Chapel of the Holy Shroud, Royal Palace of Turin, Italy

The Chapel of the Holy Shroud or Guarini Chapel is an architectural work by the architect Guarino Guarini, built in Turin at the end of the 17th century, a masterpiece of the Italian Baroque.

Above a rotunda entirely of black marble, with arches and pillars of beautiful and large proportions, the dome with overlapping and alternating hexagonal zones rises, light and fantastic as in Indian temples; reached a certain height, the internal part converges rapidly, and is all pierced by triangular lights, until the space, made narrow, is closed by a carved star that lets you see through its compartments another time on which the Saint is painted Spirit in glory.

The Shroud of Turin, also called the Holy Shroud, is a length of linen cloth bearing the negative image of a man. Some claim the image depicts Jesus of Nazareth and the fabric is the burial shroud in which he was wrapped after crucifixion.

First mentioned in 1354, the shroud was denounced in 1389 by the local bishop of Troyes as a fake. Currently the Catholic Church neither formally endorses nor rejects the shroud, and in 2013 the current Pope Francis referred to it as an “icon of a man scourged and crucified”. The shroud has been kept in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of Turin, in northern Italy, since 1578.

The chapel was commissioned to Carlo di Castellamonte by Duke Carlo Emanuele I of Savoy to preserve the precious cloth of the Shroud that the Savoy ducal family had kept for some centuries.

Over time, the projects were modified by Carlo’s son, Amedeo di Castellamonte, and then by the Swiss Bernardino Quadri, who was responsible for the design of a square-based building set between the ducal palace (former bishop’s palace and future royal palace) and the apse of the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista. The hall of the temple was however modified by Bernardino Quadri in a rotunda and elevated to the first floor of the Ducal Palace (later Royal).

In the end the project was entrusted to the priest-architect Guarino Guariniwhich, having abandoned Paris in 1666, stopped in the Savoy capital and in 1667 took over the works of the Chapel, adopting the round-shaped project previously developed by Bernardino Quadri, which was almost entirely completed for the first level, coinciding with the hall of the temple. Guarini however modified some structures, above all to reinforce the walls that had aroused apprehension for the thinness and therefore for the holding of the whole upper part on the first level; he also completely revolutionized the rest of the chapel, especially the dome, in order to lighten it and give it that upward momentum that the Savoy required to work. On 27 October 1679 the dome was completed and on 12 May 1680 Guarini himself celebrated the inaugural mass there. the chapel houses the Shroud.

In the first half of the nineteenth century the chapel was decorated with some groups of statues on the great figures of the House of Savoy commissioned by King Carlo Alberto to four different artists: Benedetto Cacciatori, Pompeo Marchesi, Innocenzo Fraccaroli and Giuseppe Gaggini. The four great monuments represent the duke Amedeo VIII, the duke Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia, the duke Carlo Emanuele II and the prince Tommaso di Savoia-Carignano, progenitor of the line of the Savoy Carignano who will ascend the throne with King Carlo Alberto on April 27, 1831, after the death of King Carlo Felice, the last ruling descendant of the main branch of the House of Savoy.

The Chapel of the Shroud was closed to the public on May 4, 1990, when a fragment of marble from an internal cornice collapsed to the floor. Due to a short circuit during the subsequent conservative restoration site, almost completed.

In the night between 11 and 12 April 1997 a fire heavily damaged the building, the cause of which is still a mystery.. The Shroud itself risked being destroyed, Firefighters who arrived on the scene managed to save the shroud allegedly by smashing through its bulletproof glass case. Subsequently, it was closed to the public and took over 21 years, and €30 million in funding to repair and restore the chapel to its original splendour. On September 27, 2018, the chapel reopened to the public with a ribbon cutting ceremony attended by the mayor and several government officials.

The chapel, affected by an impressive restoration and reconstruction work resulting among the winners of the 2019 European Heritage Awards, was returned to the city and reopened to visitors on 27 September 2018, thus becoming part of the tour of the Royal Museums of Turin.

From 1694 until the early nineties of the twentieth century, the Chapel of the Holy Shroud kept the precious relic, now preserved in the transept of the Turin Cathedral.

Camillo Guarino Guarini
Camillo Guarino Guarini (17 January 1624 – 6 March 1683) was an Italian architect of the Piedmontese Baroque, active in Turin as well as Sicily, France, and Portugal. He was a Theatine priest, mathematician, and writer.

Guarini was born in Modena. He was accepted as a Theatine novice in 1639, spent his novitiate at the monastery of San Silvestro al Quirinale in Rome, where he studied architecture, theology, philosophy and mathematics. He returned to Modena in 1647, where he was ordained in 1648. He rose quickly in the Theatine hierarchy, becoming first auditor, then superintendent of works, treasurer, lecturer in philosophy, procuratore, and finally provost in 1654. Prince Alfonso supported another candidate and Guarini was soon replaced and had to leave Modena. The next few years are poorly documented. He became a member of the Theatine House of Parma in 1656 and apparently visited Prague and Lisbon before publishing his play La Pietà trionfante in Messina in 1660, where he was a lecturer in mathematics.

