A Panorama of Turin

Torino, Panorama generale

Torino, Panorama generale, ca. 1914
Source: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Fotograf: Unbekannt / Fel_031762-RE / Public domain mark

The rich online image collections of the ETH Zürich hold countless treasures, including aerial photographs, historic bookplates, the collection of the Fotostiftung Schweiz, historic scientific instruments, field research photography in geology and botany, and historic photographs of buildings in Zurich. Many images are available with some type of Creative Commons license, or are in the public domain. A great deal of the collection consists of postcards, with some unusual examples such as this five-part accordion-folded panorama of Turin dating to around 1914.

The photographs used in the panorama were apparently taken from the Monte dei Cappuccini, on the east side of the Po River just outside the historic center of the city. The leftmost image looks south-southwest, upstream along the Po, toward the Castello del Valentino. Moving from left to right and facing westward, the images successively pan from southwest to north-northwest, while the final, rightmost image looks northeast toward the basilica of Superga. Near the right edge of the central image, the spire of the Mole Antonelliana punctuates the skyline. Together, the five photographs pan well over 180°. The Po runs along the foreground of the entire panorama, while the Alps form a continuous backdrop, a vivid illustration of Turin as the “città subalpina.”

The ETH image archive also holds similar panoramas of numerous other cities and landscapes. Besides many variations on Alpine panoramas, these include Berlin, Bologna, Budapest, Lugano, Lyon, Palermo, Valletta, and Oahu!

A Souvenir Shroud of Turin

Replica of the Shroud of Turin, possibly 19th century, Italian, painted cloth, H. 7 3/4″ x W. 21″ (19.7 x 53.3 cm)
Gift of Coudert Brothers, 1888
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 88.3.45

With Easter approaching, the annual sindonology season is upon us. This year’s curiosity comes from the vast, encyclopedic collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: a miniature replica of the Shroud of Turin. While the original relic is around 4.5 meters long, this small version measures just over a half-meter in length.

According to the museum’s catalogue record, the replica is painted on the cloth and was acquired in 1888. The image of the Shroud – complete with the burn marks from the fire in Chambéry in 1532 – is surrounded with a floral border, an inscription, images of symbols and instruments of the passion at the corners, and two baskets of flowers at either side. The textile probably dates to the nineteenth century, and must have been intended as a devotional souvenir for pious pilgrims to the venerated relic.

The Metropolitan Museum also holds a photographic souvenir of the Shroud of Turin in its collection. The negative image of the face on the textile was taken by Giuseppe Enrie and dates to the 1931 ostension of the Shroud. The museum’s website offers an extremely informative catalogue entry on the photo and its context in Enrie’s career.

The video below gives a glimpse of the souvenirs available for contemporary pilgrims to the relic.

A souvenir stand at a recent ostension of the Shroud

Summer Postcards

Last week the Austrian National Library launched its digitized postcard portal AKON Ansichtskarten Online with over 75,000 historic postcards available to browse and download. The AKON portal supplements several other similar online resources such as the E-Pics Image Archive at the ETH Zurich, which includes a large group of historic postcards assembled by the Swiss collector Adolf Feller. Both collections focus primarily on European postcards. Many of these images provide valuable information about buildings or urban ensembles now destroyed or dramatically altered, while others offer amusing presentations of familiar sites.

Good online collections emphasizing American postcards include the Boston Public Library’s Tichnor Brothers Collection, the National Trust Library Historic Postcard Collection at the University of Maryland, and the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery (here search under the genre “Postcards”).

Most images are freely available to use and download under a variety of Creative Commons licenses or public domain designations. The navigation on the AKON site is intuitive but slightly clumsy, based on a zoomable world map. The ETH site includes extensive metadata with its images, automatically creating captions.

A loose sampling of postcards from these collections follows, grouped under the headings “Work” and “Play.” The first category features sites that have occupied me professionally during the past year, while the second shares snapshots of my summer vacation. Click any image to link to its source.


