Wednesday, February 8, 2006
"Turin possessed certain qualities that attracted me ... absence of romantic froth, reliance above all on one's own work, an innate diffidence and reserve ... a pleasure in living that was tempered with irony, and a rational, clarifying intelligence."
-- from "Stranger in Turin," by Italo Calvino
It has been Turin's fate -- curse? good fortune? -- to be depicted not by foreigners (who gravitate south) but by transplanted Italians (Calvino, Cesare Pavese) and native sons and daughters (Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg).
Calvino and Ginzburg eventually moved away, and Pavese and Levi committed suicide: Pavese in the Hotel Roma, which still stands not far from the Porta Nuova train station; Levi in the apartment house where he was born and where, except for the period at Auschwitz, he spent his entire life. The building at 75 Corso Re Umberto displays no plaque, though the dir--ectory next to the entrance still carries the name LEVI by the buzzer of his widow's apartment. The ground floor is now occupied by Tropical Solarium.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche settled for a time in Turin, writing his autobiography "Ecce Homo." One day he walked into the Via Po -- the street where, years later, Levi's father would stop "to caress all the cats, sniff at all the truffles, and leaf through all the secondhand books" -- and embraced a horse. It was the first indication of his descent into madness.
Turin has an elegiac air. (Here he goes, the visiting foreigner.) It's famous for a shroud, the cloth which, according to the Church, covered Christ after he was taken down from the cross. The miles of porticos give the city a hushed formality, a regimental cloak. Although there are many open, well-placed piazzas, most of them are rimmed by arcades. (On rainy days you can walk for blocks without opening your umbrella.) In the winter, a thick fog often descends on this architecture of introspection.
"Turin is the capital of understatement," Fabio told me one evening while we were having dinner at Tre Galli in the Quadrilatero Romano, the old section of the city. Just down the street, on the Piazza Filiberto, young people filled the outdoor cafes like young people the world over, drinking, smoking, reading text messages. (You can gauge the popularity of a neighborhood by the prevalence of cigarette butts stuck between the cobblestones.)
Fabio was a native, and perfectly at home with people who, he claimed, were unassuming, private, respectful of others' privacy. Earlier, a young man from Milan, here working for the Olympics, had told me how refreshing it was to live in a city not fixated on fashion. A woman born in southern Italy would remark to me later that "people speak very softly in Turin."
The city's signature building, a spired, four-sided dome that defines the skyline, is called the Mole (mass). Like naming the Empire State Building the Stick. (In the cinema museum inside, you can watch a scene from an old Italian film in which a man arriving in Turin gazes up at the great dome and declares to his family, "There it is -- the Milan cathedral!") The Egyptian Museum, mostly unsung, contains one of the finest collections outside Egypt. The Holy Shroud, a surefire tourist attraction, is put on view every 25 years. The small square in front of the main synagogue bears the name Piazzetta Primo Levi. Not even the city's most famous writer gets a piazza.
Juventus, famous around the world, beloved throughout Italy, is something of an afterthought for many Turinese, who give their hearts to Torino Calcio, the city's division B team. Not necessarily out of a love for the underdog.
In the middle of the last century, "Il Grande Toro" was a soccer powerhouse, finishing the 1947-48 season undefeated. A year later, on May 4, the team was returning from a friendly match in Lisbon when its plane crashed into the hill crowned by the Basilica di Superga. Everyone on board was killed. It was, you will hear, the day that time stopped in Turin.
"There is a memorial there now," Fabio said. "Every May 4, people walk from the city to the top of the hill to pay their respects."
Inside La Consolata church, a corridor oozed with ex-voto paintings. They covered the walls completely, framed miniatures of suffering rising up to the high ceiling. There were domestic tableaus -- morose families gathered around sick beds -- and action scenes of men tumbling off ladders and women knocked down by cars, all done in a colorful, naive, almost comic book style. Elena told me that people paid an artist to depict the illness or accident from which they had been miraculously saved. Even tucked away in a side hallway, the paintings exerted a force, not just as an impressive record of accumulated pain (and faith), but as an endearing counterpoint to most religious art. In a place -- in a country -- of ornate, priceless renderings of the divine, they spoke simply, imperfectly of the mundane.
Outside, we walked across the cobblestones to Al Bicerin, the ancient cafe of dark wood and red velvet. We sat at one of eight small, round, marble-topped tables (each holding a white candle). I passed on the house drink -- a secret concoction of coffee, melted chocolate and milk -- and drank a hot, velvety, sweet-challenged chocolate. In the next-door shop, we sampled gianduiotti, the famous hazelnut chocolates that are hand-pressed (so each has an individual, homemade look) into the shape that echoes the hat worn by Turin's character in the Commedia dell'arte.
Elena was born in southern Italy, the region that, after the war, provided much of the work force for Turin's factories. Although she had a more agreeable profession: scouting film locations. It gave her an intimate knowledge of the city.
"Turin is becoming an international city," Elena said. "It's the destiny of all cities. Though there are Turinese who resent it."
We returned to the car. "It's a stern city," she continued. "People are a little pessimistic, a little negative, a little tragic. But after a time, they discovered the value of the southern Italians. And now the same is happening with regard to the Moroccans. It just takes awhile."