Salvatore Besso was born in Epirus in 1804. Hailing from a Sephardi family, he kept the family tradition going by trading grains in association with his father between the Black Sea, the Balkans and Trieste.
Between the 1820s and 1830s the Besso family moved to Trieste to take advantage of the opportunities opened by the city’s economic awakening following the upheavals of the Napoleonic decades. Here Salvatore married Regina Cusin, descendant of a very important family in the local Jewish business community, and assimilated quite easily in the Triestine koine of the time. He kept speaking and reading in Greek, but made his own the old Latin adage that said «my fatherland is where I dwell»: he gave up the exterior symbols of his Greek and Levantine identity, he became an Austrian subject and, without forgetting his mother tongue, he chose to speak Italian in his home as well.
In times characterised by emancipation, he gradually loosened his ties to the Jewish faith. Salvatore remained a Jew until his very last day, wishing his sons would do the same. Still, he did not consider religion as a strict set of dogmas and formal rules, but rather as a memory of each one’s heritage and traditions, a guarantee of family unity, a worthy ethical guide capable of teaching how to live with dignity and integrity.
Such values proved to be helpful in the late 1850s, when an economic downturn forced Salvatore to liquidate his firm and reinvent himself as a «scribe» – that is, a clerk for another Triestine merchant – just to provide for his family.
Portrait of Salvatore Besso sr. Courtesy of Fondazione Marco Besso, Rome.
Almost paradoxically, this situation managed to open new roads for his four sons, now free from the then customary obligation to keep the family business going. As long as they did not stray away from a core tenet of Salvatore’s worldview – bourgeois respectability – they could choose a career of their liking.
Thanks in part to the excellent education received in Trieste, they all managed to find their way in the world and achieve a fair amount of success. The two younger sons, Beniamino and Davide, became respectively an engineer for the Sardinian Railways and a maths professor in the Universities of Rome and Modena. The elder, Giuseppe, built a solid career in insurance between Trieste and Zurich. Marco, the second-born, worked in the same field, eventually becoming one of its most prominent figures: hired by Assicurazioni Generali in 1863, he built a brilliant career rising through the ranks of the company. Initially in charge of branch offices in the Italian province, he was later promoted first to Secretary General, then to General Manager and eventually president of the company.
Buried here at Salvatore’s side are two of Marco and his wife Elisa Pesaro Maurogonato’s sons: Isacco, also known as Iso, and Salvatore jr. They both died at a very young age, killed by scarlet fever in the spring of 1882, while their father was abroad on a business trip.