Torino, Palazzo Madama, Castello Medioevale, Mono. Vitt. Emanuele, II. Ricordo Nazionale

Torino, Palazzo Madama, Castello Medioevale, Mono. Vitt. Emanuele, II. Ricordo Nazionale

Torino, Veduta del Po, colla Grand Madre di Dio ed il monte dei Cappuccini

Torino, Veduta del Po, colla Grand Madre di Dio ed il monte dei Cappuccini



Roma, Panorama dalla Cupola di S. Pietro

Roma, Panorama dalla Cupola di S. Pietro

Roma, Piazza S. Pietro, Ispirazioni Divine

Roma, Piazza S. Pietro, Ispirazioni Divine



Chicago Skyline

Macatawa MI

Ottawa Beach Holland MI

P.S.: The Boston Public Library gives an incorrect location for Lake Macatawa – it is in Ottawa County in western Michigan.

Villa Il Maggiordomo

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.

Palazzo Carignano courtyard

Guarino Guarini, Palazzo Carignano courtyard, Turin, 1679-1683.
Source: Flickr / Bernard Blanc (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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.

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further reading

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.)

Double Vision: Early Photograph of SS. Annunziata, Messina

Annunziata Messina 1860 Sevaistre

This stereoscopic albumen print of the Piazza dell’Annunziata, Messina, by the French-Italian photographer Eugène Sevraistre dates to c. 1860, and is thus probably the earliest known photograph of Guarini’s façade of the Santissima Annunziata in the Sicilian city. The Theatine church was consecrated exactly two hundred years before the photograph was taken, and destroyed in the devastating Messina earthquake of December 1908.

The photograph gives valuable information about the urban context of the church, complementing other surviving images of it. Interestingly, the photograph underscores the apparently axial relationship of the church portal to Andrea Calamech’s 1572 statue of Don Giovanni d’Austria, the victor of the naval battle against the Ottoman Empire at Lepanto in 1571. Don Giovanni, an illegitimate son of Emperor Charles V, had led his fleet to victory starting from the Messina harbor. It would be nice to know when the statue was placed at this location; later images appear to show the statue farther away from the church. Were the Theatines making an intentional political statement in aligning their church with it, trying to link themselves to the Habsburg dynasty and the conqueror of the “infidels”?

Eugène Sevaistre, Piazza Catalani già piazza dell’Annunciata – Monumento a Don Giovanni d’Austria, Messina, c. 1860, with lower story of Guarino Guarini’s Santissima Annunziata façade.
Photograph: LombardiaBeniCulturali

Measuring Belief: The Shroud of Turin, Analog and Digital

Balliani SindoneCamillo Balliani, Ragionamenti della Sacra Sindone (Turin: 1610), unpaginated front matter.
Image: Google Books

With the second-ever televised ostension planned for Holy Saturday (this year 30 March), and the introduction of a new “Shroud app,” the custodians of the Shroud of Turin once again are using contemporary technology to promote devotion to the controversial relic. They thus continue a centuries-old tradition already well established when the Shroud first arrived in Turin in 1578.

Relics witness to a holy event or person in the past, serve as aids to devotion, and are themselves occasionally objects of devotion. An implicit proof of authenticity is inherent in a relic’s very existence: the relic vividly evokes historic events with its materiality in the here and now, confirming that the events actually took place even once eyewitnesses are gone. The relic itself provides a kind of “proof” for believers that simultaneously challenges the skeptic to question and critically examine. The Shroud, ostensibly bearing traces of Christ’s own blood, is a particularly important relic that demands the devotion due to God himself.*

SINDONEThe Shroud of Turin
Image: Wikimedia Commons / public domain

The testing and examination of the Shroud has increased in recent decades, with results dividing believers and non-believers into ever more entrenched camps. But the use of quantification to describe the relic is not new. In 1610, for instance, Camillo Balliani published his Ragionamenti della Sacra Sindone, a devotional book on the Shroud, which featured an image of the textile entitled “Ritratto della Sacra Sindone,” the “Portrait of the Holy Shroud” (above). Two points labeled “A” and “B” flank the base of the image, providing a fixed length to assist the faithful in calculating the dimensions of the cloth. The caption below explains:

“The measure of the Holy Shroud, and of the Image of Our Savior which remains on it.
From A to B, that is from one point to another, thirty-six times [this measure] is the length of the Shroud.
From A to B, twelve times [this measure] is the height, or rather width of it.
From A to B, sixteen times [this measure] is the length of the Image of the Lord.
From A to B, four times [this measure] is the width of the shoulders.”

