Turin: Diminishing glory

Turin: Diminishing glory
Photo Credit: Orijit Sen

Turin, in Italy, may continue to wear its decay with as much dignity as it had a century ago

Pankaj Mishra
October 13 , 2014
06 Min Read

When, in April 1888, Nietzsche arrived in Turin he found a city diminished. In the 16th century, it had been the grand capital of the Duchy of Savoy, and then the political and intellectual centre of the Risorgimento, the movement for Italian political unification. When the newly unified Italy moved its capital to Florence, Turin’s industrial resurgence was still some years away. Not surprisingly, Nietzsche, a refugee from modernising Europe, fell for it immediately.

“This is a city I can use now!” he wrote to a friend. “What a worthy and serious city! Not at all a metropolis, not at all modern, as I had feared: rather, it is a city of seventeenth-century royalty, which has but one commanding taste in all things, that of the court and the nobles. Aristocratic tranquility in everything has been preserved; there are no nasty suburbs.”

I remember reading this letter in India in the late 1980s, before I had visited Europe. In my eyes Nietzsche’s last years had a tragic grandeur: the solitary genius wandering anonymously across Europe, full of dire premonitions of the disasters awaiting the continent as it entered the nihilistic age of nationalism and industrial capitalism. And, among all the places where Nietzsche had lived, I wanted most to visit Turin, the place where one winter morning his clear-sightedness finally became a disease.

In 2003, when I finally travelled to Turin, the city had clearly changed. Before and after the Second World War it had been Italy’s industrial capital, largely due to the Fiat factory that was based just outside the centre. Its suburbs, though not nasty, seemed as bleak as those of any European city. Much of the city was heavily bombed — the war forms the backdrop to Cesare Pavese’s great novel The House on the Hill (1949).

But it wasn’t hard to see in the Baroque centre — the Alps forming a romantic backdrop — the city that Nietzsche had known: opulent palaces built by the House of Savoy, long arcaded avenues of hard stuccoed yellow and brown buildings, flagstone pavements, and the piazzas that were big without losing their sense of intimacy.

The city had retained some of its confident aristocratic air and a quality that was oddly placeless — unlike most Italian cities, Turin seems little touched by the Renaissance — but also uniquely European. And, almost by miracle, it seemed to have avoided being overwhelmed by the signs of the global culture of consumerism that now blight not only the cities of ‘Free Europe’ but also those of the formerly unfree world: Prague, Beijing, Calcutta.

On my first day in Turin, I walked to Via Carlo Alberto, where Nietzsche had spent a few months in a room in a four-storey building called the Galleria Subalpina. On Via Roma, the city’s main shopping street, there were outlets of Armani, Versace, and Gucci; but there were also smaller shops selling leather goods and clothes — the products of Italy’s family-owned small businesses and industries — and the city centre seemed remarkably free of the Starbucks and McDonalds and other multinational brand-name stores that give so many old European cities their dreary modernity.

Old-fashioned bookshops — often tucked away in little alleys — were still ubiquitous in Turin. The elegant little volumes by Einaudi and Adelphi gave the impression if not of a still flourishing and deepening European culture then of a heritage of reflection and complexity.

The city had been in decline for some time, even while the Italian economy was booming, and it now had a rapidly ageing and diminishing population. Old Italian couples roamed in the piazzas. The city was free of the bus-loads of tourists that render Florence, Rome and Venice both exuberant and uninhabitable in summer. But it was untouched by the desolation of Lisbon of which Turin initially reminded me — the desolation of the city that had lost its imperial glory too early. Instead, it had an un-Italian melancholy, and, sitting in a dark café while rain fell outside on the cobbled streets, it was not hard to imagine how the city may have worked upon its famous writers, who either went mad (Nietzsche), or killed themselves (Pavese, Primo Levi).

I went again to Turin this year, shortly after spending a few weeks in China. The city had hosted the Winter Olympics in February. But the renewal I had been reading about seemed confined to a few parts of the city. Fiat’s old factory now houses a long shopping mall and the city’s first five-star hotel. A trendy new café stands on the site of Nietzsche’s lodgings. But its attempt to attract foreign tourists doesn’t seem to be working. Facing the smorgasbord of pleasures in Italy, tourists are unlikely to plump for Turin.

 In any case, much larger changes are overtaking not just Turin but also Italy. Travelling through China, the momentous process of globalisation became clearer to me; and no place in Western Europe seems more adversely affected by it than Italy. The country’s family-owned small- and medium-sized businesses that I had so admired are simply unable to compete with the factories of China.

The mood of the young man who drove me from the airport was grim. Italian companies, including Fiat, were looking for cheap labour in other parts of the world. Unemployment was likely to rise. Italy registered zero economic growth in the previous four years; and neither the recently elected Romano Prodi nor his rival Berlusconi seem able to do anything about it.

 But Turin, its old couples shuffling through the arcades, seemed as serenely indifferent as ever to the rise and fall of Italy’s fortunes. One afternoon I went to the National Museum of Cinema, which is located inside the Mole Antonelliana, the historic synagogue with a distinctive spire that served as the backdrop in the many Olympics-inspired pictures of Turin.

I sprawled on a red-silk upholstered chaise longue and watched clips from Fellini and Godard projected on to the ceiling. As the young Marcello Mastroianni and Jean-Paul Belmondo strode across the screen, I felt an odd pang of nostalgia — odd, because that past of Europe, the 1960s, was never mine. I couldn’t help think how quickly that innocence and energy of postwar Europe disappeared, replaced by an economic unit supervised by bland businessmen and politicians.

It is not easy to see how Europe’s cities will cope with harsh changes. But, walking out of the dark film museum, down the empty Via Po, where Nietzsche threw his arms around a horse and collapsed, I felt optimistic about Turin. It had long rejected the gloss of modernity; and, perhaps, it would continue to wear its decay with as much dignity as it had a century ago, when Nietzsche found refuge in it, away from an aggressively modern Europe.

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