Pilgrimage, sacred and profane

by Laura A

Sunday was a fine day, what our family used to call a “boaty day”: Clear deep blue skies, with a light breeze, temperatures warm but not hot, and that extra sparkle that makes even ordinary buildings and trees look magical.  The main ingredient in a boaty day, though, is wonder.

Unfortunately Sarie and Bob were busy, but I went out by myself. My main thought was to get a good view of the mountains. I have a hobby of finding ways home that take me from east to west, facing the Alps. But to come home west, I had to first go east. So I headed to one of the busiest, most eastern spots in town: Piazza Castello.

On the way, I ran into a bike parade.  Families and singles were gathering near Piazza Solferino to bike together through town, no doubt to publicize alternative transportation.  New people were heading from every direction, and every few seconds a couple more riders would ring their bells as they joined the parade.  I saw a friend of mine, in a chartreuse hat and riding a yellow folding bike, join the parade.  She was too far away to hear me call, though, so I walked on.

When I got to Piazza Castello, there was a children’s festival going on. Dozens of white tents with activities crowded the piazza, and young volunteers dressed in white coats with clown motifs–a striped sleeve here, brightly-colored shoes or hose there–wove through the crowd.  Once I got past the mass of tents, I headed towards La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo.  I’d noticed a while back that although this church has no facade to call attention to it, people are always going in and out.

Inside, there was a long vestibule with a pietà at one end and a door at the other.  It was not your typical Italian church entrance.  But immediately the splendid sanctuary drew me inward. Enormous, ornate, and octagonal, it immediately drew the eye straight up to a cupola far above.  I took a seat towards the back and slowly accustomed myself to the regal atmosphere of a Baroque interior.

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La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo has a plain facade outside and a startlingly spacious inside, topped with a dramatic cupola

Images from Wikipedia Commons

My intention had simply been to have a look around, to see where the interior took my thoughts, perhaps to pray.  I find the interior of an Italian church to be an easy place to concentrate on prayer, even if I can’t participate in the mass.  But after I had been sitting in the church for a few minutes, I noticed that there was a woman giving a tour.  My interest was piqued even though I couldn’t hear clearly what she was saying, so when she finished and she started another tour for a Frenchman, speaking slowly in Italian, I asked if I could join them.

She started the tour with the history of the church and why it was named for San Lorenzo.  A former Savoy ruler had won a battle on S. Lorenzo’s feast day and promised to build a church in his honor.  After the war, however, he didn’t have enough money for major projects, so he consecrated an existing church (now the long vestibule) to the saint. It wasn’t until the next generation the Theatine priest Guarino Guarini built the present-day church. The resulting style was so distinct that it’s now called Guarini Baroque.

The Theatine order specialized in math and science, so Guarini filled his creation with 17th-century architectural wonders and symbolism.  Suffice it to say that nothing in this riot of trompe d’oeuil architecture is random. The cupola draws the eyes heavenward, geometrical shapes symbolize Biblical numbers, a chapel of the Nativity faces one of the Crucifixion, and even the colors of the materials are significant. But there are two effects in particular that I like. One is a skylight above the altar, surrounded by sculpted white clouds and golden putti interspersed with golden rays. The other is a series of curved paintings hidden in dark niches above the four chapels.  On two days each year, from 9:00-9:30 and then again from 12:00-12:30 , the sun hits portholes above these chapels and illuminates the paintings inside (on the left side first, and then on the right).  The next such day will be September 21.  If at all possible, I plan to go!

It was evident to me after a while that the docent wasn’t merely going through the motions, but really found the church inspiring and spiritually significant.  I sat down for a long while after the talk, looking at the entire space with new eyes.  I was glad I had taken the time for the tour.

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The Palazzo Madama is a Baroque palace in the front and a medieval castle in the rear.  The first photo shows the view from La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo

Images from Wikipedia Commons

Leaving the church, I walked across the piazza to the Palazzo Madama, a.k.a., the Queen Mother’s Palace.  The Palazzo Madama is a fascinating hodgepodge of a building styles at the very center of the city.  In fact, at its core is one of the original Roman city gates. There are at least two other stages of architecture built into the palace, including an medieval castle (in the back) and a Baroque façade (by another famous Torinese architect, Filippo Juvarra) added so that the Queen Mother could make a proper ceremonial appearance. Apparently medieval spiral staircases did not provide adequate drama for the later Savoys. Originally Juvarra’s design was to have replaced the old castle entirely, but since the new palace was never quite finished, today the palace looks like some kind of archeological exposition, with all its successive renovations exposed. In the interior courtyard, you can stand on a glass floor and survey the castle’s foundations and crypts. In one interior stairwell, you can see remnants of four or five phases of building, including the original Roman wall, on a color-coded map.

Knowing that the main staircase is open all day, I walked up to the second floor of the façade and stood by the front window, the one where the Queen Mother would have made her appearances. There were only a couple of people standing around, so I had one of the best views in town pretty much to myself. Directly in front of me was Via Garibaldi, the original Roman decumanus, or main east/west road. Now the main pedestrian thoroughfare in town, it runs straight from Piazza Castello towards the Alps like a textbook study in two-point perspective.  The street is lined on either side with elegant four-story buildings similar in style to those in Piazza Castello, each with stores on the ground floor.

Down below, the festivities were still going strong.  A rock band was playing a children’s song (in Italian) in which each verse was punctuated by a squeaky toy.  Via Garibaldi was crowded with shoppers making their passaggi.  I really didn’t see how anyone could even move down there.  Above the crowds, a flock of pigeons would senselessly startle and fly from one side of the street to the other, and above the whole scene an escaped pink mylar balloon jerked ever higher to the right. “Squeak-squeak!  Squeak-squeak!” I looked towards the Alps and towards the setting sun, and felt satisfied.

This was my Torino, the sublime and the ridiculous, the sacred and the profane.  This was what I had come to see.

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