The A to B measurement given directly on the page cleverly sidestepped the confusion of regional unit measures then prevalent in Europe. It also required no advanced numeracy among its readers, since the necessary calculations or mental constructions could be performed geometrically with simple counting of iterations. (What the caption does not calculate is the gigantic size of the three angels displaying the Shroud, each of them easily twice the size of the life-sized image of Christ.)

Passion relicsBalliani’s Shroud image thus belongs to the “metric relics” dating back to the medieval period, a group of artifacts – particularly those of the Passion – for which devotional function was enhanced by indication of the relics’ actual size.** Such metric relics took their first technological leap (from manuscript to print) already during the sixteenth century, just decades before Balliani.

Anonymous German, Twelve Holy Relics,
with measurement scale, drawing, 17th century

Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Devotion to the Shroud and examination of the textile again entered a new technological era in 1898, when the first photographs of the relic were taken by Secondo Pia.  As he was developing the photographic plates, Pia realized the Shroud itself was a negative of the body’s image (Scott, p. 302) The negative of this negative produced a positive image, an even more convincing simulacrum of the dead Christ, and one that was readily disseminated through mass print reproduction. The faithful were fascinated by this discovery, but at the same time it ushered in a technological arms race between believers and skeptics which continues to this day.

Shroud negative Gallica

Shroud of Turin, negative detail of face, 1932
Image: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France / Planet News

Despite their transmission via new media technologies, photography and measurement also dominate the most recent devotional aids. The new Shroud app will reportedly allow users to inspect an ultra-high resolution image of the relic on mobile devices, a function already available online on several Shroud-related websites. The Shroud Scope at sindonology.org is perhaps the most elaborate of these tools, since it permits users to measure between any two click points, adjusting for the zoom scale, and it also documents blood stains, burn marks, poker holes, and the sites from which samples have been taken for carbon-14 dating. This clickable measurement function thus continues the manuscript and print tradition of metric relics in a renewed technological leap, this time to digital media.

As a devotional exercise, the action of tracing these images of the textile with the cursor reassures believers that the relic withstands the scrutiny of contemporary technology, while maintaining the substantial historic traditions of earlier ostensions and devotions, albeit in transposed format. The nearly haptic process of virtually inspecting the digitized Shroud millimeter by millimeter recalls the physical manipulations of earlier metric relics, or the spatial and temporal dimensions of other devotions focusing on the Passion, such as Stations of the Cross or Sacri Monti chapels, which unfold as the pilgrim moves through a prescribed sequence of experiences.


Wolf Traut after Albrecht Dürer, [The Hand of God, or an invitation to prayer], woodcut, 1511
The new media of the Renaissance: here, the hand of God appears as a sort of heavenly cursor pointing out scenes from the Passion
Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum

What both sides in the Shroud controversy sometimes seem to forget in the race for technological confirmation and dissemination of their positions is that the message of Easter need not be linked to the authenticity (or not) of this particular textile. Belief cannot be measured in millimeters and pixels, nor dated with carbon-14.

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*On the particular properties of the Shroud as a relic, see John Beldon Scott, Architecture for the Shroud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003): 115-117, and passim.

**Among the rich literature on metric relics, their use for devotion and as amulets, two examples available online may be cited here: Adolf D. Jacobi, “Heilige Längenmasse: Eine Untersuchung zur Geschichte der Amulette,” Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde 29 (1929): 1-17, 181-216; and Kathryn M. Rudy, “Kissing Images, Unfurling Rolls, Measuring Wounds, Sewing Badges and Carrying Talismans: Considering Some Harley Manuscripts through the Physical Rituals they Reveal,” Electronic British Library Journal (2011): article 5.