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Episode #134: Palaces and castles of Piedmont

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The Piedmont region in Northern Italy might not be as well known as its neighbors France and Austria for its beautiful royal residences but is abundant with spectacular royal abodes with stunning architecture, opulent interiors and a compelling history. 

Show notes

Before becoming a republic in the early 20th century, the royal family of Italy, the Savoys, were based in Turin (Torino) for many centuries. The city and the Piedmont region are full of incredible palaces, castles, and grand gardens. Piedmont guide Carlotta Muti, from Torino Discovery, has a passion for her region, its beautiful architecture and royal stories and joins us to share some of the history and the fascinating and breathtaking royal residencies to explore on your Piedmont visit.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Piedmont (Piemonte) is located on the northwest of Italy, right at the top of the country. Turin (Torino) the region’s capital is a couple of hours drive from Milan and only 1 hour from the border with France. The name Piedmont comes from Piedi Monte, so the feet of the mountains, as Piedmont is surround one side by the Alps
  2. Turin has a population of around 900,000, so it’s quite a populated/urban city. Lots of the region consists of beautiful countryside and is has some great wine regions – Le Langhe and Monferrato which are barely an hour away from Turin
  3. Turin was the first capital of the united Italy. Italy is quite a young country, joining together only in 1861, when Turin became the first capital.  Though it only held that position for just a few years, Piedmont takes big pride in that. The country was unified under the crown of the Savoy family who had been living in Turin and ruling a large region for over three centuries – since the mid 1500s. They were originally Dukes and then elevated their title to King and united the whole country under their crown. The capital, after a few years, was moved – not to Rome at this point, but to Florence. This was because Rome wasn’t part of the kingdom at the start, it was taken a decade after the unification. It was then moved to Rome because it was so central. Turin though had the first parliament of Italy
  4. The Savoy family are less known than other famous Italian families in history, like the Medici of Florence. The reason for this is that this is a more recent and sensitive history. – still a bit of a fresh wound. The Savoys were the royalty of Italy up until the end of World War II when there was a referendum and the Italians decided to vote for a Republic over monarchy. So the Savoys left the country and they still live in Switzerland now. For quite a few decades, there was not much talk about them, but now there is a little bit more distance with those events, in Piedmont they are starting to go back to their history and roots
  5. The Savoys first settled in Turin in the 1500s when they were still dukes. Emanuele Filiberto had the capital of his Duchy in Chambéry, France (a couple of hours drive from Turin across the Alps). He decided to put a little bit more distance between his Duchy and the French power, the Alps being a great barrier. Although he’d been there as a child, when he arrived for good, he was a bit underwhelmed by the small size of Turin. It wasn’t ready to be a European capital so he and his successors had to do a lot of work and did a great job to elevate the city
  6. The Savoys built lovely palaces for themselves and as symbols of their power. They enlarged the city and also arranged the buildings in straight lines. So there are a lot of scenic perspectives in Turin from the palaces, you have large straight roads with a view at the end. Turin has a different feel to other Italian cities – a very grand feel from the parts that were build by the Savoy family with the Baroque architecture, elegant and rich, sitting alongside the oldest district in the city, that comes from the Roman settlement originally, which has small alleys from the Middle Ages
  7. The royal palace was the royal family’s official residency and the symbol of their power, meaning that not only were there the royal apartments, but it was also a massive complex with stables, the royal archives, gardens, the Royal Mint where they made the coins for their Duchy and a royal library, where there is a self-portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci in his elderly years. All these structures are attached to the main palace, meaning they could go from their bedroom all the way to the stables without really being seen from the outside
