La Venaria RealeShutterstock

By Christine Potter

Giuseppe GaribaldiShutterstock/Clara

In the early 1800s, Italy as a nation did not exist.

Enter Giuseppe Garibaldi, who travelled from Sicily to Turin convincing the separate kingdoms stretching from south to north that a unified nation would be a stronger nation. His success ousted the controlling Austrian Empire, and in 1861, Turin (or Torino, as it’s known in Italy) became the first capital of a united nation, and the seat of Italy’s first ruler, King Vittorio Emanuele II. (He came from the ruling family of Piedmont, hence being the second king of the same name.)

King Vittorio Emanuele IIShutterstock/pseudolongino

His enormous monument in Rome houses a Unification Museum in the base of the structure. (If you visit, ride the panoramic elevator to the top. It was installed in 2007 and yields a 360-degree view of the capital.)

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification and the main celebrations are being held in the northwest region of Piedmont and in Turin, the first capital (and still capital of the region). Turin is perhaps best known around the world as the host of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games.

ItalyShutterstock/Sam CornwellTwo Major Venues
Under the banner Esperienza Italia, events include exhibitions in two historically important venues: the massive Officine Grandi Riparazioni in Turin (a masterpiece of 19th-century industrial architecture created to build and maintain railway locomotives and carriages) and La Venaria Reale, a lush royal palace 10 kilometres from Turin in the Piedmont countryside. Venaria has been likened to Versailles in France, but includes an Old Town centre, the Reggia (the palace complex itself), glorious gardens, and Juvarra’s Stables – a painstakingly restored compound built between 1722 and 1727 to house 160 horses and with an attached orangery for storing citrus fruit. (Juvarra was the architect.)

Today the magnificent buildings are used as exhibition and meeting space. Interestingly, the original cost to build the stables far exceeded the budget, and contractors complained bitterly, but nonetheless praised the design, saying “…they had us build an edifice of extraordinary height…more closely resembling a magnificent temple than a stable and an orangery.”

Celebrations were held in the past century in these same venues to commemorate the 50th (1911) and 100th (1961) anniversaries, and much of this year’s content will be influenced by those past events. Exhibitions run through the year, ranging in subject from the glory days of 19th-century royalty and regalia, to the impact of Italian design in the latter half of the 20th century, to speculative modules on how the future might shape up for Italy’s industry and populace.

“Esperienza Italia is an excellent opportunity for Italians and those of Italian descent to ‘come home’ and learn about their heritage,” says a staffer at the Italian Tourism offices. “And it will be of interest to any groups or individuals who have a special affinity with Italy, whether in wine and food, sports, or design.”

From Art To Architecture
No exhibit of Italian history would be complete without the art that contributed so much to the world, and in La Venaria, “La bella Italia. Art and identity of the capital cities” displays more than 350 masterpieces. They’re chosen to show the artistic progress from medieval times to 1861 using works from the pre-Unification capitals – Turin, Florence, Milan, Venice, Genoa, Bologna, Naples, and Palermo – each representing the unique characteristics of pre-1861 courts by such masters as Giotto, Donatello, Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Caravaggio.

While most events run until November, Leonardo da Vinci’s multi-faceted work enjoys a dedicated exhibit until January 2012, entitled Leonardo. The genius, the legend. (At La Venaria.)

High fashion is another creative industry synonymous with Italy, but it wasn’t always so. It was Queen Margherita, consort to King Umberto (who reigned from 1878 to 1900), who first promoted the idea of Italian design, and the business of fashion gained momentum under the republic, formed in 1946. It was a deliberate attempt to breathe life into a country defeated in the Second World War and was a wild success, peaking in the 1980s. At La Venaria Real from July 23 until December 11, Moda in Italia. 150 years of high fashion tells the story of Italian couture from Unification to the present, and even into the future, with exciting examples from different decades and speculative designs of what might yet be worn.

Potager RoyalShutterstock/Adriano CastelliEating Royally
Let’s not forget cuisine.

The Potager Royal display opens April 15 in the gardens of La Venaria. It’s worth a visit for the view alone – surrounded by the forested La Mandria Park and with a splendid view of the Alps, the live (literally) 10-hectare exhibit sits next to the recently restored building Cascina Medici del Vascello.

Caption for 13515199:
The gardens of La Venaria, once the Royal Family farm, have been restored according to original drawings, with orchards, vegetable plots, pergolas, ponds and fountains.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Mauro Bighin

The gardens, once the Royal Family farm, have been restored according to original drawings, with orchards, vegetable plots, pergolas, ponds and fountains.

The produce will not go to waste. Royal dinners are another aspect of Potager Royal, prepared by top Italian chefs and served at La Venaria’s Galleria Grande. Running every Friday from mid-April to early November, the cost is 60 euros per person and dishes focus on regional Italian cuisine. (Advance booking is a must.) On weekends following the dinners, you can also shop in the complex for wine and food products created for the exhibition.

Turin As Workshop
Turin as a city grew from an institutional capital to a manufacturing one, so the choice of the Grandi Riparazioni, the “workshop of Italy,” to showcase traditional and contemporary crafts is a natural. Il Futuro Nelli Mani, or Artisans Tomorrow, is an exhibition-workshop showing the new “metropolitan artisan” work in three segments: digital media; projects and products by renowned architects, artists, and artisans; and global Italian talent involving mechanics, music, and special effects. Workshops will offer live demonstrations, and an arts and crafts supermarket offers items for sale in ceramics, textiles, glass and other media.

Sport has long been an Italian passion and several events in Piedmont are scheduled for 2011, including the World Championships of Archery in July.

More Italy
For a complete calendar, list and times of exhibits, and more information, go to the website