As a Detroit-area native, ruin porn generally irritates me. I’ve seen too many voyeuristic photographs of the sad remains of the Michigan Central Station. Where were all the rubberneckers when these monuments still might have been saved, before the city fell victim to recreational arson and scrap metal theft?
Photographs of decaying buildings do have some documentary value, though, either as a final record before demolition or as a last-ditch wake-up call for preservation efforts. The seventeenth-century Villa Il Maggiordomo, in Gerbido (part of Grugliasco) on the outskirts of Turin, is a case in point.
Circle of Guarino Guarini, Villa il Maggiordomo, Gerbido (Grugliasco), late 1670s-early 1680s, various interior and exterior views.
Source: Flickr / Giampaolo Squarcina (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The villa seems to have been constructed at approximately the same time as Guarino Guarini’s Palazzo Carignano in Turin (begun 1679), which it closely resembles in some respects. The convex central pavilion in Gerbido recalls the similar volume in the courtyard of the Palazzo Carignano, and the decorative details of the two buildings are also related. The villa’s owner was Valeriano Napione, a member of the household staff of Emanuele Filiberto, Principe di Carignano, who had commissioned the Turinese palace from Guarino Guarini. Napione’s position was maggiordomo to the prince, hence the name of his suburban villa. The villa has traditionally been associated with Guarini because of its links to the Palazzo Carignano, in fact a drawing for some windows at the Villa il Maggiordomo is preserved among the drawings for the Palazzo Carignano in the Archivio di Stato, Turin. The drawing, however, is not an autograph sheet by Guarini, but rather seems to have been drafted by an assistant, perhaps Giovanni Francesco Baroncelli.
For years, no interior photographs of the Villa il Maggiordomo were available. Colleagues in Turin inevitably failed to receive permission to enter the villa for viewing and documentation. Exterior photographs typically showed a deteriorating structure shot with a telephoto lens through a wrought iron gate and thick underbrush on the overgrown grounds.
Several years ago, though, interior photographs of the villa began circulating online, following the trend for ruin porn. Apparently the villa was now entirely abandoned, so that photography enthusiasts (and others) could just enter with no permission necessary. The images are shocking, depicting a building neglected for decades, apparently near collapse. One photographer, Giampaolo Squarcina, kindly made his images available on Flickr with a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license, and I am therefore grateful to be able to post them here.
A Happy End?
In view of these disturbing images, a recent thesis (tesi di laurea) prepared at the Politecnico di Torino in 2014 offers encouraging news. The author, Elisa Bellan, reports on initial preservation work undertaken to consolidate the building remains and considerations regarding a definitive restoration (apparently still pending) of the Villa Il Maggiordomo. Indeed, the current Google Maps satellite view of the building shows the roof covered with a blue tarp, at least preventing any additional water damage. One can only hope that the work will continue and that the owners will cooperate with the preservation authorities to save this important monument of the Piedmontese Baroque.
And the Michigan Central Station in Detroit? It may also be on the road to restoration. This week, BBC News reported that new windows were being installed in the building. Perhaps we’ve seen the last of ruin porn from these structures. In these two cases, it seems ultimately to have been a positive force for change.
* * *
For an extensive bibliography on the Villa Il Maggiordomo, consult the abstract page of the thesis by Elisa Bellan, Il progetto di restauro e risanamento conservativo della villa “Il maggiordomo” di Grugliasco : indagine storica e recupero dell’apparato decorativo, Rel. Tulliani, Jean Marc and Rava, Antonio. Politecnico di Torino, Corso di laurea in architettura per il restauro e valorizzazione del patrimonio, 2014.
A 1984 article by Bellan’s co-advisor (available online) includes photos of the villa in a better state of preservation just a few decades ago:
Antonio Rava, “Ricerche ed interventi su alcune facciate dipinte in Piemonte,” Bollettino d’Arte, supplement no. 6, November 1984, pp. 89-106. (On Villa Il Maggiordomo, see pp. 95-96.)