Fiorio first opened its doors in 1780. The population of Turin then was seventy thousand people within the city walls and eighteen thousand in the suburbs and on the countryside. There were thirty two streets, illuminated by 630 street lights, which intersected each other at right angles, resulting in 139 blocks.
In Turin of those times, Caffè Fiorio had great success and, in a short while, it earned the reputation of being a reference point in the town’s social life, which was also enhanced by the splendor that Via Po was enjoying. Its long history aside, Fiorio is one of the most important cafés in Turin, one of those which have best conserved the city’s atmosphere and traditions. Who has not come across the fact that it was at Fiorio where the city’s public opinion was being shaped during those years when Turin was actively contributing to the Unification of Italy? It was so important that the sovereigns, both Carlo Felice and Carlo Alberto, and their ministers used to ask «What is being said at Fiorio?» to tap the public opinion. Although today it no longer enjoys a privileged position in national politics, the heart of the city life still beats at its halls. Like any café with self esteem, it has its own rhythm, and hectic hours succeed hours of peace. Families which fill up the halls on a Sunday afternoon follow groups of friends who chit chat and clerks who enjoy a coffee break. Of course, there are the hours of solitary clients, who seem to agree with Hermann Kesten, «I do not notice solitude even at a deserted café. The ghosts of past clients sit at the tables, or the ghosts of the future clients.»
When did Fiorio make its debut on the stages of history? The first reference to Fiorio concerns a curious incident told by Giuseppe Manno, the historian, who in his book called “Informazioni sul Ventuno [Information on Twentyone] tells that Bernardo Pia, an obscure medical orderly of the Corte Masino’s apothecary was taken to Fiorio under great secrecy in the evening of March 18th, 1821 and he was offered a huge sum to add some poison to the medicine used by Carlo Alberto those days. This was four days before he was obliged to leave Turin by the order of Carlo Felice.
That is unfair, though, because although most of its clientele were aristocrats, they had diverse political convictions, so much so that most of its regular customers were exiled a few months after the failure of the 1821 movements, such as Giacinto Collegno, Cesare Balbo and the prince of Cisterna, just to name a few. Fiorio was a café where people discussed about politics and certainly followers of Mazzini were not among its clients. However, this café did not spare its criticism even to its most distinguished clients, such as Camillo Benso, the Count of Cavour. He was particularly criticized when he decided to send an expeditionary force of 18,000 men to Chrimea in 1854, to support France and England’s intervention against Russia. Most people could not even comprehend what interests Piedmont would have down there and some did not even know where Chrimea was. They were small misunderstandings, which were soon settled. In fact, two years later, it was necessary to elect the representatives of the Kingdom of Savoy at Paris Congress. Fiorio’s clientele had no doubts and supported Cavour, against the clients of Caffè Nazionale, who leaned towards Massimo D’Azeglio.
The conservative trend of Fiorio’s clients diminished as the idea of national unification grew stronger. During the 1859 war, many of its clients took part in military operations. Often black strips were hung on Fiorio’s mirrors, chairbacks and divans, as a sign of mourning for friends who died at the front. And that was not the only way to do politics. Owing to Reasons of State, on January 30th, 1859, Maria Clotilde of Savoy, the favourite daughter of Vittorio Emanuele II, had to marry Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte, also known as Plon-Plon, the cousin of Napoleon III.
He was thirty seven and she was sixteen years old. This marriage was orchestrated by Cavour himself, who wanted to consolidate the French- Savoy alliance, but the King had to accept it reluctantly. As Cavour organized a great ceremony to celebrate the event, many of Fiorio’s clients and those of other cafés did not participate, as a sign of understanding towards Savoyans. In the end, what was really there to be celebrated, anyway?
