Timeless Turin, Piedmont's Prize
by Fred Ferretti
Piazza Carignano is a square of modest extent in the center of Turin. It
possesses neither the colonnaded grandness of Piazza San Carlo nor the broad
vistas of Piazza Castello, both just steps away, yet it has witnessed the
blooming of much of Turin's history. Along one side of the piazza is the
sinuous Baroque brick face of the seventeenth-century Palazzo Carignano,
where Vittorio Emanuele II, who ruled as the first king of a united Italy,
was born in 1820; where the first Italian Parliament of that union convened
in 1861; and which today houses a museum dedicated to the Risorgimento,
the nineteenth-century political movement that led to Italy's unification.
The curved facade of the palazzo is the work of the first great architect
of the House of Savoy, Guarino Guarini (1624-1683), whose designs established
the city's style of Baroque architecture. His buildings' ornamentation
was, though indeed Baroque, nonetheless quiet, ordered, and elegant, a
tradition maintained by his eighteenth-century successor, Filippo Juvarra.
In the cobbled street directly in front of the palazzo stands a bronze statue of Vincenzo Gioberti, the
philosopher and exponent of the Risorgimento who, according to the inscription at the statue's base,
"propagated the independence of Italy." Beyond Gioberti's figure is the Teatro Carignano, built in the
eighteenth century and later reconstructed after a fire. Its gilded boxes, touched with soft pinks and greens,
surround a stage that is of significance to the history not only of Italy's theater but of its politics as well, for
it was on this stage that the tragedies of the eighteenth-century Piedmontese poet and dramatist Vittorio
Alfieri were first performed, works inspired by his belief that Italy's greatness should be celebrated, its
national spirit revived.
Abutting on the theater is DEL CAMBIO, a restaurant prominent in Turin's history that has remained
unaltered for almost a century and a half. Its bronze sconces and heavy bronze and crystal chandeliers
illuminate a glittering Baroque interior of red velvet benches, golden damask drapes, and exquisite frescoes,
persevered behind glass and framed by ornate moldings and carved columns, of cherubs cavorting across
If one is a customer of some honor at Del Cambrio, a choice of two tables
will be offered, one beneath a chandelier in the center of the restaurant's
main chamber, where Queen Elizabeth once dined, and the other in a smaller
room off to the side, a table to which Count Camillo Benso di Cavour —
the hero and architect of Italy's unification — came daily, it is
said, to plot the Risorgimento over coffee. A Torinese would not be so
bold as to suggest at which of these tables you might enjoy your fiori
DI zucca ripieni, the stuffed zucchini blossoms with white truffle sauce
that Del Cambro's chef prepares "as the French might." But if you selected
that of Cavour — or even his very chair — the Torinese would be pleased.
That is the Turin way.
This stately capital of the Savoys, this birthplace of a unified Italy,
is a gracious city that wishes you to share its rich history, yet it will
not thrust that history upon you. Turin is neither so restless as many
of Italy's northern cities, nor so bumptiously resplendent as others.
Rather, it is a place of quiet beauty and restraint that wears the layered
mantle of its history with assurance. That history is as much broadly
European — as Swiss and French — as it is Italian; it embraces
the early, splintered kingdoms of Italy as well as the Risorgimento, which
was born within Turin's palazzi and caffé.
What is now Turin was once Taurisia, a settlement founded by the
Taurini that was partly demolished by Hannibal in 218 B.C. Later, during
the wars against Gaul, the Romans established a military colony on the
site. It was subsequently occupied by the Goths, then the Lombards, and
in the eleventh century it became part of the holdings of the family of
Savoy, originally from the western Alps around Geneva. In 1861, Turin
became the capital of Italy, and, even though the nation's government
moved on to Florence and then to Rome, Turin remained a most important
city industrially and politically.
