No, I’m not going to write about Wolfgang Goethe’s travel writing, though I feel like I should read his account at some point!
I want to talk about my own journey back to Italy, and Turin, in particular, the year in which my country celebrates 150 years of unification. I’m sure the irony is not lost on many – within and beyond the national boundaries of the Italian republic – given our politics seem to indicate anything but a coherent sense of shared interests and common values. But leaving scepticism aside, I did travel back to catch the last of the year-long celebrations, many of which, of course, took place in Turin, the first capital of the Kingdom of Italy, and the site of our first parliament, which can still be admired, in its quaint smallness, at the Museo del Risorgimento at Palazzo Carignano.
Turin’s royal past is visible in the topography of the city, run by large boulevards, flanked by the elegant buildings once home to the Italian aristocracy. One of the most enchanting places you could visit, however, is just outside the city: Venaria. Ironically, the palace entrance is on Piazza della Repubblica, a tongue-in-cheek reminder that Italy rejected monarchy by a popular referendum on 2 June 1946, incidentally the first time Italian women were allowed to vote! This magnificent residence was used by the Savoy family as a hunting retreat up until the Napoleonic wars, when the site turned into barracks. The army did not leave until 1978. The complex, whose structure is reminiscent of the late Baroque grandeur of Versailles, is still being restored today. With hardly any furniture around, I was able to appreciate the sheer proportions of the place, its ambitious scale becoming most apparent in the ivory-coloured Galleria Grande.
To celebrate the Italy’s anniversary, some of the rooms of the otherwise unfurnished palace accommodate a display dedicated to one of the most significant aspects of the country’s lifestyle, culture and (stalled) economy: fashion. One hundred and fifty years of Italian fashion, 16 decades of dresses, suits, and military uniforms, including the white corseted number worn by Claudia Cardinale in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), the film adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, which poignantly encapsulates the Sicilian aristocracy’s resistance to social change at the time of the unification in 1861. I felt more than a little pride as I walked around the exhibits, pleased to see so much variety in the design history of Italian fashion, which ranged from Ferragamo stilettos worn by Marilyn Monroe, to the design of the first modern tracksuit, by Thayaht (Ernesto Michaelles), whose hybrid Italian identity was made of British, American, German and Swiss blood, and whose TuTa (Italian for tracksuit) becomes one the symbols of modern design celebrated by Futurism.
Speaking of ‘made in Italy’, Turin is also famous for some of the country’s best chocolatiers and confectioners, such as Leone, whose factory outlet you can visit, and, believe it or not, sample any of their products free of charge! I couldn’t resist buying the special anniversary edition of their old-fashioned mints, complete with a picture of Italy in three colours of our national flag, of course. But what makes Turin really interesting to visit is that while one half of the city’s history is made of its aristocratic heritage and discreet elegance, the other, more recent past of the city is dominated by the powerful legacy of the Agnelli family, whose family business, FIAT, is, simultaneously, deeply rooted in Turin’s 20th-century history and Italy’s (problematically) traditional approach to business management.
The car industry heritage is beautifully showcased by the newly refurbished Museo dell’Automobile, which offers you the chance to revisit – and fall in love, unexpectedly! – with the history of car design. I’m not into engines and I have never owned a car, but there was something utterly compelling in the thematic journey the galleries traced, pointing to the combination of captivating designs and modern technology that underpins car design from the the end of the 19th century to the new Millennium.
Back at Stansted, and having patiently waited for my turn at passport control, I’m (nicely) told off by the Border Control officer for using instead of the machine-readable European passport,my Italian ID card, which is apparently to blame for the inefficiency of passport control at the airport. I want to complain that queues are getting longer and slower because the UK is getting scarily protective of its borders, but I’m also embarrassed to admit that I’m strangely attached to this easily-forgeable piece of Italian bureaucracy. The officer has spoken to me in Italian; this is unprecedented, and makes me feel happier about returning to the UK.
I’m home. I switch the kettle on. The quickest way to make pasta, I’ve learnt.