“High rank government officers, aristocrats, bureaucrats, rich bourgeoisie used to meet” in the halls of Fiorio. “Sometimes some rich equestrian merchants used to sneak in.” Once in a while, some bourgeois attorney used to sneak in its halls, trying to make important friendships. There was an officer among those, who used to boast about having participated in the repression of 1821 movements and Brofferio wrote his ironic work called “che taja le teste come i melon” [The one who slices heads off like melons]. The idea of the importance of its clients was also stressed by Charles Monselet, a French writer, who went to Fiorio when he came to Turin in 1859 to meet all the influential people. As we know, the most distinguished client of the nineteenth century was Cavour, who stepped into politics by establishing the “Risorgimento” magazine in 1847. We can imagine him at his usual table, while he was writing those articles in which he proved the need for a Constitution. And who knows how many times he had to defend his political theses, reproached by the conservative.
A café is a whole universe and it is frequented by really diverse people. There are clients like Cavour, who became a leading historical figure, but there are many others, who earn utmost fame among their descendants because they frequented that Café. Few people can recall Count Onorio today, but in nineteenth-century Turin, he was a famous character. The knight Baratta, whom we will talk about shortly, describes him as a declined aristocrat, who spent his days at Caffè Fiorio, “without taking the trouble to do anything but to eat”. The knight imagined a tombstone for his grave, which would express “the standard of such a useless and empty life.” So he wrote this epigraph, “Let the earth be light on Count Onorio / whose death, alas! Pain! A big void / that he left on the benches of Caffè Fiorio! The knight Baratta was born in Genoa in 1802 and died in Turin, supposedly in 1866. He moved to the Savoyan capital to start a diplomatic career. But it did not go as planned. He was a strange character. He used to collaborate with newspapers and magazines. Often people used to see him read and write on the tables of downtown cafés, including Fiorio. He was famous and feared because of his scathing epigrams (like the one dedicated to Count Onorio) which he used to call “poetic jokes.” When he died, this time he was the victim of an epigram proposed by a collaborator of Gazzetta di Torino. It read, “The Knight Baratta’s bones / lie in this grave / but dare I not say / so that a tongue finds rest.
Fiorio was not the meeting place of funny chaps only, as one might be mistakenly led to believe. It was also a place where ideas were developed and presented to the general public. It was no coincidence that Ilario Petitti chose its halls to exhibit the theory of the need for a railway network across Italy as the driving force behind political unification and economic development, for the first time.
In the past centuries, it was common to play cards in cafés. Even if it was outlawed, gambling was still practiced. It used to happen in all of the cafés across the town. Actually, in all the cafés of all the cities, to be more precise. Fiorio was no exception, to the contrary. People used to gamble their entire wealth in its halls. When they lost, the rule “debt of game, debt of honor” applied. The police used to patrol, drew up confidential reports, repressed but never stamped it out. All the more so at Fiorio, owing to the respectability of its clients, who covered up for each other and counted on friendships at the right offices. There were also those who used to cheat at cards. If they got caught, they were subject to different treatments depending on whether they were aristocrats or bourgeoisie. A young lawyer felt that on his own skin. He was at Fiorio, playing Gotto and he tried to cheat. But he got caught, beaten, insulted and thrown out of the Café, chased under the porticos of Via Po.
His career, which was promising till the day before, was put in jeopardy. He took refuge in Susa out of shame, where a priest recommended him a life in religion. The lawyer got convinced and he studied and took Holy orders. It is told that his Sunday sermons were very much appreciated. On the other hand, had he not been a lawyer? The only problem is that it did not last much. He applied for a dispensation from the Church, gave up the cassock and got married. His traces were lost. A life which changed course radically on most diverse paths just because he tried to cheat recklessly at the tables of Fiorio… Although some used to get caught cheating, there were many respectable people who devoted themselves to peaceful and thoughtful games. Camillo Benso from Cavour was one of them, who not only gathered adepts for his Whist Society at Fiorio’s, but he even held the first official meeting there in March 1841. Some scholars argue that his society was actually a way to select a more homogeneous elite. Some sort of a cover, so that between one hand and the other, national politics would be shaped.
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