BRITISH INTELLIGENCE ABROAD
February 1st, 2020
By Incola - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons
In the middle of the wide sweep of the Po a young woman with bare arms, red gloves and black strip skulls lazily across the reflection of December sunshine. Above her, on the East bank, is the softly wooded hillside of the Monte dei Cappucini and the church of Gran Madre di Dio. From here the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele crosses the river to the grand European Piazza Vittorio Veneto where trams bisect the cobbles. I am heading into the centre of town down the arcaded Via Po where I find an ancient pasticceria. Doe-eyed and obliging baristi in black t-shirts serve me a panino and tea. I consume these seated on one of a row of high chairs opposite the bar, which I retire to just as the lunchtime rush separates me from it. Four men sit beside me also eating their panini while clutching copies of La Stampa provided by the concern. Displayed on plates in the window are complete meals of spare ribs, artichokes and potatoes, which clients order to be brought to the wider interior, where they sit at rough wooden tables. I use the toilet before I leave. It has a dark wooden sliding door and a basin hewn out of a polished square block of equally dark wood.
Via Po continues, disgorging into the majestic Piazza Castello, where the Torinesi bustle past a vast presepe or Christmas nativity scene. It is 20 or 30 metres wide with stand-up figures painted in a jolly primitive style. Next to it is a vast advent calendar opened every day to reveal a new depiction by the artist who painted them. The square is a giant space populated by an Opera House, a Royal Palace and a baroque-facaded, 15th Century castle which also incorporates a Roman gate. This is the centre of Turin. From the Piazza Castello your gaze travels down another arcaded thoroughfare, the Via Roma, into the Piazza San Carlo and on between its twin churches of Santa Cristina and San Carlo down to the front of the Porta Nuova main railway station a kilometre away.
For the second time in two days I try to call in at the Juventus football club shop and ticket office in an elegant gallery off the Via Roma. I want to complain that the Premium membership I bought for 55 Euros on the internet in England did not, as promised, allow me to get priority booking and that I had had to pay three times the face value of a ticket to see Juve beat local rivals, Novara, 2-0 in their brand new Stadio delle Alpi. When I had complained on the phone from England an apologetic employee had told me my new membership number would not be acknowledged by the club’s computer for another six weeks. The Juventus shop, whose address was given me at the ground, was closed and shuttered and an attractive woman in the expensive jewelers opposite told me it never opened.
The match was sensational. The fan next to me boasted that the new “Juventus Arena” is the first stadium in Italy which resembles modern English stadiums. It is vertiginous, has white seats and a lot of white tubular girders, vast tension wires and much smooth concrete. Inside the stadium, under the stands, they sell hot liquid chocolate and a slice of Christmas panettone for 5 Euros and Santa and his display of reindeer stand in willingly on photos with fans. There are No Smoking signs posted everywhere and everywhere black-coated tifosi smoke away. The interior of the ground sports ancient black and white photographs of this club founded in 1897 and known as “the old lady”. The real fans on the Curva Sud – the Ultras – wave enormous banners and shout insults at the carefully corralled away fans, pogoing en masse when Juve score. Outside, the vast car park is lined by kiosks selling roast pigmeat in baps and Juventus scarves proclaiming “I hate Inter Milan” and “Fuck Inter” in English. There is no sign of any violence today, though, and Novara fans stroll with impunity through the vastly outnumbering local fans. I come away delighted, in spite of the exorbitant price I paid, because I have just seen the pink-shirted Juventus, in the guise of the 37 year-old del Piero, Buffon and Pirlo go top of Serie A , two points above Milan.
Crushed in with three young Carabinieri, I take tram number 72 back into town, glimpsing, every time I look down a side street, the snow-covered Alps that also provide a stunning backdrop for the stadium. The contrast between mountains and balconied tenements is dramatic and evokes a sense of the city’s limits. At the Porta Nuova I change tram and, at first, am unable to validate my ticket because the tram is so full and the nearest machine is broken. All at once the tram stops, four inspectors board, several passengers alight and I, and several others, begin to complain that we have been unable to punch our tickets. The inspectors insist that there are other stamping machines further down the tram. We move towards these machines, the inspectors shadowing us like the advancing tide. We punch the tickets, turn, and they accept them. One woman with a child, on the way to a hospital visit, is fined, though, like a sacrificial victim and a protracted row begins with many other passengers acting as her advocates to no avail.
