A Town Rising from the Sea Foam

Piran, Slovenia

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The town of Piran features an ancient city centre with a rich architectural heritage and a unique cultural landscape in the form of its salt-pans, which are still partly in use today with production based on traditional cultivation. The Institute for Mediterranean Heritage at the Science and Research Centre of the University of Primorska, together with the Municipality of Piran and other heritage protection organisations, is preparing the scientific guidelines for the UNESCO nomination of the town of Piran and its natural hinterland. The Piran peninsula has a very attractive position – the mountain ridge on the north shields it from the bora wind, while the steep slope and the bay in the east gives good control over the only land access. Thus, it was settled already in the prehistory; a stone dagger from the shallows around Cape Madona dates to the Bronze Age, while Middle Bronze Age finds have been found in the old town square.

Piran, Venetian palace 


During the Roman period the Piran coastline was strewn with several maritime villas, probably aggregating the economic activities of larger estates and at the same time serving the maritime connections in the Northern Adriatic. In Piran itself many traces of settlement from that time were found, when the area was part of the Roman Regio Decima. During the tumultuous Late Antiquity the inhabitants started seeking shelter in the better guarded refuges along the shoreline. The strategic placement of the Piran peninsula came to a fore once again at this time, as Piran was soon densely inhabited.

Historical facts

Piran was first mentioned in written sources in the 7th century together with other Istrian towns (Ravennatis Anonymi Cosmographia) and the town seems to have led a continuous life, only changing governance: during the 7th century it was under Byzantine rule; in the second half of the 8th century it came under Frankish rule together with Istria; in 952 it was included in the German Empire as part of the March of Friuli; after 1209 the Aquileian 
patriarch became the Istrian border count and ruler. This period of relative independence ended in 1283 when Piran came under Venetian rule; this long, peaceful and prosperous period ended in 1797 with the dismantling of the “Serenissima”. After that and until 1918, Istria and Piran formed part of the Küstenland within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War I the area was included in the Kingdom of Italy. After World War II the town was part of Zone B of the Free Territory of Trieste (1947 – 1954), coming under Yugoslavia within the framework of the London Memorandum, and finally, after 1991, becoming part of the Republic of Slovenia. The old Romanic inhabitants of this heavily fortified town persisted despite the Slavic immigrants in the hinterland and, similarly to other western Istrian towns, would live for centuries to come in Venetian style and speech. The town’s name also remains relatively unchanged: in Latin as Pyrrhanum, between 670 and 1282 as Piranum, Piranon, Pyranum, later Pirano, locally Piramin, and in Slovene Piran. The explanation that the word Piranon stems from the Greek pyr (fire or lighthouse) is likely appropriate.
Piran, Minorite monastery cloister   



Urban History

The core of the settlement was on the ridge since prehistoric times. Here were the castle of the Aquileian gastald and the main town church of St. George. The town evolved first in the area of Cape Madona, pivoting on Piazza Vecchia – the square that housed the original Town Hall during the reign of the Aquileian patriarch. At the same time the first of the now visible walls was erected. This early medieval image of low buildings bordering on the seashore, two longitudinal streets and a central square has remained the essential urban layout until today.
Under the Venetian Republic the town started spreading beyond the only landward gates, i.e. the Porta campo into the port area (today’s Tartini Square) and the hill slope above it. Opposite the church of St. Peter (built in 1272), in the inner port (mandrač/mandracchio) area, a new municipal palace was built in the early 14th century, with other important buildings alongside it: a fonticus, a loggia, and the first palaces. Piran as we know it today is mainly the result of building activities of eminent families which emphasised their social status by building houses and palaces with richly hewn windows and doorframes, which can still be admired on some of them.
Expanding landward, the town was encircled by multiple walls and gradually incorporated the new town quarters, e.g. the Marciana, as they grew outside the walls. The first and second walls were gradually immured in the building structures, while the monumental third and final wall, built between 1470 and 1534 on the Mogoron slopes, still gives the town its characteristic image. Seven town gates are preserved: Porta Muglia (13th century), Porta Campo (15th century), Porta Dolfin (1483), Prima Porta di Raspo, Seconda Porta di Raspo, Porta Marziana, Porta San Giorgio. In the 16th century lively building activities accounted for the town’s wealth. Between 1590 and 1637 the parish church of St. George was thoroughly rebuilt. 
A new octagonal baptistery of St. John the Baptist was built, which preserved some of the older elements, i.e. the baptismal font from the previous Romanesque building. The Franciscan monastery with its cloister was also heavily rebuilt. Apart from religious buildings, the town also gained a number of important private and secular buildings in the 16th and 17th centuries, mirroring the late Renaissance and early Baroque style features. During this time the town expanded and evolved mainly in the coastal area along the Magnarolla port and beyond the last town walls, where a new town quarter evolved, the Borgo. When Trieste was declared a free port in 1719, new economic prosperity hit the somewhat distant Piran, which instigated the building of a series of imposing neoclassical buildings around the inner harbour. The town’s final outline was set with the filling in of the inner harbour, making room for a spacious town square with a magnificent Town Hall and the statue of the legendary Piran-born violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini. A new economic uplift in the 18th and 19th centuries was reflected in Piran mainly in a series of new buildings along the new, larger outer port and beyond towards the Fornace, as well as in architectural entrepreneurship.