This capital of the province of Piedmont — birthplace of the writer Carlo Levi and beloved of Nietzsche,
Gogol, and Henry James — is where modern Italy arose. Traditionally, it has been a place for new ideas,
new movements. In World War II it was a center for anti-Fascist activities, and in the seventies it saw the
rise of the Red Brigades. Today it is a wealthy, well-ordered city, home to the holdings of some of the new
industrial royalty, including Fiat and Olivetti. It is, in fact, one of Italy's better kept secrets, a city of broad
boulevards and sumptuous architecture that its residents suggest should be thought of as a small Paris on
The Torinese boast, albeit quietly, that in their city are made the dolls of Lenci, prized by the collectors; that
the chocolates made by Peyrano for seventy-five years in a tiny candy factory on Turin's right bank are the
world's best; and that the empires of vermouth known as Cinzano and Martini & Rossi were founded here.
The Torinese also boast that they closed their highly regarded zoo recently because, as one told me, "We
didn't want our animals in cages." In Turin the people espouse a civil and gentle philosophy of life.
"Our palaces are simple, on the outside," Maria Magnani-Noya, the mayor of Turin, told me. "Our people
do not wish others to see what we have inside. We do not need to impress from the outside." Pursuing her
line of thought, she added, "Things are born here, and often they are taken by others, but we do not mind
because we know they are ours. This is what it means to be a Torinese."
Turin's motto is "Il passo non deve essere pi lungo della
gamba," or "your step must not be longer than your leg." The Torinese
also say, in Piedmontese dialect, "Bogia nen," which, translated literally,
is "Don't move" but actually signifies "Be cautious" or "Take your time."
Each expresses the reserve and the deliberate character of the Torinese.
Their city reflects that character. Though there are, for example, many monumental bronzes in Turin's
squares and crossroads, much of its Baroque architecture is hidden behind walls, and the city's excellent
museums must be conscientiously sought out, for no flapping banners proclaim their exhibits.
Two of Turin's finest museums, the Museo Egizio (the Egyptian Museum) and the Galleria Sabauda (the
Gallery of the House of Savoy), occupy one massive square building of chiseled limestone blocks
blackened by the years. We visited the museums one morning after a few bicerin, small cups of black and
bitter coffee, and warm cornetti dolci, those sweet croissants so beloved by Italians. We enjoyed this
breakfast at Al Bicerin, a caffe in Piazza della Consolata with pocked wooden walls and rickety chairs, a
place that has been serving coffee since 1763.
Before we headed for the museums, we stopped next door at Ditta Rosa Serafino Erboristeria, Turin's
oldest herb shop, which has been selling spices, medicinal herbs, and particularly teas — mint, orange, and
mango — since 1858. Then we walked across the square to the Santuario della Consolata, the Royal
Church of the Savoys. Once two separate churches, the Consolata was made one by Guarini and
impressively adorned in red, gray, black, and white marble; it also has an extraordinary sunburst of a golden
altar by Juvarra. The Torinese regard the Consolata with great fondness.
On our way to the museums we passed through Turin's sprawling market, located in and around Piazza
della Repubblica. Mornings, the square is a virtual city of tents under which are sold the fruits and
vegetables of the Piedmont, the truffles and hazelnuts of the Alba hills, and the rices of Novara, as well as
Fontina cheeses and prociutti crudi. Surrounding the tents are enclosed markets where vendors hawk fish
brought in from the Liguarian coast and hundreds of variations on the theme of salame. This Porta Palazzo,
as it is referred to by the Torinese, is a marvelous market; its aromas stayed with us as we walked
diagonally down and east through Turin's center to the two museums on the Via Accademia delle Scienze.
The Museo Egizio was founded in 1824 by Carlo Felice, the king of Sardinia, with a monumental trove of
Egyptian archaeological finds that had been gathered over a period of three decades by Bernardino Drovetti,
the French consul in Egypt. Augmented since then by other acquisitions, the collection today consists of
some thirty thousand pieces and occupies two entire floors.
