by Roderick Conway Morris

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Ratio Famiglia
Basilica of Superga built for Victor Amadeus II of Savoy by Filippo Juvarra, 1717-1731

Architect of Capitals from Turin to Madrid 1714-1736

By Roderick Conway Morris
TURIN 4 November 1995


This summer Turin's municipality's culture department recruited hundreds of school-age volunteers to gointo the city to distribute leaflets describing its monuments and museums. Even though this was in a period when tens of thousands leave Turin on vacation, visits rose by nearly 50 percent.

This initiative was just one of a series instituted by Ugo Perone, a philosopher and now the city's culture chief, and a group of like-minded fellow citizens. They have come to realize that, especially since a high proportion of today's inhabitants are immigrants or the children of the immigrants who came to the industrial north from southern Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, many Torinese have little knowledge of the city's history and cultural traditions.

Given this new spirit of cultural revival, which has also produced new projects for the recuperation and revitalization of the city center, the current informative, enjoyable and charmingly presented show at the Palazzo Reale 'Filippo Juvarra: Architect of Capitals from Turin to Madrid 1714-1736' (which runs untilDec.10) clearly has the dual purpose of encouragingthe Torinese to discover their city as well as to illuminate the work of the greatest Italian exponent of the late Baroque, who more than any other architect conferred on Turin its distinctive and sophisticated style.

Not only was Juvarra personally responsible for laying out large parts of the city and constructing numerous churches, palaces, public and private buildings, but also by placing his stamp on the urban fabric heset a standard and tone that continued to influence his successors, leaving Turin's center with an appearance that is stillagreeably harmonious without being oppressively uniform.

Born in 1678 in Messina, Sicily - which was then ruled by Spain - into a family of silversmiths, Juvarra took holy orders, but also trained in the family workshop. Thus not only did he become a master craftsman in his own right but, unencumbered by the responsibilities of domestic life, he was able to devote virtually every waking hour to his real passion and vocation, architecture.

It soon became evident that the young Juvarra was an exceptionally gifted draftsman, and local recognition of his talents facilitated his move to Rome in 1703-4 to study architecture at the Accademia di San Luca, whose director was then Bernini's former pupil Carlo Fontana. In 1708, Juvarra entered the service of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, and it was through the stage sets designed for this powerful churchman's private theater in the Cancelleria Palace that Juvarra achieved wider fame.

In 1714, Juvarra was offered the opportunity of a lifetime when Victor Amadeus II of Savoy invited him to Turin. Following the treaties of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, the dukedom of Savoy had just become a kingdom. Juvarra's brief was, in effect, to transform Turin from a provincial town into a European capital of international importance, an enterprise to which he devoted the next 20 years.

Juvarra's Roman years had left him with a perfect understanding of the interplay between the religious and secular in the absolutist states of his times. In Rome, he found himself in a theocratic state that projected and glorified itself through secular magnificence, whereas the challenge in Turin was to give outward expression to a secular dynasty glorifiedby religious magnificence and underpinned by contemporary theories of the divine right of kings.

In 1706, Victor Amadeus had climbed a peak to the west of the city to study the positions of the French and Spanish troops besieging Turin. The duke vowed to build a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary there if Turin survived the attack. The prayer was duly answered and it was one of Juvarra's first tasks to realize the sovereign's pledge in brick and stone.

The resulting Basilica di Superga, with its noble dome and twin bell towers, is surely the most dramatic baroque church anywhere. The element of fantasy lent by its setting on top a 2,205-foot (735 meter) mountainwas something that Juvarra evidently relished and even now, on a misty day with the sun glinting on it, this solid basilica can seem more like a hallucination than reality.

Indeed, although entrusted with projecting an image of royal pomp and circumstance, what is so engaging about Juvarra is that he never seems to have lost his sense of gaiety and lightness of touch.

As a person he was, by all accounts, congenial and good-humored, despite his workaholic tendencies. And his mercurial inventiveness strongly emerges from many rapidly executed sketches which, along with his finished drawings and highly decorated wooden architectural models form the heart of the exhibition. (Juvarra preserved his own work with unusual care in a series of large albums, and more than 5,000 of his drawings have come down to us.)

Apart from being a builder on a grand scale, Juvarra was also a tireless designer of furniture and interior decorator. No detail was too small to warrant hisattention, which explains why his most accomplished works achieve an extraordinary sense of completeness.

To realize his major projects, he summoned the best available painters, sculptors, wood carvers and stucco makers from farand wide. And, as the architect Gianfranco Gritella, one the show's curators, put it: 'Juvarra was not only a brilliantly theatrical designer, but a superb director on site, managing to co-ordinate huge teams of artists and craftsmen, like the conductor of an orchestra. That's why the final effect of his buildings is of a single, entirely integrated composition,like an majestic organ going full blast with all the stops out.'

In 1735, Charles Emmanuel III agreed to lend his 'first architect' to Philip V of Spain to modernize Madrid. Juvarra's work conditions there were very different from those he had enjoyed before, and his problems exacerbated by the failure of his new employers to reimburse his travel expenses and pay his salary. They could not even be bothered to provide him with a carriage to visit the sites he was working on. He caught pneumonia after trudging back from one of them in freezing conditions and died in January 1736 less than a year after arriving.

The most successful Spanish structure to be realized according to his designs was the elegant garden facade of La Granja at San Idelfonso. His plans for the new royal palace to replace the Alcazar which had burned, were subsequently greatly modified. Yet, through his assistant Giovanni Battista Sacchetti, Juvarra posthumously continued to exert considerable influence.

Fortunately, not long before leaving Turin, Juvarra had at least managed to complete his most daring building of all, the billowing tent-like Palazzina di Caccia at Stupinigi, the grandest, most exotic and improbable hunting lodge in the world.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024