From the Marine-Kasino to the Book Fair(y) in Istria


Author: Miodrag Kalčić

Not far from the Ciscutti Theatre, or Teatro Nuovo (opened on December 28, 1854), on the opposite southwest side of the edge of Dante Square, officers and military officials, not wanting to mix with the simple-minded Pula proletariat (ordinary civilians, Arsenal workers, lower classes), had built for themselves an officers' club (having bought a house with a large garden plot from the same entrepreneur and profiteer Pietro Ciscutti, who, knowing the intentions of the Navy, had priorly bought the land and resold it to them at a much higher price), serving as a space for gatherings, parties and celebrations. 

The private, ghettoized and elitist Navy Club, Marine-Kasino, inaccessible and non-existent for ordinary Pula citizens, was opened only and exclusively for Pula officers (and their families, friends and colleagues who were not from Pula upon their recommendation and guarantee) on May 9, 1872.

The Austrian writer Franz Karl Ginzkey (1871 – 1963), a Navy officer (military cartographer), and a native of Pula, remembers: "In every aspect, it was a place governed in a worldly manner, a characteristic of the mariner profession of every time period. People ate, enjoyed themselves, and nurtured various kinds of social interactions there. Complete equality among everyone, whether they were high-rank or low-rank, created an atmosphere of free human relationships. It was quite important that the highest-ranking admiral and the youngest naval cadet gave the same monthly amount for the Kasino. Within its premises, all formalities were forgotten and there was no need to greet superiors with military salutes. In this comradery, a sea breeze of freedom blew, thus allowing my youthful perception of the club to be solely very positive."

As a matter of fact, Austrian officers continued to perform their military duties in the club, but without their uniforms (thus not exercising their disciplinary authority) and socialized among themselves in the Navy Club, isolated from the ordinary citizens of Pula, while enjoying the same cheap entertainment as those they separated themselves from. Imitating the old, prestigious, and gentlemanly clubs of Great Britain, the Austrian military gentlemen had gathered in a formally exclusive society (excluding themselves from all city events) of the officers’ Marine-Kasino, which had a (great) responsibility for tending to the German and Austrian, or, generally the Germanic, culture.

It was an elite officers' club to which guests had access only if accompanied by one of the club’s members. In order for a civilian to be admitted to that elite society, he had to have a recommendation from two members. Members had to pay an admission fee of 1,000 kroner, and then smaller amounts of money every month. In the first year, the club had 305 members, and in 1913 there were already 1,420. Over time, as the Navy Club became too cramped to admit the newly arrived naval noblemen and suit the comforts of spoiled officers, it was necessary to demolish the old one and build a new, bigger (and more impressive) Marine-Kasino.

At the same location where the first Kasino building was built in 1872 according to the project of the Vienna architect Ludwig Baumann, 41 years later, a new, significantly larger and more spacious (15,000 square meters) building of the Navy Casino was constructed, and officially opened on December 20, 1913, with many halls for different purposes: clubs, salons, concert and dance halls, dressing rooms, restaurants, cafes, bars, cafeterias, pubs, a wine shop, a library, a movie theatre, a reading room, a shooting range, a bowling alley, a billiard room, card rooms, game rooms (for chess and dominoes), hair salons, barbershops, a waiting room for dogs...

The Navy Casino was open from five in the morning until two after midnight. Members and guests of the Kasino had, in addition to scientific lectures, promotions of naval, military and other publications, theatre performances, concerts and movie screenings, often entertained themselves with dancing (balls) and carnival festivities.

All that, however, was short-lived. The unexpected (then, at the end of 1913) Great War arrived at the main gate of the Monarchy's main war port and ceased the joy and laughter in the Austrian elite officers' club.

After the Austro-Hungarian defeat in the war and the annexation of Istria to the Kingdom of Italy, Pula became an unimportant city and an insignificant port deprived of its most important economic activity – military shipbuilding, and the huge and luxurious Navy Casino was turned into the Palazzo del governo, the political centre and headquarters of the fascist government of the Istrian province.

The merciless Allied bombing of Pula at the end of the Second World War accidentally spared the Marine-Kasino, which sustained only minor damage to its facade, unlike the palace of Archduke Karl Stephan, which was just a street away, and was completely demolished. The Kasino building was restored and repaired just after the war in the socialist Yugoslavia (allegedly upon Tito's directive), when it returned to its intended use, first as the Home of the Yugoslav Navy, and then as the Home of the Yugoslav People's Army, offering similar events as in the Austrian time, but no longer elitist and open to the wider public, with its diverse (regime appropriate) cultural manifestations.

After the Homeland War, in which Pula fortunately remained unscathed, the Home of the Yugoslav People's Army in the new state naturally became the Home of the Croatian Homeland War Veterans, with a much smaller cultural and entertainment offering. 

Since 1996, the building has preserved the old and valuable Austrian Navy Library (K. u. k. Marine-Bibliothek), registered as the Croatian cultural heritage, with 6,757 titles in 20,371 volumes (about 13,000 books and 7,000 magazines and yearbooks), which is only a smaller part of the library fund of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, which had five (mainly scientific and specialised) libraries, four of which were in Pula (the fifth was in the Navy Academy in Rijeka): the central Navy Library (with about 50,000 volumes), the Navy Casino Library (about 25,000 volumes), the Library of the Naval Technical Committee (about 20,000 volumes) and the Library of the Engineering School (about ten thousand volumes). 

Five years later, in the old Marine-Kasino, the current Home of the Croatian Homeland War Veterans, books again arrived in heaps (about as many as there once were more than a century ago in the aforementioned four Navy libraries in Pula), but this time as part of the Seventh Book and Author Fair – Book Fair(y) in Istria, which finally, after six years of adventurous wanderings in Pula (galleries Capitolium and Diana, Old department store, former bookstore Mladost, gallery Cvajner, abandoned and neglected Pula movie theatre), has finally found its destination and later headquarters, its book festival-fair home. 

Since 2001, the Book Fair(y) in Istria, which in 2002 acquired an important additional subtitle: Pula Festival of Books and Authors, every year at the end of November and the beginning of December fills the ground-floor halls (sometimes also the cellar) of the elite Austrian naval palace with tons and tons of books neatly arranged and sorted in a bookish manner on the shelves. 

The dignity and distinctiveness of the Pula Book Fair and its festival of distinguished and important domestic and foreign authors (primarily writers and storytellers of all kinds), with an indisputable organization, a diverse and varied program scheme, an original model of promotion of new books (and forgotten classics), and an unusual way of introducing the authors, is certainly and in every aspect also defined by the dirty old town (tired of its too long history), in which it was created and above all by the fair-festival headquarters, whose elite architectural exterior and Art Nouveau ambiance give the fair and festival a kind of uniqueness and elegance that is difficult to find in European circles.