John Seabrook explores a newly vibrant city ready to show off its discreet charms" name="description">
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Turin's Olympic Moment

The 2006 Winter Olympics offers Turin, perhaps the least known of Italy's larger cities, a chance to sell itself to the world. While most places would leap at this opportunity, for Turin it presents a dilemma. The city has long prided itself on understatement. It's associated with Fiat in particular and with industry in general: Italy's Pittsburgh. While other Italian cities freely boast about their art, architecture, and food, the Turinese, if pressed, will admit with quiet pride that they work hard and go to bed early. Closer in miles to Geneva than Venice, Turin seems nearer in spirit to Calvin than Casanova. It is characteristic of the city that its most famous object, the Holy Shroud, won't be on view again until 2025.

In fact, there is a great deal more to Turin than the staid, gray image it presents. It is the center of Italian contemporary art; it has some of the best, and certainly the most innovative, cooking in Italy; the beauty of its surrounding hills and valleys rivals Tuscany's; it is richly multicultural, with one of the largest Muslim populations of any Italian city; and it has a long tradition of attracting religious freethinkers, political radicals, artists, and writers. But none of that is immediately apparent, because in Turin there is a profound tension between creativity and the unusual on the one hand, and bourgeois normalcy on the other. That duality is a part of the city's most famous architectural feature, its arcades—those elegant covered passageways that line Via Roma, the main shopping street, and link the central square, Piazza Castello, to the Po River. These arcades are, of course, public spaces; they coax you outdoors even in bad weather, and their Baroque architecture imparts a sense of pomp to the most casual passeggiata. But being covered, they also conceal when you don't want to be seen, and make you feel vaguely furtive. They lend a graceful perspective to almost every view, but they also impart melancholy and foreboding, a mood beautifully captured in Giorgio De Chirico's Turin paintings.

So how will this famously reserved city play to the thousands who are expected to attend the Olympics—and the millions more who will watch on television?The city's taxi drivers have been offered free courses in English and hospitality, and shopkeepers have the glazed look of people who have been reprogrammed to be friendly but haven't quite got the hang of it yet. Some of the city's more prominent boosters are worried that Turin will shun its moment in prime time. One is Giorgetto Giugiaro, whose classic industrial designs range from Canon cameras to the VW Golf. "Turin is a modest city intent on doing things," he told me when I went to see him at his studios in the suburb of Moncalieri. "If the villas we have in La Collina"—the leafy hills where the city's wealthiest families live—"were in Milan, people would call them the Beverly Hills of Europe. But our problem is that we are not able to talk about what we have." Giugiaro told me about a friend who owns two Rolls-Royces but won't take them out, for fear of showing off. "So he drives around town in an ordinary car and leaves his Rolls in the garage." The city's Versace store had to close because locals wouldn't be caught dead in such ostentatious clothes, and Hermès has to stock plain white paper shopping bags so patrons can carry its understated luxury home without risking any fashion statements along the way.

Seen by plane from several thousand feet, the snowy Alps around Turin look beautiful, and the mountains at Sestriere and San Sicario, where many of the Olympic Alpine events will take place, are easy to spot. You can also trace the flow of the fertile grape-growing valleys of the Piedmont—Val di Susa, Val Pellice, and Val Chisone—and try to imagine Hannibal and his 37 elephants making their way out of the mountains, in 218 b.c., and appearing at Taurasia, which is the name the Celts gave to the first settlement on the site of Turin. (Hannibal razed it.) But down on the ground, the fog closes in, and the mountains are invisible in the mist.

"What pavements!" I thought, strolling along Via Po one afternoon. This was the exclamation that Friedrich Nietzsche put in a letter to a friend, shortly after arriving in Turin, in 1888. He loved Turin for the rational, orderly plan of its streets, and there he produced two of his best books, Ecce Homo and Twilight of the Idols. But by the end of a year there, Nietzsche was barking mad; he spent the last years of his life saying little except the word elegant over and over again.


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