Huge figures of black basalt welcome you to the museum as you walk among the
stone sarcophagi and carefully wrapped mummies. Three tombs have been
reconstructed there, among them the fourteenth-century BC tomb of Khaie,
unearthed in 1905 by Ernesto Schiaparelli, perhaps Italy's finest Egyptian
scholar. Long scrolls of papyrus run along walls, and among the scarabs
and ornaments sit piles of food, dried for all time in the tombs; petrified
breads, eggs, pomegranates, pumpkins, and wheat. A wonder of a museum,
the Egizio is considered to have the finest collection of Egyptian artifacts
in the world outside of Cairo.
The Galleria Sabauda, one flight above the Egizio and marked only by a cardboard sign, displays the
paintings and altarpieces of the House of Savoy. It includes not only works by Dutch and Flemish masters
— Van Eycks and Van Dycks and Rembrandt's "Old Man Asleep" — but also paintings by Titian, Fra
Angelico, Veronese, and Tintoretto. One can only be astonished by the fact that these outstanding museums
are announced by little more than an unmarked wooden door. But not all of Turin's treasures must be
sought out with the determination necessary to find these two.
Within the city stretch miles of magnificent colonnades, so many that it is
possible to walk from one end of town to the other without ever feeling
the heat of the sun. Walk through our arcades, say the Torinese; enjoy
them. Is Piazza San Carlo, a lovely rectangle enclosed by arched colonnades,
as aesthetically pleasing as Piazza San Marco in Venice? Surely. Yet it
is open to vehicular traffic. And why not? ask the Torinese. People must
drive, must they not? Sit under an arch of the piazza just outside the
exquisite Caffe San Carlo — a virtual salon awash with black and
white marble statuary, and Ionic columns. Enjoy an espresso and reflect
that you are at a two-hundred-year-old caffé and that the giant
equestrian statue of Duke Emanuele Filiberto, a war hero of the House
of Savoy, is there in the center of the piazza to remind you of the passage
Does the world know that the grissino, the breadstick, was invented in Turin for Duke Vittorio Amedeo II,
who became the first Savoyard king of Sicily and then of Sardinia? No? No matter, enjoy our grissini, the
Torinese say, and think about our king. Turin, along with the entire Piedmont, is likewise the birthplace of
the bagna cauda, that bath of olive oil, butter, anchovies, and garlic that is eaten with raw vegetables. The
region also created the bolito misto, a pot of seasoned, boiled meats, and it claims ownership of the fritto
misto as well, which is nothing short of a procession of fried meats and vegetables.
It seems not to bother the Torinese that many of us do not know much about their culinary history,
although there is a good deal for which they are credited. The bonet, for example, was first concocted in
Turin. A sweet custard with crushed macaroons and cocoa powder, it ends traditional meals there. Bonet
translates as hat; when guests finish this dessert, it is a sign that the meal has concluded and it is time for
them to leave.
You did not know this? Do not be concerned, say the Torinese. Did the custard known as zabaglione
originate in Turin as well? They believe it did and that it was created in honor of a Spanish Franciscan
monk, San Pasquale Baylon, who came as a religious teacher to Turin at the behest of Duke Emanuele
Filiberto. The same duke was reputedly responsible for the invention of marron glacˇs, those cooked
chestnuts in syrup.
Could this all be true? Perhaps — but the point is that the Torinese are convinced of it, and that is sufficient.
As a people, they value their gastronomy so highly that, when Piazza Savoia was constructed in 1850, a
bottle of Barbera wine, a single grissino, and a sack of rice were placed in the foundation of its central
Turin's essential beauty lies not in its individual buildings and churches,
as is the case with many cities, but rather in the pervasive Baroque detailing
of its courtyards, balconies, grand foyers, and staircases. To be sure,
there is the dominating neoclassical dome of the church of La Gran Madre
DI Dio — so like the Parthenon — on the eastern side of the
PO, across from Piazza Vittorio Veneto, the largest plaza in all of Italy.
