Turin: historical doorways, shops and the Jewish ghetto
In addition to its enchanting palaces and baroque churches, Turin boasts a rich legacy of history and art, hidden in the details and decorations of some corners of the city which may be often overlooked by a not attentive eye.
Thanks to the experience of its tour guides, 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: along the way, the guide will let you discover an interesting collection of historical workshops and doorways of courtyards and palaces, most of them dating back to the 17th century, enriched by surprising symbolic masks, cherubs and animal figures.
After surviving drastic economic and social changes, historical shops have become part of the history of the community and as such have been protected by a regional law, already proposed for the first time in 1989 to enhance them.
The architecture and furnishings typical of the commercial sector influence the appearance and furnishings of the city, since they define the urban landscape with shop windows, frames, wooden structures (from French language”devantures”), signs and advertisements.
Between the second half of the 18th century and the first of the 19th century, handcraft and medieval workshops left space to stores; these were mainly different thanks to the visual impact provided by the exhibited goods, with the purpose of attracting 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. 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.
There is no specific typology of commercial architecture, 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, which are mixed with the imagination of craftsmen who manufacture accessories, structures and decorations made of iron and wood: baroque handles can be found beside Renaissance gates, 15th-century Florentine lanterns are placed next to 18th-century Parisian marquises, all of them coexist in one single variegated environment.
During our tour through the historical shops of Turin, the tour guide will stop at some cafes, groceries and trimming shops, most of which are still original, we will 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.
During the three urban expansions carried out by the Savoys 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, but above all 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 and gates which over time became 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, 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.
Initially composed of one single hinged door, the doors have evolved over the centuries up to the double hinged door with opposite opening and, while walking through the streets of Turin, you can note various types and 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, are sometimes camouflaged or decorated by grinning faces, grotesque masks, tongues, faces of dogs or lions guarding the palace, with the task of keeping away evil spirits or unwanted guests.
In addition to showing you the shape of each door, Meet Piemonte tour guide will also narrate 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.
The Jewish ghetto
The tour of Turin’s historical gates and workshops leads up to the streets which were once part of the Jewish ghetto. 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 and 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, since 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 of the ghetto, but the watchful eye of our guide will show you the signs that still witness the life of a very lively community, which used to have synagogues of Italian, Spanish and German rite (not visible).
The history of this neighborhood of Turin mixes with the events prior to the establishment of the Jewish ghetto. In the 17th century, Carlo Emanuele II wanted a second urban expansion of the city; this 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, since the visitor’s attention had to be focused only on the statue and not be distracted by the beauty of the doors.
The itinerary of our tour will therefore allow us to admire the original 17th-century gates and those added later; then we will get to one of the few buildings in Turin still boasting a courtyard garden: this was designed to surprise the passers-by who, during the daylight hours with the door open, could admire the huge spaces and scenographies that used to represent the power of the resident family.