The Last Refuge of Old Europe: Fleeing Modernity, Nietzsche Fell for Turin's Old-Fashioned Charm. There Lies the City's Salvation, Writes Pankaj Mishra
Mishra, Pankaj, New Statesman (1996)
When, in April 1888, Nietzsche arrived in Turin he found a city diminished. In the 16th century it had been the capital of the Duchy of Savoy, and then the political and intellectual centre of the Risorgimento movement for Italian political unification. When the newly unified Italy moved its capital to Florence, Turin's industrial resurgence was still some years away. Not surprisingly, Nietzsche, a refugee from modernising Europe, fell for it immediately.
"This is a city I can use now!" he wrote to a friend. "What a worthy and serious city! Not at all a metropolis, not at all modern, as I had feared: rather, it is a city of 17th-century royalty, which has but one commanding taste in all things, that of the court and the nobles. Aristocratic tranquillity in everything has been preserved; there are no nasty suburbs."
I remember reading this letter in India in the late 1980s, before I had visited Europe. In my eyes Nietzsche's last years had a tragic grandeur: the solitary genius wandering anonymously across Europe, full of dire premonitions of the disasters awaiting the continent as it entered the nihilistic age of nationalism and industrial capitalism. And I wanted most, among all the places where Nietzsche had lived, to visit Turin, the city where one winter morning his clear-sightedness finally became a disease.
In 2003, when finally I travelled to Turin, it had clearly changed. Before and after the Second World War it had been Italy's industrial capital, largely due to the Fiat factory that was based just outside the centre. Its suburbs, though not nasty, seemed as bleak as those of any European city. Much of Turin was heavily bombed--the war forms the backdrop to Cesare Pavese's great novel The House on the Hill (1949).
Yet it wasn't hard to see in the Baroque centre the place that Nietzsche had known: opulent palaces built by the House of Savoy; long, arcaded avenues of stuccoed yellow and brown buildings; flagstone pavements; the piazzas that were big without losing their intimacy.
Turin had retained some of its confident aristocratic air and a quality that was oddly placeless--unlike most Italian cities, it seems little touched by the Renaissance--but also uniquely European. And, almost by miracle, it seemed to have avoided being overwhelmed by the signs of the global culture of consumerism that now blight not only the conurbations of "Free Europe" but also those of the formerly unfree world: Prague, Beijing and Calcutta.
On my first day in Turin I walked to the Via Carlo Alberto, where Nietzsche had spent a few months in a room in a four-storey building called the Galleria Subalpina. On the Via Roma, the main shopping street, were outlets of Armani, Versace and Gucci; but there were also smaller shops selling leather goods and clothes--products of Italy's family-owned small businesses and industries--and the city centre seemed remarkably free of the branches of Starbucks and McDonald's and other multinational brand-name stores that give so many old European cities a dreary modernity.
Old-fashioned bookshops, often tucked away in little alleys, were still ubiquitous in Turin. The elegant little volumes from Einaudi and Adelphi gave the impression, if not of a still flourishing and deepening European culture, then of a heritage of reflection and complexity.
The city had been in decline for some time, even while the Italian economy was booming, and it now had a rapidly ageing and diminishing population. …