Can the Olympics put Turin back on the world map?

Above the rumble and screech of a broad railyard here, there is a bridge that, perhaps intentionally, perfectly symbolizes this city on the eve of the winter Games.

On one end is a gigantic brown Lego block of a building that stands as a memorial of what Turin once was: It is the Lingotto, and at one point - long before Fiat vacated it - it was the world's largest car factory.

At the other end of the bridge is the new athletes' village, a splash of primary color amid the dull gray of industry. In between, holding up the thin ribbon of concrete, is a red arch that evokes the image of an enormous, contorted Olympic ring.

Here, in the heart of Italy's rust belt, is the clear purpose of the Games: to bear Turin from its failing industrial past to a brighter future. And with the Games set to begin Friday, there is a palpable sense of hope that perhaps at last, this dowager city - stately, reserved, and often abandoned - can finally be the debutante.

"We thought we were a great city, but we knew at the same time we were no longer able to be a great city," says Gabriele Ferraris, metro editor of La Stampa, a national newspaper based in Turin. "We were losing jobs and people. We were losing importance. We had to try something."

Speak to the city's civic leaders, and it is clear that the Olympics is the centerpiece of an effort to recast the city as something more than Fiat, which once employed 100,000 workers. Now, with Fiat's Turin workforce at 16,000, the hope is that the Games will be the catalyst for investment, improvement, and change.

"I want to brand Turin as a city of knowledge," says Mayor Sergio Chiamparino.

Yet for the Torinese in general, the Games appear to mean something altogether more profound. They are an opportunity for Turin to reclaim its place among the great cities of Italy. Alongside its obvious, and at times oppressive, industrial past lies a vein of culture and history as deep as any in the country, yet often overlooked by all but the people of Turin.

It can be as obvious as the main square of the city, Piazza Castello, where the architecture of epochs unfolds like a textbook, with the ruins of the ancient Roman gate embellished over centuries by the strokes of baroque masters.

"There's an awareness that the way the city developed is imprinted in the architecture," says Giuliana Katz, who grew up in Turin and now teaches Italian studies at the University of Toronto.

It is the image of Italy where few look for it. Come this weekend, though, the whole world will see it, with Piazza Castello as the medals plaza and the gracefully arched roof of the Mole Antonelliana as the iconic image of the Games.

Therein lie the greatest expectations of the people of Turin. "I hope that this event will change the vision of Turin. We are not only the Fiat brand," says Pierluigi Bertini, who is selling mobile phones in his shop near the city center.

Yet there is also another Turin not as easily seen on Olympic cameras. Along with Hannibal, Napoleon, and the city's ruling house of Savoy - which was originally French - something else made its way over the high mountain passes to the west: a measure of the Northern European reserve.

To be sure, the Torinese are thoroughly Italian, hurling words at their mobile phones as if they were verbal catapults and hurtling through the streets like stock-car racers. Yet Professor Katz notes that Turin's past is unique in Italy. While Rome looks back to imperial ruins and Venice looks to its trade with the East, Turin looks to the Alps - and to the foundation of the Italian state itself.

Just as Philadelphia still echoes with the founding of America, Turin still bears the imprint of the Risorgimento - the 19th- century movement to unify Italy. Turin stood as the first capital of Italy from 1861 to 1865, and its ruling house was the royal family of Italy until the end of World War II.

It has created a city of "elegance and reserve," Katz says, but perhaps also a city - like Salt Lake - that is famous for being insular. "Torinese don't like to talk about their achievements," says Massimo Gramillini, a columnist for La Stampa.

It is perhaps appropriate, then, that the one attraction this city is known for is a shroud - the cloth that bears the image of a crucified man whom some believe to be Jesus. "This is a city of mystery, where everything is hidden," Mr. Gramillini adds.

Among the lesser-known treasures of Turin is the Egyptian Museum, which holds the best collection outside Cairo. Moreover, Turin is the birthplace of the chocolate bar and home of the white truffle, considered one of the world's finest delicacies.

Some hope that the Olympics can begin to change this. "I hope in the formative value of the event," says a young woman who offers only her first name, Antonella.

Adds Katz: "Torino deserves to be seen."

Erika Trombotto contributed to this report. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Ms. Trombotto's name.]

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Can the Olympics put Turin back on the world map?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today