One of the things I like about Turin is that it’s just so gosh-darned literary. In 1933 it is the birthplace of the (now extinct) Giulio Einaudi publishing house and home to some of the country’s best known writers including Cesare Pavese, Primo Levi, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco. Since 1988 it has hosted the Turin International Book Fair, Italy’s largest trade fair for books. So when I saw a literary guide to the city in a little bookshop, I was immediately intrigued.
This book devotes each chapter to one particular author and provides quotes from his or her books describing some aspect or place of Turin, often adding excerpts by other authors to fill in the picture. For example there is a quote from Giorgio di Maria’s Twenty Days of Turin tucked into the chapter titled “Citta livida e notturna” (“A Lurid and Noctural City”). The book has a little map tucked into a pocket in the back, showing the exact places where the (sometimes fictional) events in the excerpt took place. All in all I like it but, as a semi-literate Italian reader, I wish the quotes were better signposted as sometimes they lack attributions so you have to guess which book the excerpt comes from.
Anyway, I shouldn’t complain because this blogpost is basically me looting the thing for quotes and then translating them into English. I justify this outrage by arguing that we anglophones are woefully ignorant of Torinese authors and this must stop. So let me introduce you to the following…
Edmondo De Amicis (1846-1908)
[H]ere I feel my mind is free. My thought spans the vast piazzas and launches itself through the very long streets, through the great sunburst of alleys fleeing from all sides towards the countryside. The buildings don’t attract a second glance; but for this exact reason they don’t distract you from the greatness of the whole or from the beauty of nature; indeed, here and there they draw themselves back to give room for the eye’s flight up to the Alps and to the hill. In no other city is so much green seen, so much blue, so much whiteness; no other has a laugh so fresh and a spring so splendid, the impression of a renovated world. And then, in so many years the city has transformed before my eyes, I constantly see and love in new faces the faces of the departed, I am enveloped in a cloud of memories at every step, I hear a thousand voices of people and things past that call to me, I drink again the air of youth—my country’s and my own. Here I delight in beauties that are nothing but my eyes illumined and colored by a ray from my own heart.
Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1971)
Our city, after all, is melancholy by nature. On winter mornings, it has a distinctive smell of the station and soot, spread through all the streets and down all the avenues; when morning comes, we find it in grey fog, and wrapped up in its scent. Sometimes, through the fog, a dim sunbeam is filtered through, tinting the fog pink and the snow-piles lilac, shining on the bare branches of plants; the snow, in the streets and along the avenues, has been shoveled and gathered into little piles, but the public gardens are still buried under a thick, untouched, fluffy blanket, a finger-high on the abandoned benches and on the rims of the fountains, the galloping clock has stopped, since time incalculable, say a quarter of an hour. Beyond the river the hill rises, that’s white with snow too but patched here and there with reddish brush; and at the top of the hill looms a circular orange building, once the Opera Nazionale Balilla. There is a little sunlight there, and the glass cupola of the Automobile Show gleams, and the river runs with a green twinkle under the great stone bridges, so the city even seems, for a moment, laughing and hospitable: but it’s a fleeting impression. The essential nature of the city is melancholy: the river, losing itself in distance, vanishes in a horizon of violet mist, which makes you think about sunset even at mid-day; and in that moment you breathe that same gloomy scent and industrial soot and hear the whistle of trains.
Cesare Pavese (1908-1950)
The asphalt of the avenues was scattered with potholes, with layers of leaves, with puddles. It seemed to have hailed. In the clear light the last red fornicating fires. The school, as ever, was intact. The old Domenico collected me, impatient to get home to see the disasters. Dawn was already coming on, at the ceased alarm, in the hour that everyone was coming out and some operator opens the door and filters the light (so great were the fires), and something is drunk, nice to meet again. He told me what had happened that night in our refuge where he used to sleep. No lessons that day, it was understood. For the rest, even the trams had stopped, wide open and empty, where the end of the world had surprised them. All the lines were broken. All the walls smudged as the crazy wings of a bird of fire […] A cyclist passed who, foot on the ground, told us that Turin was totally destroyed. There are thousands dead, –he told us. –They’ve flattened the station, they’ve burnt the markets. They said on the radio that they’re going to return tonight. And he went pedaling away, without turning back.
La casa in collina (1949)
Primo Levi (1919-1987)
Our laboratory resembled an old junk shop and the hold of a whaling boat. Apart from its offshoots which invaded the kitchen, the anteroom and even the bathroom, it consisted of one single room and of the balcony. On the balcony there were the scattered parts of a DKW motorbike which Emilio had bought disassembled, and which, he said, one day or another he would put together: the scarlet tank straddled the railing, and the motor, inside a mosquito net, became rusty as it was corroded by our fumes. Then there were some ammonia bottles, a residue of an epoch preceding my arrival, when Emilio made a living by dissolving gaseous ammonia in demi-johns of drinking water, selling them and tarnishing the neighborhood.
Elena Loewenthal (1960–)
That morning Moisìn came with his handcart to the place that is now called ‘the centre’ and at that time was where the city began. He looked for the ghetto, asked for directions, followed them and at a certain point raising his head from the ground saw for the first time that kind of lump that was the Mole under construction, for more than ten years now. Started in 1859 by commission of the Jewish University […] in 1875 the pharaonic construction site was ceded from the bloodless coffers of the community to the ruddier ones of the municipality of Torino, which saw the completion of the Mole Antonelliana only in 1888.
Italo Calvino (1923-1985)
The institute [Cottolengo] stretched through crowded and poor districts, through the total area of an entire district, comprising an asylum and hospitals and hospices and schools and convents, almost like a city within a city, encircled by a wall and subject to other rules. The contours were irregular, like a body gradually swollen by new bequests and buildings and initiatives: over the wall there poked the roofs of buildings and spires of churches and foliage of trees and smokestacks; where a public road separated one body of construction from another, elevated corridors joined them, as in certain old industrial establishments, augmented by the dictates of practicality and not of beauty…”
La giornata d’uno scrutatore (The Watcher )
Giovanni Arpino (1927-1987)
Into the sky of milk and ash there rose the ferrous scraps of the trams along the avenues. If that sky hadn’t resembled an enormous upside-down frying pan, there would perhaps have been visible, to the west, the thin and tormented noses of the Alps, and to the east the soft outline of the hill of Oltrepò. But only the great winds of March managed to clean the horizons, those winds so bizarre and whirling that they swept the city of Turin with whirlwinds of leaves, of foliage, of skirts, filing the gables and edges of palaces, changing the clouds into strips, brightening the veins of the porticos and female eyes.
Carlo Fruttero (1926-2012) & Franco Lucentini (1920-2002)
The piazza that in Torino is familiarly called Carlina is rich in monuments and contradictions. It ought to be dedicated to Carlo Emanuele II of Savoy (1634-1675), the thick, chalky group that rises in its centre don’t celebrate, as we might expect, the undertakings of that duke, but the glory of the count Camillo Benso di Cavour (1810-1861) to whom is owed the unity of Italy and on whose political foresight the Torinese of strict observance today nurture serious doubts. For allegorical reasons (but according to more gossipy historians, not so allegorical) the count seems surrounded by a certain number of half-naked women, not dissimilar to those portrayed on strip-club billboard overlooking one side of the piazza. Another side represents a baroque palace eternally in disrepair, eternally under restoration, the work of the architect Amedeo di Castellamonte (1610-1683). Another, the baroque church of Santa Croce, work of the architect Filippo Juvarra (1678-1736). Another, an eighteenth-century building that in 1814 saw the birth of the Carabinieri Corps, and that today hosts the Legion Command.
A che punto è la notte (1979)
Enrico Pandiani (1956-)
And there Barriera stretches out before me, Corso Giulio Cesare, the beating heart of absurdity. Arabs, Sudanese, Congolese who greet each other, ignore each other, talk shouting into cellphones as if they were giving orders to the world but maybe they were just asking how’s it going. The Chinese people in front of restaurants were getting ready to welcome customers who didn’t have money to pay for a decent lunch and offering the no-frills experience their frequenters expect. One that I know is from the Ivory Coast is leaning against a wall next to the pharmacy, where his clientele waits: he’s narrow in a faded grey jacket and smokes without taking the cigarette out of his mouth, in the lining of his pockets he has a little hashish for the kids who are coming out of school. The 4, the city tram that flies over Turin—whatever that means—whizzes past me and I quicken my pace, jump on a pile of snow massed against the rubbish skips and I climb aboard.