Turin: Literary Tourism

Cristina Trinchero (Università degli studi di Torino, Italy)

The metamorphosis of Turin’s image from an industrial city to a tourist destination is recent. Equally recent is the diversification of cultural tourism programmes to discover it. For a long time, the iconic sites that witnessed Roman history and the fortunes of the royal house of Savoy dominated; and then came the world-famous museums, the Egyptian Museum and the Cinema Museum. Slowly, the image of a modern and avant-garde city, to be discovered under different facets, has prevailed. Since 2000, this has been possible after the media launch during the 2006 Winter Olympics and the ostensions of the Holy Shroud. The media (TV, the Web, press) have spread information about the city in its plurisecular heritage, focusing on the present. As far as tourism goes, Turin is currently no longer a step behind the major European capitals. The renovation of museums, galleries, and cultural sites and an increase in cultural facilities have made the city a popular destination in the last 25-30 years.

However, Turin’s profile as a tourist city could benefit from tours and walks inspired by literary texts and places. Yet, today, this practice is not so common in this city. Turin has an impressive heritage that can be identified, in terms of potential itineraries, in a “cultural topography”. It stretches in a vast area between the historic centre and the hills, including aristocratic mansions, writers’ and artists’ houses, historic cafés, theatres, the premises of publishing houses, newspapers and cultural magazines, that is, the places where culture, literature and the arts were discussed, and from which masterpieces were produced and disseminated. Much work needs to be done in this city to enhance these highlights and to compose thematic visits.

A significant contribution may be generated from two directions. Academic research may analyse the image of the city of Turin over the ages through the external gaze of the travellers and writers who have stayed here, as well as through the gaze of the authors who were born or who lived in Turin, or who were connected to Turin for personal and professional reasons. Tour operators with experience in incoming cultural services may start combining traditional tours centred on historical heritage, monuments and museums, and art and architecture circuits (Baroque, Art Nouveau, urban art), with literary walks based on the narratives of novelists. If University research teams have been carrying out studies on these topics with interesting outputs in terms of books and journal articles relating to specific results, tour operators still benefit from this new approach.

Indeed, if tours inspired by literary tourism in Turin are still in progress with respect to other cities, literature has incisively contributed to shaping different images of its identity. In some cases, the literary narratives convey distinctive, essential features rooted in a remote past that persists to the present day. In other instances, novels and short stories complete chronicles and iconography to reconstruct the history and micro-stories of its society. In other instances, literary texts are chiefly inspired by legends and popular narratives, thereby modelling one of its most attractive, albeit partial, profiles: that of a magical, mysterious and disturbing city.

At the time of the Grand Tour, Turin was neither a destination for foreign travellers nor a subject of interest in travel literature. It was merely a halt that allowed travellers, having crossed the Alps, to rest and head straight for the most coveted towns in Tuscany, Rome, Naples, Venice and Bologna. In the 18th century, foreign travellers told very little about Turin. The city’s squared, regular, and symmetrical layout was admired in the neoclassical age. Writers related the lush greenery of parks and hills, the long Corsi recalling Parisian boulevards, the elegant palazzi, and the geometry of the squares and streets evoking the ancient Roman chessboard. Turin was considered the prototype of a rational city. It displayed a Parisian taste, but it was independent, proud, and severe, so different from the cheerful towns of the Centre and South.

If, in the Romantic period, Stendhal still found it too quiet in comparison to Milan, Rome and Naples, this appreciation was already changing at the beginning of the 19th century. A less partial approach to destinations in the pre-tourist era led to a different disposition among well-educated travellers and intellectuals. They began to explore popular boroughs, examine daily life habits, and look for architectural and landscape peculiarities. This happened with the Idéologues: they analysed places and societies to understand local identities better. In this context, Aubin Louis Millin made an essential breakthrough in the description of Turin and its territory under the Napoleonic regime in his Voyage en Savoie, en Piémont, à Nice, et à Gènes.

