December 27, 2011
“What do you feel? What do you see? Wonderful things, right? Extraordinary shows? Isn’t this very beautiful? And terrible? And very dangerous?”
– Charles Baudelaire Artificial Paradise, Le theatre de Seraphin found inscribed on the entrance walls of The National Cinema Museum of Italy
Turin, – aka Torino, which means “little bull” in Italian – is sort of like Detroit. Well, Detroit in the sense of a long tradition of automotive history and then you have to follow this recipe. Add a city center going back over 500 years. Throw in a dash of civic renovations by the Savoy Kings which gives it sort of a French flavor. Sprinkle on some Alps. Give it a fetish for great and rich food after all this is the birth city of the wonderful Italian foodie phenomenon “Slow Food.” Add the best (except for Cairo) Egyptian Museum in the world – who knew? Then, spruce up the entire metropolis for the recent winter Olympics, douse liberally with imagination and toss with an enthusiastic flair for civic pride and high culture. Voila!
Would you like an example of imaginative Torinese hospitality? Someone, a few years ago, had the foresight to create an innovative winter draw for tourists. They hired really top notch contemporary artists to do holiday light installations throughout the city. Isn’t that a great idea? In practice it was a whole lot of fun.
Did I forget to mention the holy relic? Well that’s because there is something wrong with the Shroud of Turin. I suppose this is old news and you are probably wondering why you should care? Well, I don’t really give a shred of discolored muslin about the molto famoso shroud but I care deeply about the building within which it is enshrined.
The building is one of the bona fide baroque masterpieces of the Western World. You probably already knew it had a horrible fire in 1997, and the famous Sindone chapel by seventeenth century master architect Gurarino Guarini (which is very fun to say) was badly damaged.
What you might not have known, is that ten years later it is still under reconstruction!
The Shroud on display in the temporary quarters is a facsimile until they get the building done and the original is put back where it belongs.
However, all is not lost on the architecture front. Around the corner is another un-burnt Guarino Guarino masterwork, the church of San Lorenzo. The vault is wonderfully filled with his cockeyed baroque perspective tricks. He twists space like a pretzel.
The brilliant civic planners in Torino, also decided to take what used to be the tallest building in Europe and turn it into the National Cinema Museum of Italy. This is a great story. The building was a huge synagogue built in the 1860’s with all the engineering gusto they could muster. Imagine a giant oil can with a huge interior free span dome and a spire reaching up more than 150 meters – more than 500 feet! Wow! All this work went into it and then for some crazy reason it was never actually used as a synagogue! So, it became a white elephant of a wacky building holding various museums for most of the 20th century until a fabulous architect (François Confino) was hired in the late nineties to create a museum of Cinema, and the best part is, he was given a totally free hand.
The National Cinema Museum is a huge space. Imagine the inside as a bigger taller Guggenheim museum in New York but instead of being “all white” it is “all black.” Narrow ramps hugging the walls lead up and up and up. The exhibition, when I was there, was of almost a thousand blown up large B&W portraits of movie stars from the famous French magazine Les CAHIERS DU CINÉMA.
Down below, on the main floor, are about twenty five red reclining couches with speakers built in to the headrests facing two huge screens. The Creature from the Black Lagoon gapes up at you with wide stretched arms and a look on his face to match your own. He has his mouth open in wonder and he’s thinking, “Ohh my godd, what the hell is that?” Your thought exactly! WOW! Is all you can say, The space feels vertiginous, massive, dizzying and hugely dramatic.
Both you and the Creature are mesmerized by the elevator. Slashing through the middle of the space are the shiny oiled cables of a hypnotic tiny glass elevator. It is impossible not to watch as it climbs and falls in what appears to be a somewhat miraculous ascent and descent.
The elevator is a marvel. But think about it. What is an elevator actually but a moving car on a cable? So take your smallish high rise elevator and take away the shaft. Then take away the walls and make them glass. So you have this glass box suspended only by the thin cables in the exact dead center of this gigantic space moving not too fast and not too slow but just at a perfect graceful speed that can’t help but make you smile.
Any nice day in Turin brings out a crowd to ride to the top for the view.  The wait for the elevator could have been so effective for a massive display monitor with a rolling movie montage. The filmmaker in me wanted to do a high wire act of every great cliff hanging moment from the history of Cinema. King Kong, Vertigo, the Mount Rushmore scene from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Quasimodo prancing around banging the bells of Notre Dame, the “Time to Die” white knuckle scene with Deckart holding onto the balcony from Bladerunner. It would have set a perfect mood. Oh well . . . even without the montage, the elevating ride and the resulting spectacular view of Turin from the balcony is certainly worth the wait.
As if all of the above were not enough, Torino is also the home of the world famous chocolatier: Peyrano.