by Leanne Ogasawara
Turin is a city which entices a writer towards vigor, linearity, style. It encourages logic, and through logic it opens the way towards madness. —Italo Calvino
Just a short walk down the portico-covered arcades of Via Roma leads to one of the most elegant Baroque squares in Turin– if not, in all the world…
We were in town to see a particular picture; for Turin is home to a precious painting of Saint Francis receiving the stigmata. Attributed to van Eyck, the picture has an exact –but much larger size– copy in Philadelphia; and art historians have gone back and forth over the years about which one is the copy of which. Both paintings were believed to have been part of the 1471 inventory of the will of none other than Anselm Adornes, the fabulously wealthy Bruges merchant (who happens to be a great obsession of mine).
It seems strange to have two identical paintings created, when the cost was so high to buy a van Eyck, but it turns out that back in the 15th century, the super wealthy sometimes had different sizes of a painting created so they would be able to bring the smaller version with them when they traveled or perhaps give one to a daughter on her wedding day. Why not, right? It is possible the smaller version of the van Eyck, held in the Sabauda Gallery in Turin, was created for just this purpose.
The painting does not disappoint and it was well worth the trip–but to say we got distracted along the way would only be an understatement.
For me, it started sitting in a cafe in the Piazza San Carlo. The piazza is, as I suggested above, possibly the most beautiful square in the world. Being the capital of the House of Savoy, the city is in many ways more French-feeling than Italian. With its standardized building facades made of huge pieces of cut stone adorned with tall windows and wrought iron balconies, the city evokes a more Northern, noble atmosphere. Like Paris, it is a city built for kings. But rather than in the grand boulevards one finds in Paris, in Turin, it is the piazza where the Baroque architecture dazzles.
And no where dazzles more than the Piazza San Carlo.
Laid out in the late 16th century, the covered arcades bordering the four sides of the square stand facing an equestrian statue of an armor-clad king in feathered helmet brandishing a sword looking as if he had just returned from battle. With his feathers streaming behind him in the wind, the man and his horse seemed to be in a state of breathless motion. Like the city of Bologna, Turin is renown for its porticos, and it doesn't take long before one realizes what a brilliant invention covered walkways can be. On that day, the sun was blazing down and neither of us wanted to leave the cool shade of the arcade to venture out into the square to try and figure out who the statue was supposed to be honoring.
But venture out we did– and standing there in the middle of the square, we stood blinded by the unrelenting heat of the afternoon sun. Standing there uncomfortably in front of the statue, we decided to forget the mysterious Savoy king and go have a campari instead. For not only is Turin a city of arcades but it is also a city full of cafe-bars. Indeed, that very square was home to two of the finest cafes in the city–and in a city famed for its legendary historic cafes and bars, that seemed extremely promising indeed!
The older of the two, Caffe San Carlo, dates from 1842 and was a favorite of Franceso Crispi, as it was of Gramsci, Roselli and Giolitti. Opulent beyond imagination, its known for its coffee, as well as cakes and candies. As tempting as that sounded, we decided that our choice had to be Caffe Torino. For in addition to it's wonderful belle-epoque style interior and long history of equally glamorous habitué, like Bridgette Bardot and Ava Gardner, the cafe serves some of the finest Italian apertivo in the city.
Known for inventing vermouth and such iconic brands as martini and Cinzano, Turin is awash in cocktails.
What to have? Campari on the rocks or maybe a campari spritz? But then why not something stronger like a negroni? Made of a deliciously lethal mix of Martini Rosso, Campari and gin–did you know that until comparatively recent times Campari got its brilliant carmine from cochineal beetles? But Turin is not just about campari and vermouth; for behind the marble-topped bar were countless beautiful bottles of many different kinds of amaro. Sitting alongside the brilliant red campari, was zucca rabarbaro (another favorite, made from Chinese rhubarb), Amaro Nonino Quintessentia,Varnelli Amaro Sibilla– each as delectable as they are medicinal….There are so many possibilities and all of these apertivo in Italy are served with the most mouthwatering happy hour fare the world has ever seen! As we sat there, we watched transfixed as a waiter clad in a pristine white jacket rolled in a brass trolley piled high with the most mouth-wateringly delicious-looking miniature pizzas, cheeses, salamis, homemade pickles, and tramezzini I had ever seen. And all around us were people ready to dig in– and this is all before going out for dinner!
Indeed, we were insistently told by the Turinese that they start eating around 5 during apertivo and that this eating then continues on until it is time for dinner, sometime between 8 and 10 pm!
How did I not know about this wonderful and amazing custom till then?
