A Summer Souvenir of Superga

Souvenir spoon with view of Turin [Superga], late 19th century
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Turin was never a major stop on the Grand Tour. During the great age of pre-aviation tourism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the city served as a gateway for travelers entering Italy from the north before heading to more popular destinations such as Venice, Florence, or Rome. Thus, apart from devotional objects produced for pilgrims venerating the Shroud of Turin, relatively few typical souvenir items such as postcards, photo albums, painted porcelain, or other knickknacks representing the Piedmontese capital survive in public collections.

This souvenir spoon at the Metropolitan Museum in New York is a charming exception. The enameled bowl of the spoon bears a view of Filippo Juvarra’s church of Superga (1716-31) on a hill overlooking the city. The view prominently includes the funicular railway connecting the city (at 225 meters elevation) with the summit (at 672 meters). Since the railway opened in 1884, and the spoon was donated to the museum in 1900, we can date it to the final sixteen years of the nineteenth century. The top of the spoon’s handle features a bull, the symbol of the city of Turin.

Other spoons donated with the same extensive collection represent traditional tourist highlights in Italy and elsewhere in Europe: Rome (St. Peter’s, the Colosseum), Venice (Rialto, Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s), Florence (Palazzo Medici, Duomo, Piazza della Signoria), Naples (Bay of Naples, Pompeii), Potsdam, Dresden, Seville, Madrid, and many others. Meant for display rather than use, such objects still perform their intended function as reminders (“souvenirs”) of summer vacations long ago.

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Related Reading

In 2016, the Consiglio regionale del Piemonte presented an exhibition of ceramics featuring views of Piedmont, Il Piemonte sui piatti. The exhibition catalogue may be downloaded as a PDF from the Internet Archive. See p. 28 of the catalogue for plates with views of Superga.

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Review of Jöchner, Gebaute Entfestigung


Filippo Juvarra, Basilica of Superga, Turin, 1716-1731 (photograph c. 1939)
Source: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Fotograf: Unbekannt / Fel_055167-RE / Public Domain Mark

My review of Cornelia Jöchner, Gebaute Entfestigung. Architekturen der Öffnung im Turin des frühen 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts (Berlin: De Gruyter 2015) appears in the May issue of Kunstchronik. The book explores two architectural ensembles built outside Turin’s historic city walls – Superga, and Piazza Vittorio with the church of the Gran Madre di Dio. It analyzes these in the context of the spatial turn, situating them within a long-term process of defortification. Download a PDF of the review here.

Translating the title as Constructing Defortification: Architectures of Opening in Turin in the Early 18th and 19th Centuries, De Gruyter’s website provides the following description of the book:

How does a city become an open city after a long history of being walled? Turin is notable in this regard for two important architectural ensembles: the Superga Basilica and Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. Defortification means destruction as well as the creation of new spaces. The architectural features at the edges of Turin give evidence to these changes in a very specific way, for they contributed to a new political order in the city and country.

Torino, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele

Giuseppe Frizzi, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele (now Vittorio Veneto), Turin, 1825-30, with Ferdinando Bonsignore’s church of Gran Madre di Dio, 1818-31 (photograph before 1905)
Source: AKON/Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Other Reviews

Jöchner’s book has been widely reviewed, with the following two essays available online and open access. Of the two, I found Meinrad von Engelberg’s assessment of the volume quite similar to my own.

● Meinrad von Engelberg: [Rezension zu:] Jöchner, Cornelia: Gebaute Entfestigung. Architekturen der Öffnung im Turin des frühen 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts (= Studien aus dem Warburg-Haus; 14), Berlin 2014. In: H-ArtHist, Oct 2, 2015 (accessed 29 May 2016), http://arthist.net/reviews/11139.

● Ulrich Fürst: Rezension von: Cornelia Jöchner: Gebaute Entfestigung. Architekturen der Öffnung im Turin des frühen 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts, Berlin: de Gruyter 2015
in KUNSTFORM 17 (2016), Nr. 2, http://www.arthistoricum.net/kunstform/rezension/ausgabe/2016/2/.

Turin from Superga

James Mitan, 1776–1822, Turin from the Portico of the Superga Church, 1818-1820
Source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection / public domain

Historic Film on Baroque in Piedmont


This thirty-five minute film, Piemonte Barocco, was apparently produced to complement the enormous 1963 exhibition on Baroque art and architecture held in three venues in and around Turin, the Mostra del Barocco Piemontese. It is presented by Marziano Bernardi, a Turinese art critic who wrote for La Stampa for many years and was a prolific author.

