Saul Daniel Modiano was born in Thessaloniki, at the time still part of the Ottoman Empire, in 1840. The Modianos descended from Sephardi Jews that were forced to leave the Iberian Peninsula by the persecutions of the late 1400s. After some years in the Italian Peninsula they moved to Thessaloniki in the second half of the 16th century, eventually becoming one of the richest and most influential families in the local Jewish community.
We don’t know exactly when Saul Modiano landed in Trieste, and the reason for such a move is still disputed as well. Whatever the cause, it is safe to say that the choice of Trieste was a logical one: for almost a century the city had been a safe haven for Jews and other minorities from Central Europe and the Mediterranean basin; its economic growth allowed real chances of wealth and success, at least to those who proved themselves resourceful; it had long-standing and solid commercial ties with Thessaloniki; the Modiano family had previous experience in trading with Trieste, making this city far from terra incognita to the young Saul. And so, in 1868, he started an import-export firm based in via del Corso – present day Corso Italia – that was the first seed of the future Modiano enterprises.
Saul, attentive and dynamic, was a natural born entrepreneur. Once set in the city he noticed a high demand for rolling paper coming from Trieste and the Levant. He decided to skip all the middlemen and began its production, until that point almost monopolised by French firms. It was the first big breakthrough, and since 1873 Modiano was one of the first to manufacture cigarette paper in Trieste, in later decades one of the capitals of this unique industry.
Early 1900s etching depicting a view of Modiano’s plant – Courtesy of Archivio Storico Modiano.
However, rolling paper was just the beginning. In the following years Modiano expanded his activity to advertisement printing and graphic design – starting decades long partnerships with first class artists and illustrators – and especially to playing cards. These, exported far and wide across the globe, made the fame and fortune of Saul Modiano and keep his name alive and relevant to this day.
Thousands of workers, men and women, found work in his factories in Trieste, Fiume (present day Rijeka), Romans d’Isonzo and Bologna, often passing on their skills and jobs from generation to generation, becoming almost part of a Modiano family.
Saul Modiano’s entrepreneurial impetus also reached the world of cement production, car manufacturing and glass making. As a matter of fact, Modiano set up an important and renowned glass making factory in the outskirts of Istanbul, active until the 1920s and for some time managed by his son Daniel, who would eventually die there in 1897.
His interests and personality, however, were not limited to entrepreneurship: he was enrolled into Trieste’s Jewish Community, even if without taking a leading role; like many of his Jewish and upper-class peers he was very active in charities; unlike many of his Jewish and upper-class peers, he was an Italian citizen and was close to the city’s Irredentist milieu.
It was also for this reason that he decided to move to Bologna at the breakout of what would become the First World War, eventually returning to Trieste at the end of the hostilities, with the arrival of the Italian administration. Here he oversaw the rebuilding of his factory (destroyed by a fire in 1915) and the restarting of production. After his death in 1922 his son Ettore would replace him at the helm of the Modiano firm.
To this day, however, the “Saul Modiano” Retirement home in Thessaloniki, that his son commissioned after his death and that is dedicated to the elderly of the local Jewish Community, remembers his tight bond with the Greek city, left almost sixty years before and never forgotten.