to inaugurate special industries in the harbor area, such as a special glass factory for crystal window  p208 glasses, mostly for export; a factory for transforming old iron into ore briquets with high content of iron: a high central tension power house, and in the neighborhood an aluminum factory. The annual increase in tonnage of Italy's merchant marine is remarkable. Italy now ranks fifth among the nations in newly added tonnage, the United States taking first place, followed by France, Japan, and Germany. Porto di Marghera needs much more tonnage, until Italy will have under her flag as many ships as possible. The whole oversea trade of Venice in 1929 amounted to 4.17 million NRT of imports, 4.13 million NRT of export, and a mean of import and export of 4.1 million NRT.

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Figure 5. — The trade of Venice and Trieste compared by months.

On the southern edge of the laguna Chioggia, a city of 30,000 inhabitants, is a special type of fishery harbor the resort of the fishermen and sailors. Once upon a time, in the middle ages, Chioggia, the small city on the spot where the mainland meets the lido and the bay, was a rival of Venice. For many generations Chioggia has remained a sea‑city, being now the most important fishing harbor of Italy.

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Figure 11. — Chioggia, the principal fishing port of Italy, with its fleet of seagoing fishing craft.

Twenty miles west of Trieste, Italy has given special attention to the development of the first dockyard and wharf of the country at Monfalcone, founded in 1907 and developed by the Austrian government. The rapid growth in the last ten years of this very up‑to‑date wharf resulted from this preparation by Austria. Merchant ships, and such warships as submarines, are here built for Italy and for many  p209 nations, and not only for the countries of the Mediterranean.

Trieste, with about 250,000 inhabitants, has developed its harbors on a rather rocky, stony, and very small shoreline at the foot of the Karst plateau. This foremost, very important Austrian harbor on the Adriatic with warehouses, special harbor basins, and the biggest free harbor on the Adriatic, constituted a generous cession to Italy. Today the whole harbor system has capacity adequate for a very distant future, with brilliant prospects for a heavy increase in tonnage. One feature of these new harbors is the special warehouses for tobacco and other wares, situated in the free harbor, where goods may be selected for fabrication. Yet, Trieste is by no means a natural harbor. Three large and long moles have been built parallel to the shoreline as breakwaters.

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Figure 8. — The new harbor at Trieste with its massive cranes and waterside warehouses.

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Figure 9. — Part of the city harbor of Trieste, with some of the craft docking at its wharves.

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Figure 10. — A comparison of the port business of Trieste and Venice, before and after the World War.

Fiume, the foremost Hungarian harbor, has not yet regained its pre‑war tonnage, with 2.5 million NRT as a mean of incoming and outgoing ships of 1929 against 3.2 million NRT of 1912. The competition of Sušak, now the Jugoslavian harbor on the Adriatic Sea, is discouraging, Sušak being a first-class harbor for the surplus lumber of Jugoslavia.

A comparison of all Italian harbors on the Adriatic Sea demonstrates the important modernization of all harbors; but no doubt remains that the two harbors of Venice and Trieste measured in terms of tonnage are dominantly import. Their capacity is such as must be planned for world harbors, but in the achievement of these plans, many decades, even centuries, may be necessary.

Thayer's Notes:

a In the printed journal, all the illustrations are in black-and‑white. I've colorized the maps to my usual scheme as elsewhere onsite, and added kilometer scales wherever needed; and in the charts Trieste and Venice are matched to their respective coats of arms. Also, as can be seen by the numbering, I've moved the figures to places more convenient for reading onscreen.

The map in Fig. 4 has "Mestro" and "Porto Maritima"; I corrected it. In Fig. 7, it wasn't clear to me what might be roads or railroads: in the absence of better information, I colored all of them as railroads.

b After World War II, Fiume was attached to Jugoslavia and renamed Rijeka. Both names mean "river". The town, amalgamated with Sušak, is now in Croatia.

c The Adige; Etsch is the river's German name. Several small errors and curious turns of phrase, often transparent to German, indicate that the article was written in that language and imperfectly translated.

d A thoroughly misleading capsule of Venetian history. "Rio Altus" — a curious conflation, neither Latin nor Italian nor Venetian dialect, of the various correct forms available — would suggest a river, but the correct derivation is from rivo, a shore. The doges are known to have ruled the city for just over a thousand years, but starting only in the early 8c. Poor writing or translation may lead the reader to understand that the Serenissima's primacy in the Adriatic dated to before the fall of the Roman Empire and in the Mediterranean to just after, whereas both were considerably later. And while it is true that the lion was adopted as the symbol of Venice in the 14c when she was at the apogee of her power, and thus may well have been meant at some level to remind us of it, that noble beast is officially the (long-preëxisting) symbol of St. Mark, whose body was brought to the city in the 9c and who at that time became her patron saint.

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Page updated: 11 Jun 12