Doorways, historical shops and the Jewish ghetto

Underrated things to see in Turin

The tour of doorways, historical shops and the Jewish ghetto of Turin is an opportunity to see the city under a new perspective.

In addition to its enchanting palaces and baroque churches, Turin boasts a rich legacy of history and art. Many hidden details and decorations may be often overlooked by a not attentive eye.

Meet Piemonte has devised an itinerary that winds through the heart of the historic city centre of Turin, alternating secondary alleys with some of the most famous squares.

Proceeding towards the area of the Jewish ghetto the local expert points out an interesting collection of historical workshops and access gates to the courtyards of palaces.

Dating back from the 17th century to the 1930s, doorways and shops are enriched by surprising symbolic masks, cherubs and animal figures.

Tour dei portoni, botteghe storiche e del ghetto ebraico di Torino
Historical coffee shop in Turin

Things to see in Turin: historical workshops

After surviving drastic economic and social changes, historical workshops have become part of the legacy of the community and as such have been protected by a regional law dated 1989 to enhance them.

The commercial sector influences the appearance and furnishings of the city, since it defines the urban landscape with shop windows, frames, wooden structures (from French language “devantures”), signs and advertisements.

The tour of doorways, historical shops and the Jewish ghetto of Turin focuses on the time between the second half of the 18th century and the first of the 19th century. At that point, most handcraft and medieval workshops left space to stores that had different visual impact provided by the exhibited goods.

Aiming to attract increasingly sophisticated customers, who were reflected in the style of the stores themselves and, at the same time, felt part of a well-identified elite, shops became a social status.

For the first time in local history, consumers were induced to buy something they did not have, but they had always wanted: a first step towards a consumer society.

Tour dei portoni, botteghe storiche e del ghetto ebraico di Torino
Historical signs and advertisements in original shops of Turin

Original furnishing and decoration

There is no specific typology of commercial architecture but the attraction towards goods is the only factor that matters.

We can notice the use of subjects, shapes and colors inspired by the great European aristocratic residences. There is also the imagination of craftsmen  who manufacture accessories, structures and decorations made of iron and wood.

The tour of doorways, historical shops and the Jewish ghetto of Turin will reveal rich baroque handles found beside Renaissance gates, 15th-century Florentine lanterns placed next to 18th-century Parisian marquises. Everything coexists in one single variegated environment.

The itinerary includes some cafes, groceries and trimming shops, most of which are still original. The aim is to decipher the architectural and decorative elements present both outside and inside, on counters, shelves, chandeliers and in pottery for the preservation of ointments, spices and medicines as in the case of the ancient drugstores.

Tour dei portoni, botteghe storiche e del ghetto ebraico di Torino
Original 1930’s front door of a hat shop in Turin

The tour of doorways, historical shops and the Jewish ghetto of Turin

Three urban expansions were carried out by the House of Savoy in an effort to transform Turin from a medieval city into a ducal capital first and a royal one later.

The construction of palaces, which were similar one to the other, uniform in their facades and of the same height, was imposed: an architectural expedient to give greater prominence to the new city streets.

Above all, the architectural style had to convey the presence of absolute power to which all families, even noble and wealthy, had to submit.

In this scenario, the only customization granted to the single buildings consisted in the magnificent and spectacular decorations of the doors. Gates became over time the identity card of the resident families.

The term “door”, which means “passage”, highlights the symbolic role of this element having the main purpose of protecting the building. They were conveying the social status of the owners and, at the same time, being a diaphragm between the external facade of the building and its inner and more intimate courtyard.

Portoni storici a Torino
Decoration of the upper section of a gate

The evolution of doorways

In the tour of doorways, historical shops and the Jewish ghetto of Turin, the local expert draws the attention on gates initially composed of one single hinged door.

Then, the doors have evolved up to the double hinged door with opposite opening and to various types that can be seen walking around Turin.

Recurrent components, like the wooden over-doors and the so-called rosta, a wrought iron radial structure that allows light to filter inside.

Other elements with the most disparate decorations are clappers (to knock on the door), sometimes replaced by doorknockers, hinged only in the upper part so that they can be raised to knock (in many cases in the shape of a small hand).

The keyholes, which have survived the modern locks, and the knobs, with the function of facilitating the push of the door while opening. They were often hidden behind grinning faces, grotesque masks, tongues, faces of dogs or lions. While guarding the palace, they had the task of keeping away evil spirits or unwanted guests.

In addition to showing you the shape of each door, the local expert narrates stories and anecdotes related to the life of the inhabitants who used to pass through the door every day. Worldly chronicles of noble families, stories of lovers and betrayals, secret meetings and legends.

Portoni storici e arredi urbani a Torino
Details of handles, knobs and wooden decoration

What to see in Turin: the Jewish ghetto

The tour of doorways, historical shops and the Jewish ghetto of Turin leads up to the streets were the Jewish community was once confined.

In this area some wrought-iron gates can still be seen, so made to give the guards the chance to observe what happened inside the courtyards.

It was also a way to prevent clandestine activities from being organized.

Established in 1679, the Jewish ghetto of Turin was one of the latest to be built in Italy. As a matter of fact, Piedmont demonstrated centuries of tolerance thanks to a series of agreements between the House of Savoy and the Jewish community.

During the 18th century the population of the ghetto exceeded one thousand people and had to expand. Even today you can see the buildings that are distinguished by having one more floor than the neighboring houses although being of the same height. That’s because they had to accommodate as many families as possible.

After the emancipation commissioned by Carlo Alberto in 1848, which allowed the Jews to move to other neighborhoods, many changes were made to the buildings. The ghetto used to have synagogues of Italian, Spanish and German rite (not visible).

tour ghetto ebraico a Torino mole
From the Jewish ghetto is partially visible the iconic Mole. Photo by Antonio Sessa

Doorways in the Jewish ghetto

In the 17th century, Carlo Emanuele II wanted a second urban expansion of the city. That involved the streets of this area and also foresaw a large square with an octagonal shape, dominated by a monument dedicated to the Savoy Duke. The adjacent buildings could not have their main door overlooking the square. The visitor’s attention had to be focused only on the statue and not be distracted by the beauty of the doors.

We admire the original 17th-century gates and those added later as well as one of the few buildings in Turin still boasting a courtyard garden. Designed to surprise the passers-by during the daylight hours, gardens were visible with the door open and depicted the power of the resident family.