He designed a large number of public and private buildings in Turin, including the palaces of the Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy (as well as his sister (Louise Christine of Savoy), the Royal Church of San Lorenzo (1666–1680), most of the Chapel of the Holy Shroud (housing the Shroud of Turin; begun in 1668 by Amedeo di Castellamonte), the Palazzo Carignano (1679–85), the Castle of Racconigi and many other public and ecclesiastical buildings at Modena, Messina, Verona, Vienna, Prague, Lisbon, and Paris. The Palazzo Carignano is regarded as one of the finest urban palaces of the second half of the 17th century in Italy. Guarini appears to have been influenced by Borromini. Between 1657 and 1659 he stayed in Spain, where he studied Moorish buildings; this influenced the style of some of his buildings in Turin. In 1660 he settled in Messina.

Mario Labò defines Guarino Guarini’s style in these terms:
“In Turin the G represents an originally Italian current, which contrasts with the French tendencies already vigorous in Piedmont. In his art we can trace Gothic residues, mixed with Hispano-Moorish contributions, derived from Sicily and Spain, if the G ever was there, from which especially his openwork domes derive. Absolutely original is his monumental plastic sense, frankly rebellious to the metrics in use, and an eager researcher of new rhythms and forms. Certain refined geometric virtuosities could only be conceived by a scientist like him, a mathematician and astronomer, and such a geometer as to be considered a precursor of Monge in laying the foundations of projective geometry. The influence of Guarini was very great and lasting; outside Italy especially in Bohemia and Franconia”

The following, however, is the opinion of the art historian Giulio Carlo Argan:
“Bernini’s idea (the imagination that is realized) becomes in Guarini the idea of the hypothesis that occurs, and occurs in human doing, in a technique: but a technique which, being rather research than implementation, is very similar to Borromini’s technique. Finally, Guarini is the one who manages to dialectize the opposite positions of Bernini and Borromini; and to join, at a time when the question of technology is becoming fundamental for European culture, two antithetical ethical-religious conceptions of technology.

See the naked structure of its domes: an ever more rapid rhythm of curvilinear segments launched into empty space, an instant of miraculous balancestopped. It is the instant in which the mathematical calculation coincides with the path of the imagination that tends to God, the instant in which logic coincides with faith, the instant in which God manifests himself in thought and work (now inseparable) man. Technique, therefore, is the occasion for the manifestation of divine logic in the human; and since the law of divine logic is the miracle, architecture is a logical and technical miracle. In the history of architecture, Guarini has the merit of having definitively clarified an instance anticipated by Borromini: the architectural form is not determined by an a priori conceptionof space, but it is itself determinant of space or, more precisely, of space images. It is therefore the end of all classical typologies, which were nothing more than schemes of spatial structures; and the beginning or the forerunner of modern architecture”

An immediate agreement with the Savoy was established, Guarini was invested on 19 May 1668 with the license of “Engineer for the Factory of the Chapel of the Most Holy Shroud with all honors and with a salary of one thousand silver lire for twenty each year to begin at the beginning of January of the current year ». Already in the previous century Pellegrino Pellegrini and Carlo di Castellamonte had designed a chapel for the custody and display of the Holy Shroud; the task was then entrusted in 1657 to the Ticino architect Bernardino Quadri, whose project, however, was promptly discarded due to some technical difficulties.

Guarini built a chapel located in the apse of the Turin Cathedral in contact with the Royal Palace. On the cylindrical body he grafted three pendentives that support the drum where six large windows alternate with convex niches; the dome itself is defined by ribs that intertwine, shattering the surface of the dome and by the diffused light by means of numerous windows that curiously emerge outside the structure, where the drum is closed by a sinuous line that encloses the large windows. The crowning achievement obtained by gradually decreasing the concentric elements used is of great originality.

Description of the chapel

Externally the chapel looks like a square-plan building that interpenetrates both the Cathedral and the Royal Palace. Above the base rises a polygonal brick drum with 6 large arched windows, framed by pilasters and protected by a roof that softly rests on the arches. Above there is a chapel roof supported by ribs on which numerous stone urns are installed.

Between the ribs, arched oriental lines emerge softly, drawing numerous semicircular openings, up to the terminal part of the dome, a small circular windowed and prolonged drum with a telescope structure (unrelated to the original project, which provided for a spiral cusp). The dome is designed to be higher, thanks to an optical illusion.

It is internally that Guarini’s baroque genius materializes: on the sides of the main altar of the Cathedral there are two black marble portals that lead to two dark stairways with low semicircular steps. At the end of the two stairways you enter two parallel circular vestibules delimited by three groups of three columns in black marble.

