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Perhaps you’ve guessed by now: Turin isn’t all that it seems. According to those in the know, it stands at the vortex of two mystical triangles: a black magic triangle (Turin, London and San Francisco) and a white magic one (Turin, Prague and Lyon). Around the city, 230 sculpted figures are said to represent aspects of the energy flowing out of this unique geometry. Not a few of these are gruesome masks designed to ward away evil; there's one for every window of the Royal Palace.
Most Torinesi know that the gate of the Royal Palace, guarded since 1846 by the benign underworld deities Castor and Pollux is the most magical spot in the city, where good vibrations flow. Underneath the Giardini Reali’s Triton fountain, they say, lies Emanuele Filiberto's alchemy cave, where the Iron Head sought the philosopher’s stone. He was (this is documented) a friend of Nostradamus, who visited Turin and predicted the birth of a son, Carlo Emanuele I, after giving the duke and his wife a ‘magic oil’; he also predicted the year Carlo Emanuele would die, ‘when a nine comes before a seven’ (he died at the age of 69). In 1983, when the house where Nostradamus lodged on Via Michele Lessona burned down, a stone with a mysterious inscription was found in the garden wall, dated 1556: ‘Nostradamus stayed here, where there is Paradise, Hell, Purgatory. I call myself Victory. Who honours me will have glory, who disdains me will know complete ruin.’
Some say it is the presence of the Shroud that attracts the forces of good and evil. Certainly the city's own magus, Gustavo Rol (1903–94), was a good Christian who discouraged belief in the occult. Son of a wealthy Turin banker, Rol was famous for mind-reading, painting watercolours without touching the paper, passing through solid walls, and reading books without taking them off the shelf. He called his gifts ‘extraordinary possibilities’, which he had since the age of 23, when he discovered ‘a tremendous law that links the chromatic vibrations of the colour green with the sound of the fifth note on the musical scale and certain thermal vibrations: the secret of sublime consciousness.’ He was consulted by Mussolini (and told him that Italy would lose the war and that he’d be shot), Charles de Gaulle (who told a minister afterwards to beware of Rol, because such a mind-reader could pick up French state secrets), Federico Fellini (who became a close friend), JFK and Ronald Reagan; for Albert Einstein he made a rose appear out of thin air. He never did anything for money, but never let himself be studied, either, describing himself merely as ‘the gutter that channels water falling from the roof.’
Medieval Italians, even in isolated villages, had a near-perfect instinct for creating streets and squares with a maximum of delight, a sense of urban design that depended not on paper plans and geometry, but on arranging buildings and monuments to form a composition, as a painter would. The result was asymmetrical, seemingly haphazard townscapes that always seem somehow ‘right’; to explore their subtleties, walk through a village or town and see how the composition changes every few steps. Unexpected perspectives and angles, and carefully planned surprises as you turn a corner, are all part of their art. With the passion for geometry and order that began with the Baroque – Turin’s plan is a prime example – they slowly lost the knack. Now, rather belatedly, in a reaction to the dull dystopian sameness of modern cities and sprawling suburbs, some planners are beginning to look towards the ‘Italian village model’ for ideas that might recapture some of the visual delight that draws people to be out and about, and create a sense of community, while leaving the surrounding countryside open for agriculture and recreation.
Although the hill towns of Tuscany hog most of the attention, many villages in Liguria, clinging tenaciously to the mountains or coastal rocks, have arranged their buildings in a tiny space with the eye of a Michelangelo; visit a few, and you will soon notice how urbane a place of 300 souls can be, closely knit but never dull, with narrow lanes and steps, vaults and archivolts. Bell towers double as defensive towers – in Lingueglietta the church itself, with nice economy, moonlighted as a castle. By the sea, houses are painted intense colours – warm ochres, reds and pinks – so their sailors and fishermen could spot them from afar, but also to beautify the village. Many of the villas and palaces that seem rather austere in comparison originally had trompe-l’œil frescoes on their façades imitating architectural features.
There’s a whole Ligurian vocabulary for streets: carrugio, caréra, chu, ciassa, chibo (a shadowy side street), capitoli (steep vaulted stairs, easy to defend) up to a crösa (a boulevard designed for fancy villas). A favourite technique for building on hills is in concentric rings crisscrossed by narrow chibi; two examples are the medieval quarter of San Remo and a hill-town above Bordighera, both called La Pigna (pine cone). One town, Varese Ligure, was planned by its feudal lords in a cosy circle in 1300.
In the early days, separate baptistries and churches offered an opportunity to create architectural ensembles in a piazza, the idea that created so many great city centres in Tuscany, reflected in small Ligurian towns like Albenga. The late 16th century introduced a new fad for building oratories near the church, creating a sacred area (sagrata), which was set apart with a risseu, a black-and-white pebble mosaic – one of the most spectacular examples is in Moneglia. Space, however, was often very tight, leading to imaginative solutions – a prime example is Montalto Ligure’s complex of church and oratory built on different levels. Other villages achieve remarkable theatrical effects, such as tiny Búggio’s unique piazzetta principale, which includes a stone bridge. Arcola’s Piazza della Parrocchiale could be an opera set, with its grand stair and balustrade; Apricale’s main square is so perfect that it is used as a stage for a summer theatre festival.
Best of all, unlike the villages perchés on the Côte d’Azur, Liguria’s villages have not been converted into arty trinket shopping malls. Although emigration and the lure of easy money on the coast have led to a decline in population over the past 150 years, and a few villages, inevitably, have become clusters of second homes, the hill towns are still places where people live as they have for centuries. They could have all moved down to the coast, or to the cities, but then they would be leaving too much behind.
© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls