Postcard from Turin, Italy: Museum housed in palace transformed by extravagant tastes of royal widows

When the House of Savoy chose a site for a new castle in Turin in the early 14th century, the rulers took advantage of the original protective Palatine gate and towers constructed under the rule of Emperor Augustus (63 BC-14 AD).

In 1637, Regent Maria Christina (1606-1663) chose the castle as her personal residence and remodeled the palace to suit her tastes. Six decades later, the Parisian-born widow of her son, Charles Emanuele II (1634-1675), made the palace her own.

Marie Jeanne Baptiste (1644-1724) ruled as regent for her son, Victor Amadeus II (1666-1732). The young king encountered some difficulties ending his mother’s interference in the kingdom’s affairs, finally wrenching full control from her in 1684).

Like her mother-in-law, Marie Jeanne was known as Madama Reale, and their sumptuous residence was referred to as Palazzo Madama. Among the extensive changes she commissioned were a southern veranda and chinoiserie embellishments fashionable at the time. Architect Filippo Juvarra (1678-1736) began to transform the palace for her by designing an elegant white stone Baroque façade, but construction was halted in 1710 before she could alter more than one side of the palace lording over Piazzo Castello. At the time of her death, Madama Reale was not only the mother of the King of Sardinia but also grandmother of two other royal monarchs – King Louis I (1707-1724) of Spain and King Louis XV (1710-1774) of France.

Later, the palace served as the Royal Art Gallery, as the first home of the Senate of the Kingdom of Italy and, since 1934, as the home of as Turin’s Museum of Ancient Art, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica.

Postcard from Turin, Italy: How royals gave the city a French accent

Statue of Emanuele Filiberto (1528-1580), Duke of Savoy

Marriages among the titled in Europe generally had larger ramifications than the immediate household.

Once upon a time, the House of Savoy ruled over an Alpine region northwest of Italy, primarily now part of France. In 1051, Otto of Savoy (1023?-1060?) wed Adelaide, a marchioness whose titles brought Turin (Torino) under the House of Savoy.

The land that would eventually become Italy was a battleground in a constant tug of war between France and Spain between 1494 and 1559. When Emanuele Filiberto (1528-1580) inherited the title of the Duke of Savoy in 1553, he found himself somewhat turf-less. Turin was under French control.

Already known as “Testa d’fer” (“Ironhead”) for his early military service to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) (Charles I of Spain), Emanuele continued to serve the Habsburgs. Emanuele chose sides wisely. The seasoned soldier led the forces of Spanish King Philip II (1527-1598) to a victory at the Battle of Saint Quentin in northern France on the feast day of Saint Lawrence (of the grill) in 1557.

Gradually regaining the former Savoy kingdom from Spain and France [no doubt assisted by his marriage to Margaret (1523-1574), Duchess of Berry and the sister of King Henry II of France (1519-1559)], Emanuele made Turin the capital.

Bishop Domenico Della Rovere (?-1587) had commissioned a palace there as his residence and had the Cathedral of San Giovanni erected next door in 1498. Emanuele made the Bishop’s Palace his own. The Bishop’s Palace was hardly large enough to accommodate the needs of the ruling family, so Emanuele and his successors continually added wings and additional structures. The current façade of Palazzo Reale addressing the sweeping Piazza Castello was the result of an ambitious construction project launched by Regent Maria Christina (1606-1663), a daughter of King Henry IV (1553-1610) of France and the widow of Vittorio Amedeo I di Savoia (1587-1637).

The domed Baroque Chapel of the Holy Shroud, Cappella della Sacra Dinone, was built adjacent to the Cathedral and the Royal Palace at the end of the 15th century during the reign of Carlo Emanuele II (1634-1675). The cherished cloth some claim bears the image of Jesus came into the possession of the House of Savoy in 1453. The relic was damaged by a fire in a chapel in the Savoy’s earlier capital before Carlo Emanuel moved it to Turin.

A major fire again threatened the shroud in 1997, with firefighters smashing its bulletproof glass to spare it. The renovated chapel was not reopened until this past fall, so the shroud itself was tucked away out of sight during our summer visit.

Successive Savoy rulers of the Kingdom of Sardinia resided in the Palazzo Reale until 1865. Victor Emanuele II (1820-1878) , the newly crowned King of Italy, moved out of the residence shortly after commissioning architect Domenico Ferri (1795-1878) to add the elegant Grand Staircase of Honor to the interior.

The Italian Republic claimed ownership of the Royal Palace and its grounds in 1946, and the extensive compound now is operated as Musei Reali Torino.

When Emanuele Filiberto made Turin the official capital of Savoy, he also turned his back on some of the family’s French connections by proclaiming Italian the official language of the kingdom. While he changed the spoken tongue, the architecture and design of Turin never lost a strong French accent.