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.