From its origins as the residence of Savoy aristocrats during the Baroque period to becoming the offices of a textile company in the late nineteenth century, from witnessing the terrorism of the "Anni di Piombo" (or Years of Lead) at the turn of the last century to becoming a window onto the East in 2008, the building that houses the MAO can be seen as a microcosm of the great changes experienced by its city and surrounding region.Retracing the history of the building, which is as symbolic as it is unassuming, means grounding the Museum firmly into the texture and life of the city.
For a good three centuries the building was the Torino residence of two branches of one of the major families of the Piedmontese aristocracy: the Solaro della Chiusas (descendants of the Solaro di Morettas) and the Solaro della Margaritas. Originally, the Solaro family belonged to the patrician class of Asti that had invested its proceeds from European trading and usury activities to acquire seigniorial rights. Subsequently they were integrated into the administration and honours system of the state of Savoy.
The building was known ever since 1587 and its story is closely linked to its owners’ history, which can partly be revisited through the stucco decorations in the great hall on the main floor of the building.Carlo Ubertino I is portrayed in sixteenth-century armour and dress; he was ambassador for Duke Carlo Emanuele I to Rome, France, Spain, Portugal, England and Scotland.His son, Emanuele Filiberto Solaro, was a also trusted subject of Duke Carlo Emanuele I, and was appointed Governor of Vercelli, ambassador to the courts of France and Mantua, and Great Chamberlain. Emanuele Filiberto Solaro is portrayed in early seventeenth century garb and wearing the Collare dell'Annunziata (Collar of the Annunciation), the highest honour granted by the Dukes of Savoy.Marquis Carlo Ubertino II wears late seventeenth dress and the Collare dell'Annunziata (Collar of the Annunciation). During the civil war during which the brothers of the deceased Duke Vittorio Amedeo I opposed Duchess Marie Christine of France, he supported the latter and served as her diplomat. He was also Grand Master of the House and a member of the secret Council of State. There is no evidence of substantial architectural interventions during the seventeenth century.
In 1723 the Marquis Francesco Amedeo Ludovico decided to modernise the building and create a residence suited to his status. His son, Giuseppe Ludovico Maurizio, who was possibly linked to a decoration project that is still visible in the great hall, probably commissioned the medallion that portrays him.Following renovation work in the seventeenth century, the building became the aristocratic residence we can still see today. In 1830 the Solaro della Chiusa family sold the Palace to count Clemente Solaro della Margarita, the Minister and First Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of Carlo Alberto, well known for his political conservatism.In 1870 Clemente's son sold the building to Cavaliere Paolo Mazzonis, a textile industrialist.The ground floor of the building was quickly redeveloped as company offices and then remained unchanged for a century. The building is still known as Palazzo Mazzonis.
In 1910, at the request of the Ministry for Education, a municipal usher served a notice listing the building a noteworthy art and history monument. The notice mentioned a visit to the building by a young Jean Jacques Rousseau. This colourful note was due to the attribution of the building to the Solaro di Govone family, whom the newly-converted Rousseau had served, as he wrote in his Confessions. However, several elements lead to the belief that the Solaro di Govone family– and hence Rousseau - never resided in the via San Domenico Palazzo.The most recent interventions on the building were made along the main stairway and were commissioned by Ottavio Mazzonis. Ottavio Mazzonis was, amongst other things, a pupil of the artist Nicholas Arduino and in 1955 he frescoed the vault with the allegory of Art and Industry and the family coat of arms. Two years later he used oils to portray the Judgement of Paris on the East wall.
The Mazzonis Company closed down in the sixties and the building was left unused.In 1980 Ottavio Mazzonis, who in the meantime had moved elsewhere, completed negotiations to sell the building to the City of Torino.Following a five-year renovation period, between 1980 and 1985, the building was redeveloped to become Court offices. The building was equipped with facilities and ample spaces for large groups of people and became the venue for major terrorism and “armed struggle” trials.
The building's last great transformation too place between 2004 and 2008. It opened again in December 2008, when the collections of the MAO Oriental Art Museum, were displayed for the first time surrounded by Baroque stucco decorations and walls steeped in recent history.
The restoration project for the building was drafted by the Buildings for Culture Department of the city of Torino, following the guidelines of architects Durbiano, Isola and Reinerio who had been appointed by the Compagnia di San Paolo.Interior decorations were restored between 2004 and 2005 installing facilities and systems and structural consolidation were completed between 2005 and 2008.
The guidelines for the restoration project were to consolidate the building's structure, respecting its existing features, with as little visual impact as possible. Hence facilities were installed in less important areas, underfloor heating was used, while piping and cabling lines were placed in existing ducts.Great attention was paid to the all the building systems. A totally new lighting system was installed as well as systems for emergency lighting, fire detection and fire protection, intrusion protection, an audio system for emergency evacuation, video surveillance, climate control, plumbing and sanitation.
A brand new glazed pavilion, containing two Japanese-inspired dry and wet gardens, was created in the inner court.Furthermore, assembling the MAO collections required constant conservative maintenance and, if necessary, restoring works to their original condition. Accordingly, a significant restoration campaign was initiated to ensure the preservation of the works and optimal conservation conditions for display purposes. Restoration work began in 2005. It was partly completed inside the building during the months before its public opening in 2008.
The museum was installed between May and December 2008, following a project by architect Andrea Bruno, an Italian Unesco expert for the restoration and conservation of artistic and cultural heritage, and with the advice of museum Director, Professor Franco Ricca.
Spaces were designed around pre-existing groups of collection works. This entailed articulating the collections into 5 different galleries, one for each different cultural area.Previous uses of some of the areas were redesigned to provide visitors a better experience of the Museum. So, for instance, access to the collections is not via the monumental staircase and the covered entrance courtyard has become a visitor reception area; the central courtyard has been encased in a glazed structure containing two Japan-inspired gardens. It now acts as a place of transition between West and East. The space under the roof has become an easily accessible and attractive open exhibition area, an artificial space that conceals the building’s structural elements.
Installation of the museum involved moving works that until then had been in suitably equipped and monitored storage facilities. All the exhibits currently on display were included in the move, from the more fragile glass and ceramic items, to the more sizeable ones in stone. Specialised operators carried out all the transport and handling activities with the support of museum staff. Subsequently the works were unpacked under the control of museum staff and placed in purpose-designed display cases.The cabinets and display cases were customised for the specific exhibits they were to hold, and made with a variety of features and materials.
An aesthetically suitable graphic layout was designed for the whole exhibition area, providing visitors with useful information for their visit and enhancing their experience of the collections.
From the lighting of the display cases to the installation of the structures, from the graphic elements in the galleries to the handling of the artefacts, the installation of the museum required the coordination of a number of professionals and specialists working side by side and combining their timelines and activities in view of a common goal.
A major re-installation project led to the creation of a large area for major temporary exhibitions in the spring of 2015.
MAO is one of the most important museums in Italy and Europe for its expertise and research of Eastern art. The collections boast almost 2,300 works ranging from the Neolithic period to the beginning of this past century, plus more than 1,400 archeological finds dating to pre-Islamic times from the Iraqi digs at Seleucia and Coche.
The permanent exhibition area is divided into five galleries each devoted to a corresponding cultural area: South and Southeast Asia with works from the Indian subcontinent and from Indochina; China, the cradle of a centuries-old, proteiform artistic civilisation; the Himalayan Region with its fertile interaction between Indian and Chinese cultures; Japan, a land with original artistic developments that arose from the encounter between Asian and European cultures; the Islamic countries bearing witness to the extraordinary artistic effervescence that extended from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.