Cursibus Navigantium Nocturnis Dirigendis: The Lighthouse of Savudrija / Salvore

She leans gracefully on her right foot while the hip is twisted to the right. She is wearing a long sleeveless shirt, cut at the neckline and reaching the floor in attractive folds, wrapping the left leg as it steps forward. Her cloak falls from the left shoulder diagonally over the back, around the hips, and is fixed under the bust. The right arm is lowered and slightly turned to the right, holding a tiller of a rudder. In her left hand, with the elbow elevated, she holds a horn of plenty. Her head is adorned with two horns, a solar disk, and feathers. She is beautiful, delicate, and powerful.

She’s 9,2 centimetres tall and made of bronze.

Bronze figurine of Isis-Fortuna from Savudrija. Photo brazenly stolen from the Archaeological Museum of Istria FB page.

The bronze figurine of the dual goddess Isis-Fortuna described above – adapted from Ancient Cults as Patrons of Seafaring and Seafarers in Istria by prof. dr. sc. Vesna Girardi Jurkić – was found near Savudrija, Croatia, in 1929 and now resides at the Archaeological Museum of Istria. The figurine is quite exceptional, as Isis-Fortuna is holding a tiller of a ship’s rudder in her hand: she was a guardian of sailors.

The sea along the western coast of Istria doesn’t look too dangerous. In the times of the Roman empire – after the Illyrian wars, and even before, after the subjugation of the Histri – Istria was dotted with villas, municipii and coloniae; the climate was as perfect as it is today, the olive trees loved it, the wine was sweet and the sea was brimming with fish. What more could an epicurean Roman desire? The sea route from Aquileia to Tergeste and on along the coast of Istria to the colonies of Parentium and Pietas Iulia was well traveled, safe harbours were aplenty, the trade lucrative, the villas opulent.

Ruins of Siparum, a Roman port just south of Savudrija

Yet the seas are deceiving; even the tame-looking waters of Istria can get angry, and the sharp rocks are hungry for careless ships and hapless sailors. Isis-Fortuna was an embodiment of two most important things every sailor needs: wisdom and luck. With Neptune the sea god (usually in company of the lovely Venus and mighty Mars) and the lesser deities like Glaucus and the Nereids, Isis-Fortuna was an integral part of sailors’ prayers – sailing was a matter of life and death, and every help from above (or below) was more than welcome.

Navigantium nocturnis, night sailing, is something sailors are eager to avoid since time immemorial, yet the adverse wind (or lack of it), subpar sailing prowess, or delays due to tides or incompetent longshoremen, could cause the ship to be stranded at sea at night. At first simple fires at hilltops were used to guide unlucky (or daring) sailors at night – the oldest putative structure that could be used for that dates to 2000 BC – and the practice quickly evolved into dedicated buildings called pharoi after the famous example from the island of Pharos: lighthouses.

Deities like Isis-Fortuna surely can guide a seafarer to a port – if they feel like it and if the offerings were accepted, but lighthouses are way more reliable. While sailors were carrying votive figurines and burnt offerings to Neptune, they looked for the lights to find safety. On the western coast of Istria a couple of Roman lighthouses were identified, both in public and villa ports. One of them stood at the entrance to the Roman port of Silvo, on the extreme western point of the peninsula.

Silvo was a part of the ager of Colonia Tergeste (Trieste, Trst), and its port was a strategically important point on the route via Parentium (Poreč), to Pietas Iulia (Pula) at the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula. Archaeological investigations revealed substantial port infrastructure, including a lighthouse that was directing brave sailors pass the treacherous and rocky westernmost cape of Istria.

The collapse of the Roman empire and the tumultuous Middle Ages reduced the importance of the port and it quickly fell into disuse. On the ruins of Silvo sprung a small fishing village of Savudrija (Salvore), its mariners no longer praying to Isis-Fortuna, but to their new patron saint, San Salvatore.

After the Napoleonic wars and demise of the Illyrian Provinces the most important North Adriatic port of Trieste came back into Austrian hands in 1813. After just a couple of years a group of ship insurers from Trieste urged the Captain of the Port to send a complaint to the Court of the Empire of Austria: in just three years seven ships were wrecked at the rather short part of the western Adriatic coast from Červar in Istria to Grado north of Trieste, and lighthouses were badly needed to protect the burgeoning – and vital! – sea trade.

The complaint was handed in and soon His Highness the Emperor Francis I. ordered a lighthouse to be built at cape Savudrija. The Trieste Stock Exchange took over the investment, and the project of designing and building a lighthouse was entrusted to an aspiring architect and captain Pietro Nobile.

The project progressed blindingly fast even for our standards, let alone those of the bureaucratic and inherently slow Empire. The Imperial order was issued in March 1816, in October Pietro Nobile presented his plans for the lighthouse, the land was acquired in June 1817, the construction took seven months, and on the night of April 17, 1818 the lights of the Savudrija lighthouse were turned on for the first time.

The most contentious part of the whole affair was the text on the commemorative plaque dedicated to Emperor Francis. Everything else went as smooth as butter.

The lighthouse of Savudrija is a circular tower in a platform made of local stone, altogether 29 meters high and some 5 meters wide. The tower supports a a double gallery where the light source is housed. And at the time of its inauguration this light source was something really special.

It was burning coal gas.

Master Janez lifting the Rokker kite (made by Sandro Macchi – SMAC) by the Savudrija lighthouse

In 1603 a Flemish scientist Jan Baptist van Helmont described a discovery of a wild spirit which escaped from heated wood and coal, that differed little from the chaos of the ancients – he named this wild spirit with a brand new word he crafted from the Greek chaos: “gas”.

The wild spirit that escapes the coal when one heats it in a low-oxygen atmosphere is a rather toxic mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

But it’s flammable.

Soon the chemists and engineers developed better and more efficient ways of coal gasification, and used the coal gas for illuminating houses, cotton mills, and bridges. the first commercial gas plant was built by the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company , that illuminated Westminster Bridge with gas lights on New Year’s Eve in 1813. That was the first “town gas” lighting in the world.

And only three years later the intrepid engineers led by Anton Domek installed the first coal gas powered light source in the lighthouse of Savudrija!

It was quite big, this light source. Its brass candelabre had 42 openings in three rows for the gas that ignited and formed a flame two meters high and 1,80 meters wide. The octagonal lantern structure was made in Maria Zell steelworks, while the glass for its huge windows came straight from Murano.

The gasification plant for the lighthouse was located in the adjacent building, using coal from the mine at Labin in the east of Istria. But despite all the world’s most advanced tech, use of coal gas for the Savudrija lighthouse proved too expensive and too unreliable; the gas candelabre was soon replaced with oil lamps and later still with electricity.

Yet the lighthouse still stands and still operates – it is over 200 years old and is the oldest working lighthouse in the Adriatic!

The range of the lighthouse today is 30 nautical miles; it emits three white flashes every 15 seconds.

Or, in the argot of modern sailors:

Position: 45° 29,4′ N / 013° 29,5′ E
Light character: W Fl(3) 15s (0,5+3,2;0,5+3,3;0,5+7)s
Visibility sector: 360°
Main light range: 30NM
Standby light range: 12NM
Height of light above M.H.W.: 36m
Tower height: 29m
Fog signal character: 42s (4+4;4+30)
Fog signal range: 2NM

The plaque above the entrance to the lighthouse tower – the one arguing over it took the most time and energy of the whole project – is dedicated to the Emperor Francis I., who made the night sailing around the westernmost point of Istria safer.



Safe travels, sailors!

Kite aerial photos shot with Insta360 on The Rokker kite.

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