The Sugar Palace is the most valuable exhibit of the City Museum of Rijeka.
The Palace was built as the administrative building of the Sugar Refinery. The operation of the Sugar Refinery is the starting point of the entire industrial story of Rijeka. One of the peaks of the process initiated by the Refinery was recorded in the middle of the 19th century when half of Croatian industry worked in Rijeka.
Everything that should have initially happened, did happen in 1750. The same year when in fear the people of Rijeka fled their homes because of a violent earthquake. And they did not dare to return to them for a long time, so they preferred to live in improvised dwellings on the edge of the city, listening to the dull rumbles from the depths of the earth. In the following years, there were several more underground tremors. Their attention was so occupied with them that they did not notice a different tectonic impact that occurred in their city, on the surface. This was the appearance of the Sugar Refinery.
It was initiated in 1750 by the Main Trading Company of Trieste and Rijeka, founded mainly by Dutch capital and the decision of Maria Theresa to breathe a new economic elan into the Austrian Littoral, of which Rijeka too was a part. How was this liveliness to be implemented? By trading in sugar and sugar products, coffee, tea, tobacco, candles, coal and wood, by building ships and new maritime connections. The Company established a sugar refining plant in Rijeka. This plant would fundamentally change the economic face of the city. Thanks to the Refinery, the name of Rijeka would extend for the first time out into the commercial and industrial world in the 18th century.
The Company began the production of refined sugar in a plant at today’s Mlaka, which at that time was a western suburb of Rijeka. The business started successfully, so the directors decided to expand production to additional city locations. One of them was the area of today’s Palace at Brajda. A third plant was opened at the site of today’s Faculty of Maritime Studies.
The Palace at Brajda was built in the 1750s (archival documents do not provide enough support for a more precise definition of the year) and from the very beginning, it offered interesting sights.
It was built on the seashore, and a stone quay could be seen in front of its main entrance. Moored along it were sailboats so that they could unload the transported raw sugar directly in front of the plant’s gates. The raw material originated from overseas’ sugar cane plantations.
The Refinery had a large number of employees. At its peak, around 1775, the company had 1,000 workers, 300 of them in Rijeka, in administration and production (the rest worked in transportation and other branches). This was about 7% of the population of the then Rijeka. By comparison, it was the equivalent of a modern plant with 8,000 workers.
The Refinery operated successfully and for a long time. Right up until the market changes at the beginning of the 19th century, amongst which the appearance of sugar beet as the raw material was significant, to which there was no response. The production of sugar ceased in 1809 with the arrival of French authority. The Company then barely survived until its formal abolition in 1826. Time then introduced new uses for its complex in Rijeka. In the period from 1832 to 1848, it was used as a barracks, and in 1851, the Tobacco Factory was launched inside it. From 1947 to 1998, the Palace and the entire complex would become known as the Rikard Benčić Engine Factory.
Like the people of Rijeka, the Palace also survived the many quakes brought about by life. The greatest trial was presented by a great fire in 1785, however, it was quickly turned into an advantage for the building.
The Palace was renovated after the fire, it became a more beautiful reconstruction, with an impressively decorated interior. The reason for this was concealed in the decision by the Refinery’s directors, who until then had lived in the area of the plant at Mlaka, to move into the Palace itself. They wanted to live in the highest level of orderliness in the building.
The Palace was then threatened by wars. Particularly the Second World War, when Rijeka suffered many aerial bombardments. From those days, dramatic graffiti created by an unknown German soldier has been preserved in the basement of the Palace, with the dates of the Allied attacks and a depiction of the aircraft. The Palace was also threatened by material fatigue, problematic maintenance, additions and partitions, as well as the “refreshing” of the walls with new plaster and paint.
When the Rikard Benčić Factory disappeared as an economic name, a huge question mark hung over the survival of the building. Even despite the fact that in 1970 it was declared a protected cultural asset, as the largest Baroque business palace of the Habsburg Empire. The City of Rijeka bought it in 2000, and in 2003, the Croatian Conservation Institute began conservation research inside it. Everything was then changed by the Tourist Valorisation of Representative Monuments of Rijeka’s Industrial Heritage project by the City of Rijeka, the University of Rijeka and the Rijeka Tourist Board, in cooperation with the City Museum of Rijeka. With it, the Palace was given the opportunity for a new life. The renovation of the Palace began in 2017 and lasted for three years. The Palace then took on a new role, it became the seat of the City Museum, opened as part of the Rijeka – European Capital of Culture 2020 project.
When the Palace appeared in a western suburb of Rijeka in the 18th century, it had no equal in size anywhere in the surroundings.
It was reached by walking along the seashore and at first glance, it was obvious to any passer-by that it was involved in the production of sugar. It consisted of two stone sculptures of male heads on the front façade of the building, above the left and right entrances. Cones of sugar are entangled in their hair. Or in the Rijeka vernacular of the day “kampanuli.”
Although an industrial facility, it attracted the looks of both locals and foreigners with its impressive appearance. Travelling through Rijeka in 1795, the Hungarian mineralogist Dominik Teleki von Szék, noted: “The residential house of the directors of the Refinery with its warehouse is the most beautiful and exceptional house in Rijeka. It is located in a row with other refinery buildings facing the seashore, has four floors and looks like a palace. If it was located in any other large city, it would stand out amongst the most beautiful houses.”
