It’s not often you hear people waxing lyrical about Turin.The first person who tried to persuade me of its charms was Anna Zegna, granddaughter of Ermenegildo Zegna and president of Fondazione Zegna. It is filled, she told me, with enchanting old-world cafés, elegant arcades, grand squares, hidden treasures, tiny old-fashioned pasticcerie and haberdashers. Furthermore, because those charms are overshadowed by Venice, Florence and Rome, you can wander through its cloisters and round its museums and churches accompanied almost exclusively by Italians.
She was spot-on. Turin and Piedmont are like little gems that shine all the more brightly for being so rarely sung about. In Turin, the sense of history is palpable. Its street plan is based on an ancient Roman castrum, with a series of monumental interconnected squares leading to the royal palace. All around is the magnificent work of Guarini and Juvarra, two of the great baroque architects whom the dukes (and later kings) of Savoy had the very good sense to get to design many of their palaces and churches.
It’s a small city, home to around 900,000 people, but that is a large part of its charm. This makes it eminently walkable, and it combines wondrous treasures from the past with such up-to-date museums as the Museo dell’Automobile, celebrating not just Fiat and Ferrari but also Jaguar and other foreign beauties. Its star attractions are the Palazzo Reale (where the royal family lived until 1946 (don’t miss the fantastic van Dyck portrait of the children of Charles I); the Armoury (never did I think suits of armour could be so fascinating – displayed in splendid rooms designed by Juvarra in 1733); Galleria Sabauda (which has one of the best collections of Old Master paintings in all of Italy); and San Lorenzo (a richly decorated baroque church designed by Guarini). And weird as it may seem, nobody should miss the world-ranking collection of Egyptian artefacts brought back by a Piedmont-born French consul general stationed in Egypt during the Napoleonic Wars. Housed in a Guarini-designed palace, it is quite simply stupendous; its standout exhibit is the 14th-century BC tomb of Kha and Merit featuring the food, tools and accoutrements that were buried with them.
These treasures, then, are open to one and all, and shouldn’t be missed, but much of the joy of a visit to the city is to be had by visiting secret Turin, the one that only insider guides can unlock for you. This is where both Fine Art Travel and its extraordinarily knowledgeable and well-connected owners and founders Lord Charles FitzRoy and Jane Rae, together with the Italian version of Britain’s National Trust, FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano), come in. Fine Art Travel’s USP is insider access. It has spent years cultivating contacts all over Italy, but almost nowhere is this more important than in Turin, home to an enormous number of hugely successful industrialists and bankers who have used their own fortunes to fund a wide range of cultural and philanthropic projects, but who are famously private and don’t easily open up to outsiders. With Fine Art Travel, the normally closed doors can be prised open. Not only is there great art to be seen, but there are fascinating glimpses of the homes and gardens the Torinese have created, all of which give a richer, more intimate picture of the local way of life than merely visiting public buildings ever would.
There is Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, for instance, a towering presence in the world of contemporary art who opens up her own home for us – a large and beautiful townhouse in the city. It is a living tribute to her highly sophisticated tastes, which centre on art from the 1990s onwards (“All the old family oil paintings are in storage,” she tells me). Much of her love for contemporary art was sparked by an early visit to the Lisson Gallery in London. In the main reception room there is a Tony Cragg on one wall (formed from objects retrieved from the river and arranged on the surface in a carefully worked-out pattern) and in another room an Anish Kapoor, but the whole house is filled with playful, challenging sculptures, lights, objects, furniture, pictures and installations. “I never bought a work of art just to decorate my house,” she says. “I only buy work that explores or illuminates contemporary themes – loss of jobs, violence, technology” (a deceptively traditional‑looking Murano glass chandelier, for instance, is very untraditionally activated by an electronic device on the wall that lights it up according to a Morse code pattern derived from an Italian poem).
She has yet more challenging art in her Fondazione, all housed in an old industrial building refashioned for her by Claudio Silvestrin. Founded in 1995, it is a non-profit organisation whose main aim is to give artists a platform, to encourage discourse and interplay between artists and the public (most particularly the young). It is a wonderful, privileged insight into the passions and energy of a highly cultivated collector.
