The Pleasure Palace of Venaria

‘Sweet boy,’ she says, ‘this night I’ll waste in sorrow,
For my sick heart commands mine eyes to watch.
Tell me, Love’s master, shall we meet to-morrow?
Say, shall we? shall we? wilt thou make the match?’
He tells her, no; to-morrow he intends
To hunt the boar with certain of his friends.

 

In Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare yuks it up by making Adonis a dimwitted aristocrat who would rather hunt boar than ravish Venus. He’s such an oaf that when she faints with heartbreak, “[t]he silly boy, believing she is dead/Claps her pale cheek, till clapping makes it red”. Desperate, she adopts an Adonis-centered approach to wooing and tries to bait him with hunting imagery: “I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer”, but Adonis doesn’t fall for that.

Part of the humor here (I imagine) is that hunting was a popular thing to do. I mean, it still is, but back in the sixteenth century it was like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided or some FPS; all the lads were up for it. So it is maybe not surprising that some of the most luxurious palaces in the Turin area are Hunting Lodges.

 

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One of these is Venaria Reale, whose full name in English is ‘The Royal Residence for Hunting and Pleasures’. In 1997 it was included in the UNESCO Heritage List and, although it had fallen into serious disrepair by then, it has since been impressively restored. Perched on the north-west side of Turin, it borders Mandria Park, a former medieval hunting park and now a wildlife reserve encircled by 30km of stone wall.

 

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Seventeenth-century version of the palace, before Juvarra’s additions

 

It all started back in the seventeenth century, when Duke Charles Emmanuel II fancied a new hunting palace. He bought two villages and decided they would be converted into one big tribute to himself. He hired two architects Amedeo di Castellamonte and Michaelangelo Garove and they started work in 1675. Castellamonte described the result as a ‘Coronoa di Delizie’, ‘a Crown of Delights’: an elegant town with the royal hunting lodge as its focal point– mountains seeming to float behind it and the tranquil Ceronda Stream flowing by. The gardens were designed by no less than André Le Nôtre (1613-1700), the greatest landscape architect responsible for the gardens of Versailles under Louis XIV.

 

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Torrente Ceronda

 

Invading French troops trashed the palace during the Siege of Turin (1706), so the next Savoy, Vittorio Amedeo II, hired another architect to fix it up. Filippo Juvarra really went to town and added stables, a citroneria (a greenhouse for growing oranges in winter), a ‘rabbittery’ (if that’s the word I’m looking for), a grand gallery and a church dedicated to St. Hubertus (patron of hunters).

 

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Vittorio Amadeo II by Maria Giovanna Battista Clementi

 

After buying my ticket it was a short walk to the entrance to the royal palace-garden complex. Passing under an arch, I arrived in the Cour d’honneur looking straight ahead at a big white building; the Palace of Diana, goddess of the Hunt. This used to be fronted by a great deer fountain but now boasts a big reindeer-shaped Christmas-light display. To my left were two towers connected by a long gallery. The towers were roofed with colored ceramic tiles that caught the sunlight and drew my eye to several hooded crows squawking up there. The towers and gallery are built in exposed brick, a style similar to some buildings in Turin’s city centre.

 

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In order to see the gardens you have to walk on a narrow path around the side of the building, passing plenty of twentieth-first century sculpture on the way. As soon as you emerge out the back you are confronted with a panoramic view of the Alps and a denuded winter countryside. The gardens are slightly different from the original design but follow the same formal, geometric spirit that prioritizes perspective and wide spaces. Accustomed to city streets, I found the vast, straight lanes underneath the vast blue sky somewhat unnerving and soon hastened indoors to see the palace.

 

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The palace gallery features life-sized portraits of various Savoys. At that time (as the museum signs explained) they were not just pretty pictures but also credentials—an easy way to declare and boast of powerful ancestral ties. Not only that, but they would been useful teaching aids when teaching royal children the family tree. And, if Scooby Doo is to be believed, you could also cut out the eyes and look through the holes to spy on people. Portraits include the old patriarch Humbert I, his wife Ancelie, Adelaide of Susa, who supposedly burned a whole town, the Red Count Amedeo VIII (for some reason his dad, The Green Count has no portrait).

 

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Charles Emmanuel I ‘the Hot-Headed’ (1562-1630)

 

The palace was full of pretty little rooms with elaborate ceiling moulding and busy furniture. They were quite dusty and made me sneeze. One had a harp in it. The bedroom was decorated with a gorgeous cover of silk painted with chinoserie from 1775-1798. The silk, interestingly, was manufactured in Piedmont. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth century, this was an area that produced silk on an industrial scale. Rural people would have silkworms working away in their houses and bring the silk in to a producer for it to be spun with the help of hydraulic mills.

 

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Chinoserie

 

I got tired of walking around at that point so decided to leave. I didn’t know where the exit was so followed some woman out the back. She was staff, though, and I ended up behind the building and wandered around lost for twenty minutes before finding a bus stop. God I was tired. Pleasure palaces are exhausting. 

 

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