First emerging as an independent territory in the eleventh century, Savoy from the middle of the sixteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth grew from a minor duchy to a prosperous and powerful little kingdom. Straddling Alpine territory in what is now France, Switzerland and Italy, and adding Sardinia in 1720, it became larger than modern Belgium and was a significant player in European affairs.
The capital moved from Chambéry to Turin in 1563, enabling extensions to be built on relatively unencumbered terrain, planned in accordance with Renaissance and, later, Baroque principles. Italy has little else to match the grandeur and homogeneity of its sequence of squares, boulevards and palaces dating to this period. The city looks, and is, as much French and Central European as Italian, and has always impressed visitors with its orderliness, regularity and magnificence.
The capital was not the only material manifestation of Baroque culture in Piedmont. The House of Savoy and their courtiers created a constellation of residences and hunting lodges, gardens and parks around their capital which constitute as fine a group as is to be found anywhere in Europe. The patrons were fortunate in their choice of architects, especially Guarino Guarini (1624–83) and Filippo Juvarra (1678–1736). Guarini was a priest, a mathematician and creator of the some of the most original and beguiling architectural forms of the Baroque era. Juvarra trained in Rome and developed an international practice but his best works are in Piedmont, perfecting the easeful magnificence characteristic of the dying decades of the Age of Absolutism.
Despite its cultural and linguistic orientation towards its western and northern neighbours, Savoy became the vanguard of the unification of Italy and the expulsion of foreign rulers, providing the firepower and diplomatic clout which facilitated the success of the Risorgimento in 1861. It also provided the kings of a newly united Italy. Shorn of the territories west of the Alps, France’s reward for assistance, the Italian residue of Savoy came to constitute the region of Piedmont, one of Italy’s most progressive and prosperous but unaccountably neglected by tourists.
Fly at c. 1.15pm from London Gatwick (British Airways) to Turin and reach the hotel late afternoon. All five nights are spent in Turin.
Turin. Begin with a walk through the beautiful, arcaded Piazza San Carlo. The Palazzo Carignano has a remarkable curvaceous facade by Guarini. Piazza Castello is splendid, the greatest of the buildings being Palazzo Madama by Filippo Juvarra (1721), now housing the art gallery. Palazzo Reale, the principal royal residence, is largely of the late 17th cent. but has interiors of the 18th and 19th cents. and the Chapel of the Holy Shroud, Guarini’s masterpiece (1694). Housed here are masterpieces from the Galleria Sabauda.
Staffarda, Manta, Racconigi. Drive south to the Abbey of Staffarda which retains an impressive Romanesque church with cloister and chapter house. Continue to the castle of Manta which has an early 15th-cent. fresco cycle, an important and beautiful example of secular International Gothic painting. The Castello di Racconigi was one of the summer residences of the Savoys; the front overlooking the park is by Guarini (1676).
Superga, Turin. The basilica of Superga (1731), a votive church and burial place of the royal family with a magnificent hilltop location just outside the city, is Juvarra’s finest work. Though altered in the 18th cent., the Villa della Regina (1620) is a good example of an early Baroque residence. The afternoon is free; there is plenty to do and see in Turin, equally it is a good place in which to relax.
Agliè, Masino, Albugnano. The Castello di Agliè to the north of Turin was rebuilt as a ducal palace in 1646 and further refurbished in the 18th and early 19th cents. With a similarly long history of embellishment, but with the 18th cent. predominant, the Castello di Masino is one of the best-preserved royal residences in Piedmont. Nestling in an isolated rural setting, the small Romanesque Abbey of Vezzolano is outstanding for its architecture, stone carvings and frescoes.
Stupinigi, Venaria. The Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi is a royal hunting lodge built to a fascinating ground plan by Filippo Juvarra in 1730. Lavish interiors, fine gardens. The Venaria Reale (Amedeo Castellamonte 1660, Juvarra 1714–28) is the largest of the suburban palaces, a magnificent complex which reopened in 2007 after comprehensive renovation. Drive from here the short distance to the airport; return to Gatwick at c. 6.15pm.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,340 or £2,120 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,600 or £2,380 without flights.
Air travel (Euro Traveller) on scheduled British Airways flights (Airbus A319); private coach for excursions and transfers; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 3 lunches and 3 dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips for waiters, drivers and guides; all taxes; the services of the lecturer.
Grand Hotel Sitea, Turin: a 4-star hotel, comfortable, elegantly furnished and very central. Single rooms are double rooms for sole use.
The tour involves a lot of walking in the town centres where vehicular access is restricted and standing in museums, and should not be attempted by anyone who has difficulty with everyday walking and stair-climbing. Average distance by coach per day: 20 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.