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Torino: Restoration Central in Italy 2010-11

Friday, December 10, 2010

by John H. Stubbs, Vice President, Field Projects

An added award for speaking again at the UNESCO World Heritage at Work seminar in Torino in late November was being given an overview tour of a number of impressive architectural restoration projects in this marvelous city that was the first capital of the unified Italian kingdom from 1861 to 1864. My host, Professor Alessio Re, explained that the reason for so many ambitious restorations and urban improvements at the present time was the upcoming celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy that is slated for April 2011.

After checking into faculty quarters at the ILO-International Training Centre that overlooks the Po River on the southwestern edge of town, I realized I was amidst a well-preserved campus of remarkably elegant modern buildings that were built for the 100th anniversary of Italy's unification in 1961. On inquiring I was delighted to learn that major buildings on this former exposition site were designed by Pier Luigi Nervi, his grandest work here being the Palazzo del Lavoro. It is close to the Palazzo a Vela designed by Annibale and Sergio Rigotti and nick-named the Sail Palace by locals for its soaring sail-like appearance. Most buildings on the former exposition site have since been converted to be new education and support facilities. Palazzo a Vela, for instance, was renovated by Milanese architect Gae Aulenti in 2006, although Nervi’s Palazzo del Lavoro still awaits a suitable new use and restoration.

Then I indulged in my favorite pastime of all—exploring the heart of historic city centers! In Torino, its first things first—stopping at the amazing Palazzo Carignano (1684, Guarino Guarini). This former main town palace of the Savoy dynasty is presently being converted to be the Museo di Historie di Risorgimento, its former theater space having served as the meeting hall of the congress that declared Italy's unification on February 18th, 1861. Palazzo Carignano's elaborate exterior design in ornamented brickwork exemplifies other buildings of the period, including the adjacent famous Museo delle Antichità (Egyptian Museum).

After touring the stunning Egyptian collection, which includes a Nubian temple façade that was given to Italy by Egypt in the mid-1960s as a thank you for helping in the Nubian temple rescue campaign, Alessio Re met me and took over as my guide for a true insider's tour of some of Torino's best examples of Piedmontese baroque architecture. On our first stop we observed nearly two thousand years of architectural history preserved within the footprint of Palazzo Madama, located in the Piazza Castello. Built atop the Porta Fibellona, one of the four ancient Roman gateways, the structure was converted into a castle in the Middle Ages, and renovated to its present form in the 18th century. Touring Palazzo Madama's impeccably restored interiors today is a real walk through time. Subterranean ancient Roman remains are seen through glass flooring at the ground level, evidence of different periods of construction are featured on its walls, and its collections are freshly re-presented, wisely using some of the museum's restored historic wooden display cases. The last phase of Palazzo Madama's restoration entails the cleaning and repair of Filippo Juvarra's stately baroque façade (1721) which is slated to be finished in January 2011.

Next stops on our tour of Torinese restorations included the nearby Royal Palace where we had refreshments in a delightful coffee house tucked within the palace's former silver and china pantry rooms. After a Punt e Mes, a drink invented in Torino, we next visited the nearby Cathedral of John the Baptist (1578) that also leads to the most extreme example of Piedmontese baroque—Guarini's masterpiece—La Sindone (Church of the Holy Shroud, 1690). Under restoration since a disastrous fire in 1997, this famous religious site is due to be opened again in two years.

Finally, as we passed along the principal cross street from Roman times of Torino's oldest district, Alessio pointed to the Porte Palatine at the east end of Piazza Cesare Augusto, restored by Alfredo d'Andrade at the end of 19th century. We later saw the restored painted grand rooms by Isidoro Bianchi of the piano nobile of Valentino Castle (1660), which was built by the Duchy of Savoy for entertainment with its gardens that lead down to the Po River. Today this palace is seat of what must be the most elegantly housed school of architecture in Europe, the Polytecnico Torino, where Alessio earned his Ph.D. in urban conservation.

It is wonderful to see how this major Italian city has so mobilized local interest and its resources toward improving its wealth of architectural patrimony. If you go to Torino, look forward as well to enjoying the Piedmont region’s elegant lifestyle, genial population, and, of course, its wonderful food.