From here you enter the chapel, with a circular plan, where in the center stands the Baroque altar (by Antonio Bertola) which kept the Shroud in a silver and glass case. The circular plan has five chapels of which the central one acts as an apse and apex of an imaginary equilateral triangle, with the base defined by the two parallel circular vestibules. The floor features a black and white marble design that emphasizes the importance of the altar, while large bronze stars set in white marble reflect the light from above. The stucco decoration of the chapel and its sacristy is due to the stucco artist Pietro Somazzi. The elevation of the Chapel is marked by pillars, joined two by two by three large arches, which define the three pendentives below the dome. The Chapel has a marble coating, black in the lower part and gray in the upper one.

The dome is composed of six levels of arches sloping towards its top, creating the optical effect of its greater height. The arches, mindful of the Gothic heritage, are light structures from which light enters.

In 1611, work started on an oval chapel, designed by Ascanio Vitozzi and Carlo di Castellamonte, placed between the apse of the cathedral and the western wing of the new Ducal Palace. When the post was entrusted to Guarini, the hall clad in black marble from Frabosa Soprana (Cuneo) had already been built. He therefore concentrated on the vertical development of the building, using all his imagination to create an astonishing tower-reliquary, in which each level is different from the one below in terms of both geometry and architectural form.

From the first cornice, the structure continues up as a truncated conical drum with three large arches, on which stands a drum with six huge windows. On the outside, these form the undulating profile that gives the dome its slightly oriental look. The upper sections of the building form a stunning composition permeated by light. It is like a sort of inverted basket consisting of thirty-six staggered arches, which respond to Guarini’s need for lightness and luminosity: for the faithful, the journey up towards heaven goes from darkness to light, from earthly sufferings to eternal salvation. The structure is completed by the dome with the radiant dove of the Holy Spirit, while the external spire is surmounted by a cross bearing the symbols of the Passion of Christ.

The superstructure of the chapel, as a whole, in the interweaving of its various elements, and in the exquisite attention to its decorative and symbolic details, is unparalleled in Western architecture. Discontinuity, provocation, paradox, and dissonance are what make this edifice so fascinating, surprising the observer with spectacular effects brought about by the combined actions of its various parts.

Colors and numbers present in the chapel have a symbolic meaning, which make it the place for the construction of a vision that evolves from tragedy into hope.

The dark colors of the marbles evoke the sepulcher, due to the traditional symbolic meaning of the black color with death. The marble becomes lighter and lighter as the dome rises and this effect of evolution from mortuary black to the light of life is underlined and emphasized by the natural brightness due to the arched openings.

The number three refers to the Trinity, but also to the three days spent by Jesus in the tomb and recurs many times in the construction: three groups of three columns in the vestibules, three vertices of the triangle in the planimetric scheme, three large arches below the dome, three pendentives.

In the night between 11 and 12 April 1997, the Chapel of the Holy Shroud was affected by a fire of vast proportions that deeply damaged the building, making it necessary to carry out a long and demanding architectural and structural restoration, aimed at restoring the its own bearing capacity and its own image. This intervention, which represents one of the most complex that has ever been addressed in the context of this discipline, also in consideration of the fact that the resistant structure of the Chapel of the Holy Shroud had never been investigated before, is going to the final phase, under the direction of a specific Commission, composed of representatives of the institutes of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism (Regional Secretariat for Piedmont, Royal Museums of

These events marked the beginning of a long and challenging structural and architectural restoration, made even more complex due to the fact that the supporting structure of the Chapel had never been fully investigated and interpreted. The restoration was funded by the Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali with the support of the Compagnia di San Paolo, Fondazione La Stampa – Specchio dei Tempi, the Consulta per la Valorizzazione dei Beni Artistici e Culturali di Torino, Iren Spa and Performance in Lighting.

The extent of the damage was enormous. The thermal shock, caused by the heat of the flames and the extinguishing water, had caused deep fracturing in the marble blocks forming the inner shell of the building. The structure was in danger of complete collapse. Many of the marble columns had exploded and decorative features were extensively damaged. Over 80% of the marble surface of the Chapel needed repair. Ultimately, 1,400 badly damaged elements were completely replaced and the remaining 4,050 were consolidated. The quarry at Frabosa in Piedmont, from which the black and grey marble was originally extracted, was reopened for this purpose. The damaged fragments have been incorporated and then patinated so that they blend in with the new marble. The extraordinarily complex architecture of the chapel now stands once again without support, relying only on its original engineering by Guarini.

New safety and lighting systems have been added to guarantee public use of the Chapel, together with new educational elements, such as videos and virtual reality stations. Thanks to the determination and the work that involved hundreds of people in a very delicate restoration over a time span of twenty years, the building is now accessible to the public and is included in the tour of the Royal Museums of Turin.

After the long and difficult restoration, the admirable Baroque architecture of Guarino Guarini is finally returned to the world, accessible to the public on the tour of the Royal Museums.