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Turin - Architecture and Art, Chocolate and Caffes

Anne Robichaud

The oxymoron "simple elegance" keynoted our recent 3-day Turin stay: from our exquisite loft apartment to the elegant caffé interiors to the regal architecture of this royal city destined by the Savoys in the 16th century to represent absolute power.

Architecture and Art

The models of elegant and noble uniformity preferred by the Savoys canceled most of the Roman, medieval and Renaissance testimonies of Turin; however, the Roman entrance to the city, Porta Palatina, still stands with statues of Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar flanking it like sentinels. Recent excavations have uncovered Roman theater remains under the site of the Museo dell'Antichità.

Not far away, the majestic Palazzo Madama - modeled on Versailles and deliberately facing France - commands Piazza Castello and is the scenographic heart of the city. The eighteenth-century architect, Juvarra, transformed the former castello (a castle had been built on this site in 1400) into one of the most grandiose of European royal residences, modeled on the architectural styles preferred by the French royal family and nobility.

In the nearby 18th-century royal apartments of the Palazzo Reale, massive crystal chandeliers hang from frescoed and stuccoed ceilings, illuminating the gilded carvings framing doors and windows, the superb Chinese lacquer work, the velvet draperies and wood inlay floors. The magnificent interior of the nearby Biblioteca Reale (Royal Library) houses treasures worthy of the setting, including 4,000 illuminated manuscripts and drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Even the access to the Royal Armory exudes finery and elegance: a polychromatic marble staircase winds upwards beneath an elaborate stuccoed ceiling.

Former Castle, the Palazzo Madama

The majestic Palazzo Madama

The Turin churches explode in Baroque elegance: from the complex Guarino Guarini cupola of the 17th-century Church of San Lorenzo to the rotund grandiosity of the early 19th-century "Grande Madre", Turin's largest church and built to celebrate the Savoy reign. Elegant, too, is the palazzo in which the documents were signed giving birth to FIAT at the end of the 19th century.

Nighttime view of Baroque cupola

Nighttime view of Baroque cupola

Renzo Piano, famed contemporary architect, has turned the Lingotto - or former FIAT factory (which brought industry to Turin in the 19th century) - into a showplace of modern elegance. The Lingotto now houses fine boutiques, a cinema, a vast interior garden and the Giovanni and Marella Agnelli Foundation art museum where we enjoyed the Agnelli collection of Picasso, Renoir, Matisse and Modigliani masterpieces. The Gallery is currently hosting a fine exhibit of contemporary African art which even includes a FIAT 500 painted in exhuberant colors in an almost cubist style.

Fiat as Art at the Lingotto

Fiat as Art at the former FIAT factory

Turin architectural elegance moved to the surrounding countryside in the 17th century when the ruling nobility aspired for "ville delle delizie" (literally, "villas of delights"), modeled on French royal villas. The Faculty of Architecture of the Università di Torino must have the most luxurious seat of any architectural school anywhere: it is housed in the Castello di Valentino, seventeenth century "place of delights" on the Po River built during the reign of Maria Cristina of France (who brought her French tastes to the Turin courts). The classicism of the French court architecture explodes here in scenographic opulence. Students' concentration must be sorely tried as they gaze at the stuccoed and frescoed exhuberance of the Baroque ceilings above them!

Castello di Valentino

Castello di Valentino

Even the December light displays overhanging the porticoed streets highlight Turin elegance. Often using simple re-cycled materials to create luminary wonders, world-renowned artists bring contemporary creativity to the streets. The competition "Luci d'Artista" (November to January annually) transforms Turin into an open-air contemporary art museum as palaces, monuments, and porticoed streets are transformed in a play of colors and lights.

Luci d'Artista competition

Luci d'Artista Competition

The light displays highlight buildings such as the famous "Mole", a 19th-century spired structure, once destined to be a synagogue and now housing the world-famous Museo del Cinema. (After all, Italian cinema was born in Turin: the Lumière brothers made some of their first films here). During the "Luci d'Artisti" competition, lights illuminate the Turin pavements in geometric patterns and stretch out along sections of the over 18 kilometers of elegant Baroque porticoes which crisscross the urban fabric.

The Mole

A 19th-century spired structure, The Mole

Any stroll through the streets of Turin takes one under these elegant porticoes; although constructed over a period of two hundred years, they seem to be contiguous. The architects built them of uniform height so that they would run into one another, constructed deliberately to lace together the urban fabric while offering shelter from the harsh winter weather of the North.

Caffes and Chocolate

Under the porticoes, elegant wood-carved entrances open to late 18th- and early 19th-century caffes adorned with stunning interiors of wood inlay, marble and gilded opulence: Caffe al Bicerin (1763), Caffe Torino (early 19th century) and Caffe San Carlo (1828 - the first Turin caffe to install gas illumination, to enhance the stucco ceiling decorations).

In the original Caffe Mulassano, the victorious Garibaldi and King Vittorio raised a toast of pacification and, in fact, Turin would soon become the first capital of the newly-formed republic of Italy. The Caffe's present locale - opened in 1907 - is an art deco showplace, from the inlaid wooden and leather ceiling to the marble floors. Royalty, industrial magnates, and the theater crowds have intermingled here for over a century; and since 1925, guests have chatted at porticoed outdoor tables over tramezzini (Italian interpretation of an arrival from America: the sandwich) at the outdoor tables.

Scholars, artists and the nobility gathered at Caffe Fiorio (1783), famous for its gelato and gianduia chocolate and the Juventus soccer team was born in conversations over caffe at Caffe Platti (1875), frequented by in intellectuals, statesmen and FIAT (and Juventus) founder, Gianni Agnelli. The stucco decorations, splendid mirrors and marbles of Confetteria Baratti & Milano (1875 ) enchanted King Vittorio II and Prince Amedeo who bestowed on it their own Savoy crest, now proudly evident.

Caffe Baratti & Milano

Confetteria Baratti & Milano

Turin students gather at the Caffeteria Universita to taste the famous bicerin of barman Antonio. A heavenly mixture of espresso coffee, dark chocolate and cream, a comparative tastings of the bicerin of Turin's top caffes can stand on its own as the reason to visit Turin.

Our guide, Laura, told us that milk chocolate was born in Turin at the end of the 18th century when Princess Maria Giovanna decided to entertain her lady friends with a new drink: cacao mixed with milk and sugar. Legend perhaps. But certainly the gianduia chocolate - that wonderful mixture of pulverized hazelnut with chocolate, shaped like the hat of Gianduia, beloved Commedia dell'Arte personage - is torinese. The profusion of chocolate pyramids on marble counters in shop windows catch the eye and slow up any walk around Turin!

And the torinesi will proudly tell you that not just chocolate but also the true evening aperitivo was born in Turin, as well. The custom of a pre-dinner prosecco, or glass of wine, accompanied with countless selections of hot and cold "nibbles" (that lead to a dinner if the "nibbles" become serious) is certainly most civil wherever it originated! And an evening aperitivo with the torinesi is not to be missed.

An aperitivo at Cafe Roberto

An aperitivo at Caffe Roberto

Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2008. Do not republish without permission.

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