On our last day in Piedmont, we finally made it to the Castello Di Rivoli, the Savoy palace just north of Turin which was converted into a museum of contemporary art in 1984. I had been once before, but only for a cocktail party. I didn’t see the point of it. This time I did: a grand, half derelict Royal palace, emptied of its contents and only half restored, used as a setting for installation art. Richard Long, Joseph Kosuth, Rebecca Horn, Tony Cragg, Mona Hatoum, as well as artists of the Arte Povera. Each was given a room to adapt. Each room is an installation in its own right, establishing a satisfying tension between the art and its setting, vastly more successful as an experience than the nearby Castello Di Venaria, likewise stripped of all original contents, but now filled with fake touristic gizmos, trying to fill the void.
In the heat of the afternoon, we went to a Cistercian monastery in the middle of the plain north of Saluzzo. It was overrun by a party of elderly bicyclists. We sat in the cloister, had coca-cola in the bar, and enjoyed the agricultural calm, with gateposts reminiscent of Vanbrugh and a linenfold pulpit:
I had forgotten how grand the Savoy Palace at Racconigi is, much of it nineteenth-century on an earlier core, with a picture gallery of the Savoyards established in the 1920s (the Kings of Savoy lived in it till the 1940s when they were exiled to Portugal) and grand plasterwork decoration in the Sala d’Ercole and Sala di Diana by Gianni Battista Borra, after he had gone on the expedition with Robert Wood to Asia Minor. But no photography was allowed and it was too far to walk across the park to the nineteenth-century brick Orangery (last time we were allowed to drive). We retreated for lunch to La Posta in Cavour, which has a pair of weighing scales outside so you can weigh yourself before lunch and after.
As the weather has improved, I’ve been able to get a better sense of Bagnolo and its surroundings. It’s in the lee of the mountains, with clear mountain air. In the valley there are rice fields and vineyards and plantations of kiwi trees. As in all parts of Italy, but particularly northern Italy, the countryside has been devastated by lack of planning laws, so that one has to get a sense of an older Italy and of small-scale farming communities on the hillside. The snow is melting on the Alps, but there is always the sense of the mountains in the background. The local industry is quarrying and there are small stone cutting yards everywhere, employing Chinese as cheap labour. It’s not surprising that Piedmont is the home of Slow Food as everywhere there are signs of local food production – the specialist cheese shops, the food markets in every town, the bread still warm from the oven. As the Italian economy has collapsed, they have gone back to work on the land.
Tonight we had a tour of Consolata’s garden, a magical survival of four hundred years of d’Isola planting, supposedly the model for the garden in Italo Calvino’s Il Barone Rampante. We wandered along the old beech avenues past overgrown parterres to the house with its wall paintings of knights and a frescoed underground chapel.
I’ve always liked Turin: a city of grand baroque churches, gloomy nineteenth-century arcades and overpriced cafés. It’s a hard working city, full of men in well cut tweed sits, where Nietzsche wrote five books in the space of a year (see Lesley Chamberlain, Nietzsche in Turin). Here are some of the things we saw and enjoyed on a day pottering round the centre.
The brickwork of the Palazzo Carignano:
The last time I visited the Egyptian Museum about ten years ago it was magnificently dusty and uncared for, redolent of the early days of Egyptomania when Bernardino Drovetti was able to loot large numbers of antiquities whilst serving as Napoleon’s consul and then flog them to the King of Savoy. Since then it has been in restauro, overseen by Saverio Isola. We had a wonderful tour with a curator who was passionately knowledgeable. He showed us early mummies:
The decorated chests which contained human remains: