On the surface, nothing does seem to happen. Late at night, the city center is calm, most restaurants closed, the occasional late-night bar spilling out with patrons, whose shouts are distinct in the muffled air. But with typical quiet and primness, Turin has over the last 10 years remade itself into a city prized as much for the arts as for its now-diminished industrial prowess. In addition to its storied museums — Palazzo Reale, the storehouse of the Savoy treasures; Museo Egizio, one of the largest collection of Egyptian works outside of Egypt — it has a surprising number of galleries and art foundations, many of them in former industrial spaces.
The idea of an artistic destination shrouded by a royal and manufacturing city was in accord with one of Turin’s other notable features: its weird association with magic, madness and the occult. Here was where a troubling number of artists and philosophers had suffered crippling depressions or existential crises, or had gone crazy: the epic poet Torquato Tasso; the young Jean-Jacques Rousseau; the novelist Primo Levi. It was on or near the wide, trolley-crossed thoroughfare Via Po where Nietzsche famously saw a horse being maltreated, rushed to embrace it and then collapsed, suffering a fit of madness from which he would never recover.
The occult is, it seems, hidden in every corner of the city. Along the Via Po are Turin’s many antiquarian bookshops, hawking old treatises on witchcraft. The symbol of the city is the Mole Antonelliana, a superbly weird and violently ill-proportioned tower, stacked with alternating tiers of minuscule colonnades, swelling to a quadrilateral roof and rising with an aluminum spire to the height of 547 feet. In the San Salvario neighborhood, south of the city center, one finds a museum dedicated to Cesare Lombroso, the 19th-century criminologist who believed that a tendency to crime was an evolutionary throwback, “atavism,” which could be determined by heredity; his wrongheaded, dangerous and, for a time, powerfully influential research is preserved in the museum’s incomparably creepy store of death masks and skull-measuring instruments.
“I want to say that Turin is not a neutral city,” the Turinese author Giorgio De Maria said in a 1970s interview; his cult novel, “The Twenty Days of Turin,” from 1977, has just been published in English. “Even if you don’t outwardly know anyone and no one knows you, you always get the impression you’re being watched.”
During my visit, more than a few people asked if I knew that Turin was the only city to occupy the geographic intersection of the black magic and white magic triangles, and is therefore caught in an eternal struggle between the forces of good and evil.
THE FIRST TIME THIS question was posed to me, I was standing in the apartment of Carlo Mollino, a renowned architect — also a daredevil and private pornographer — who died in 1973. This was his last residence, which he never lived in, because Mollino planned it to be a project confronting death, symbolic of his own posthumous journey, as the pyramids were to the Egyptian pharaohs. My questioner, the small museum’s eccentric caretaker, Fulvio Ferrari — wearing an extraordinary dark vest patterned with giraffe motifs — had been showing me around the apartment, demonstrating its myriad varieties of occult significance. Before the entrance to the balcony were two giant clamshells, signaling the birth of erotic love (Ferrari helpfully pointed me to a photocopied image of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”), and oval mirrors signifying eggs and wombs.
In a study, there were drawers filled with Polaroids of nude women, taken by Mollino. They wore clothes he had collected over decades, adopting comically lascivious poses. The one in the wedding dress, Ferrari told me, was intended to symbolize the bride that Mollino never had, but would enjoy in the afterlife. The ones in black lingerie, he added, opening another drawer, were representations of courtesans. Here, too, Mollino was following the tradition of the pharaohs.
Mollino, who was born in 1905, represented almost perfectly the two faces of 20th-century Turin. On the one hand, he was a respected professor in the University of Turin’s Department of Architecture, the son of a stolid engineer from whom he learned the importance of sound mathematical and mechanical principles in construction. His sui generis furniture — each piece designed for himself or particular clients, not for industry — reflected assiduous ergonomic principles. On the other hand, he was a fierce, dangerous child of pleasure, obsessed not just with women’s anatomies but with racing cars and aerobatic aircrafts. (He made designs for both.) I visited the Teatro Regio, the city’s opera house, which he designed in 1965, and found the same obsessive features repeated, all the more scandalous for their association with this most hallowed of bourgeois rituals. The shape of the entire complex was meant to be that of an hourglass torso, while the plush, red-lined interior was made deliberately uterine, with ovarian and egglike motifs scattered throughout. The stage itself was a giant oval, on which I saw Puccini’s Manon Lescaut sob out her final aria — “Sola, perduta, abbandonata!” — as she crept across a barren landscape toward death.
Mysteries upon mysteries prevailed in the Casa Mollino. Fulvio and his son — the improbably named Napoleone — had become caretakers in the 1990s, after having acquired the apartment from its previous resident, an engineer. By that point, Mollino’s own designs had dissipated and had to be restored, partly through acquisitions from Mollino’s living friends. It was in some sense a reinvention of an invention: an apartment designed to be a mausoleum, turned into an apartment and reconverted to a mausoleum by admirers of Mollino, who had themselves never met the man. This trajectory was not unlike contemporary Turin itself: a monument to ghosts made functional, only to be changed once more back into a monument.