Wednesday 4 December 2013

Turin part one - elegant art nouveau and some rather good cafes

Postcard for the Turin 1911 Esposition

Turin is the home of Fiat cars, the La Stampa newspaper and Lavazza coffee. From 1861-1865 it had four glorious years as Italy's capital city, ceding this honour to Florence before Rome became the capital of a unified Italy in 1870. Today Turin has almost one million inhabitants, is Italy's fourth city and retains much of its earlier elegance.

This is a city that embraces both style and modernity. First hosting the Universal Exposition in 1902 and then again in 1911 it was a showcase for art, commerce and industry at the beginning of the twentieth century. On my recent visit I was able to see the physical evidence that remains from that period as well as to discover some very pleasant literary and cafe surprises!

Fenoglio-la-Fleur House, Corso Francia. Pietro Fenoglio 1902-3
The beginning of the twentieth century was the heyday of art nouveau in Europe with Brussels, Prague, Budapest, Riga, Vienna and a host of other cities producing hundreds of new buildings in the style. Turin was no exception and today many examples of the Italian interpretation of this genre remain. In Italy it is known as Liberty Style and one its main exponents was Pietro Fenoglio, a native of Turin. Born in 1865, he graduated at the Royal School for Engineers in 1899 and was inspired to work in the Liberty Style by the 1902 Exposition. Active in politics as well as architecture, he was elected Alderman of the city in 1902 and oversaw the city plan, completed in 1908, which may well explain the preponderance of beautiful buildings from this period. Clearly a man of many talents, he also founded and made significant contributions to the journal Modern Italian Architecture and went on to become Chief Executive of the Italian Commercial Bank in 1917.

I was able to see a number of his buildings on my visit to the city. Most spectacular is the Casa Fenoglio-la-Fleur which stands on the junction of Corso Francia and Via Principa d'Acaja. A masterpiece of stained glass, ornate balconies, and a facade covered in the floral motifs, this was the Fenoglio family home and work place for a short period before it was sold to French businessman Lafleur. On Monsieur Lafleur's death, he left the house to a charity for orphans. Neglected for many years it was purchased privately in the 1990's and a full and careful restoration completed. It now has both residential areas and offices. I liked the Casa so much I went back for a second look during my  short stay and am I glad I did. The sun was shining directly into the stained glass of the overhanging bay windows producing vibrant blues, reds and purples to cheer a frosty December morning. Wonderful.  

Casa Tasca, Via Beaumont. Giovanni Battista Benazzo, 1903
On the edge of the old city, Casa Fenoglio-la-Fleur is one of many Liberty Style buildings in this area and a stroll around the adjoining streets reveals many other treasures. Just a short step away at the junction of Via Beaumont and Via Pifetti is the Casa Tasca, dating from 1903 and designed by Giovanni Battista Benazzo. The apartment building carries the architect's autograph underneath the protruding bay window at the junction of the two streets. Covered in floral motifs, geometric patterns,  balconies with carved details, wrought iron gates and curved iron "vegetation" on the main entrance, Casa Tasca is a very large corner lot and it is easy to spend a long time admiring it,  discovering new details from different angles. Just around the corner at Via Pifetti 10 and 12, stands a pair of small private houses dating from 1908 designed by Giovanni Gribodo. Both have a number of art nouveau decorative features, but it is the figure on the upper facade of number 10 that stops passers-by in their tracks to admire this elegant woman and her fruit trees. Imagine coming home to this every night!

Private house, Via Pifetti. Giovanni Gribodo, 1908.
Casa Reda, Via S. Francesco d'Assissi. Giovanni Reycand, 1902
There are also examples of Liberty Style in the centre of the city. Another favourite is  Casa Reda at Via S. Francesco d'Assissi 15. Built in 1902 and designed by Giovanni Reycand this is also something of a show stopper. The yellow painted facades have columns of green and brighter yellow floral motifs whilst under the eaves there are beautiful images of fruit trees. The ground floor houses a book shop which carries a few titles in English as well as travel guides and postcards. Via S. Francesco d'Assissi quickly became one of my favourite Turin streets. The building adjacent to Casa Reda features decorative panels on the upper facade whilst the pasticceria/ confetteria at number 17 has external mosaics showing views of the nearby alpine valleys. Casa Florio at the junction with Via Bertola has more of those lovely protruding bay windows with iron floral motif details and dates from 1902 and was designed by Guiseppe Verdi Bellini.

