John Seabrook explores a newly vibrant city ready to show off its discreet charms" name="description">
/
Close
Newsletters  | Mobile

Turin's Olympic Moment

Turin's center is a grid of straight lines, and much of its architecture, although created over a period of about 200 years, appears to be the work of a single sensibility. An outstanding example of this uniformity of taste is the western façade of the Piazza Castello, the city's main square, where every evening during the Olympics the day's medals will be awarded. Guarino Guarini's church of San Lorenzo, begun in 1668, and Filippo Juvarra's 1718 Palazzo Madama harmonize with each other so beautifully that the eye reads the whole honey-colored face as a single unit. The effect is completely unlike that of the streets in Rome, say, where clashing architectural styles and languages representing different periods and sensibilities and intents jumble together chaotically.

Behind Piazza Castello there is a Roman gate, one of the few remains of the town that Augustus established here in 28 b.c. This settlement, a square castrum, or camp, was surrounded by 20-foot-high walls and withstood all invaders until the end of the empire, when first the Lombards and then the Franks sacked the city and pulled down most of what Rome had built. Around the ancient gate is Porta Palazzo's market, said to be the largest open-air market in Europe.

Turin remained essentially a provincial city until it was retaken from the French by the house of Savoy in the 16th century. In 1559 Duke Emanuele Filiberto made Turin the capital of his state, which stretched north over the Alps to Geneva. Successive rulers added buildings; many were designed by Guarini, Juvarra, and the third great architect of Baroque Turin, Bernardo Vittone. The whole palace complex is one of the great examples of the humanist belief that man's irrational nature can be tamed by design. Indeed, the city's personality does seem to be hardwired into its urban plan, just as its imperial creators intended it to be.

And yet you only have to look up in the Piazza Castello to see one of the oddest, most impractical pieces of architecture in the world. This is the Mole Antonelliana (mole means "heap"), an Art Nouveau folly that rises from Turin's grand humanist plan like a wild asparagus stalk in a formal flower garden. The Mole consists of a square base, on top of which sits a Greek temple, itself topped with a giant spire. Completed in 1889, it was at the time the tallest brick structure in Europe. Originally commissioned as a synagogue to celebrate the emancipation of non-Catholic religions under Victor Emmanuel II, the Mole eventually grew too expensive for its patrons and was purchased by the state. In 2000 it became the National Museum of Cinema, in honor of Turin's role in the founding of the Italian film industry.

The museum is wonderful. There is a fine collection of 19th-century moving-image technology: shadow puppets, zoetropes, and other kinds of ocular trickery. In the vast main room you can watch a changing roster of films from red velvet sofas. Exhibits are organized by genre: horror, absurdism, love, animation. In the absurdist room the seats are toilets, in homage to the Buñuel film The Phantom of Liberty. You can't ascend all the way up the Mole (the spire's top blew off in a tornado in 1953), but you can take a glass elevator through its center to a round balcony just below the spire, and from there get one of the best views of the city.

Alice Mattirola, a clever and pretty Turinese hostess, invited me to meet her at the Hafa Café, in the Quadrilatero Romano, or Roman Quarter, the center of the city's nightlife. Here, where the streets are older and narrower, Turin feels more like other Italian cities. Standing in the Piazza Castello, it is hard to fathom that Turin has a dark side. But walk the old Roman streets at night, when the mist rises and the city falls silent, or go out to the Docks Dora area, where blocks of industrial development have been pulled down and nightclubs flourish in ruined factories, and you may feel a shiver. According to occultists, Turin is one of three cities that make up the "triangle" of black magic (London and San Francisco are the others), as well as that of white magic (along with Lyons and Prague). I took the Magic Turin Tour, a nighttime excursion around white- and black-magic sites, and I must confess that by the end I didn't understand the triangle concept any better, although I now know it has something to do with the 45th parallel, lines of energy, and the fact that the city's two rivers, the Po and the Dora, are masculine and feminine, respectively.

Advertisement

Sign Up


Connect With Travel + Leisure
  • Travel+Leisure
  • Tablet
  • Available devices

Already a subscriber?
Get FREE ACCESS to the digital edition


Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Marketplace