Several years ago while crying on a friend's shoulder about how scared and sad I was at leaving Japan after two decades, I was reminded by my friend of Churchill's famous words:
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Well, there you have it! For I can now say, if leaving Japan was the end of the beginning, Please God, let Turin be the beginning of the rest of my life– for no finer city exists in the world! With its sanctuaries of covered walkways for strolling and stupendous museums; it's baroque architecture, historic cafes and fabulous food, the city has absolutely everything. Even including stunning views of the Alps. No lesser eye than that of Le Corbusier declared that no other city had a finer natural setting, being placed as it is between the towering alps to the north and the verdant Po River in the south.
Did you know that Nietzsche also loved the city of Turin beyond compare?
Like me, he loved the way the mountains dominated the view. Turin was, after all, the place where the Grand Tour began for Victorian English travelers. Mainly because it was the first stop after descending over the mountains. Hannibal similarly landed in Turin with his elephants: where, after crossing the Po River, he wrecked havoc on the inhabitants. Nietzsche considered the city to have a musical quality and repeatedly wrote about its charm and refinement. From his letters, we know that he treasured the view of the alps from the center of the city and spent his afternoons strolling under the arcades, shaded from the sun, which caused his eyes so much pain. Not being much of a drinker, he still raved about the cafes, where I suppose he indulged in the city's famous bicerin (the Turinese specialty of espresso topped with hot chocolate and cream).
Leslie Chamberlain, in her book Nietzsche in Turin, suggests that for Nietzsche, Turin was a kind of “Zarathustrian paradise.”
And maybe because he loved the city beyond compare, it makes it somehow less tragic that it was in this place where he would suffer a mental breakdown from which he would never recover.
The story is well-known and it takes place not far from the Caffe Torino. In another impossibly elegant Baroque square, Piazza Carlo Alberto, on the corner behind yet another equestrian statue is the apartment where Nietzsche lived from 1888-1889 and where he worked on his books the Antichrist, Twilight of the Idols, and Ecce Homo. His third story room was on the side facing Via Po, where he loved to walk, and is easily recognized by the plaque adorning the ground floor of the building; as well as for the red curtains hanging from the window.
It was from this apartment that Nietzsche on the morning of January 3, 1889, left his residence and walked a few minutes along Via Carlo Alberto. He was perhaps heading toward the river, when coming onto the Piazza Carignano, he happened upon the sight of a horse being flogged by its driver. And it was there, in the words of Milan Kundera that,
Seeing a horse and a coachman beating it with a whip, Nietzsche went up to the horse and, before the coachman’s very eyes, put his arms around the horse’s neck and burst into tears.
Mother I am stupid (ich bin dumm)
Why he said those words and what he meant has never been understood. Rushed back to his apartment, poor Nietzsche never recovered from that breakdown in the street. His friend Franz Overbeck arrived from Germany a few days later, and found him sitting on the floor reading Nietzsche contra Wagner. Nietzsche was in such a state of anxiety that Overbeck had to arrange for transport back home in the care of a psychiatric nurse
Nietzsche would die a decade later, without ever saying another coherent word.
Walking in Nietzsche's fateful footsteps that day in Turin, I thought a lot about how he had written that this city above anywhere else was “the capital of discovery” –and the “first place where I was possible.” I love those words– and like Nietzsche after a lifetime wandering abroad and feeling never at home in many ways, landing in Turin was a kind of miracle. A miracle of Renaissance oil paintings, cocktails made of colorful herbals; dainty tramezzini tea sandwiches and warm chocolate coffee. The world is wide and there are so many places left to explore; so many possibilities for discovery. That Nietzsche, whom I read so devotedly in my youth, also loved the city made it even more full of possibilities for me. And so it was that sitting there in Cafe Turino sipping my campari, I did somehow feel like I had finally arrived to the rest of my life.
(For more on Italian cocktails, with recipes, and Fellini's legendary Campari commercial, see my post: Campari on the Rocks)
In addition to Leslie Chaberlain's wonderful Nietzsche in Turin, I also wanted to recommend highly a book by a friend of this blog, Charlie Huenemann, called Nietzsche: Genius of the Heart. It really illuminates brilliantly Nietzsche's concepts of health and nobility. I loved it.
Picture on top is of Turin's famed Mole Antonelliana, Nietzsche's favorite building in Turin. With its soaring contours, he designated the building as”Ecce Homo.” Begun as a synagogue in 1863 the architect, Alessandro Antonelli, quickly began to run amok and the poor Jewish community coul only watch as he kept building the synagogue taller and taller still. Monumentally over budget, the community begged the city authorities to do something and were given an equally fine piece of property where they built a Moorish revival temple.
Bottom photo is my attempt at the Ambrogino–made with my favorite Amaro of all, Rabarbaro Zuzza