There is the ornate splendor of the Ponte Umberto I arching over the PO
and of the nearby Mole Antonelliana, a nineteenth-century building, topped
by a needle-like tower, that was once to have been a synagogue but is
now an exhibition hall. Yet these are mere adornments to Turin's overall
The city is perhaps best savored by walking through its colonnades — along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II,
for instance, where you will happen upon Maria Cecilia Serafino's flower shop, "fondata nel 1800,"
according to the sign. Practically a horticultural museum, the shop is filled with flowers, budding trees, and
shelf upon shelf of those miniature trees the Japanese call bonsai. Farther along the corso is the Caffe
Platti, where, it is said, the older women of Turin meet for tea. But they are also seen along the colonnades
of the Via Roma, the street to which many Torinese come to shop, eat gelati, and look at each other's
Ferragamos and Armanis over their espresso cups.
In such public passages the people of Turin have idled, supped, intellectualized, and plotted. Over the years
these arcades have changed little; they still house nearly all of the city's bookshops, many of its restaurants,
most of its caffe. They are places in which to savor pasticceria and history.
At the meeting point of two of Turin's most striking porticoed streets, the
Via Po and Via Pietro Mica, lies the heart of the city: Piazza Castello.
In this huge square you will find imposing reminders of the reign of the
Savoys. Beyond a set of iron gates stands the Palazzo Reale, the building
of which was begun in 1645 at the order of Duchess Marie Christine of
France, then Turin's regent. The principal residence of the princes of
Savoy from 1646 to 1865, it was continuously added to and altered, ultimately
rendering it a monument to two centuries of Baroque design. Its exterior
is an unadorned pattern of framed windows set into a face of ochre stucco.
Within, however, is a treasury of ceiling frescoes, gilded furniture,
great sweeps of thick velvets and golden ornaments around the doors and
windows, enormous collections of Asian and European porcelains, Gobelin
and Piedmontese tapestries, and endless lengths of marble walls and stairways,
including the beautifully angled stairs of Filippo Juvarra, which were
added in 1720.
Set against the palazzo's western wing is the cathedral of San Giovanni, with its small Chapel of the Holy
Shroud, another Guarini creation. It contains a relic revered throughout much of the Christian world, the
Holy Shroud of Turin, a length of cloth in which the body of Christ is said to have been wrapped after he
was removed from the cross; the cloth is believed by some to be marked with Christ's image, though recent
tests have dated it to the Middle Ages. The shroud rests in a silver casket, within an iron box, enclosed in a
marble case, and is rarely displayed.
Walk around the outside of the cathedral and the adjoining Palazzo Chiablese,
which is home to the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, and you come again into
Piazza Castello. At its center looms the imposing Palazzo Madama, an odd
architectural olio, the earliest part of which was a thirteenth-century
castle that incorporated towers from one of the city's Roman gates; late
in the eighteenth century, a Baroque facade, designed by Juvarra, was
affixed to one side of it. Today the Palazzo Madama is occupied by the
Museo Civico DI Arte Antica (the Civic Museum of Ancient Art), some of
the more important holdings of which are copies of the Book of Hours of
the Duc de Berry, illustrated by Jan Van Eyck. (Although they are not
on public display, they can be seen by appointment in a room in one of
the medieval towers.)
An L-shaped colonnade skirts the northern and eastern edges of
Piazza Castello. Behind that colonnade are the Armeria Reale (the Royal
Armory) of the House of Savoy and the Teatro Regio — Turin's opera
house — as well as what may be the two most beautiful of the city's
ancient caffes, BARATTI & MILANO and MULASSANO. The latter is a jewel.
