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Turin: Where Angels and Heretics Hang

by Douglas Anthony Cooper

“That’s the church my parents were married in,” says lovely Roberta. And then she whispers: “People used to practice black magic in the basement.”

Roberta is the woman designated to ferry us about Turin, the royal city in Piedmont at the foot of the Italian Alps. By Italian standards, this town is calm and efficient and sane. That is, if you discount the long history of satanists, heretical Freemasons and closet alchemists.

My first hint of the Other Turin, before Roberta with the raven hair takes us under her wing, is the proliferation of ancient pharmacies. My guide book has a whole section listing these under “information” –  as if 300-year-old drugstores are simply normal urban institutions, like post offices and train stations. When I discover that the Savoie family who ruled Turin had a soft spot for alchemy (a hobby strictly condemned by the Catholic Church), these pharmacies begin to make sense.

“There are no papers officially linking the old pharmacies to alchemy,” says my next guide. Then she whispers: “But there’s a hidden alchemical grotto beneath the palace, and nobody’s ever found it.” Regarding Roberta’s church, she finds the suggestion blasphemous: “They never practiced black magic in the churches!” She adds, “Although that church might once have been a temple to Isis.”

Egyptian gods are in fact quite popular in Turin, which is odd for an Italian city known mostly for its symmetrical public squares and baroque churches — and for its Shroud, of course, but this miraculous object is impeccably Christian. Christianity competes here with all sorts of alternatives. Nostradamus, hardly an orthodox prophet, lived here for a couple of months. That least-Christian of philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, chose this city in which to go mad.

I associate Roberta, despite her jet-black tresses, with white magic. (It’s hard to think anything evil of this woman, as she shepherds us through the complexities of buffalo mozzarella and vintage Barolo.) My second guide explains that indeed, benevolent magic is also a tradition here. There are two geographical triangles, she tells me: one associated with white magic and the other with its black counterpart. The white triangle has at its corners Lyon, Prague, and Turin. The black triangle is formed by San Francisco, London, and… Turin.

Particularly distressing is the prominent public effigy of Lucifer – no ordinary civic monument. This black statue with gigantic wings has a pentacle perched like a tiara on top of his head. He presides over a pyramid of broken stones and writhing souls, and points across the city with an evil finger. If you follow the trajectory of that finger, you find that he is pointing directly at two white statues on the other side of town: Castor and Pollux, a pair of twins dear to the Freemasons, who saw them as symbols of transcendent wisdom.

Freemasons were the cornerstone of white magic here. The Masons were good guys – relative to, say, Satan – even if the Counter-Reformation condemned them to instant excommunication. They’re the ones who championed all things Egyptian, and they have their subtle icons dotted all over the city. If you know where to look, for instance, you’ll find holes in the pavement of Piazza Solferini, cut in the shape of the Eye of Horus – the Masonic symbol for sight after death.

Execution is also a theme. On the street where the executioners lived, Via Bonelli, you can still visit their specially designated graveyard. Citizens were forced by royal decree to feed bread to this civil servant, but they would always hand the bread over upside down (a symbol of contempt).

Hangings took place in Rondo de la Forca, and Misericordia Church is dedicated to St. Giuseppe Cavasso, the patron saint of the condemned. The church still displays hanging ropes, and instruments of execution. The Dominicans presided over the Inquisition, and in the square in front of their church – Piazza Palazzo di Citta – people were burned alive.

Not all churches are evil, of course. San Lorenzo, the architectural masterpiece of Turin, is said to display more angelic images than any other church in the world. The church was designed by Guarino Guarini, perhaps the greatest of the baroque architects; he also designed the chapel that housed the Shroud of Turin. It remains a mystery how this chapel burned down. (A deficit of angels, perhaps?)

Once you start looking for them, Turin seems to host enemies of holiness everywhere.  A demonic sculpture hangs from the wall of a bank, and stares balefully at the archbishop’s residence. If you look up while standing in the stately Piazza San Carlo, you’ll note that it is ringed by a frieze of leering devils’ heads. And one public space has karma so foul that nobody will set foot there. A small obelisk marks this, the most evil place in the city, traditionally known as the Gates of Hell.

A shop downtown does a brisk trade in black candles. They can hardly keep them in stock. Who buys these things? Nobody can tell me. But Amsterdam has its tulips, and Turin has its evil midnight wax.

Depending upon your disposition, you can come to your own conclusions regarding this uncanny place. Kind Roberta informs me, for instance, that the city is known as “Magic Turin.” My other guide, however, informs me that the nickname is really “The City of the Devil.”