Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: The Treasures of Turin

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: The Treasures of Turin

Article excerpt

To most non-Italians Turin spells Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Fiat). But this subalpine city has a longer history than the internal combustion engine. It may be twinned with Detroit, but its cavalcade of equestrian monuments testifies to an older sort of horsepower -- the sort harnessed by the condottieri of the House of Savoy to turn their little Duchy into a major player on the European stage and, for four brief years from 1861 to 1865, into the capital of the Kingdom of Italy.

So while Detroit has the Detroit Institute of Arts, Turin has 55,000 sqm of royal museums, currently undergoing unification into a single complex called the 'Polo Reale'. When the 3km circuit is completed in December, it will house the vast and rambling collections -- artistic, bibliophile, military and archeological -- amassed by the Savoys over three centuries of fighting and politica matrimoniale .

The motor behind it is the Consulta, an association founded 27 years ago to protect the city's cultural heritage through a unique model of corporate sponsorship. Each of its 33 member companies, ranging in size from international corporations such as Fiat, Martini and Ferrero to local machine-components manufacturer Megadyne, makes a fixed annual contribution of [euro]26,000 to a communal kitty and has an equal vote on how it's spent. The Polo Reale is the Consulta's new baby.

From 4 December a single ticket will admit visitors to the newly reopened Galleria Sabauda, the Archeological Museum, the Royal Armoury, the Royal Library and the 400 rooms, in seasonal rotation, of the Royal Palace. Don't be deceived by the palace's understated Piedmontese baroque exterior. What the Savoys saved on external embellishments they splashed out on sumptuous interiors covered in acres of frescoes and lashings of gold leaf and connected by ludicrously elaborate staircases. The most famous of them is Juvarra's Scala delle Forbici (opposite), a gravity-defying switchback flight of fancy leading up to the second-floor apartments. The 'forbici ' refer to the scissor emblem cheekily stuccoed on to the ceiling by its architect. He invited doubters of his ability to squeeze a staircase into such a small space to cut off their tongues.

From the piano nobile , a small door in the Gabinetto Cinese -- an oriental lacquer-panelled chamber also designed by Juvarra -- opens on to the breathtaking prospect of the Royal Armoury (opposite), offering viewers a canter through the history of human weaponry from prehistoric axe-heads and Etruscan helmets to Swiss crossbows, German gold- and ivory-inlaid arquebuses (portable long-barrelled guns), and a set of perfectly useless tortoiseshell arms presented to Umberto I by Ismail Pasha of Egypt. The extraordinarily lifelike troop of splendidly armoured horses standing guard over the gallery is made of wood upholstered in horsehide, with one exception: a white charger, Favorito, belonging to King Carlo Alberto, stuffed and repatriated after his master's death in exile. …

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