Yes, we spent Saturday in Turin again. We parked directly underneath the Piazza Vittorio Veneto. The piazza is one of the most beautiful Italian inventions. The closest English equivalent would be a town square or marketplace, which would indeed be a fair description of a piazza in a little Italian village like the one where we live (although in Southern California they would use the Spanish word plaza, or even actually the Italian piazza, but what they would mean is a glorified strip mall). A piazza in a large Italian city is a glorious open area in the heart of the city. Suddenly stepping into it is like floating out of the black tunnel into heaven–your eyes dazzle in the light, and your heart soars into the expanse of space.
What to do in a piazza? Sit down at a sidewalk cafe and drink in the atmosphere, meet friends, watch people, feel the pulse of the city. If there is a market, concert, exposition, fair, or other event, it will happen in the piazza. But even when there’s “nothing” happening, life is happening all around, and the piazza is the place to watch it. And live it.
The only thing better than a piazza enclosed on four sides by breathtaking historic edifices is a piazza with one side open to water. I can’t explain it, but piazzas like that give me a simultaneous feeling of complete safety and ultimate freedom. My favorite piazza ever is in the lovely city of Trieste, on the Eastern outskirts of Italy. A dark archway from the narrow streets of the old city opens suddenly into a huge piazza facing the still, aquamarine Adriatic. Evening falls like a slow blue curtain over the stillness, and it feels as if nothing could ever possibly go wrong.
Piazza Vittorio in Turin is one of the largest piazzas in Europe. Three sides of the piazza are lined with porticoes, which make a lovely shady place in the summer and allow people to stroll without getting rained and snowed upon in winter. But the really beautiful part is the fourth side, which opens dramatically onto the Po. Swans and boats mingle peacefully in the river, which is crossed by the usual graceful Italian bridges. The opposite bank of the river is a soaring hillside, densely forested in between beautiful churches and mansions.
We also spent some time in the Parco del Valentino, a huge urban green space that winds along the river and contains both a 17th century palace and a Medieval village and castle, built in the 19th century. Wandering back toward the city center when we got hungry, we spotted the sign for a kebab shop and turned down a side street hung with banners proclaiming it the Farthingale District. We weren’t too curious at that moment about why it had such a funny name. But we remembered it suddenly when we heard what sounded like a marching band outside as we finished our meal.
We ran back down to the main street in time to see a troupe of drummers followed by some women wearing–you guessed it. Farthingales. It turned out to be quite an eclectic parade, with people dressed in costumes from various centuries from the 15th to the 19th. The top hats were directly followed by Medieval peasants, and various marching bands were interspersed with the people in costume. We followed the parade, which wound through the main piazza in the city, and then disappeared behind the palace where the King of Italy used to live.
At that point we were distracted by the prospect of some Roman ruins and parted ways with the parade. The ruins included a very respectable theatre, an impressive brick wall and gate, and a handsome bronze statue of Julius Caesar. On the way back to our car, we accidentally re-encountered the parade, which by now had disbanded and was spread out and inhabiting various tents, rather like a Renaissance fair (in fact, I often feel as if I were living in a Renaissance fair in Italy).
We spent quite some time in the largest tent, where some people in mid-19th century dress (think Gone With the Wind) were waltzing to Strauss. I believe that the parade had something to do with an extended series of festivities planned to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy next year. The narrator invited anyone in the audience who wanted to join in the waltzing, and pontificated a bit on the importance of remembering and commemorating what was going on in the drawing rooms of Italy at the time, since the discussion of ideas was every bit as important as the actual battles. That’s when it dawned on me that dressing in Medieval armour or powdered wigs and evening gowns is a patriotic act in Italy, as well as a ripping good time.
Turin, as much as any other city in Italy, takes the importance of the Unification of Italy to heart. After all, the Dukes of Savoy, who became Kings of Italy, had their seat in Turin and made it the capital of United Italy. The capital was later moved to Florence, and then to Rome. But many of the great thinkers of the Risorgimento, which is what Italians call the movement that created the modern state of Italy, were from Turin. The ripples that spread to cover the peninsula began here (a fact that, bizarrely, turned out to be of paramount importance for Tony’s citizenship application).
The porticoes in Piazza Vittorio are currently hung with gigantic banners of 19th century paintings depicting the major players and battles for Unification. As we walked back to the car, Axa asked about a particularly “battley” one. I found myself describing the battle for Sicily, as excited as if it were my country being unified. I guess in a way it is.