Behind its wood, bronze, and marble front is a small room with only five
tables, all of beige marble. Its bar of red and brown-mottled marble is
framed by polished mahogany and ornamented with a gracefully curving bas
relief of grape bunches and leaves. More than a century and a half old,
Mulassano was the caffˇ patronized by Savoyard royalty and the stars of
the Teatro Regio. It has two other claims to fame: The first toast in
Italy was served there, and one of its cooks invented the Turinese sandwich
called the tramezzino, crustless bread rolled around fillings of artichokes
and mushrooms, tuna, or roasted peppers.
Baratti & Milano, opened in 1875, is a good deal larger and almost as lovely. Old leather-backed chairs and
etched Venetian mirrors fill its mahogany-paneled rooms, which are floored in marble tiles, some arranged
as checkerboards, others laid out in expanses of green and yellow. Cases holding candies, liqueurs, and
wines are made of elaborately carved woods, and into the polished wooden walls are set painted glass
panels that read "Beaujolais," "Saint-Julien," "Malaga," "Madera," "Chateau Lafitte," and "Grande
The simple act of drinking a coffee is transformed by these settings into a grand occasion, one we observed
several times during our stay in Turin.
When we were not walking through Turin's covered arcades, we found ourselves
either on avenues lined with old, thick-trunked chestnut and maple trees
or on paths winding through the city's many gardens and parks, including
the long stretches of green that flank the PO On its left, or west bank,
is the vast and rambling Parco del Valentino, where we spent one warm,
sunny afternoon visiting the rose garden, walking among its fountains
and mingling with schoolchildren as they jumped rope, played tag, and
kicked soccer balls in the squares of the Castello e Borgo Mediovale.
This is a replica of a medieval castle and village, a microcosm — complete with battlements, porticoes,
balconies, and gates — of all that might have been found in a typical Piedmontese town of the day. Built for
an exhibition in 1884, it has aged and weathered over the years until today it appears to be truly of the
A few steps away, past the moored flotillas of PO River pleasure boats, we
came upon the seventeenth-century Castello del Valentino, another of the
royal residences of the Savoys. It is, quite simply, a transplanted grand
French chateau, though today it houses the University of Turin's school
Earlier that day we had ventured farther south on the left bank to the
Museo dell 'Automobile Carlo Biscaretti DI Ruffia, on the Corso Unita
d'Italia. A virtual history of the motorcar under one roof, it was named
after the designer and painter whose collection of old motorcars formed
the nucleus of the museum when it was founded in 1933. (These days it
is heavily supported by the Agnelli family, the owners of Fiat).
In the museum's modern quarters are displayed original models of cars,
impressively preserved and restored, ranging from an 1854 steam-powered
landau by Carozza DI Bordini to a prototype Italdesign Lancia that is
not yet in production. And there are Fords — a Model A and a Model T; Mercedes-Benzes of the 1890's; Opels and Italas from the first decade
of the twentieth century; great open roadsters by Isotta-Fraschini and
Hispano-Suiza from the 1920's and 1930's; and Grand Prix racers by Bugatti,
Maserati, and Ferrari. Wander about and fantasize that you are Juan Manuel
Fangio or Wilbur Shaw, passing a checkered flag with only one lap to go.
I tried but kept seeing myself in my old Oldsmobile.
Zenetti defined the cooking of Turin as "royal cooking," the cooking mainly of France, that was brought to
Italy by the Savoys. He served us some of his preparations on pottery dishes dating from 1856. "These
belonged to a marchese," he told us as we ate his wonderfully scented arctic char in a sweet-and-sour sauce
based on Muscat wine. I told him the fish was absolutely grand, and he smiled knowingly.
On one of our last days in Turin, I went to the workshop of the Lenci dollmakers, on Via San Marino. In
the early part of this century, Lenci revolutionized the art of dollmaking. Until then, all fine dolls had been
fashioned with faces of porcelain, ceramic, or bisque, but in 1919, when Elena Scavini, a dolls' head
sculptor, founded Lenci, she devised a method of producing dolls' heads that made it possible to give them
unusual, even quite human expressions. She made the heads of felt; padded them; and then pressed them,
wet, into molds, and allowed them to harden. Her molds produced faces that smiled, pouted, were angry,
laughed, and flirted, and the felt, carefully painted, imparted to the faces, a texture resembling that of skin.
In 1929 Lenci was bought by Pilade Garella and his brother Flavio, and the company began to produce
dolls in limited, numbered editions, which collectors began to buy avidly. Today Pilade's son, Beppe,
operates Lenci with his daughter, but Lenci dolls continue to be made much as they were in the twenties —
one at a time, each hair individually inserted into the heads, each shoe made to size, each item of clothing
hand-sewn by a group of women who sew for Lenci at home.
Lenci dolls have names and personalities. Adriana pouts as she rolls a hoop, and Scolaretta's eyes widen in
fright. Paola seems angry that she is to be wedded to Lazzaro, who dares not look too happy about it either.
Brunilde is clearly sad, and Lavinia preens in her new flowered dress. These dolls, which sell for seven
hundred to a thousand dollars, often cost quite a bit more when collectors place them in European and
American auctions. In fact, theyāve sold for as much as ten thousand dollars at auction, Beppe Garella said,
as we walked from room to room in his workshop, watching eyes being painted, tiny dresses being ironed,
and shoed being soled.
Later that day we traveled into the hills that rise up to form Turin's
eastern rim. We drove through the huge open space of Piazza Vittorio Veneto,
over the PO, past La Gran Madre DI Dio, and up a spiraling road to Monte
dei Cappuccini, a promontory from which much of Turin can be seen. We
stopped, looked, enjoyed the breadth of the city, then went even farther
up to a broad plateau called Superga. From this vantage point one can
see all of Turin below and the Alps beyond, to the north. It's a vista
not easily forgotten.
On the plateau towers the Baroque Basilica DI Superga, Juvarra's masterpiece,
built between 1717 and 1731 by Vittorio Amedeo II. Its enormous octagonal
altar is filled with statuary and splashes of gold leaf surrounding a
carving of the Virgin Mary; eight gray marble columns support the base
of its huge dome. Below, the basilica is the mausoleum of the rulers of
the House of Savoy, from Vittorio Amedeo II to Carlo Alberto. Together,
the basilica and mausoleum are regarded by many Torinese as the prime
moral and historical symbols of their city.
We remained up in the hills for our dinner that evening, and a
dinner of the Turinese hills it was. We ate at the RISTORANTE CAFASSO,
which is owned by its chef, Mario Albano, a huge and happy man. He cooks,
he says, "the food of the Turin countryside," which includes slices of
cotto, or cooked, salame; lardo, cured side of pork; cotechini, fresh
pork sausages; and toma piccante, aged cows' milk cheese. All are made
for Albano by his father, who lives even farther off into the hills.
Albano served us a boillito misto in such quantities that it was daunting,
and friciulin, a Piedmontese dish of beaten eggs mixed with sage and bread
crumbs and fried. To drink with "my food and the food of my father," Albano
poured for us a red vino freisa secco, a dry, sparkling wine, also a product
of his father's skills. At the conclusion of the meal, he brought out
several "grappe DI mio zio prete," or "grapas of my uncle, the priest,"
which were quite strong, having been made from juniper leaves, fermented
molasses, and the residue from pressed Barbera grapes. Their fire was
It was quiet that evening in the hills of Turin. As the sun went down, the color of the city's orange roof tiles
softened, and the Alps turned a dusty blue, the snow on their tops more gray than white. I picked out the
roofs and the domes that I recognized, enjoying the memories that went with each. At that moment, for
some reason, I remembered what a Torinese had told me several days earlier. Guiseppe Verdi, he said, had
been a senator in Turin. How pleasant that must have been, I thought, for a city.
Turin Palace Hotel
Via Sacchi, 8
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