Why you should join a ball at the Venaria Reale

Don’t think you’ve stumbled into a review of one of the most popular TV series of the moment like Bridgerton, Sanditon, or any other Jane Austen-style period drama. Have you ever wondered how they managed to wear such tight bodices or keep the weight of such exuberant hairstyles on their heads?

I won’t be able to pick you up in my carriage but I would like to invite you to sit on your comfy sofa and visit a location that will transport you to another era. If you are thinking of the usual Versailles, Paris, or Venice, you are underestimating me. I am taking you to my beloved Piedmont, just a few kilometres from Turin (the regional capital). My choice has fallen on Venaria Reale, a real royal palace with a capital “R”. Doesn’t it seem regal enough? Let me start by saying that in 1997 the Venaria and the royal residences of the Savoy family became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, the Baroque-style architecture was the icing on the cake to crown all its splendour.

As Mum taught you, it’s always best to take a bottle of water with you. In fact, this architectural complex is a veritable city in miniature! The original function was to be a hunting lodge but, to make sure nothing was missing, the project included the Palace (the famous Reggia di Venaria), the park, the hunting woods, and an entire village. The author of all this is Amedeo di Castellamonte. The person who commissioned this well was Carlo Emanuele II in the middle of the 17th century. In short, he wanted plenty of room to win the spoils!  And since he was not lacking in modesty and perseverance, he even bought two villages to build it: Altesano Superiore and Inferiore.

There are so many things to see! To give you an idea, the Venaria has 80,000 square metres of monumental buildings and 60 hectares of gardens, not to mention the adjacent properties: the 17th-century Centro Storico di Venaria and 3,000 enclosed hectares of La Mandria Park. It should come as no surprise that in 1937 Vittorio Emanuele III even granted it the title of “city”. However, you have to start somewhere, so without further ado let’s head for the Reggia.

We enter the building and visit the highest expression of universal baroque: the Hall of Diana. Architect Amedeo di Castellamonte designed this hall at the centre of the Reggia with the Borgo Cittadino to the east and the gardens to the west: a perfect combination of scenic and decorative beauty. If you raise your head, your enraptured gaze will rest on the ceiling. Numerous frescoes and rich stuccoes depict the allegorical deeds of the Jan Miel hunt, with the scene in which Jupiter gives Diana “of the hunts the supreme empire” prevailing. It is impossible not to notice the seven huge equestrian portraits of the dukes and court and ten other paintings with a hunting theme.

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The marvellous frescoes in the Sala Diana painted by Jan Miel

Let’s proceed with our visit: now you can admire a truly Instagrammable masterpiece! Most probably you have seen it on social networks and, if not, now you will discover the mystery! I’m talking about the Galleria Grande, a jewel of 18th century architecture, designed by Filippo Juvarra and commissioned by Vittorio Amedeo II. You will lose your breath for its harmony, its proportions to the new spaces, its sumptuous decorations, its symmetry and its chequered floor. Your eye will be lost in the Gallery’s great dimensions, a height at the centre of the vault of about 15 metres, a length of about 80 metres and a width of 12 metres. This is one of the most surprising rooms that connected the king’s flat to that of the heir to the throne. Look around to see the sumptuous decorations by Pietro Filippo Somasso, Giuseppe Bolina, Antonio Papa and Giovanni Battista San Bartolomeo. 
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The charm of Galleria Grande: a masterpiece of Filippo Juvarra

On the way out, we head for the Chapel of Saint Hubert, protector of hunters, commissioned by Vittorio Amadeo II, begun in 1716 and finished in 1729, also designed by Juvarra. You will immediately realise that the play of light makes the sumptuous decorations inside unique. Among the many things to see in the Chapel, the main altar, a work by Giovanni Baratta, stands out. It is vertically developed and placed between the two central columns of the basin created by the apse. The Chapel’s connections with the Royal Palace were left unfinished by Juvarra. Carlo Emanuele III commissioned the completion of the work to Benedetto Alfieri who designed the majestic monumental staircase that leads up to the Chapel’s galleries.

At the end of our tour, we head for the enchanting Water Theatre in the courtyard of honour. The star of the show is the Stag Fountain, which comes alive with the ‘dance’ of its 100 jets of water up to 9 metres high, to the rhythm of ancient and contemporary music.

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You should lose yourself in the immense beauty of the Venaria Reale

If the families of Bridgerton competed with each other in gossip and treachery for an invitation to the ball of the newlyweds Simon and Daphne, I can easily invite you to the Nuit Royale: the masked ball in the splendid Savoy residence. For one night, you will be able to relive the days of Victor Amadeus II, with men wearing big wigs and knee-length trousers. Not to mention the maidens in luxurious silk dresses embroidered with the latest designs. 

You try to arrive in good shape at these social events, but at some point, a pang draws your attention. The hors d’oeuvres on offer at the ball may have been cooked by the best chefs in the court, but their tiny portions certainly didn’t satisfy my gourmet belly. Of course, we can’t go from sweet to savoury and back again, so it’s best to stick to the theme. So here’s Vittorio Amedeo II’s secret: do you know why he didn’t touch those soft, sweet rolls all evening? You must know that at the age of 13 he had a bad experience with breadcrumbs and didn’t want to know anymore. 

But like any self-respecting Piedmontese, he was also a carbo lover and loved to end his meal with a tasty “scarpetta” (a kind of scarp)! Luckily, the court baker, Antonio Brunero, had a stroke of genius and invented ghersin, or breadsticks: long, crumbly, easily digestible sticks of bread. I know, you didn’t expect such a simple product to have such a noble and distant history. Recipes are lost in time, but if we can still taste the historical version of grissini today, we owe it to Brusa, a historic bakery in Biella. In fact, its Piedmontese Water Breadsticks are cradled in a slow leavening process and ironed strictly by hand.

To appease our hunger once and for all, let’s spoil ourselves a little and enjoy this delicacy wrapped in a succulent slice of Divin Porcello pancetta with pork fillet.

– Until next time, With love!