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The heart of a capital city beats in Turin

This place likes to fuss over anniversaries of the unification of Italy. This year, the 150th, is no different. Adrian Mourby reports

Earlier this month, Italy commemorated 150 years as a united, independent country but no city celebrated quite so enthusiastically as Turin. There was a huge party with fireworks on Piazza Vittorio Veneto and President Giorgio Napolitano was in town to open two museums; a new Unification exhibition; a new length of the Metro; and a facsimile of the country's first senate chamber in Palazzo Madama. The poor man's ribbon-cutting hand must have been numb.

Turin also made a big fuss on 17 March 1911 and 1961. As the city sees it, 1861 was annus mirabilis Torino. When the King of Piedmont, Savoy and Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel II, became the first monarch of a united Italy, this was his capital.

"The Risorgimento is in our DNA," says Micaela, who showed me around the recreated Senate Chamber. "When it was announced that the capital was moving away in 1864 there were riots in Piazza San Carlo. The army was called in and 50 people were shot, but still the crowd demanded the capital must stay. Look around you. This is a capital city."

It's very easy to see what she means. For 300 years Turin was the capital of Savoy, a country that no longer exists, but when Garibaldi's 1,000 red shirts and Count Cavour's machinations finally put Savoy's king on the throne of an independent Italy, it was natural that Victor Emmanuel II continued to rule from this gracious 18th-century city with its spacious piazzas, Baroque colonnades and eight royal palaces.

But Turin was too far north to administer a country that now stretched down to Sicily. After only three years, the king decamped to Florence and suddenly Turin lost its raison d'être. "It was a very bad time," says Micaela. "Nobody had any money. Ten per cent of the population left. Politicians. Academics. Artists. Bankers."

Florence was a mere staging post – by 1871 the king had moved again to Rome, where Italy's government has remained. But Florence's brief capital status had appalling results with huge medieval areas demolished as streets were widened and a new Piazza Della Republica, with triumphal arch, was created.

Looking around Turin today, it is apparent how comparatively little 19th-century architecture there is. After a period of poverty and a major identity crisis, the city went straight from Baroque to Fiat Factory with the unfortunate result that the historic centre, based on an old grid system laid down by the Emperor Augustus, finds itself today surrounded by industry and the remains of a car-making empire.

The city centre, however, remains a delight. Palazzo Madama, site of Italy's first Senate, is actually three buildings wrapped around each other: inside Filippo Juvarra's Baroque palace is a medieval fortress and inside that the east gate of the old Roman city. Nowadays, the palazzo is an art museum. One room contains 150 miniatures from the Bruni-Tedeschi collection, donated by Carla Bruni and her sisters when their art-collecting father died. Another room contains an immaculate collection of Roman spoons that had been carefully buried when German tribes were smashing their way into Italy in the 5th century AD.

The art collection contains several portraits by Defendente Ferrari, who was a contemporary of Da Vinci in Florence. The popularity of Ferrari's Gothic style in Turin at this time shows how long it would take the Renaissance to reach north-eastern Italy. In fact, with the exception of its cathedral and one small palazzo, Turin seems to have missed out on Renaissance architecture altogether.

I had not heard of Defendente Ferrari. All this I learned from Micaela as she showed me the museum. We took the opportunity to look into its ballroom where the first senate sat. After the move to Florence, the interior of the Senate chamber was demolished. It took scenic artists from Teatro Regio to rebuild it for this year's anniversary. The new chamber will remain as a symbol, not just of a united Italy but of what Turin lost when it ceased to be the Italian capital.

There's a lot to see in Turin today, perversely in part because it didn't have the money to demolish and rebuild after 1864. Royal palaces abound. One is a Museum of the Risorgimento, another is an Egyptian Museum (modestly billed as "the second best in the world"), and a third is the former royal residence with a great coffee shop where Victor Emmanuel used to store his vegetables.

But you can't come to Turin without seeking out La Santa Sidone, aka the Turin Shroud. It has been moved to the cathedral since a fire in the royal chapel broke out while Kofi Annan was visiting. For the moment, it lies in a long box behind bomb-proof glass below the royal family's gilded loggia. Antonio, who switched on the English-language video display for me, apologised that he could not get it out for visitors.

"Of course, you know really it should be called the Chambery Shroud," he whispered. "That is where it was kept until 1578. But when Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy moved his capital to Turin he arranged for the shroud to come here, too."

Antonio feels it a shame that Turin lost its capital status in 1864: "This is a beautiful city. We should have many, many tourists." But he sees the irony in that what the House of Savoy bestowed in 1578 it could so easily take away, too. "As the Holy Book says, 'Put not your trust in princes'."

Compact Facts

How to get there

Adrian Mourby flew to Turin with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which offers return flights from £98. He stayed at the NH Santo Stefano (00 39 011 5223311; nh-hotels.com), which has double rooms from €164 (£142) per night.