OF THE GREAT Italian cities, it is Turin of which the visitor has fewest expectations. I had cumulatively spent over a year in Italy before my first visit in 1973; Hugh Roberts, with whom I was travelling across northern Italy, wanted to spend four days, rather to my surprise. How right he was.
Until the age of the railway, Turin was the first Italian city most English or French tourists saw. Although some crossed the high passes to the Val d’Aosta with its bristling castles, most would have taken the Mont Cenis and thus descended to Susa, pausing perhaps to see the well-preserved Arch of Augustus, and then continued on the successor of the Roman road, passing beneath the spectacularly sited abbey of San Michele della Chiusa.
The natural capital of Piedmont, Turin is set on the flank of a productive plain above a bend of the river Po as it circles the north-western edge of the Monferrat range. Turin had been a major Roman city, as the gaunt Porta Palatina still attests. In 1280
it passed to the house of Savoy; and the city’s enduring fascination is inextricably linked with the course of that dynasty, counts and, from the fifteenth century, dukes of Savoy. Exiled in 1536, the Savoys returned in 1559. Their political acuity in dealing with both France and neighbouring Italian states consolidated their power. Vittorio Amadeo II inherited in 1675. His role in the War of the Spanish Succession, in which his kinsman Prince Eugène distinguished himself as the Austrian commander while Turin itself almost miraculously defied the French siege of 1706, led to his elevation as the King of Sicily in 1713 and, after the loss of that island to the Bourbons, King of Sardinia in 1720. He died in 1730, by when he had transformed his capital.
The Palazzo Reale with its ponderous façade, begun in 1646 and completed in 1660 by Vittorio Amadeo’s father, is the central monument of Turin. The sequence of staterooms on the piano nobile expressed a determined taste for power. From the piazza in front of the palace one sees equally clearly how the ambitions of the Savoys found architectural expression. A decisive victory of 1557 prompted a vow to build a church dedicated to Saint Lawrence, but it took over a hundred years for work to begin on the west side of the piazza. In 1666 Guarino Guarini was called in, and building proceeded over two decades. Guarini’s dome at San Lorenzo, so ruthless in the logic of its internal structure and ingenious in the use of light and shadow, is a tour de force.
A short walk from the corner of the palace leads to the chaste late Quattrocento cathedral, Roman in type, to which Guarini appended his stupendous chapel to house the most celebrated treasure of the house of Savoy, the Holy Shroud. The shrine was, and after its restoration will doubtless be again, the most unsettling of baroque statements, a vertiginous orchestration of black marble. Guarini was also enlisted in the urban development of Turin, a cherished project of successive rulers. The curving brick cliff of the main elevation of his Palazzo Carignano has no equal.
Opposite San Lorenzo is another major royal monument, the Palazzo Madama, with a wonderfully articulated façade of 1718–21 applied to the much reconstructed medieval castle by that most protean of architectural draftsmen, the Sicilian Filippo Juvarra. Within is a prodigious staircase, regal yet oddly free of pomp. The civic museum on the first floor, recently rearranged, documents the history of the area and used in an old-fashioned
way to be the perfect setting for a key collection of pictures and sculptures by the masters of Renaissance Piedmont.
The prosperity of modern Turin means that the complexion of the old town has changed dramatically. Blackened façades are now clean. Crumbling palaces have been rehabilitated, sometimes ruthlessly, as banks and offices. The visitor should wander. Strike across from the Palazzo Madama and follow the Via Dora Grossa (now named after Garibaldi), turning to see how Juvarra’s frontispiece of the former dominates the axis, and return by the parallel Via Corte d’Appello to follow the Via Roma to the Piazza San Carlo, with the façade of Santa Cristina by Juvarra and the later copy of this at San Carlo. Linger on the arcaded Via Po, inaugurated in 1673, with its complement of churches and the Royal University – hence the number of bookstalls. To the south are more straight streets and many of the finer palazzi. Among the many churches of the area, none is more satisfying than San Filippo, where Juvarra worked from 1715 onwards; major altarpieces by the most celebrated painters of contemporary Rome and Naples, Maratta, Solimena and Trevisani, testify to the ambition of the new kingdom. Turin had become a major capital; foreigners on the Grand Tour might settle there, and in the early 1760s the English Minister, James Stuart Mackenzie, reported on young British visitors to his brother, the Prime Minister, while making arrangements to buy Consul Smith’s collection from Venice for the young King George III.
Like other Italian dynasties, the Savoys were driven away in the wake of Napoleonic victories. They returned in 1814. The neoclassical susceptibilities of King Carlo Felice were satisfied in the great piazza at the end of Via Po and the Chiese Madre on the opposite bank of the river, Bonsignore’s solemn reworking of the Pantheon. The king’s cousin and successor, Carlo Alberto, commissioned the dramatic equestrian monument of 1838 to their heroic ancestor Emanuele Filiberto in the Piazza San Carlo from Baron Carlo Marochetti; for the anonymous Glaswegian author of Travelling Notes (1864) this was the outstanding artistic sight of Turin. With the Risorgimento and the transfer of the capital of Carlo Alberto’s heir, Vittorio Emanuele II, as King of Italy, first to Florence and subsequently to Rome, the Savoys ceased to reside in Turin. It became a political backwater, elegant and aristocratic.
The increasing economic importance of Piedmont was reflected by the development of the museums of Turin, notably the Galleria Sabauda, whose holdings of works by regional painters of the Renaissance were supplemented by much of the dynastic collection of the Savoys, and the Museo Egiziano, which houses the most comprehensive collection of Egyptian antiquities in Italy and is rivalled in Europe only by Berlin, Paris and London. Both institutions are housed in the former Collegio dei Nobili.
The considerable twentieth-century expansion of the city was due in part to Fiat and the Agnelli, who, after the exile of King Umberto in 1945, became its substitute dynasty. The city has now lost its visual relationship with the hinterland. There is no longer any game to pursue in the vicinity of the great hunting lodge that Juvarra designed in 1729 for the ageing King Vittorio Amadeo, reached by an impressive avenue some five kilometres to the south of Turin. Vast though it is, Stupinigi, the stag-crested domed central block of which seems to thrust upwards through the flanking wings, is neither pompous nor monotonous – as are so many contemporary palaces of similar scale. In winter the white stucco seems to echo the snowcapped mountrains beyond. And despite recent thefts, the royal apartments, with furniture by Pietro Piffetti, pastoral landscapes by Cignaroli and pastel portraits by Liotard, still breathe with something of the spirit of Settecento court life.
The Savoys had other palaces outside Turin, including Rivoli and Raconigi – the latter partly decorated by the Torinese Giovanni Battista Borra, who had travelled as draftsman with Robert Wood and James Dawkins to Palmyra and Baalbec and made his mark in England before returning to serve his monarch. Even grander was the never finished Venaria Reale with a spectacular gallery and the Cappella di Sant’Uberto by Juvarra; the complex and garden have recently been restored. Yet another palace was begun behind the most dramatically placed of Turin’s monuments, Juvarra’s Basilica di Superga, the Valhalla of the Savoys, on the hill to the east, begun in 1715 and completed in 1731. The huge domed church flanked by massive towers hangs above the city; its platform is the vantage point from which Turin’s urban development can best be understood.