Rodolfo and Gina Brunner

The Brunners, one of the “great families” of the Triestine 19th century, hailed from the Austrian town of Hohenems, a few kilometres away from the Swiss border. Here, in the early 1800s, their forefather Heinrich, a cattle dealer, laid the foundations of their fortunes. His son Jacob dedicated himself to textile production and trading instead, building together with his brothers an extensive commercial network with bases all across Europe. The headquarters were in Hohenems, with links with Switzerland, Manchester – at the time the world’s capital of the textile industry – and, especially, Trieste: emporium, growing commercial hub, Empire’s port.

Jacob moved to the Adriatic city in 1832, followed shortly after by his 12 years old brother Hiersch, who adopted the name Carlo. After a few years spent at his brother’s firm and in apprenticeships throughout Europe’s main markets, Carlo started his own business. He successfully financed several commercial and industrial enterprises, from navigation lines, to insurance companies, to oil refining. His son Rodolfo, born in Trieste in 1859, continued the family business. Cosmopolite, multilingual, he involved himself in agriculture, expanding the estates in the Friulian and Gorizian lowlands he had inherited from his father, improving them and rationalising their production.

In the years at the turn of the century these country houses became the backdrop for the social life and the gatherings of this extended Jewish family with members all across Europe. Its customs and habits were nonetheless those of a perfectly integrated group, matching the era’s upper class standards and codes: the countryside vacations, the parlors’ ritual, the passion for music. Judaism had not been abandoned, though. The observance of the precepts was not as strict as it had once been in Hohenems, but the Brunners were still among the Community’s main financial backers and leaders, they still observed the main holidays, and they still followed endogamous marriage policies.

This had been the case for Rodolfo as well. In 1888 he married Gina Segrè, a co-religionist, and the sister of the industrialist and financier Salvatore, later count Segrè-Sartorio. This endogamy followed religious/cultural and class criteria, but not always political and national ones. Salvatore Segrè, as a matter of fact, was one of the very few members of Trieste’s economic élite that openly sided with the Irredentists and had tight ties with the Italian nationalism milieu. Rodolfo, on the contrary, was a loyal subject of the Habsburg empire.

Brunner family portrait in their Cavenzano di Campolongo estate. Rodolfo is the first from the left, standing, his wife Gina is the first from the left, sitting, their son Guido is sitting on the ground – Private collection.

When the First World War broke out, dealing a fatal blow to that world that somehow had managed – albeit with countless contradictions and compromises – to make different identities and opinions coexist, many felt compelled to make often tragic and lacerating choices. Amongst them was Guido Brunner, Rodolfo’s son. Enlisted in the Austrian army, he deserted at the first opportunity to join the Italian side, resisting all of his father’s attempts to persuade him to abandon this project. This proved to be a real shock to Rodolfo, who moved with his family to his estate in Cavenzano di Campolongo. He was surprised there by the Italian advance in May 1915, and was interned as an enemy alien in his property in Forcoli, Tuscany. The following year he learned about Guido’s death, killed in action on the Asiago plateau. For his actions, the latter would eventually be posthumously awarded the Gold Medal of Military Valour, becoming part of the Julian March irredentism pantheon.

Rodolfo went back to Trieste at the war’s end and, thanks in part to his brother-in-law Salvatore’s good offices, he regained his place in the city’s economy, albeit in a less prominent position. He later managed to escape the nazifascist racial persecutions taking refuge in the same Tuscan estate he spent the previous World War, eventually dying in Trieste in 1956. He was 97 years old and had been a witness of Trieste’s (and the world’s) most eventful, intense and tragic years.

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