Interestingly, the film offers some alternative views of Piedmontese Baroque art and architecture not otherwise represented in the official exhibition, with trips to Venaria Reale (then unrestored), a private Turinese drawings collection, and a significant private palace on the Piazza San Carlo.

The film was directed by Carlo Casalegno and posted to YouTube in April 2014 by the Consiglio Regionale del Piemonte with the permission of Rai Teche.

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Sequences, with approximate position in minutes: Opening credits (0:13); Booming postwar economy in Turin (0:50); introduction with Marziano Bernardi (MB) in Palazzo Reale (1:20); overview of buildings in the historic center of Turin and elsewhere in Piedmont (1:55); MB in Palazzo Reale discusses the palace and the Mostra del Barocco Piemontese (2:50); exhibition highlights by section, beginning with ceramics (5:04); metalwork (6:34); furniture (7:19); tapestry (8:06); MB at Venaria Reale, presentation of Venaria Reale (8:45); the Savoy dynasty’s transformation of Turin into their capital (10:04); Palazzo Reale (11:10); Venaria Reale and La Mandria (12:10); palaces in Turin (13:13); Filippo Juvarra, Baroque theater, scenography, ephemera, influence in painting and architecture (13:34); other Baroque themes, magnificence, the exotic, etc., in painting (17:30); genre painting (19:07); religion (19:40); MB in cappella della Sindone, Baroque themes of science, death (20:15); Guarino Guarini (22:38); survey drawings of the Shroud chapel by Mario Passanti (22:47); churches with popular cults, Corpus Domini, Consolata (23:25); MB visits Luigi Cibario, great-grandson of 19th-c. Turinese historian, views private collection of drawings (23:55); Palazzo Solaro del Borgo with Accademia Filarmonica in Piazza San Carlo (26:50); Stupinigi and the hunt (30:19); provincial churches and palaces (32:25).

Palazzo Carignano: “Good Masses Spoiled by Bad Detail”

Guarini and Juvarra Reception in 1903

“Hideous,” “ugly,” “unsightly”: the following extensive passage from Russell Sturgis, How to Judge Architecture (New York: Baker & Taylor, 1903): 169-172, requires little commentary. It can stand alone as an example (now inadvertently humorous) of Baroque architecture reception at the turn of the last century. In his invective against ornament, Sturgis prefers Filippo Juvarra’s Palazzo Madama to Guarino Guarini’s Palazzo Carignano – but not much. Palazzo Madama is “a failure”, Palazzo Carignano “a disfigurement.”

Despite the mistaken caption, the accompanying image of Palazzo Carignano (upper photo on plate below) redeems itself by featuring the palace as it appeared before Carlo Ceppi’s neo-Baroque frontispiece was added in 1883-4. For more on Sturgis, see this biography provided by Avery Library, which holds the Sturgis Architectural Drawings and Papers in its collection.

Sturgis Carignano Madama

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“Plate LV shows the front of a well-known building in Turin [i.e. Palazzo Carignano], and here architectural detail has been so handled that it is indeed a disfigurement. If the reader will look past the astonishing window casings and the really hideous filling of panels like those in the pilasters of the basement, he will see a well understood front. … Here are six ‘flats’ of rooms, all abundantly lighted, and yet the front has been laid out in such a way that it has all the elements of a very imposing and stately structure. Even the singular soft rounding, with a plan made up of several curves, of the projecting central mass which includes the porch of entrance, is capable of perfectly dignified, and even stately, treatment. The appearance above of the great rotunda which holds the staircase, completes the composition of this central mass, and leaves one regretting that it might not be given to some modern designer of good taste, and a hard hand on the vagaries of his assistants, to work out the problem of this curious central mass, so manifold and so capable of unity.

“one cannot be expected to stand very long in front of such a building; it is a monster”

“But, now, if one leaves for a moment that abstract way of regarding the whole front and allows those window casings to secure his attention, why then all is lost, of course: one cannot be expected to stand very long in front of such a building; it is a monster, but it is that merely because of the exceptionally ugly and wholly unreasonable gim-cracks that are stuck all over it. If you should take the Hermes of Olympia and dress him like those ‘fantasticals’ at an old fashioned Paris masked ball, you would no doubt produce a very unsightly object and it would take the eye of an expert in human form, a sculptor, namely, to discover the beauty of the figure within.