The interior of the industrial palace was even more impressive. It is a building with a basement, a high ground floor and mezzanine, as well as three floors and an attic.
They are connected by an imposing main staircase with stone columns and a wrought iron rail, which starts from the entrance lobby on the south, the sea side of the building. From this staircase on each level of the Palace there horizontally extends about 15 or so larger or smaller rooms, used at different times for different purposes. They are connected, allowing a circular movement through the floors.
In many of these rooms, one has to stop enchanted by the visual splendour. On the first floor, where the Refinery’s officials worked, the central hall stands out. We call it Fumi’s Hall, after the Rijeka painter Giovanni Fumi, famous for his skill in making ceiling paintings. In the 1890s, he painted probably his best work on the vault of the hall, a composition with female figures that allegorically depicts the four seasons in vivid colours. They are joined by white, monochrome stuccos of “floating” boys.
The second floor is the representative floor of the building, the “piano nobile.” It is noticeably higher than the others and it was there that the rooms of the Refinery manager, official and private, were. Everything is dominated by the Ceremonial Hall that stretches up high through the third floor, all the way to the attic. It is the most impressive room in the Palace, it had the role of presenting the Company in the eyes of especially important guests. Its walls and vault are covered with stucco decoration that imitates marble. The ceiling vault features circular medallions depicting Roman military history and emblems with ancient military equipment, which could be read as a message about the Company’s power. The spatial splendour is accentuated by masonry heaters in niches and crystal chandeliers. From the balcony decorated with a winding rail it was possible in the 18th century to observe the unloading of raw materials from sailing ships.
The rich decoration on the second floor is a feature of some of the other rooms. There is the Baroque Hall of Vedutas, decorated in 1789 with panoramas of imaginary cities with ancient monuments, which is a sign of the style of the homes of the wealthy classes in the 18th century. Behind the next door is Venus’s Salon. The directors of the Refinery used it in moments of relaxation, and it features an artistic encounter with Arcadian, mythological scenes with which the walls are adorned. Similar decorative elements can be found in the other rooms along both floors of the Palace, of various intensities and preservation.
The permanent exhibition
The permanent exhibition follows the internal layout of the Palace.
This means it is spread out through 30 rooms on two floors of the building, over a total of 1,200 square metres of the building. The exhibition offers an insight into the economic, political, cultural, educational, scientific and sports history of Rijeka in the period from the 18th to the 21st century.
More precisely, from the moment the city became a free royal port in 1719 up until 2020 when the city became a European Capital of Culture. Everything has been done by placing Rijeka in the European context, by connecting it with Vienna, Antwerp, Budapest, Rome and other European cities. As well as those on other continents, such as New York. The basic material for this has been provided by the museum collections.
What can be seen in the exhibition?
The first floor of the Palace speaks about the entire modern history of the city. We have called it The Story of Rijeka, Europe and the World. Its beginnings were in the 18th century, when the origins of modern Rijeka appeared, which would culminate in the growth of the city into an important Central European port and industrial centre. Smaller units of this part of the exhibition recall the many states to which Rijeka belonged in the 20th century, the work of the Paper Mill, the Oil Refinery, Chocolate Factory and Rice-husking Plant, the Rijeka invention of the torpedo, Rijeka as an emigrant port, the events in the Second World War, the theatrical and the musical life of the city, education, motoring and everyday life. Each room talks about a certain subtopic, which is also why it is called by a separate name.
The same goes for the second floor, where we are greeted by The Sweet History of Rijeka. Its foundation is the biography of the production complex in which the Museum is located. All periods of the complex are covered, from the time of the Sugar Refinery, via the Tobacco Factory to the Rikard Benčić Engine Factory. The emphasis is, as expected, on the “sugar” part of the story, with parts dedicated to the delivery of the raw materials, the processing procedure in Rijeka and the consumption of sugar.
The visitor is introduced to the themes by passing through the historical data in the exhibition so that it stimulates the experience. For example, one of the rooms has the form of a theatrical installation and lavishes visitors with the whiteness of sugar, thanks to a glass cabinet full of handmade sugarloaves, just like the ones that were produced in Rijeka. This is a real ode to Rijeka’s sugarloaves. The people of Rijeka called them “kampanuli” because of their reminiscent appearance of bells. In the centre of the installation is a replica of an original mould from the Rijeka Sugar Refinery, made in the pottery of the Brajda plant.
Stepping into the Sugar Palace of the City Museum of Rijeka creates the impression of entering a playful time machine. It takes you through the exciting history of the city surrounded by original museum objects, replicas, images, sounds, words and films. The exhibition is very accessible to visitors, which means rich in information, playfully talkative, with multimedia and interactive content. And all in the imposing industrial Palace, which greets visitors with a restored façade, almost identical to the one it had in the 18th century.
The author of the installation is Ervin Dubrović MSc, director of the City Museum of Rijeka, the author of a dozen books and one of the best connoisseurs of Rijeka’s modern history. The design of the exhibition is the work of Nikola Jelavić Mitrović, winner of the European Museum of the Year Award for her work at the Vukovar Municipal Museum, and who is also the designer of the award-winning exhibition at the Alka Museum in Sinj.