Places: a Turin trinity

Turin

Like Christ, I went to the gates of Hell at Easter.

Afterwards I descended into madness before I was vouchsafed a glimpse of the afterlife through one of Europe’s most visionary interiors.

The setting for these wonders, I should point out, was the Italian city of Turin.

“Turin is one of the most beautiful and ancient cities in Europe,” claimed Friedrich Leopold Graf zu Stolberg-Stolberg in the late 18th century. “Fable derives its origin from a pretended Phetontes, brother of the Egyptian god Osiris, who is said to have lived fifteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, and to have founded this place.” The location, the legend further claims, was chosen for the River Po’s resemblance to the Nile. In fact the city was established by the Romans in the late 1st century BC, during the life of the city’s patron, John the Baptist.

Turin Royal Palace

Once home to royalty both actual and industrial (Savoys and Agnellis, respectively), it boasts a vivid café culture, even by northern Italian standards. It is probably no coincidence that it has also long been the country’s intellectual and literary powerhouse. Turin was home at one time or other to Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Cesare Pavesi, Antonio Gramsci and the recently departed Umberto Eco, and along with Milan it was one of the centres of the Scapigliatura movement, whose writers bridged bohemian revelry and Decadent reverie. It was also the site of the Countess de Castiglione‘s early intrigues and its numerous kilometres of arcaded walkways, with their constant play of light and shade, provided the inspiration for Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical cityscapes.

Turin arcade

Turin is indeed a beautiful sight in Easter sunlight of an intensity I am entirely unused to at this time of year on my side of the Alps. Yet it is bafflingly devoid of tourists. The ancient structures that dominate cities further down the boot are also largely absent, so too Vespas, labyrinthine streets and weathered facades punctuated by shrines to the Madonna. Turin’s relentlessly elegant grid radiates serenity with an admixture of the uncanny, no more so than when a long street draws the eye to the snow-capped mountains beyond. Its buildings may toy with Art Nouveau, Venetian Gothic and vaguely Moorish styles, but never at the expense of the ensemble – with one major exception, which we will encounter later.

Piazza Statuto

Turin Piazza Statuto 2

Inspired by the city’s symmetry, the three stations of this stroll through Turin’s centre form a (more or less) straight line. It starts at Piazza Statuto where an ellipse of water frames a curious monument. I step out from the arcade to get a closer look; this is the ideal location for contemplating the light and shade of Turin’s esoteric side. The story goes something like this: there is a triangle of white magic that is said to connect Prague, Lyon and Turin. And there is a triangle of black magic that connects London, San Francisco and – yes – Turin. This auspicious conjunction means the city is of great interest to occultists.

Turin’s point of the black triangle (that’s the one you want to know about, right?) lands on Piazza Statuto. Once the site of the city’s gallows, the monument which now stands there commemorates workers who died building the Frejus tunnel between Italy and France. It’s a writhing heap of celestial and demonic figures whose uppermost angel once sported a five-pointed star, but this symbolically charged finial has evidently been removed by some limber diabolist.

Because this spot, according to occult lore, marks no less than an entranceway to Hell.

The old men enjoying the sun on a park bench seem admirably untroubled by their proximity to the abode of everlasting torment. Listening closely at the manhole covers set before the monument I couldn’t make out the anguished cries of the damned, unless Satan had transformed them into the sound of trams and birdsong (dark prince, is there no end to your wiles?). Christ, we are told, descended to the portals of the underworld between the Crucifixion and Resurrection, yet bound in his burial shroud: the Harrowing of Hell. So did those feet in ancient time walk upon Piazza Statuto’s green and pleasant lawn? Did His eyes fall upon that magnolia tree just coming into bloom? On balance, probably not. And in all likelihood I am looking at little more than a morbid monument with a drain beneath my feet. But faith has worked with less – Turin’s most famous artefact is doubtless a mere bed sheet daubed in chicken blood by some enterprising medieval monk. Incidentally, the cathedral where the Shroud of Turin is shielded from the avid eyes of the faithful – or, more likely, the faithless – is the point of the white triangle.

Turin Piazza Statuto 3

Mind swirling with metaphysical mysteries, I set off on the long, pedestrianised Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, pausing to inspect the pastel Easter eggs and other decorative novelties in the window of “Paradiso delle Sorprese”, reflecting ruefully that when the time comes, the gates of Heaven better not part to reveal a discount gift store. I am accompanied by a seasonal earworm, “Caddi è ver”, Lucifer’s aria from Handel’s early oratorio La Resurezzione. Caddi, è ver – “I fell, ’tis true”…the four descending notes recreate the angel’s fall from Heaven. The oratorio’s surprisingly cheerful squabble between good and evil, represented by angels fallen and aloft, seems appropriate for this sunny Easter. The lusty, vibrant work is that of a young man, his life before him, racing ahead to the Resurrection rather than the Passion and the sufferings of the saints that would occupy Handel in later life. “I fell, ’tis true, but in falling/I lost neither strength nor courage…Though he threw me from the spheres/God was then the stronger,/now, as a man, He has succumbed/to my hate by dying.”