“That Turin building is of about 1690; see now what the reaction brought forth and what gravity of design was possible to the artists of thirty years later in the same city! There seems no doubt that this front of the Palazzo Madama (see Plate LV) was built by Filippo Juvara about 1715. To look at it is a rest indeed after the enormities of the Palazzo Carignano: and yet even here one finds himself wishing that the wretched device of carved trophies of arms, as the single motive of the exterior sculpture, were absent here. Sculptured ornament was beyond the strength of the eighteenth century: when they tried to introduce it, then the result was a failure.”

Note: The quote in the post title here, “Good Masses Spoiled by Bad Detail,” is taken from Sturgis’s page heading on p. 171.

Image: Palazzo Carignano (above) and Palazzo Madama (below), both in Turin, from Russell Sturgis, How to Judge Architecture (New York: Baker & Taylor, 1903): plate LV facing p. 172.
Source: Internet Archive / public domain

John Singer Sargent Sketches Guarini and Juvarra

John Singer Sargent Metropolitan Museum

Dome of San Lorenzo and Campanile, Turin
John Singer Sargent (American, Florence 1856–1925 London), ca. 1877–78
Pen and ink and graphite on off-white wove paper, 9 x 11 3/4 in. (22.9 x 29.8 cm)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950, 50.130.141u

The exhibition of John Singer Sargent watercolors currently at the Brooklyn Museum (before traveling to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in October) offers a good excuse to reexamine some of Sargent’s other works on paper. Undoubtedly better known to Americanists than scholars of Piedmontese Baroque architecture, this Sargent sketch of Guarini’s San Lorenzo dome along with Juvarra’s upper levels of the Turin cathedral campanile captures the same sun-dappled play of light as many of the watercolors. The sketch’s neutral, documentary quality seems to reflect a newly objective approach to Baroque monuments after a century of anti-Baroque criticism.

Perhaps some distaste for Guarini lingered, however. Sargent ended up focusing more closely on Juvarra, sketching three other sheets with the cathedral campanile alone, today in the Fogg Museum at Harvard (here, here, and here).

The comparison with J. M. W. Turner’s sketches of the same buildings a little over a half-century earlier is instructive. Turner’s Façade of S. Giovanni, the Cathedral at Turin, Piazza Castello, Turin, and Campanile and Dome of Cathedral at Turin (all from one of his northern Italian sketchbooks of 1819 now in the Tate Gallery) reproduce the same architectural features, along with the dome of the Cappella della Sindone. But Turner’s sketches are less precise, more atmospheric than documentary, and often unfinished.

While Turner and Sargent clearly had different priorities with their sketches, one cannot help speculating about how the comparison might illustrate starkly contrasting attitudes toward Baroque architecture in Regency England and expatriate American circles in later nineteenth-century Italy.

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Stephanie L. Herdrich and H. Barbara Weinberg, with Marjorie Shelley, American Drawings and Watercolors in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: John Singer Sargent (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000): 154-155.

Dal Borromini al Guarini


In honor of Guarino Guarini’s birth on today’s date in 1624, watch the film Dal Borromini al Guarini (1976), conceived by the architectural historian Paolo Marconi, directed by Vittorio Armentano for the Enciclopedia dell’arte italiana, and available on the Archivio Storico Istituto Luce / Cinecittà website.

Viewed from 2013, the voice-over narration of the fifty-minute documentary seems to emerge from a historiographic time capsule forgotten long ago. The images, however, include rare views of the apex of the Cappella della Sindone cupola, and they document the condition of several buildings (including San Lorenzo and the Palazzo Carignano) before the restoration campaigns of recent decades.

The film’s most egregious error confuses Guarini’s unexecuted church project for the Padri Somaschi in Messina with his executed facade of the Santissima Annunziata there, destroyed in the tragic earthquake of 1908 (15:45). And the script presents some puzzles: Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane is missing entirely, and Bernini plays no role whatsoever in the story line. The film is truly a “figlio del suo tempo,” as the narrator remarks about Guarini (16:50). Occasionally instructive or compelling images still make it well worth watching, though, and it is an interesting exercise in presenting Baroque architecture to a general audience.

Buildings featured, with position in minutes: Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza (0:55); Cappella della Sindone (6:30); San Lorenzo (11:15); Collegio di Propaganda Fide (18:45); Oratorio dei Filippini (21:00); urban project for San Martino al Cimino (23:06); San Giovanni in Laterano (24:13); Palazzo Carpegna (27:00); Palazzo Carignano (29:34); Collegio dei Nobili (35:00); Guarinian influences in Bohemia (37:00); Municipio, Bra (38:20); Santa Chiara, Bra (39:28); Santuario della Visitazione, Vallinotto (44:00); Mole Antonelliana (47:15); Basilica di Superga (49:07); Sant’Agnese in Agone (50:30).