The Saline

Salt-panning, together with maritime transport and salt trade, had been the most important economic activity in Piran since the Early Middle Ages, reflected also in the privileges and obligations in concessions and taxes in the first town statute. After the Istrian towns were annexed to the Venetian Republic, the trade and distribution was supervised by a Venetian official, who controlled the salt trade monopoly. Although Koper came to the fore with its position as a crucial port, Piran’s trade also came into contact with the wider European area and the Near East. Merchants came from Carniola, Carinthia and Styria, from Karst and Friuli, from the Netherlands and even Turkey. 

Piran, Statue of Giuseppe Tartini on Main square 


  The geological features of Piran’s hinterland, in the alluvial plains of Strunjan, Lucija and Sečovlje, the high percentage of salt in the Trieste gulf, the climatic conditions (many sunny days, propitious winds) – all these were very favourable for the building of salt-pans. Traditional salt-panning gained new momentum at the end of the 14th century as a new surface layer of algae microorganisms, plaster and salina mud, called petola, was cultivated, with which pure white salt was produced in Piran. In winter, maintenance works took place on the channels and their edges as well as the warehouses, where the salt yield was stored and the salt-panning families lived during the harvest season. Regular work on the salt-pans starts in March, when the canalete – the channels around the evaporation basins – are cleaned, and the petola on the salt paths, as well as the houses and especially the cavedini – crystallisation basins where the production and harvest of salt takes place and which are the smallest of the various salt-pan basins – are renewed. The townspeople of Piran, but also the salters from nearby settlements, begin the harvest season with a mass migration to the salt-pans on April 23 on the day of St. George, the town’s patron. The season ends on the feast day of   
St. Bartholomew, August 24, when they return to their homes after a thanksgiving mass. This traditional migration of salt-panning families was eventually abandoned with a modernisation of production under Austria; the ruins of salt-pan houses in the abandoned area of the Sečovlje salt-pans still remind us of the centuries-long way of life, giving the landscape a characteristic and recognisable mark. The Museum of Salt-Making has preserved and revived the technologically pristine salt production in Venetian tradition, with the genuine ratios of salt-fields, original work processes, and storage in the refurbished salt-pan houses. In the part of the Sečovlje salt-pans called Lera, and in Strunjan, the beginning of the 20th century brought a modernisation of production with a redistribution of the basins, motor pumps and a type of transport inspired by the mining technology; nevertheless, salt production still takes place on the basis of traditional materials, from the salina mud built cavedine to the surface crust petola. The salt is produced exclusively with the help of the sun, wind and sea water; a series of products like the salt flower and acqua madre (highly concentrated brine) are among the best quality products of salt production.
Sečovlje-Fontanigge, Windmill water pump    

The Ecosystem

The salt-pan areas in Strunjan and Sečovlje are under special protection as nature parks, as they are inhabited by rare, endangered and characteristic wildlife species in a typical salt-pan ecosystem formed through long-term activities of man. In Strunjan the high sandy cliffs give the park a special signature, while Sečovlje houses a wetland in an abandoned part with an exceptional landscape and great ecological value. Halophile vegetation needing high concentration of salt thrives in the salt-pans; true halophile fields can be found in some places, while the shores of the saline channels, and the banks of basins and dykes are overgrown with vegetation characteristic of their individual habitat, which also provides a home to some bee species, e. g. the salina bee (Pseudapis bispinosa), and several species of herbivorous bugs; the reeds house the spider cicada (Caliscelis wallengreni), as well as one of the smallest mammals in the world, the pygmy white-toothed shrew (Suncus etruscus), the Italian wall lizard (Lacerta sicula), and the lesser mouse-eared bat (Myotis blythi). The salt basins are the habitat of the brine shrimp (Artemia salina), while the shallower waters are home to bristle worms, shrimp, clams and a small striped fish called the tooth carp (Cyprinodon fasciatus). Almost 300 species of birds live in this habitat, some only nesting in the salt-pans; among them is the noticeable small white little egret (Egretta garzetta), the symbol of the Sečovlje nature park. The Piran salt-pans are the work of human hands during a millennium of tradition. Out of the numerous salt-pans in the Northern Adriatic, only the ones in Strunjan and Sečovlje have been preserved in their original scope and production. They represent a good example of heritage nestled in modern life and are more than just a historic, economic, technical, landscape and aesthetic monument.
Sečovlje-Fontanigge, Cavedini – salt fields