The palazzo’s considerable size and lavish decoration make it stand out from the sobriety of the surrounding buildings. It seems fanciful, almost flamboyant – with its well-defined volumes, large windows, abounding Art Nouveau adornments and Oriental-style cupolas – when compared with the imposing, eclectic buildings on the square, which include the Riunione Adriatica di Sicurtà building and the Cassa di Risparmio del Friuli Venezia Giulia building.
These two buildings surrounding the square, which were built almost simultaneously by more renowned architects, evidence a nineteenth-century taste in their compact structure and classical decoration (an obligatory choice as they were designed, respectively, as prestigious offices for a highly-regarded insurance company and a branch office for a Viennese bank).
In contrast, Palazzo Terni-Dei Rossi – designed in 1906 for Augusto Terni by Romeo Depaoli, a builder from Trieste – is a superb example of the floral style that came to symbolize the hopeful, optimistic and triumphal turning towards Modernity by the enterprising bourgeoisie of the early twentieth century.
During the same period in which Palazzo Terni-Dei Rossi was being built, the great Milanese architect Giuseppe Sommaruga designed the spectacular Filodrammatico Theatre (currently the Ambasciatori cinema) – which also features naturalistic female nudes alongside sinuous Art Noveau decoration – Max Fabiani introduced the elegant and rational style of his master Otto Wagner to Trieste, and Giorgio Zaninovich (also a student of the Wagnerschule in Vienna) embellished certain residential buildings on Via Commerciale with an imaginative and at times surprising interpretation of the Secession Style.
A Wagnerian play of solids and voids and exterior shells which seem to disintegrate into large windows on the ground and mezzanine floors (which were intended for commercial activities) are just two of the features that characterize some of Trieste’s most beautiful Art Nouveau buildings, including Casa Bartoli at Piazza della Borsa 7, by Max Fabiani (1905), and Casa Polacco at Corso Italia 22, also by Romeo Depaoli (1908).
Palazzo Terni-Dei Rossi’s exterior, however, has a more exuberant decorative scheme that unifies the building’s three distinct sections, each of which has its own entrance, on Via San Nicolò, Via Dante and Via Mazzini respectively.
Continued observation of the building increases one’s appreciation of the curious harmony that is created by the combination of such diverse elements as: friezes with vegetal motifs, decorated corbels that support balconies (which project to varying degrees), medallions, statues, balustrades and iron ornaments that stand out against the white stone and, finally, a touch of whimsical exoticism – the small Indian-inspired cupolas, supported by columns, at the upper corners of the building.
This beautiful building, which has recently undergone painstaking restoration, had one flaw for which Depaoli received a good deal of criticism – the entrance hall for the main entrance on Via Dante was not particularly useful. As a result, the entrance was closed after a few years and the hall was converted into a currency exchange office. The problem was that the only flight of stairs leading out of this entrance hall merged, at the mezzanine level, with the Via San Nicolò stairway, which was very narrow and disproportionate with respect to the dimensions of the building.
However, the popular legend that Romeo Depaoli, devastated by the shower of criticism, took his own life is not true. The unfortunate architect died from an illness ten years after he designed the palazzo, when he was just 40 years old. It was instead Augusto Terni, the person who commissioned and owned the building, who committed suicide, but it seems he took his life for personal rather than professional reasons.
The interior layout of the palazzo lacked the elegance of the exterior – during the construction of the building the stairways were modified several times in order to best utilize the available commercial space on the ground floor, which meant sacrificing the main entrance on Via Dante (which regained its original function in the recent renovation).
The final section of the building that was completed, which faces Via Mazzini, also has a narrow stairway and modest entrance. The building’s lift, whose installation was planned from the start, demonstrates an interest in the comforts of modern life.
Recent renovation of the palazzo revealed its most surprising feature – the novel construction method, which combines traditional elements (stone exterior walls, stone and brick interior walls) with the use of metal elements which was an innovation for the time. The structure is reinforced with strong iron pillars, the floors of the lower levels (which must withstand a greater weight) are supported with an iron framework, while those of the upper levels (starting with the third floor) have traditional wood beams (reinforced with small brick vaults).
The materials used for the exterior were also the most modern for the period – while the walls are finished with traditional white stone at ground level, faux stone (a mixture of cement and stone chips) was used for the exterior finish, the balconies and the decorative elements of the upper floors. The renovation, commissioned by the Dei Rossi family (the owners of the palazzo since 1948), was directed and carried out by architect Marion Palla.