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Photos by Lucia Ranieri

Piazza San Carlo is probably the most beautiful and famous square in the historic center of Turin. Nicknamed the ‘salotto della città’ (the city’s living room), it has maintained elegance, sobriety, and charm over time.

Construction and History

With the transfer of the capital of the Duchy of Savoy to Turin in 1563, the city began to expand southward. In 1617, architect Carlo di Castellamonte received the commission for the design and construction of this square.

The square was inaugurated in 1638 under the name Piazza Reale (Royal Square), although the surrounding arcades were completed only in 1646.

Piazza San Carlo
Piazza San Carlo

Initially, it served as a military parade ground, hence its name. In 1764, it underwent embellishments and building reinforcements by Benedetto Alfieri. He gave it its current appearance, and the square was dedicated to San Carlo Borromeo. During the Napoleonic occupation, it was briefly named Place de Napoleon, but it reverted to Piazza San Carlo in 1814.

The reconstruction of Via Roma, promoted by the fascist regime between 1931 and 1934, fortunately did not significantly alter the original look of the square. It became entirely pedestrianized starting in 2004.

Despite being dedicated to San Carlo, the true connection of the square lies with Emanuele Filiberto.

Emanuele Filiberto

The dedication to San Carlo Borromeo commemorates an event from 1578. The Archbishop decided to embark on a pilgrimage to visit the Shroud, which was then kept by the Savoy family in Chambéry.

Prince Emanuele Filiberto, in turn, decided to move the Shroud to Turin to shorten the journey. This episode is depicted in a bas-relief above the Church of San Carlo (the one on the right when viewed frontally), showing the moment when Prince Emanuele Filiberto receives the host from San Carlo.

Continuing with the same story, at the corner of Via Alfieri and Via Santa Teresa, facing inward toward the square, you can also see two small frescoes depicting the exhibition of the Shroud.

Originally, there was a fresco at each corner, but the other two were destroyed during the bombings of World War II.

Monument to Emanuele Filiberto

At the center of the square stands the monument dedicated to Emanuele Filiberto after the victorious Battle of Saint-Quentin in 1557.

In 1831, Carlo Alberto commissioned this statue from Carlo Marochetti. The bronze statue was cast in Paris and exhibited at the Louvre Museum for a period. It was inaugurated in Turin on November 4, 1838, the feast day of San Carlo Borromeo.

During World War II, the statue was protected from bombings with wooden structures and fortunately emerged unscathed.

Commonly referred to by the people of Turin as Caval ed Brons (Bronze Horse) it is considered one of the most beautiful equestrian statues of the 19th century.

Relevant events in Piazza San Carlo

In this square, Vittorio Alfieri lived in an apartment on the second floor, at the corner with the street of the same name, between 1774 and 1777.

During this period, he fell in love with a married woman who lived across the way and whom he often saw from his window.

Piazza San Carlo
The twin churches

To force himself to avoid seeing her, he confined himself to his home and cut off his queue (a symbol of the bourgeoisie). Ashamed to be seen without it, he stayed indoors for a long time.

In 1864, the capital was transferred from Turin to Florence. The people of Turin protested in Piazza San Carlo against this decision.

General Minghetti, the chief of police, ordered the crowd to disperse by opening fire, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people (reports estimate 184).

Years later, the Turin municipality wanted to name a street after the general for his role in stabilizing the Kingdom’s finances after the unification of Italy. In remembrance of the lives lost, the people of Turin protested again in Piazza San Carlo and convinced the municipality to change its decision.

The lucky bull

In 1930, in front of the entrance to Caffè Torino, a brass bas-relief depicting a bull (the city’s symbol) was placed. Traditionally, stepping on the bull’s testicles with one foot is believed to bring good luck: that area of the bull is indeed particularly worn.

Cannon Shots in Piazza San Carlo

During the siege of Turin in 1706, the French attacked the city for many weeks. Turin resisted and ultimately emerged victorious. However, it bore several scars and marks.

Some of the most evident (and hidden) ones can be found right in Piazza San Carlo.

San Carlo cofee

To bring Turin to its knees, the French also used cannons. Despite firing from outside the city walls, some projectiles landed in Piazza San Carlo. Fortunately for history and art, they didn’t damage the buildings; instead, they remained in the square until today, adding to the charm of this place.

Where? Well, stand near the two twin churches and face them directly. Now shift your gaze to the left portico. In the seventh arch of the portico (counting from the corner), you can see one of the cannon shots that reached the square. By carefully observing that area of the building, you might spot others near the windows on the upper floors (not always visible, as sometimes open shutters conceal them).