On the hills just outside Turin are a number of northern Italy’s most beautiful homes, holding fascinating art collections and quite astonishing gardens (some designed by the great Russell Page). Here too you need Fine Art Travel or a special FAI-organised trip if you want to see them. Up on the hill in a house with the most astounding views live former banker Marco Brignone and his wife Franca. They have amassed a collection of important and absorbing art, started 53 years ago. “The first piece I bought was a sculpture by the French artist Arman,” says Marco. Today the house is filled with names that have become famous, but more often were little known when the Brignones discovered them. Wherever one looks, the eye lights on extraordinary pieces of work – here a Richard Long (two particularly site-appropriate installations, one in the garden, with views across to the snow-capped Alps, another in the great conservatory), there a Julian Schnabel, in the dining room an early Michelangelo Pistoletto featuring photographs of the Brignones applied to a mirror in the artist’s typical style. There are also an early Jim Dine, an extraordinary Bruegel-like painting by Chinese artist Miao Xiaochum and much, much more. It’s a feast for the eyes. But when I ask which artists they would be buying today, they say it’s difficult – “too many of them are just trying to astonish us”. So these days the Brignones are busy collecting antique Chinese sculptures.
From here I travel to Villa Silvio Pellico – Vigna Barolo, a wildly romantic house built in 1780, with an adjoining small castle built later, around 1810. Once owned by the Marchioness of Barolo, today it’s mostly known for its Russell Page garden. If the thought of visiting a garden bores you, let me tell you that scarcely anybody could be less interested in horticulture than I am – I went along simply because it was in the schedule, but even I was moved by its sheer beauty. Page was one of the most revered gardeners of his time; his client list ranged from Sidney Bernstein (with whom he used to stay in Barbados) and the Agnellis (with whom he sailed on their yacht) to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, King Leopold III of Belgium, Babe Paley, Oscar de la Renta and many more. Owned today by Emanuele and Raimonda Gamna, the garden is generally agreed to be one of his finest works. Although Page’s design is only 70 years old, you would never know it: the parterres, the pools, the yew hedges all look as if they so totally belong that nothing else could ever have been there. Fine Art Travel guests often have lunch here surrounded by 500-year-old cedar trees, looking out over the garden to the Alps beyond. It’s as magical a place to be as any I could think of. If we’d had time, we could have gone on to the garden Page designed for the Agnellis at Villar Perosa, which will be on the agenda for those going on the Turin and Piedmont tour that Fine Art Travel is organising for next May.
But it’s not just the city and its surroundings that hide these special places. Within an hour or so of Turin is Castello della Manta, owned by FAI, which is responsible for a vast number of remarkable places, ranging from a barber shop and a newsstand to the grandest of palazzos. FAI has just opened a British-based branch, and in return for charitable donations, director Countess Maria Carolina di Valmarana has already organised a few truly special trips for its members. Just recently FAI took them to Milan, where tickets for La Bohème at La Scala were booked, as well as private dinners and drinks with Countess Giulia Maria Mozzoni Crespi on whose initiative FAI was founded – and more trips are in the pipeline. The castle at Manta, meanwhile, is a romantic building, with some parts dating back to the 12th century, but what makes it worth the visit is the baronial hall with frescoes of courtly heroes and heroines adorning all its walls – it is generally agreed to be a late gothic masterpiece.
What you may be wondering about is places to stay and, of course, that all-important ingredient of any visit to Italy: the food. Fine Art Travel uses both the Hotel Principi di Piemonte – housed in a splendid, somewhat solid-looking prewar building (but comfortable and as centrally placed as you could wish) – and the hipper, cooler and much newer NH Collection Torino Piazza Carlina, carved out of an old baroque palace, with the advantages of a big central courtyard for eating breakfast and having drinks, and a rooftop bar. Turin’s restaurants, not being beset by tourists as in Venice and Rome, know they have to rely on local patrons who won’t come back if the food isn’t any good, which means that they dish up some of the best cuisine in Italy. Not to be missed is Del Cambio, a Torinese institution, which opened back in 1757 and through whose doors Mozart, Nietzsche, Maria Callas and Audrey Hepburn have all passed. Its chandelier-lit, mirrored dining room is truly splendid – and in a back room is a collection of works by Pistoletto and furniture by Martino Gamper, all part of its restoration under its new young owners. But Fine Art Travel also likes to take its guests to lunch at the Whist Club – another Torinese establishment to which the great and the good belong, and in which only members and their guests can dine. Here are fantastic rococo decorations, as well as a rather vintage, venerable air.
The Turin I discovered, so full of unexpected delights and charms, is indeed still largely secret. Free of the crowds and the touts that detract from the delights of the country’s more famous sights, it is a wonderful destination, especially for those who have already been seduced by Italy’s many other splendours.