Another morning I take a different set of trams to the Piazza Repubblica where the Porta Palazzo market - the largest open-air market in Europe – sprawls transected by tramlines. It sells everything but it seems there is an acre of closely packed fruit and veg stalls. One of them sells nothing but six different types of tomatoes, all presented generously, side by side, an unbroken carpet of dense and shiny red running from edge to edge of the stall. From here I walk through the brick-built Roman Palatine gate and double back to the church of Santa Consolata. At 8.30 in the morning this marble-encrusted Baroque confection, with its hexagonal nave and its extraordinary altar by the Baroque star, Juvarra, is in full swing. From the main body of the church I look down into a split level side chapel where priests swing censers in the crypt while their congregation is spread over three levels above them as if in a miniature opera house. Another side chapel ends in six confessional booths resembling uncoupled railway carriages where a green light announces “Libero” and a red light “Occupato”. These, too, are in action. Nearby is a wall covered in small modern votive paintings showing, for example, an amateurish image of a man almost, but not quite, falling from his bike under a tram in 1922. Others show young soldiers returning unharmed to their families in 1945. Many show grateful patients recovering in their hospital beds.
Turin is very Catholic but it is also relentlessly modern. I notice that it sports two gay saunas, one named Garageclub, the other named 011 after the local telephone prefix. After Santa Consolata I stroll along the Via Garibaldi and call into Intimissimi, to buy Italian lingerie for my wife. I ask the diminutive shop assistant for help with converting sizes from English. She can’t oblige but simply asks me if my wife’s breasts are larger or smaller than hers. As I leave I notice that some Christmas lights are 200 metre long lines of poetry which you read as you walk. The chic Via Pietro Micca has Mirò-like squiggles for its Christmas lights that dance above the tram wires and my regard is often arrested, looking down side streets, by shops selling large canvases in sharp, bright colours. I stay in the Art’Tò Bed and Breakfast where another huge and wonderful canvas depicting a close-up of bananas hangs above the breakfast table near to a life-sized blue plastic penguin and a dark upright oblong of an ancient bull-faced water feature. The guest rooms give off a grey antiseptic corridor lit by vertical striplights embedded in the wall. The bathrooms have state of the art taps and shower-heads and the communal kitchen is equipped for breakfast with a Smeg fridge and a hob but the two young men, who own the guest house and live on the other side of the corridor, never intervene at breakfast time. Their absence, beginning the moment after one of them first opened the front door to me, was notable. Before my arrival they texted me to ask me at what time I’d arrive. I then had to change my arrival time because of transport problems. They texted back that I’d have to wait until 17.00 because they were out. When I did arrive at the advertised address I discovered that it had changed and only reached the new address after another SMS and a taxi ride. In spite of all of this, I was glad I had this slightly space-age experience.
On my last morning I buy fashionable ties of a type unavailable in England in an English-named shop, and then Christmas presents in Rinascente – a Department Store that gift wraps them all free of charge. I then call into FNAC, the French CD, computer and DVD emporium where I watch Adele sing in the Albert Hall on a huge screen until a power cut which results in hundreds of customers being hastily ushered back onto the Via Roma. Crossing Piazza Carignano I am stunned by the Palazzo Carignano, which forms one long side of the square. It is a red-brick masterpiece by another Baroque wunderkind, Guarino Guarini. A 19th century Italian king was born here. The front of this vast building seems to ripple and curve before your eyes. An extraordinary mathematical genius must have operated to match the exterior with the rooms and undulating staircase inside. Guarini’s fantasy dictated that all of the bricks were fired on site to enable him to gauge their curves exactly.
A view of Turin from the motorway and, perhaps, custom would have it that Turin is a grimy industrial town good only for ceaselessly turning out Fiats. It is, in fact, vibrant, richly elegant and grand, breathing art, fashion and history and full of edifice and cuisine. You would not know, being here, and from the relentless activity in the streets, that Italy stands on the edge of a precipice. It seems that, caught between the urge to lavish money on Christmas presents and a real fear of what January might bring, the Torinesi seem to have opted for the former.