  8. Inside the palace is the Chapel of the Holy Shroud. The famous Turin Shroud is the linen that supposedly wrapped the body of Jesus Christ between his death and his resurrection. It was originally the property of the Savoy family who had acquired it from an aristocratic lady when they were still living in Chambéry back during the Middle Ages. They kept it as a relic for their own family – not only a religious symbol, but also a sign of their power. It was kept inside the chapel of the Holy Shroud, but is now kept in the nearby cathedral for the last 40 years. It had gone with the family when the Republic came to be and they left Italy, until a member of the family left the Shroud to the Pope, on the condition that it was kept in Turin. So it’s now the property of the Vatican, hence why it’s kept in the cathedral, rather than the chapel, as the chapel is part of the palace and government-owned. Though you don’t have far to go to see it because the chapel of the Holy Shroud and the cathedral, are right next door to each other/attached
  9. The royal armory is another interesting part of the palace. The spectacular collection is kept in a long, magnificent hall. They have what appear to be real/taxidermy horses in there, but they’re actually wooden statues with real horse skin applied on top and they look incredibly realistic. The royal armory was created as the first museum-like permanent exhibition for their guests (European kings, queens, ambassadors etc) visiting the palace to give them a feeling of the family’s greatness (as well as to intimidate them a little bit)
  10. When they had to leave Italy, the Savoy Royal family had to give up all of the palaces that they owned to the new Republican Italian government. They did take smaller, more movable things, like pieces of jewelry, but the palaces and much of the content was given up to the Italian state a the Royal Palace nowadays is a public museum,  managed by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art
  11. One of Carlotta’s favorite rooms is the Chinese room. They created this in the 1700s when they sent the original architect to Rome, where these Chinese lacquered panels, coming in directly from China. He had a budget to buy some of them for this room but the budget wasn’t enough, so he bought whatever he could and then when he returned to Turin,  he reserved a little of the budget to pay a local painter to make some fake ones. It’s not written anywhere which are fake and real, Carlotta has done a lot of research to assess which ones are the real Chinese ones and which ones are fake, so if you join her on a tour she can distinguish them
  12. Another palace within the Turin city limits, is Villa de la Regina, across the Po river which cuts the city in two. This Villa of the Queen has wonderful gardens and a working vineyard where they produce the red wine Freisa di Chieri
  13. Villa della Regina is considered the love nest of a newlywed couple but these newlyweds were not the happiest. This marriage was the result of an agreement to bring a major conflict to an end in the 1600s. The original duke died very young. He had a child, but he was too young to be in charge, which led to disagreements between his wife and his brothers which lasted over a decade, resulting in a civil war. Eventually, this fight was put to an end with this deal of a marriage in the family. The groom, Maurizio, was a former cardinal in his 50s, and he married 13-year-old Ludovica. Luckily for Ludovica, Maurizio died after just a few years when she was still very young and she decided to live a  long and happy life as a widow in Villa de la Regina
  14. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Villa de la Regina became a female boarding school, but it has since been completely restored. There are many different rooms and in the gardens you have an amazing view of the vineyard and the city
  15. During WW2 there was damage to many of the buildings, not so much to the main ones, because those and many statues, were protected and weren’t targeted. Turin had other very strategic targets like the Fiat factories, as Fiat had converted the production into weapons or vehicles for the war. But there is always collateral damage when there are bombings and so some buildings were damaged, and there was a bit of work to do after the war in order to tidy it up
  16. In comparison to France, which had the revolution, where a lot of the furnishings and decorations were completely trashed – Italy/Turin has preserved quite a lot of the original royal furnishing
  17. Alongside the royal palaces in Turin, there are many royal residences, castles and palaces throughout Piedmont. There is a name for this whole complex of residences – the Crown of Delights – a dozen residences scattered around Turin and its surroundings. Some of those were used as countryside residences, places to live in the summer and hunting lodges (the Savoy family loved their hunting). This love of hunting was a French influence and the family would hunt deer in these huge, amazing reservoirs around the residences.  They could spend the whole day hunting with a lot of important guests from around Europe. Hunting wasn’t only a hobby, it was also a way of expressing their power – because if you were good at hunting, you were showing you were good at battles and war
  18. Venaria Reale is the biggest of the hunting lodges. The building complex covers 80,000 sq meters and has 60 hectars of garden. It’s a natural and architectural masterpiece featuring Baroque architecture, which is the leading style in Turin dating back to the 16 and 1700s. There is a wonderful, light gallery where they have chequered flooring and amazing carved decorations and stuccos, all in white and light blue. The gardens are set on different levels and there are fountains and ponds. Right next to Venaria is Parco La Madria, another big reservoir of the Savoy family that nowadays is a public park with 3000 hectares of natural parkland
  19. They threw amazing parties and sport events at these lodges. There were kitchens for each and every kind of guest of the palace, a kitchen for the royal family, a kitchen for the guests, and even a kitchen for the kids. They had a few hundred members of staff who lived there permanently to cater for all these guests and keep the property in great condition
  20. There were these crazy, elaborate lunches after the hunting. The caught deer was prepared and it was a big celebration for the person that had hunted and won over the deer – he was the celebrated person for that day. In terms of table settings, they had incredible china sets for up to 120/150 guests. Thousands of pieces of china from French, German, Chinese manufacturers – precious pieces. From the 1800s, the way of eating started to change. Previously they would eat a horizontal meal, meaning that every course was brought at the same time and was set on the table – meaning a very full table. Then from the 1800s they started to eat on a vertical order, so one course after the other was brought to the table, hence the table was very empty and so they created these amazing center pieces. There were mirrored surfaces with these sculptures made of sugar and sand together that depicted either human figures or architecture
  21. The Hunting Lodge of Stupinigi is lesser known compared to Venaria but boasts some lovely gardens and one of the best Baroque and Rococo halls in the region. This central hall of the hunting lodge is shaped like an X. It has four diagonal wings, and the paths and the roads for the reservoir are set off from those wings. Each wing was dedicated to the house of some members or guests of the family and they all met in this central hall. It was designed by one of the most important architects that operated in Turin, Filippo Juvarra. It has a huge chandelier in the middle made out of bronze and crystal. There are more than 100 candles on it and when lit the flickering light of the candles reflected in the crystals must have been a sight to behold. There was a wedding that took place in Stupinigi in 1773, which is when they decided to place the massive chandelier there. The elaborately decorated walls have frescoes and Trompe-l’œil (the painted images that trick your eye into thinking that they are architectural). There are also these large windows overlooking the park behind the lodge
    The grand Royal Hunting Lodge at Stupinigi
  22. During the late 1800s, there was this passion for exotic animals, and the Savoy family decided to create a zoo in Stupinigi, as the park is so big. They also got gifted an African elephant called Fritz. This elephant was treated as a prince, so he was fed the most amazing things (obviously totally inappropriately as we now know). They gave him cabbage and rice and even a little bit of wine sometimes and they built a large pond for him to bathe in. Fritz lived quite a long life, which tragically ended when he became disturbed and killed someone so they put him down
  23. Another famous guest at Stupinigi was Napolean. He started his Italian campaign, conquered most of mainland Europe and as he traveled around he would stop in Turin and would sleep in Stupinigi
  24. A 45 minutes drive south of Turin is Racconigi, is a later residence of the Savoy family, from the end of the 19th century/the 20th century. Racconigi has another amazing park, One past resident was Regina Elena who was also known as Regina Buona, the good Queen, because she was the queen of the people. She wasn’t so interested in luxury and wanted to be more down-to-earth and really cared for the people. Every summer when she went to Racconigi, she organized events for the children and there are pictures of all of these children running around the park with Queen Elena. She also got involved after the massive 1908 Messina earthquake. As soon as she got the news, she traveled to Sicily and physically helped out, taking care of as many people as she could. She was also a feminist, supporting women’s rights, which wasn’t yet a popular movement in early 20th century
  25. Another interesting queen was Regina Margherita, who the Margarita pizza was named after.  She was one of the first women to drive a car, at the very beginning of the 1900s. She loved traveling and they created an early version of a caravan for her, so she could sleep and have a washroom (of sorts) as she moved around. She’s always depicted with multiple pearl necklaces around her neck. They say that each layer of the necklace was from when her husband betrayed her. The history of Turin includes lots of interesting women
  26. If you visit Racconigji, watch out for the storks! There is a preservation center for storks there and they make their nests on some of the chimneys on the roof of the palace
  27. If you’re intrigued by all that Turin and Piedmont have to offer, take a look at our Untold Italy Piedmont tours

About our guest – Carlotta Muti

Tour guide Carlotta Muti is 100% Turinese and loves to show people the best Turin and its surroundings have to offer. She is a qualified tour guide and tour manager, with over 10 years of experience (having left a previous career in neuropsychology) Curiosity and the inexhaustible desire to learn has sparked her interest in art, local history and conservation of the artistic, cultural, gastronomic, and folkloric heritage of her region. 

Torino Discovery is her creation, the result of her enthusiasm for discovery. It is a small company, where she works with trusted colleagues who share her passion and curiosity. They offer private tours for every need, each tour is tailored to the guest’s interest – so no tour is the same! Some of their best-sellers are the chocolate tour and the Royal Palace tour, as well as many other guided visits in the other wonderful Royal Residences of the Savoy family.

You can find Carolotta on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Torino/Turin. – the capital city of Piedmont
  • Le Langhe –  a hilly area in the province of Asti in Piedmont, northern Italy
  • Montferrat/Montferrato – one of the most important wine districts of Italy
  • Chambéry – in the Savoie department in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of eastern France. It has been the historical capital of the Savoy region since the 13th century
  • The Crown of Delights – the royal residencies, castles, and palaces within Turin and the surrounding areas – UNESCO heritage sites
  • Chapel of the Holy Shroud – a chapel within the royal palace of Turin were the Holy Shroud is kept
  • Royal Armoury of Turin – a huge hall housing incredible weaponry and artifacts
  • Villa della Regina – a palace in the city of Turin, originally built by the House of Savoy in the 17th century
  • Quirinal – a historic building in Rome, one of the three current official residences of the President of the Italian Republic
  • Palace of Venaria – a former royal residence and gardens located in Venaria Reale, near Turin
  • Parco Mandria – a park of 3,600 hectares of land and historical buildings that the Savoy Rulers encircled with a 35-km long fencing wall
  • The Hunting Lodge of Stupinigi – the Palazzina di caccia of Stupinigi is one of ther of the Royal House of Savoy, built as a royal hunting lodge in the early 18th century, it is located in Stupinigi, a suburb of the town of Nichelino
  • Castle of Racconigi – castle with impressive grounds and park in Racconigi

Food & Drink

  • freisa di chieri – a typical Piedmontese red wine variety, with a history of almost 500 years

Resources

  • Emanuele Filiberto – the Duke of Savoy who made them kings
  • Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk – the self-portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci which is kept in Royal Library in Turin
  • Maurizio & Ludovica di Savoia – the unhappy couple of the arranged marriage to end wars, who lived in Villa della Regina
  • Marie Antoinette – Sophia Coppola’s movie about Marie Antoinette, Queen of France until the Revolution in the late 1700s
  • Filippo Juvarra – renowned architect who designed the Hunting Lodge of Stupinigi
  • Trompe l’œil – an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that the objects exist in three dimensions
  • Messina earthquake – in 1908 there was a huge and destructive earthquake in Messina, in Sicily and Calabria, southern Italy
  • Regina Elena – Elena of Montenegro/Regina Buona (the good queen) was Queen of Italy from 1900 until 1946 
  • Queen Margherita – another Savoy queen, 1878 – 1900 who, famously, the Margherita was named after

Resources from Untold Italy

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