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Northwestern Italy in the winter

A very brief, valedictory exploration in northern Italy, 23-26 February 2019



You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

The Borgo e Rocca Medievale, Torino

24 February 2019

We're here at a public carpark by the Fontana dei 12 Mesi, just at the southern end of the enormous 19th century Parco del Valentino along the river Po in Torino, Italy. We've come to see the famous Borgo e Rocca Medievale of Torino.

A 'rocca' is a fortified place, a castle for example, and a 'borgo' usually refers to a village that has grown up around the castle, to service the needs of the castle-dwellers and for protection at a need (or a village that has grown up just outside the defensive walls of a medieval city, for the same reasons). That's our Rocca there.

The Borgo Medievale of Torino, or Turin, was created by an interdisciplinary team of experts, led by a Portuguese architect named D'Andrade, for an exhibition in the Italian General Exposition of Torino, the 'Torino Expo' of 1884. It was intended to illustrate what life was like in 15th century Piedmont and the Aosta Valley, with period workshop demonstrations of various crafts.

The whole village (but not the castle) was intended to be knocked down at the end of the 1884 Expo, but luckily wiser heads prevailed.

Down to the mighty Po -- the river flows through the southern side of the city here, just a kilometre and a half from the Porta Nuova main train station in the city centre.

One of the things that makes this place so special, as a tourist destination, is that virtually everything in it, from the buildings to the frescoes to the furniture, is a careful replica of something that could still be seen in the Piemonte region or the Val d'Aosta in the late 19th century, and most of those can still be seen now.

This is just outside the town wall, along the riverside

The Po and its scullers flow by, 60km (as the crow flies) from its source and 375km to its delta on the Adriatic coast -- 650km in all, counting the meanders. The scullers are probably local, though.

Kristin's already been in to get the tickets to the castle, and has come back to draw my attention to the entrance.

Through the side entrance, as it turns out, and now facing the back of the tower guarding the main entrance.

The 'Pilgrim's Lodgings', authentic down to the last detail (not including the vending machines)

Of course, it's all been tidied up a bit. Better sanitation than we might have expected in the 15th century . . .

. . . and properly paved streets, less muddy and less redolent of all the animals that would have been underfoot.

One of the village fountains. Admission to the Borgo is free, and to the Castle is very reasonable.

The inside of the entrance gate tower, as we wander outside for a bit -- we've got our tickets for the castle and are dawdling until the figurative whistle blows.

The main gate, with drawbridge

Adorned with copies of frescoes in the region, presumably

The high street. The borgo consists of a single street a bit more than 100 metres long, leading to a small piazza just below the castle.

The vending-machine shop

Along the very clean high street. An information panel near the front gate contains these very wise words (in Italian and English): "Visitors should not forget that the Village is not medieval but neo-medieval; it does not pertain to the past of vassals and Crusades, but to the culture of the 1800s which studied and invented the image of the period we call Middle Ages. The Borgo Medievale isn't a false historical monument: this Village is a declared authentic work of the 1800s and the culture that expressed it."

Borgo Medievale views

The local church, modeled on churches from several regional towns, with a larger-than-life St Christopher

A portico with stamp collections

A happy chocolate fan

Borgo Medievale views

This is the little piazza at the southern end of the town walls, with enthusiastic castle-viewers beginning to gather as the figurative gong is about to clang.

The castle from below, designed, like all of the Borgo's buildings, we understand, based upon extant castles and houses in the region, including several that we have visited or at least seen from the outside -- like Fénis, Verrès, Issogne, Ivrea, and Challant, all from the Aosta Valley, the Pavone Canavese just outside the valley, and Serralunga palace and the Bressani house in Mondovì in the Langhe district (those are only the ones we've seen -- there are nearly 20 more on the list).

Our guide will be along any moment.

Here we go -- up the ramp.

The crowd is surging forward.

We're over the drawbridge and through the front gate, and now in front of the internal gate to the courtyard, but (unlike 15th century attackers) we have to pause to show our tickets.

The interior courtyard is described as a much-praised replica of that of the Castle of Fénis in the Valle d'Aosta (we photographed that castle thoroughly on the outside in 2003 but were forbidden from shooting interiors, so no aides-memoire to help us now).

It certainly looks familiar -- especially with that St George giveaway. These are reproductions of frescoes in the 13th-14th century Castello di Fénis (or Château de Fénis; most of the Val d'Aosta was French-speaking) built by the Challant family, one of the most important ruling families of the region; the staircase and balconies of the courtyard were added to that building by Boniface of Challant in 1392, and the frescoes of St George with dragon and the sages and prophets along the balcony walls, with proverbs in Old French, were commissioned from the Piedmontese painter Giacomo Jaquerio at about that time.

Next to the central courtyard, we're in the armory and guards' room -- here are their necessaries and behind us are five lumpy old beds and, at a slight remove, a slightly nicer bed for the commander. A garrison of six, which sounds more or less right for a place this size.

