The town at “the top of Istria” preserved the names of rulers in its historic names. Its name in prehistory, when this was the site of the Illyrian sanctuary, is unknown to us while the Greek name Egida (Aegida), bound by legend to the myth about the Argonauts, is mentioned in the 1st c. BC. It developed in Roman times as Capris (Goat Island) or Insula Capraria owing to its favorable position along the Via Flavia and the fertile land in the hinterland. At the dusk of Antiquity, it became the shelter to the refugees from Pannonia, Noricum, Tergesta. The important Byzantine fortification was renamed to Justinopolis.
At the end of the 8th c., it belonged to the Frankish and afterwards German rulers. In battles of German Emperor Conrad II with Venice, it took the side of the emperor, and in 1035 was granted town rights, independence from the Margrave of Istria and large estates as far as the Dragonja River.
Trade between Koper and Venice was recorded as early as the 10th c. Although formally owned by the Patriarch of Aquileia since 1208, the town developed its autonomy, and became an important economic and political power of the northern Adriatic, thus a threat to Venice. The Patriarch changed its name to Caput Ystriae, that later yielded the Venetian variant Cao d’Istria (It. Capodistria). Apart from trade, its prosperity rested on the production and sale of salt that it monopolized in Istria since 1182. Its inhabitants ardently defended its independence during Venetian efforts to establish its administration, and Koper along with Pula led frequent rebellions during the 13th and 14th cc. that ceased only after the town was conquered and plundered in 1380.
Urged by the rebellion in 1278, after which Koper was forced to swear loyalty to Venice, the Senate ordered the construction of the fortification Castel Leone.
The historic core is condensed, with a grid of narrow streets radially directed towards the central square with the cathedral. Perimetrally, along the walls and the town gate, eight squares were formed with churches. Several times reconstructed and pulled down during the Middle Ages, the Venetian walls from the 15th c. embraced the entire island. Of the twelve medieval gates, only the Porta della Muda or del Ponte towards the mainland was preserved. It was the site where taxes were charged for goods entering the town. Most of the gates had a mandrač (tiny port) in front of them. The organization of the town, conceived in today’s form at the end of the 13th c., reflects the social structure. The public town institutions and wealthier homes were in the center of the island, while the poorer classes of fishermen, merchants and craftsmen settled on the perimeter. Monasteries were lined along the edge of the core.
The oldest preserved buildings are the Romanesque baptistery of the cathedral, the Rotunda of St. Elias, and the small Percauz House from the 13th c. The Gothic style profoundly marked the town by the architecture of its churches, monasteries and public buildings. Gothic houses were built, such as the Carpaccio and Gallo houses, and the Almerigogna Palace with its painted facade. There are many examples of characteristic Gothic houses with a pronounced floor on consoles, polychromed facade (a sequence of houses in Kidričeva Street, the Favento House in Obzidna Street).
The center of the town consists of two squares. The central, one-time Platea Comunalis holds the most significant buildings. The southern edge of the square is enclosed by the Praetorian Palace. Originally a Romanesque building, it became a unique structure in the 15th c. uniting the political, military and judicial function of the podestà and the communal autonomy. Next to it is the Armeria (arms storage) and Foresteria, a “hotel” for distinguished guests from Venice. Opposite the palace is the Loggia from the 15th c. on the site of an earlier one from the 13th c. that gained its present-day appearance in the 17th c. The eastern side is enclosed by a Gothic-Renaissance facade of the Cathedral of the Assumption. Beside it stands a Romanesque Town Tower that in 1418 was turned into a church belfry. Brolo Square behind the cathedral served as a service point. The town cistern stood by the Fontico (grain storehouse), and was surrounded by the bishop’s and a number of noblemen’s palaces.
In 1420 Venice took over the last remains of the Patriarch’s possessions in Istria. Koper became the center of Venetian expansion onto the eastern Adriatic and the main competition to Habsburg Trieste that it was close to by its population and overseas trade until the mid-18th c. Before the epidemic of the plague in 1554, the town had as many as 8,000 inhabitants! In the 16th c. it became the administrative, judicial and taxation center of Venetian Istria. Prosperity enabled it to care for the poorer inhabitants, which is why in 1392 a storehouse for grain and provisions was founded, and in the mid-16th c., a charity institution Monte di Pietà. The town of rich religious and intellectual life had many confraternities and academies.
In spite of its medieval structure, Koper owes its appearance to Renaissance and Baroque interventions, inspired mostly by Venice. In the 16th c. the town walls and gate, including the Castel Leone, were reconstructed several times. Beside Porta del Porto in the direction of the main mandrač, two polygonal bastions were built that could resist the attacks of canons. The reconstructed Muda Gate (Porta della Muda, 1515) became the main town gate. From the 16th to 18th cc. a series of monasteries with churches were built (St. Ann, St. Nicholas) as well as a salt storehouse of St. Mark along the walls towards the Porporella madrač. The area within the medieval blocks is where noblemen’s palaces were densely built, with small inner courtyards, facades with elegant decorated portals with balconies, triforiums. On the square, beside the salt storehouse, stands the Column of St. Justine with the coat of arms of Koper marking the victory over Venice in the Battle of Lepanto in which a Koper galley took part as well. The town walls and gate gradually disappeared in the 18th c. when houses were built against the walls that now gained openings.
Under the Austrian rule, Koper developed into an important industrial and administrative center. In the 19th c. the island was connected to the mainland with two embankments between which were salt pans that received a bonus in the 1920s. Under the patronage of Vienna, the first Istrian regional exhibition was held here, covering many town squares and buildings. Unfortunately, inappropriate town planning interventions in the second half of the 20th c., the extension of the port towards the urban tissue, and finally drainage of the swamp area, have significantly affected the urban integrity and the characteristic silhouette of the powerful town on the island.
Koper Regional Museum with its rich archaeological and art collection.
The relief of St. Mark’s winged lion, symbol of the Venetian Republic on the Tacco-Gavardo Palace, originates from the Castel Leone fortification. It was placed on the facade in 1935.
The painted facades of Gothic houses reveal the one-time appearance of the town in the 15th c. The marble, relief-decorated sarcophagus of St. Nazarius is a supreme sculptural work of the Venetian Trecento.