During the 19th century, a different narrative developed. Writers added Turin to the list of highlights in their travels in Italy and mentioned new landmarks. Turin was the city of the Risorgimento, the first Italian capital, a wealthy, but sober capital. In the narrators’ eyes, it appeared well-organised, hard-working and active, but there was also space for leisure in the many concert halls and theatres modelled on Parisian examples. The myth of Paris and the comparison between Turin and the French capital dominated in the second half of the 19th century and again in the early 20th century. If architectural similarities and atmospheres were evident, cultural exchanges were fundamental, consisting of intellectual relations between writers, journalists, and artists. Intellectuals and artists stopped in Turin to discuss and promote innovative artistic concepts. Hence, after the unification of Italy Turin became a vibrant, international city, and it sought a social and cultural renaissance when the country's capital moved to Florence and then to Rome. Meantime, it had become popular among writers who represented the realist and naturalist inspiration in the novel. In Les Trois Villes, Emile Zola spoke of it as a modern commercial and industrial centre. At the same time, Turin was celebrated in its gentle majesty, yet always with a view to its alpine identity, by the Italian writers who were most inspired by patriotic pride. In the meantime, another image crystallised and turned into a stereotype destined to last for a long time: Turin was both an old monarchical capital and an industrial, working-class and commercial city.

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, Turin emerged along with Milan and Florence as the headquarters of the historical avant-garde groups, first and foremost the Futurist movement. Writers and artists meet to discuss writing and art in taverns, cafés and cabarets set in the backdrop of a city that had by then asserted itself as an industrial conurbation centred on the automobile industry, but less provincial and severe than one imagined. The same phenomenon occurred between the two world wars when intellectuals campaigned for political, opinion, economic and cultural freedom thanks to different and apparently conflicting personalities, such as Antonio Gramsci, Piero Gobetti and Riccardo Gualino. The mechanical city captured the vitality of an era that demanded a renewal of literature, art and daily life. Meanwhile, the rational 18th-century architecture and Art Deco minimalism were also able to inspire a kind of literature and painting that moved from the imitation of real life to the quest for a “supra-reality”, i.e., a mysterious, ineffable, evocative and at times unsettling essence of a very material and rational city. In painting, an example of this, is represented by Giorgio De Chirico’s surrealist piazzas: sunny, silent, orderly squares bordered by rows of arcades, with monumental statues in the centre, like many typically Turin squares and streets. Italian literature conveyed a similar atmosphere in the 20th century, portraying fascinating perspectives and settings: the novels of Giovanni Arpino, the memoirs of Lalla Romano, and the detective intrigues of Laura Mancinelli are examples of this trend.

The image of Turin as a disturbing city gradually took shape from the novels of the decadent era, primarily Carolina Invernizio’s truculent feuilletons. This literary image endures different declinations in today’s fiction. This idea suffers from an instrumentalised stereotype that relies on the peculiarities of Turin’s art and urban architecture, on popular traditions, on anecdotes and, more generally, on anthropological sediments recalling the elementary archetypes of light/dark, high/low, external/internal, and in an alchemy of esoteric symbols. About Turin, we are often reminded that it is one of the points of the triangle of white magic with Lyon and Prague, but also of black magic together with London and San Francisco: a “double” city. It has always been the headquarters of recognised satanic sects and psychics. Anecdotes about sinister personalities in the Savoy dynasty and places in the city have been passed down, perpetuated in popular narratives dealing with witchcraft and the supernatural. Thus, in recent times, this literary image of Turin has nurtured a fictional production that may have further outbursts: much detective fiction draws its inspiration from elements of the most enigmatic stories of the city and its protagonists. First and foremost, the creative imagination is triggered around the Holy Shroud, an enigma with an infinite capacity for fascination beyond official positions, faith and reason, research and legends.

How to cite this dictionary entry: Trinchero, C. (2023). Turin: Literary Tourism. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

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