I am, happily, delayed in Turin for another morning, in which I am embraced by its civility and civilization. To pass the time I had a vague inclination to see Juvarra’s grand staircase in the Palazzo Madama back on the Piazza Castello and had noticed in my guidebook that entrance was free. I stroll into the entrance and, indeed, am directed up the twin-flighted staircase without any charge. It is grand and Baroque but less dramatic than I’d expected. Descending, I hear loud cello music the other side of a heavy navy-blue curtain. I ask the Signora at the curtain if there is a concert and if I have to buy a ticket. In reply she hands me a leaflet which tells me that inside is a Michelangelo sketch of the Madonna and Child and that, again, it is Ingresso libero. In a chamber inside a glass walkway over the excavated foundations of the Palazzo leads to the sketch which is set in a magnificent, twelve feet high, gilded and ornate doorway. On large screens a projector show explains that the Virgin’s nervous glance offstage probably suggests her fears for the infant at her breast.
I decide that I’d like to see the Royal gardens behind the Palazzo Reale before I go. Crossing the square I am delighted to see forty or so fat town sparrows busying themselves importantly amongst a boxed topiary display. Before I even leave the square I am drawn to another Ingresso libero sign proclaiming entry to the ‘Flyzone’ exhibition of works by a modern artist called Giorgio Ramalla. The paintings are all of biplanes crossing exotic landscapes framed by frayed old-fashioned airmail stamps. They are colourful and charming and remind me of Tintin comic books. As I leave a smiling attendant presses a complete and free catalogue into my hand.
I skirt the rear of the palace and access the public part of the gardens. Making a full circle I return to the Piazza Castello near to the Opera House, having glimpsed the private part of the Giardini Reali. Sadly these are closed, grubby and abandoned. Italy cannot afford to maintain its too many treasures. I pause at the back of the Palazzo Madama, discovering that the foursquare medieval castle after which the square is named is tacked onto the back of it. In front of this imposing rearguard is a fascist military monument. Crag-jawed soldiers, heroes of Mussolini’s Italy, with gorilla-like hands and enormous boots grip carbines and gasmasks. The helmeted Duke of the Val d’Aosta stands between them, fists clenched by his sides, veins bulging in his temple, looking like Boris Karloff in a greatcoat, intent on murder. A memory of another time, this monument seems too massy for the modern Italians to have bothered to remove. The fact that it is such a fine example of futurist style, in addition to this insouciance may have helped it survive.
From here, down a sidestreet into the Piazza Carmignano again, almost by accident. I want to buy a Corriere della Sera to read on the train so I drop into an establishment displaying newspapers outside on the pavement. Inside, it’s a treasure trove. I’ve drifted into Luxembourg – the English bookshop. It’s true, up the carpeted stairs, there is a whole room full of excellent international fiction in English – French and German as well. Suited, waistcoated and bespectacled men with young assistants run the shop and downstairs there is a wealth of colour and lavish display. Italian fiction sits alongside half a floor full of thick, shiny magazines with the international and Italian press, all beautifully folded in racks, looking as if someone wearing white gloves placed them there. There is a set of shelves headed ‘Oscar Wilde and Co’ at the bottom of which nestle calendars of naked French rugby players. All breathes comfort and studious, gentle culture in a way that only the Italians can do. Literature, politics and scholarship are taken very seriously.
On the way back to Aosta, I change at Ivrea. The train, sliding between the mountain walls of the Val d’Aosta, is so bathed in winter sunshine that I have to remove coat and scarf. The mountains are dusted in fresh-fallen snow and it is avalanche season. On the train I write. Each time I glance up I see a river, with smooth grey boulders, flowing fast over weirs, pylons running along a ridge, carefully trained vineyards and gothic-looking mountain redoubts dominating the narrow passes. Hard to imagine in sunbathed Turin in the plain that eight inches of snow fell in Aosta yesterday and the ground outside is soon blanketed in white.
At St Vincent a plump grandmother and mother board the train with a pixie-faced four year-old girl and a two year-old in a pushchair. Mama and la Nonna wear boots, black puffer coats, scarves and peaked woolen hats pulled low over their eyes. They look like ninepins. The four year-old sings Rudolph in Italian and the two year-old pulls her red woollen hat down over her face. Grandma chatters ceaselessly with the bambine. The conductor arrives calling for tickets to inspect. He looks at mine, warns me sternly that he should have fined me 50 Euros for not validating it at Porta Nuova in Turin and solicitously writes the time and date on it.