n an attempt to spread our travel net ever further afield, we grabbed our camera and boarded a three-hour train to Torino, the first capital of unified Italy and home to its once Royal family, the House of Savoy. This city has been given two strikingly dissimilar mottos: “the Detroit of Italy” and “little Paris.” While car manufacture is one of its most important industries, I think you’ll agree from the photos below that the French influence dominates in this mini Paris on the Po.
The Duchy of Savoy was moved from Chambéry, France to Turin in 1563. In the 19th century the family was heavily involved in the wars for Italian Independence and by 1861, their home city of Turin had been crowned the first capital of unified Kingdom of Italy. It remained so until 1865 when Florence temporarily assumed the honor before ultimately handing the title over to Rome in 1870. The House of Savoy is responsible for the famous early monarchs whose names now grace some of the most important streets of Italy, such as the great Vittorio Emanuele II (whose massive tomb can be found in the pantheon in Rome). The Royal family of Savoy ruled the Kingdom of Italy from 1861 until the end of WWII when, in 1946, Italy officially became a republic.
Much of the most significant building in Turin took place between the 16th and 18th centuries, making it a center of Baroque, Rococo, Neo-classical, and Art Nouveau architecture in Italy. The palace of the House of Savoy still dominates the main center of town, Piazza Castello, along with its gardens and private chapel, the breathtaking Church of San Lorenzo (see below). Within the palace today are several museums, including the Royal Armory, amongst one of the most significant collections in Europe. Along with their art and arms, the Duchy of Savoy brought to Turin one of the most significant religious artifacts in the world: the shroud of Turin. Only made visible on very special occasions (and usually spread out between periods of about 25 years), this cloth is believed to be the shroud used to wrap Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. A copy in the Church of San Lorenzo and the chapel in the Duomo where the shroud is kept are both open to the public. While controversial, the shroud, which was brought with House of Savoy in the 16th century, is now part of the history of the city.
One of the most visible and famous architectural landmarks in the city is a soaring 167.5-meter tall steeple that, surprisingly, does not belong to a church. The Mole Antonelliana, known just as “The Mole,” and named for the architect that designed and built it, was originally intended to be a synagogue. However, after costs to build the structure almost tripled, the Jewish community of Torino pulled out from the project and the city took over and saw its completion. It is dedicated to none other than Vittorio Emanuele II and now houses the impressive National Museum of Cinema. In addition, an (for some, frightening) elevator ride through the Mole’s dome wins you an 85-meter high vista with a gorgeous view (as long as there’s no fog) of the Aps that surround the city.
Today, along with Milan and Genoa, Turin is one of the three main industrial cities in Italy. Most notably, FIAT automobiles are made here (Psst, the “T” stands for “Torino”). However, the city itself is anything but industrial in appearance. Found in the Piedmont region, Turin is just an hour drive from the French border. Dramatically encircled by the Alps, crisscrossed by the Po River and its striking boulevards, and dotted with its many church steeples, Turin is indeed a “little Paris.”
Like Paris, one of the beloved Torino past times includes lounging in luxurious Parisian-style cafés where you can enjoy coffee, tea, their famous chocolate, or, better yet, a bicerin. This famous, truly “Turinian” beverage takes two great things, coffee and hot chocolate and puts them together. When I tried my first, it was at this moment that I knew Turin was a city I could easily call home.
The drink is served all day, but for breakfast enjoy it with a croissant filled with panna (whipped cream) or gianduia, another Turin specialty (chocolate and hazelnut paste). The drink comes with sugar but there is no need; hot coffee and chocolate at the bottom and panna on the top will pretty much do anyone in. The waitress will happily explain how it should be enjoyed if you ask, but the simple rule is don’t mix! The point of the bicerin is to relish the combination of the hot coffee and chocolate and cold panna on top.
One of the most striking buildings is the Royal Church is San Lawrence. Located on the main courtyard of the Palazzo Reale, San Larenzo was built on what was originally the private ducal chapel (part of which now forms its entrance). The church was built in honor of an important battle won by the reigning duke, Emanuele Filiberto on Saint Lawrence’s feast day (hence the commemoration). Designed by Theatine priest and Mathematician, Guarino Guarini, construction began in 1668 and continued until 1687. No façade was ever added and from the outside the only visible identifying architectural feature is the large looming dome above. From inside this same dome is the crowning glory of the centralized baroque church.
Below the dome, the architect’s engineering genius continues. Above each of the four corner radiating chapels is a surmounting dome that is basically hollow and whose skin has been pierced to create two circular openings, one above and one below. On most days these openings look onto darkness, however, on two days of the year when the sun shines into the main dome at a particular angle, its light enters through the upper opening and illuminates the hidden painted fresco within. In the above image we are looking up into one of these four hidden paintings, illuminated by a flashlight rather than sunlight. This is only the beginning of this building’s wonderful secrets, what the Opera describes as “make[ing] manifest the miracle of divine logic through the human technical ‘miracle’.”
A Guarini dome, such as the one in his Church of S. Lorenzo in Turin, becomes a luminous cage of slender intersecting ribs over which floats the light-filled space of the lantern visible through the complex rib network; the base of the dome is a circle, and the base of the buoyant lantern is formed by eight semicircular lobes, each framed by a pair of splayed ribs. This extraordinary configuration of space, light, and mass has been described by a Guarini scholar as ‘a great work of hallucinatory engineering.’A Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman
Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism
Turin, the Quick List
• Mole Antionelle
• Palazzo Reale and Palazzo Madama
• Church of San Lorenzo
• Turin Cathedral
• Church of Santa Maria della Consolazione
• Cathedral of Superga
Museums Worth a Visit:
• Egyptian museum
• The Palace museum and Armory
• Cinema Museum
• Galleria Sabauda
To Eat & Drink
• Bicerin (ideally at the place that invented them)
• Agnolotti — A Turino ravioli made with meat and served in a gravy sauce
• Gorgonzola — The most famous Piemontese dairy product (ideally over gnocchi).
• Fritto misto – This is not your normal veggie or fish fritto misto, ours came with salty items like meat and cauliflower right next to deep fried apples and chocolate and amaretti.
• Gianduiotto — the famous chocolate sold all over Italy that hails from Torino.
Of General Interest:
• Home of the Shroud of Turin