The history of the port of Trieste

Trieste is the chief and most important of all the Italian ports in terms of freight movement, as well as the principal Mediterranean oil port: before we explore the history of this port a bit further, it may be useful to give a brief summary of its main features for those who are not familiar with this terminal in the gulf of Trieste.

The structure of the Port of Trieste

We should point out first of all that the port of Trieste is currently divided into 5 different free port areas:

  • Punto Franco Vecchio (Old Free Port)
  • Punto Franco Nuovo (New Free Port)
  • Scalo legnami (the Timber Pier)
  • the Industrial Terminal
  • the Oil Terminal

The first three areas are used for commercial purposes, while the last two are for industrial purposes, with the Oil Terminal linked directly to the Trieste-Ingolstadt pipeline. As regards freight traffic, the port of Trieste saw an inevitable downturn during the period of the Covid pandemic, but it soon returned to previous levels, and actually surpassed them in 2022: in that year, in fact, trade volume reached 57,591,733 tons.
It is the Porto Vecchio part of Trieste port that attracts most interest in terms of structure and history, in itself covering an area of over 600,000 square metres between the Ponte Rosso Canal and the residential resort area of Barcola: within this area there are 5 wharfs, over 3,000 metres of loading and unloading quays, 23 buildings including warehouses and hangars, an outer dam and a railway connection. It is around this area that the most interesting part of the history of the Port of Trieste has evolved.

The birth of the Free Port of Trieste: 1719

The beginnings of the history of the Port of Trieste can be pinpointed to an exact day, that is, 18 March 1719: on that date Charles VI, the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, established the Free Port of Trieste, after he had himself proclaimed freedom of navigation in the Adriatic just two years earlier. It was these two decisions that first launched Trieste’s fortunes, with the Austro-Hungarian empire seeking to favour its own trade at the expense of that of the Venetians: indeed, the issuing of the Free Port Licence can be said to coincide with the birth of modern Trieste. Moreover, that same year saw the establishment of the Imperial Privileged Oriental company for trade with the Levante. Over the following decades the port trading centre grew together with the city, becoming an increasingly popular immigration destination – on the wishes of the empire itself – attracting not only traders but bankers, too. This led to continuous economic development lasting until the period of the French occupations, which caused a serious crisis mainly due to the naval blockade against the British.

History of the port of Trieste: the second half of the 19th century and the Talabot project

The development of the port of Trieste restarted with the Bourbon Restoration: in 1814, Austria renewed the Free Port licence, vigorously relaunching trade with Europe, the Mediterranean countries and the Indies. In the space of three years, from 1812 to 1815, the city’s population tripled: so it is not surprising that it was at this stage that new structures were built and the wharfs were reinforced. In 1819, partly thanks to the growing prominence of the British in Trieste, steamships began to appear among the quays. Then came the arrival of the railway, in the mid-19th century, linking Trieste directly with Vienna, while a new and further impetus came with the construction of the Suez Canal, which took place between 1859 and 1869.

All this drove the Habsburg authorities towards a grand expansion plan, which was actually implemented between 1868 and 1883: it was during this period that the Porto Vecchio was built in Trieste, following a lengthy planning phase. It started with the publication of a call for tenders for the construction of the new port of Trieste, which was won by the French engineer Talabot, beating 13 other projects. In brief, his project envisaged the construction of 3 new wharfs, 40 metres wide and 150 metres long, as well as the filling-in of the old dock alongside the railway, and the construction of an outer breakwater. In total the Porto was to have 5 wharfs – of which 4 were parallel and 1 set at an angle. The works were by no means easy, given the sludgy seabed and the need to organize waterworks to canalize and partly fill in the Klutsch and Martesin mountain streams. Delays therefore accumulated, although the work was speeded up significantly in response to the completion of the Suez Canal. Not long after the work was completed, a new phase began, with the strengthening of the wharfs and quays in 1887.

Trieste and the port in the 20th century

The port of Trieste arrived in the 20th century driven forward by the expansion of some key protagonists of the last decades of the 19th century, such as Lloyd Austriaco, whose company fleet provided the Triestine maritime economy with invaluable support. Indeed, between 1870 and 1914, total capacity increased from 66,000 to 268,000 tons. However, this growth was countered by a crisis that had begun back in the 1860s, first with the loss of the Italian markets, as a result of the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy, and later with the enclosure of the free port in 1891. The new century therefore saw the transformation of the port of Trieste from a trading centre to a transit port. In 1892, the Triestine Mineral Oil Refinery was built, launching Trieste’s long history as an oil port; not long afterwards, in 1898, work began on the construction of wharf V (actually the 6th wharf) while planning began on the construction of an industrial zone inside the port itself, in parallel with the construction of a new railway station in the port area (the Campo Marzio station).

During the First World War, Trieste suffered greatly due to its proximity to the front and it continued to suffer in the years that followed, due to the failure to find a replacement for the old Middle-European traders. During the 1920s, the expansion of the timber pier began, with new railway connections and new warehouses, while at the same time the parts damaged during the war were renovated. After years of disastrous policies for the management of the port came the German occupation, followed by management under the Allied Military Government, which lasted until 1954.

After this we arrive at the current status of Trieste as an EU free port outside the EU customs territory: the port experienced varying fortunes during the second half of the 20th century, but finally reached a period of continuous growth of container traffic after the 2000s, as well as achieving increasing importance as a passenger terminal, partly as a result of the reduction in large cruise ships visiting Venice. This growth has made Trieste one of the most important ports in Italy, as well as the largest in terms of freight movement.