The 1884 General Exhibition: the Ancient Art Section
On 26 April 1884, the Esposizione generale italiana artistica e industriale (General Exhibition of Italian Art and Industry) opened in Turin in Valentino Park. It was part of a series of major international events intended to promote industrial production, which was still in its infancy in Italy. The models were the London Exhibition of 1851 and the Paris Exhibition of 1878.
These were huge events that benefited from public funding and merged the characteristics of the traditional market-fair with those of the showcasing of new products and displays.
These events, aimed essentially at the future, at innovation and international exchange, were always accompanied by pavilions or structures illustrating the artistic and architectural production of past centuries and the most diverse civilisations.
Turin awaited the 1884 Exhibition with great expectations of economic rebirth for a city that had lost its role as capital two decades earlier and was in search of a new identity. The success of the initiative was considerable and the presence of a very special “pavilion” contributed to such accomplishment: the medieval Borgo and Rocca.
Alfredo D’Andrade, Views of the Borgo under construction, 1883. Roma, Archivio Centrale dello Stato
One aim of the Turin Exhibition was to create an artistic-architectural section; for this purpose, the Ancient Art Section was set up, an interdisciplinary commission made up of men of letters, historians, artists, architects, archivists and experts in artistic objects, which first convened in January 1882, under the presidency of Ferdinando Scarampi di Villanova, to draw up a project for the pavilion. Work speeded up and reached a turning point in May 1882, when Alfredo D’Andrade, a wealthy Portuguese scholar of Italian architecture, particularly medieval architecture, joined the Commission. The idea of a pavilion based on the architectural styles of different periods and regions of Italy was definitively abandoned, in favour of a project based on a single century (the 15th) and a single cultural area (Valle d’Aosta and Piedmont). Thus began the preliminary research for the creation of the Borgo Medievale, consisting of a village and a turreted castle.
A product of invention as a whole, every architectural, decorative and furnishing element of the Borgo was a precise replica of originals dating back to the 15th century, which could be found at the time in Piedmont and the Valle d’Aosta, all of which were discovered and studied personally by the members of the Commission.
Vintage postcards of the Borgo from photos by Vittorio Ecclesia, 1884. Torino, Galleria d’Arte Moderna
A Borgo with a dominant Rocca
The unique creation of the Borgo Medievale was a product of the positivist culture prevailing in the last quarter of the 19th century, but it also reflected the attention paid to ancient artefacts, to the material culture of the Middle Ages, which Alfredo D’Andrade and Vittorio Avondo (also a member of the Commission) had already demonstrated in the recovery and restoration of several castles in the Valle d’Aosta, in particular that of Issogne, purchased by Avondo in 1872.
The huge task of finding and reproducing the originals proceeded at a fast pace: on 12 December 1882 the first stone of the Rocca (the castle) was laid; on 6 June 1883 the first stone of the village was laid; on 27 April 1884, the Borgo was inaugurated in the presence of the sovereigns of Italy, Umberto and Margherita of Savoy.
Under the porticoes were the workshops, entrusted to companies of national renown, which were examples of a strong tradition in the manufacture of ceramics, wood and iron and which realistically animated the village street.
Vintage postcards of the Rocca from photos by Vittorio Ecclesia, 1884. Torino, Galleria d’Arte Moderna
The success of the Borgo and its transformations
The Borgo Medievale of Turin is one of the most significant products of a cultural movement – 19th century neo-Medievalism – which, although with different forms and aims, has left important testimonies in architecture, the arts, literature and taste throughout Europe and which was particularly successful in Turin and Piedmont.
The Borgo Medievale is a unique case within Turin’s artistic panorama, more similar to an archaeological or monumental site than to a museum in the strict sense of the word, made up of collections subject to further expansion.
The General Italian Artistic and Industrial Exhibition was held in Turin from April to November 1884. While the Rocca or castle, was built to last, the village was to have been demolished once the exhibition was over.
The enormous success of the complex resulted in its being bought by the City of Turin at the end of the event; it only became part of the Civic Museums much later, in 1942.
The public’s appreciation of the Borgo was large and uninterrupted. Not so its critical reception.
Until the 1930s, the purposes for which the Borgo had been built were still perfectly understood and shared by Turin’s cultural milieu. Similarly, the architectural techniques and the workmanship of the materials used at the Borgo were still in tune with those followed by the Turin craftsmen and decorators of the years between the two wars.
Attitudes changed after the Second World War. In view of the considerable damage caused by the bombings (the southern part of the Borgo was hit, with the consequent destruction of part of the Rocca and the Casa di Ozegna), the idea of demolishing the Borgo was even mooted, but luckily subsequently abandoned. The aims and objectives that had guided the creators were no longer understood and the Borgo was increasingly looked at as a “fake”.
1981 marked a reversal of this trend. This was in fact the year of the exhibition Alfredo D’Andrade. Tutela e restauro (Alfredo D’Andrade. Protection and restoration), the first significant sign of renewed critical interest in Piedmont neo-Medievalism in the second half of the 19th century. From this date onwards, the Borgo regained its rightful place in the city’s cultural scene, thanks also to its targeted use as a venue for exhibitions and events and the resumption of an intense associated editorial and cultural activity, promoted in particular following the management entrusted by the City, together with the other sites of the Civic Museums, to the Fondazione Torino Musei, from 2003 to 2018.
Today, the Borgo can be considered an open-air museum with over 500,000 visitors a year. Of these, more than 50,000 pay an admission fee to visit the Rocca and the Garden.
A few numbers
SECTION SESSIONS: 159
LAYING OF THE ROCCA’S FIRST FOUNDATION STONE:
12 December 1882
LAYING OF THE BORGO’S FIRST FOUNDATION STONE:
6 June 1883
SURFACE AREA OF THE BORGO MEDIEVALE:
8,550 mq (of which 2,750 is covered)
27 April 1884 in the presence of the Sovereigns of Italy, Umberto and Margherita of Savoy.
VISITORS DURING THE EXHIBITION: 216,506
LOCATIONS OF THE BUILDINGS THAT INSPIRED THE BORGO AND THE ROCCA: 44