Via Carlo Alberto

I arrive at Piazza Carignano, dominated by the curving, red-brick facade of the Palazzo Carignano. It is crowned by a verdigris cartouche announcing it as the birthplace of Vittorio Emmanuele II, the first king of the united Italy. It also housed the country’s first parliament. But it is not earthly powers that are of interest here, but the treacherous powers of the mind.

Turin Palazzo Carignano

Turning a corner I arrive at a five-story apartment building. For several months in the late 1880s a second-storey apartment here was home to Friedrich Nietzsche. Tormented by migraines and intestinal complaints, the philosopher had been travelling around Europe for years in search of relief. Determined to settle somewhere in Italy, he conducted a complex comparative study of its major cities and determined that Turin offered the optimal climate for his requirements, and duly arrived in April 1888. And there, for a while, he found a sympathetic environment, his early letters from the city revealing a lightness of spirit that had long been absent from the philosopher’s life.

It was not to last.

Ecce Homo (“behold the man”) – the contemptuous phrase uttered by Pontius Pilate at the trial of Christ – was the title of the work preoccupying Nietzsche during his stay in Turin. The unfinished, posthumously published book takes the form of a feverish victory lap, a review of his career to date offering ample evidence of the syphillis-induced mental disturbance that would soon engulf him entirely. His letters to associates became increasingly bizarre, and he took to signing them “Dionysos”. On 3 January 1889 he wrote to Cosima Wagner as der Gekreuzigte (the crucified one).

Turin Nietzsche Via Carlo Alberto

That same day Nietzsche left his apartment and took a short walk – varying accounts have him going in three different directions, either to Piazza Carlo Alberto, where we now stand, Piazza Carignano, which we just left, or Via Po. In any case, he didn’t get far before he witnessed a carriage horse being whipped into compliance by its master, whereupon the distressed philosopher fell weeping around the animal’s neck. This scene attracted the attention of startled passers-by and eventually the police. It was a pitiful tableau which signalled the definitive descent into madness in which he remained immured until his death more than a decade later.

Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s 2011 The Turin Horse deals tangentially, allusively with these events. Although I caught the premiere in Berlin I recall little of the movie but its desolation (remorseless) and length (endless). One interpretation of Nietzsche’s collapse emphasises his radical empathy with the beleaguered workhorse; the film, in turn, seems to show people living the lives of beasts, its days counting down to darkness like Creation in reverse.

Casa Mollino

Hastening to a midday rendezvous I pass the great lumbering bulk of the Mole Antonelliana. Nietzsche called it “perhaps the most brilliant structure ever built”, privately christening the then unnamed building “Ecce Homo”. Originally conceived as a synagogue but now serving as a museum of cinema, it’s a steroidal breakdown of a building, its gargantuan bulk a fever dream of half-remembered architectural history. It eyes the proportion, harmony and restraint that characterise the rest of Turin’s centre and says, “you know what, screw this”.

I arrive at the river Po, the Piedmontese stand-in for the Nile. The dense grid of central Turin is at my back; across the river the development thins out abruptly as the land rises. To my left is a strikingly elegant rectangular building, a kind of mansarded pavilion with two main storeys presenting its long sides to the river and a busy street. Between 1960 and 1973 the first floor of this building was inhabited by Carlo Mollino, one of the greatest designers of the 20th century (well, kind of inhabited…it’s more complicated than that, as we will shortly find).

Turin Casa Mollino 4

I am here to meet the apartment’s present owner Fulvio Ferrari who, along with his son Napoleone, meticulously curates Mollino’s legacy. Needlessly apologising for his English, he generously forgoes two hours of a sunny Easter afternoon to show me around a dwelling I have long admired in pictures. Although I took my own photos, Signor Ferrari asked that I not post them, and the least I could do is honour that request. In any case you can find far better images than I managed with my phone (here, for instance).

We start in the lounge area, where classical boiserie in grey and gilt frames a miniature fireplace, flanked on either side by a blown-up etching of trees. Two crimson silk arm chairs and a cracked leather sofa are arrayed around a wide brass coffee table which holds a wealth of printed Molliniana, much of it produced by the Ferraris. As we look through books covering Mollino’s career, a picture emerges of a restless mind which approached subjects serially with an ingenuity and intensity to forestall any accusation of dilettantism. The son of a wealthy engineer, Mollino had the freedom and talent to not only explore his passions, but to transform them. Skiing, motor racing, aeronautics, furniture design or Turin’s Teatro Regio – Mollino re-made them all in his own image. Photography was another of Mollino’s great interests; his 1949 book Message from the Darkroom was a highly insightful study of the form at a time when its status as an artistic medium was far from secure. Looking through it we alight on La Castiglione, who provides a clue to Mollino’s own private image making.