We've moved on to the kitchens (separated from the guards' room by iron gates to prevent pilfering -- this kitchen's for the lords and ladies, the guards eat boiled onions and cabbage, with porridge once a week)(something like that).

The main dining room for the important folks -- the room was virtually impenetrably dark and this is a 'No Flash' zone, so we work with what we can get.

The shaft in the middle of the floor, we were told, is a narwhal's tusk, which protects the diners from poisons.

Armorial bearings and portraits copied from somewhere or other

We're led down to the basement for its row of grim prison cells. The lord or castellan of the castle would have been granted rights to administer various forms of lower or middle justice ('higher justice' included capital-punishment cases), from which he could profit from the fees while helping to keep order in the district.

Back up from the basement prisons to the courtyard, with its balconies and staircase modeled on those in Fénis Castle. Interestingly, the Portuguese architect Alfredo d'Andrade, who headed up the Borgo Medievale project in the 1880s, bought Fénis Castle itself in 1895 and began its restoration; it's now a museum owned by the Autonomous Region of Aosta Valley.

Ringing round the courtyard up here on the first floor (or 'second floor' in North America) are a council chamber and Great Hall, the lord's or castellan's family quarters, an oratory and a chapel.

Here's a plan of the castle and borgo, with some indications of the sources from which they've been reproduced.

This is called an antechamber to the Great Chamber through the next door, but with the high-backed benches around the walls it seems to be furnished as a council chamber.

It's with a bit of a shock that we entered this room -- we've been here, just last May.

These are the Nine Female Worthies, drawn from a book called Le Chevalier Errant ('the Wandering Knight') by Thomas III, Marquis of Saluzzo, in the 1390s, one of three fresco cycles painted shortly after 1420 (by 'the Master of the Castello della Manta') for the so-called Baronial Hall in the Castello della Manta near Saluzzo.

One of the other cycles is the male Nine Worthies, three heroes each of Pagan, Hebrew, and Christian traditions, all in contemporary 15th century dress and said to bear the likenesses of Saluzzo family members and guests of the court.

And this is the centre panel of a wall-length three panel allegory of the Fountain of Youth, with the fountain itself here and all sorts of youthful hijinks going on.

All the modern facilities, for their time

This the the chapel

Back down through the courtyard, the end of our €5 tour of the castle interior

Inside the outer gate, this anatomically-challenged Nursing Madonna is also a copy of one in the Castello della Manta.

In the so-called Armory (or toolshed round the back), there are reconstructions of some medieval ballista-style crossbow siege weapons.

And attached to the castle, there are three gardens, created in 1996: one for medieval ornamental plants, another for medicinal herbs, a third for kitchen vegetables and what not. They all look the same at the moment (it's February).

And the end of our visit to the Borgo -- back down to the Po.

A last look at the castle from outside the town wall

And from the Parco del Valentino (said to be Italy's first public garden, opened in 1856 and now Torino's second largest green space; apparently named for one of the Saints Valentine)

The Fontana dei Dodici Mesi, the Fountain of the 12 Months, made by Carlo Ceppi in 1898 as part of another civic exhibition, marble allegorical figures of the twelve months, the four seasons, and the four main Piemontese rivers of Torino.

Oddly enough, we've just learnt that on 23 March 2019 the mayor of Torino unveiled the fountain after its five-year restoration project. But our photo was taken in February.

We're saddled up again and heading downtown for another visit to the Palazzo Madama, with one of the best collections of Italian medieval art anywhere.

That's the Castello del Valentino, still within the park towards its northern end -- there was an ancient castle here that was acquired by Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy, on Palladio's advice apparently, around the time that he moved the capital of Savoy from Chambéry to Torino in 1563, but the building was substantially renovated to its present form from 1633 to 1660 under the direction of Christine Marie of France, wife of Duke Victor Amadeus I. After Napoleon's French troops stole what they could and left a big mess, it was abandoned and falling apart, but it was renovated in 1860 and turned over to the University of Turin, which now houses its architecture faculty here. It's been part of the UNESCO World Heritage cultural property called 'Residences of the Royal House of Savoy' since 1997. We're passing by on the Corso Massimo d'Azeglio on the left side of the Po.

Over to the right bank, and then across the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele I back to the left bank, we're processing down the Piazza Vittorio Veneto to continue onto . . .

. . . the Via Po, leading directly to . . .

. . . the 15th century back end of the Palazzo Madama. Now to find a convenient and inexpensive parking spot.

After a distressing exploration down through the Royal Gardens and onto some demented traffic arrangements near the Dora Riparia river, we've found our way back up to the Piazza Castello, facing the Royal Palace, the Madama on the right, but no closer to a parking spot. We found one a kilometre away. In the fullness of time.

Next up: The Palazzo Madama in Torino


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 25 March 2019.


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