Torino, first capital of Italy, and centuries old heart of the Savoia’s Kingdom, never quite relinquished her royal, aristocratic habits and looks. Visitors notice it immediately, while strolling around her grandiose portico-lined vie, while taking in the timeless elegance of Piazza Vittorio and the understated, intimate beauty of Cit Turin.
But Torino was Torino way earlier than the Savoias and way earlier than Risorgimento, the time in Italian history that brought to the unification of the peninsula, in 1861. In the end, she still proudly and defiantly bears the marks of her military Roman origins, with her regular, perpendicular roads criss-crossing each other at 90 degrees angles, as it was customary in castra, Rome’s own military camps.Torino goes even further back than Rome, and you can see it in those very same streets, in the way their geometry is so evidently and unexpectedly broken by Turinese’s beloved Via Po, the 800 yard long way joining the two royal palaces of Piazza Castello to the welcoming grace and stylishness of Piazza Vittorio. Yes, because Via Po, contrarily to every street in Turin city centre, slightly deviates to the right, instead of meeting the others perpendicularly: its uniqueness is an ancient vestige of what was there before the Romans set their castrum, a memory of the people inhabiting the banks of the Po when Rome was still a small shepherds’ village, lost in the far away lands of Latium.
Before Torino, there was Augusta Taurinorum (the name the Romans gave to the city) and before Augusta Taurinorum there was Taurinia. Taurinia was home to a Celtic population named Taurini, who had settled in the area around the Po and Dora confluence: here they lived, thrived, developed and worshiped their gods and it’s in this, in their religious habits, we find the answer to the curious mystery surrounding Via Po and its being non-perpendicular: Taurinia’s main temple was, very likely, around the spot where we admire the Gran Madre di Dio Church today, just across the Po from Piazza Vittorio, straight in front of Via Po itself. Historians say the walkway leading to temple was the main artery of Taurinia. When the Romans took over, they kept the Taurini’s temple as a place of worship and didn’t bother change the direction of the street leading to it.
And no one else did it. So, thousands of years have passed, yet Torino still bears the signs and marks of that ancient Celtic civilization who inhabited it before the Empire existed and before Christ was conceived.
All very interesting, you may say, but what does this have to do with bulls?
It has a lot and, curiously, nothing to do with it at the same time.
Let me explain: everyone and their cousins are convinced the etymology of Torino comes from taurus, that is, bull in Latin, not last because that’s the symbol of the city. It makes perfect sense, because aren’t those old Celts called Taurini (Taurines), and doesn’t their name also come from there?
While the name Torino certainly comes from Taurini, it is not related to bulls at all, but to something the city is much more familiar with: mountains. Linguists are convinced the etymology of Torino (and of Taurini) comes from the Indoeuropean root of words such as oros (Greek for mountain) and shtur (massif in Sanskrit): and so, we learn that Torino is not the city of the bull, but the city of the mountains.
This is what history tells us, but does it really matter when centuries of well rooted tradition want Torino as the town dedicated to, protect and symbolized by a bull? Legends can be stronger than facts, create narratives more well known than history itself and Torino is perfect example of it.
You see, once upon a time, an ancient tale goes, the valleys and woods around Torino (we don’t know how it was called, then) were home to a frightful, bloodthirsty dragon. Enormous and violent, the beast destroyed crops with its fiery breath, banqueted on sheep and cows, entertained itself by killing and torturing innocent locals.
Aware that Man’s muscles were nothing against the strength of a dragon, they decided to send the most brutal, strongest animal they had, a large red bull. With an intuition that seems perfect for people coming from the region that was to become the land of red wine, they offered this precious ruby-colored nectar mixed with water to the animal before sending it on its way and fight the dragon. Apparently Dutch courage was a thing then, too.
The courageous red bull, certainly helped by the alcohol in its system, fought its enemy with fervor, pierced its leathery skin with its thick, long horns and managed to finally kill it, freeing the people of Torino from what seemed to be a never ending nightmare. But the fight had been harsh and the dragon fierce, so the poor red bull gloriously, but inexorably, died. Mournful villagers could not let their tipsy hero’s sacrifice go unmentioned, with the risk of it being forgotten, so they made of it one of their gods, gave its name to their village and modified its coat of arms to include a bull, eternal symbol of Torino’s gratitude to the strength, courage and resilience of the animal that saved them from misery and death.
The bull remains Turin’s symbol and the color red is often associated with it. When you walk around the city centre, look at the ground, you’ll come across two very popular bulls indeed: one is in Piazza Castello, just in front of the entrance of the famous Teatro Regio, the other, itself at the heart of a colorful tradition, is only a few hundred meters away, under the portici of Piazza San Carlo. This bronze bull was set in the portici’s stone floors sometimes in the 1930s, to add some folkloristic je ne sais quoi to the elegantly balanced square. Almost immediately, tales about it bringing good luck to people started spreading around: yes, the bull is a good omen and you’ll get all you ask from life if… you stomp your feet on its attributes!
So, if you’re enjoying a bicerìn in Piazza San Carlo and keep on seeing people walking on the poor bull’s testicles, you know they’re just trying to improve their chances to see their dreams come true.