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 Hafa Café is a hip, snug place for aperitifs, an elaborate ritual in Turin: canapés are set out in immense quantities, and for the price of a cocktail you can eat as much as you like. Mattirola had spent the afternoon looking at modern and contemporary art, in which Turin is rich. There is the museum in Castello di Rivoli, about 45 minutes outside the city, where modern pieces such as Charles Ray's Revolution Counter-Revolution are on view in a medieval setting. There's the new contemporary art ­museum, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, a former industrial space that is evolving into Turin's version of the Tate Modern. And there are many galleries: that day, I had visited Giorgio Persano and found the contemporary dealer's place had been given over to a show by Nicola de Maria, who has an apartment next door and so had been able to paint not just canvases but also the walls and ceilings of the gallery itself. During the winter months, there are more than a dozen outdoor light sculptures and installations around the city, created by the artists Jenny Holzer and Joseph Kosuth, among others.

Over sweet vermouth (vermouth is believed to have been invented in Turin, by Antonio Benedetto Carpano for his café on Via Roma, in 1786), Mattirola and I talked about why this city, with its famous reserve, manages to surpass all other Italian cities in contemporary art. One reason, she thought,is that Turin doesn't invest as much energy in glorifying the art of the past.

"You see, there are really two kinds of people here," she said. "There are the stuffy, older Turinese, who don't want anything about their beloved city to change, and there are the younger, progressive Turinese, who want to live in the city of the future. When I have dinner parties," she went on, "I try to invite people from both worlds and begin the evening by giving everyone a very strong caipirinha. Then I watch the sparks fly."

After our conversation, I began to see that division everywhere. It was there in the city's two soccer teams: the old guard supports Torino, which used to be great; the new one supports Juventus FC. White magic and black magic, Baroque and Art Nouveau. The dualism is even present in the city's two best known younger faces: the Elkann boys, grandchildren of Gianni Agnelli, upon whose shoulders rests the future of Fiat. John, the older brother, is the quiet and serious manager; Lapo is the chatty and camera-friendly marketer.

Turin has reinvented itself several times over the past 500 years. After three centuries as the ruling seat of the house of Savoy, in 1861 it was made the capital of the new Italian Republic. After the capital was moved, in 1870, Turin became an industrial center. Fiat is only the most famous of the many manufacturing firms that grew up in and around the city. The country's radio, television, and film industries also began here.

Now, with the coming of the Olympics, Turin's urbanisti are talking about transforming the city again. The mayor, Sergio Chiamparino, told me, "We are becoming a capital of health services, like Lyons, in France, and also of communications technology, and we are trying to increase the tourist sector." Vast changes in the city's infrastructure are under way, including underground parking beneath Piazza San Carlo, a metro, and high-speed rail links to Milan and Lyons, the latter route going under the Alps through the longest rail tunnel ever built.

Even the old Turinese acknowledge that the city must change. The decline of Fiat is not only an economic crisis but also a crisis of style for all of Italy. The memory of that prince of Italian style, Gianni Agnelli, haunts the city (he died in 2003), and Fiat, despite its current troubles, still evokes Italy's postwar industrial glamour. Lapo Elkann is now trying to capitalize on that image with Fiat-branded clothes and sneakers and the splashy reintroduction of an updated Punto, a Fiat classic. (The public's confidence in Lapo was shaken this past fall, when he was taken ill in the apartment of a transsexual named Patrizia, and rushed to the hospital in respiratory distress brought on by a cocktail of cocaine and other drugs.) But like many Italian companies, Fiat seems to be on the wrong side of globalization, stuck with a large, expensive workforce in Turin while its competitors make cars cheaply in Shanghai.

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