External mosaic, Confiterria, Via S. Francesco d'Assissi. 
On the subject of pasticcerias (pastry shops), I am very pleased to give Turin a good report! My favourite is the very elegant Cafe Torino in Piazza San Carlo. Opened in 1903, the cafe has seen many famous customers including publisher Einaudi, anti-fascist politician and former prime minister Alcide de Gasperi and most fabulously, Ava Gardner. The cafe's main attractions for me are the stunning art nouveau staircase and curved ceiling to floor windows at the rear of the cafe.A close runner-up is the patisserie - I had an individual cheese cake topped with a marron glace washed down by bicerin. This is a local Piedmontese drink made from chocolate, coffee and thick cream. Real heart attack stuff but delicious and very welcome in the sub zero temperatures of a Turinese December. The cafe is credited with introducing winter al-fresco service in Turin, under external infrared heaters. For hardy souls only I think - the temperature didn't rise above 4 degrees on my visit and plunged below zero in the evenings. Back inside, those in a hurry can drink their espresso at the long bar, chat with the waiters and make their choice from the large selection of works of art also known as Italian patisserie.

Cafe Torino, Piazza San Carlo. Staircase and windows..and no, that isn't me!
Turin boasts a number of belle epoque style cafes, several with their original fittings and fixtures intact. 
Cafe San Carlo is a close neighbour to Cafe Torino, just a few steps further into Piazza San Carlo. Opened in 1842, it has two rooms, the first offering a close up view of the huge range of patisserie, chocolates and other sweet treats from the comfort of sofas and easy chairs. Cafe San Carlo also has a proud history of loyal famous customers including Antonio Gramsci, writer, politician and leader of the Italian Communist Party in the 1920's, anti-facists Carlo and Nello Roselli and five times Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party Giovanni Giolitti. Cakes seem to appeal to all political persuasions. I'm told that Alexandre Dumas took his first taste of bicerin in Cafe San Carlo!

Also worth a stop is Baratti and Milano at Piazza Castello 27. Originally a confectionary and spirits shop opened in 1858, a coffee house was added for the 1911 Exposition. The coffee house quickly attracted writers and artists. It remains busy today with both locals and tourists - and the confectionary is still going strong too. The lobby is a riot of gold coloured surfaces, red and silver sweet wrappers and fin-de-siecle elegance.

One side of Baratti and Milano faces onto the Galleria Subalpina, built in 1873 and modelled on the Parisian shopping galleries of the same period. Designed by architect Pietro Carrera, the Galleria sustained some damage in the second world war but was faithfully restored and is now home to a number of small shops. My favourite is Galleria Gilibert, a family business opened in 1992 selling old books, prints and posters. The collection includes vintage theatre, politics and tourism posters many of which can be viewed on the website. The shop is very neatly arranged and a very friendly welcome is offered by the owners. 

Galeria Subalpina, Piazza Castello.
Severely limited in terms of what I could buy to bring home due to Ryanair's baggage policy, I resisted making a purchase in Galeria Subalpina, but must confess I did part with money in the Sunday book market which stretches along both wings of Piazza Carlo Felice carrying on for much of the length of Via Roma. This is a bibliophile's heaven with books of all ages and on all subjects including some in English. As well as books, you can find magazines going back to 1900, postcards, prints and various items of printed ephemera. Its fantastic. Many items date from the 1930's and display striking art deco/ modernist design principles, but I finally gave in and bought a small number of postcards from the 1911 Exposition. For an undisclosed sum as they say. You can see one of them reproduced at the top of this post.

I will leave you with a few more examples of Liberty Style architecture and will post again on my Turin visit, including on the city's modernist architecture, its most famous literary son Primo Levi and its tallest building that has a very unusual history.

You can see more pictures of Turin here. You might also like Hungarian art Venice.

Casa Medana, Via Lombroso. Enrico Bonicelli, 1902.
Detail, Casa Florio, Via Bertola. Guiseppe Velati Bellini, 1902.
Pallazzina Rossi-Galateri, Via Passalacqua. Pietro Fenoglio, 1903.

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