Turin Casa Mollino 3

To explore this apartment is to delve deep into the mind of Carlo Mollino. It is a journey that requires a greater suspension of rational belief than is customary when examining a Modernist designer. Mollino took the 20th century design credo of “form follows function” as conditional; while he was as averse to the purely ornamental as any Bauhaus purist, his forms have either a functional or symbolic value. We may look at his sublime apartment and see a postmodern interior twenty years ahead of time, but Mollino was not aiming at a mere modish collapse of epochs. Here nothing is accidental, every single element has a purpose, a meaning, all reflective of an intensely personalised cosmography.

Certainly the enviable location, with its sweeping riverside views, was not chosen at random. That Nile/Po connection is key; for while Mollino never actually lived in the apartment, he kept it as a repository for the things he hoped to have about him in the afterlife, much like a pharaoh. He wasn’t planning an eternity alone, as the posthumous discovery of hundreds of polaroids indicates. The nude models they depict, the theory goes, are the female complement to the designer himself. Unlike, say, Pierre Molinier‘s exploration of the feminine ideal, it is not even clear if Mollino’s intention was primarily erotic. He was meticulous about their production, retouching them to achieve the perfection of form he required, and like Castiglione, he determined everything in the image – the pose, the costumes, the setting. But while the countess aimed to record the stages of her life, Camillo was already looking beyond, recruiting an army of female warriors to accompany his transition to eternity.

Finally we arrive in a sleeping chamber where Mollino never slept. Its bed, made up in green silk, alludes to the boats the ancient Egyptians believed would ferry them to the afterlife. Above the bed a print of clouds and a light fixture – the final ellipse, the symbol of rebirth.

Did Mollino actually believe that this first floor apartment was a portal to the next life? Do Satanists really believe that their demonic overlord dwells beneath Piazza Statuto? Do Catholics believe that the Shroud of Turin really did enrobe the Messiah? Did Nietzsche think he could bring succour to a weary nag? And does it matter? In each case, the physical is the mere representation of the ideal.

Heedless of our contemplations, the trees on the far side of the Po are just beginning to green.

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8 comments

  1. I can’t remember if I’ve said this before, but your posts are one of the few things that can make me smile first thing in the morning. Your extraordinary insights, vivid descriptions and witty asides make me feel like the luckiest of armchair tourists, getting a fascinating perspective on history I would have never known about otherwise.

    At the mention of San Francisco–three hours west of where I live in the Sierra foothills–I immediately thought, “Ooh, I must go to that spot!” Then I realized that it wasn’t actually a sort of mystical TARDIS that would transport me to Turin or London (the only place in the world I’ve ever felt completely at home and miss terribly). But if you would like photos of that particular location, let me know. There are any number of potential entrances to hell in SF, nearly all of them in the Tenderloin neighborhood.

    Recently alighting on a post about Luisa Casati at Tumblr, my instant internal reaction was, “My GIRL!” so I started thinking about who else elicits that reaction, and thus far I’ve come up with Annemarie Schwarzenbach, the drag queen Raja Gemini from RuPaul’s Drag Race, and La Castiglione. Is it any wonder that this is my favorite blog?!

    • My sincere thanks! But it’s funny, when I read about London being a centre of black magic I thought – yep, that seems about right. And I’ve never been to San Francisco, but it is where the Church of Satan started in 1966 (golden jubilee coming up!). But ultimately Turin – London – San Francisco sounds like a really crappy long-haul connection. Now that’s a special kind of hell.

  2. Marc Ellis

    Thank you for this entrancing article. I have been captivated by Turin for almost 20 years and have spent weeks walking its streets in silent amazement at everything about the city but I rarely encounter anyone who does not live there who sees it as it is. Your experience not only mirrored my delight but enhanced my understanding of the place and conceptualised much of what I found inexpressible. I had no idea that Mollino lived in that building and your account of his portal to the afterlife is captivating. Strange as it may seem it makes perfect sense to me that he should want to create a perfect, ideal apartment, not to be lived on but to be held as an ideal. That he attributed further metaphysical functions to his ideal just makes the whole thing even better. I deeply appreciate and admire your blog, and this article in particular.

    • And thank you for your kind words. It’s great to hear from someone with extensive experience of the city rather than my own fleeting encounter. I can see how it could be addictive, though – I’d love to go back.

  3. Pingback: More Mollino | Strange Flowers

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