Today it was rainy and misty in Turin, with a creeping sense of gloom. In short, it was perfect weather to view some of the landmarks mentioned in one of the great modern ghost stories The Twenty Days of Turin by Georgio De Maria. The English translation was published by Ramon Glazov in 2017 and ever since I first read it I have been wanting to visit the places mentioned in this chilling story, just to double check…
As Glazov says in the translator’s introduction, the book “is a sinister, imaginary chronicle of the author’s home city as it suffers ‘a phenomenon of collective psychosis.’” Strolling around the city center on a dark day, it was almost disturbingly easy to slip into an apocalyptic frame of mind.
In the twentieth century, Turin was probably best known as an industrial city, particularly as the home of Fiat. Now it is a center of sports (Juventus), a gateway to the Alps and home of the Slow Food movement. Even so, there is a lingering, almost vinegary scent, of the supernatural.
‘Here we have the automotive industry, we have the ethos of central-city Turin, we have the commonsense citizen who represents the solidest of our institutions…All of that would suffice to throw the most hardened army of specters into retreat!’ (p. 16-17)
Looming large in the book are monuments found in the city’s streets, piazzas and parks. It was these monuments and statues that I was particularly interested in checking on this little literary tour. One such monument was the statue of Vincenzo Vela in the process of sculpting the dying Napoleon. Vela (1820-1891) was born to a poor family but became a very profilic and celebrated sculptor. His most famous work was the “Last Days of Napoleon” (1867). His connection to Turin began in 1852, when he assumed the chair at the Albertina Academy of Fine Arts and proceeded to sprinkle his monumental works all over the city.
‘Do you want to know something funny? I could swear the statues of Vincenzo Vela and Napoleon Bonaparte had swapped places. It isn’t Vela with his back towards us is it?’ No, I answered him, I’m sure it’s always been Napoleon’s back, or rather, the back of his armchair. He shrugged his shoulders and gave a sad smile. ‘Must be,’ he said. p.10
One of the tallest monuments in Turin is that of Victor Emmanuel II, near GAM, the museum of modern art. It stands in the middle of a roundabout. VEII (1820-1878) was the first king of a united Italy, Padre della Patria.
‘Anyway, I would say that the first scream came from over there, at the intersection.’
‘Near the monument to King Victor Emmanuel?’
‘Roughly. The second scream came from the opposite side, from the area around the cottages…Of course, I couldn’t pin-point where exactly…Then a third scream, much father away…farther away, and yet even more terrible. It seemed like they were relaying some kind of message.’ (p. 21)
Towards Porta Nuova train station is Piazza Carlo Felice, where a particularly gory incident takes place in the book. It’s a lovely spot, with a little fountain shaded with greenery. At the back of the piazza is a monument to Edmondo de Amicis, a children’s author whose novel Cuore used to be my Spanish teacher’s favorite book.
Anyone who went to Piazza Carlo Felice on the morning of July the third to observe the “scene of the crime” will remember the mustachioed face of the Piedmontese writer, jutting from a slab of marble, still fouled with blood and gray matter, gory splatters from the victim reaching high enough to lick at bas-reliefs of children and the naked feet of the muse positioned on top of the monument. (p.45)
Near Piazza Carlo Felice I saw another statue and went to photograph it just in case. As I suspected, it pops up in the novel too. Pietro Paleocapa (1788-1869) was a civil engineer who worked on railways, tunnels and waterways. He even took part in the design of the Suez Canal. He died in Turin.
“This square…” I began casually. “At one time it used to be called ‘Piazza Paleocapa? Wasn’t that the name?”
Eligio pretended he hadn’t heard me.
“I’m asking because I came by here once—it must’ve been quite a while ago—and it seemed to me that on that pedestal there was a monument to Pietro Paleocapa—you know, the engineer and government minister—not to Lagrange.” (p.114)
Another landmark often mentioned in the book is the Gran Madre di Dio Church. This distinctive building was built to celebrate the return of King Victor Emmanuele I to the city after Napoleon’s defeat. The Latin inscription on the tympanum (under the roof) can be translated ‘the Nobility and the People of Turin for the Return of the King’.
‘At the fore of the neoclassical church stood a monument to Victor Emmanuel I: King of Sardinia—returned to his people—the XX of May MDCCCXIV…” Guarding the church, from either side of its grand flight of steps, were two symmetrical rows of statues in white stone: two veiled women dressed in peplums with open books resting on their laps, each raising a chalice in her right hand, and at their flanks, two angels giving gestures of command.” (p. 67)
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the sites mentioned in Twenty Days of Turin, but I was starting to get tired. Besides, for now I was fairly satisfied that, despite the brooding atmosphere, the demons are calm for now.