A Visit to Parma

On Wednesday I took a trip to Parma, an excursion suggested by the Dutch fortepiano maker.  He drove his old work van to Bologna, so after class we hopped in it and hit the road.  There is still something strange to me about a road trip in Europe.  One takes road trips in the states, one rides trains in Europe.

It was a beautiful day, slightly cooler than it had been, and it was very refreshing to get out of hot and stuffy Bologna for the fresh air of the road.  Parma is about an hour from Bologna, so it wasn’t a long trip.

After a bit of trouble finding our parking garage, we emerged onto one of the main streets in town, and I was immediately won over.


Unlike Bologna, the streets were wide and open.  The buildings were also tidier and more varied, as opposed to the monochromatic brick red of Bologna.

Is this a gap-toothed Moses watching over us as we admire the town?


At first sight it looked like a street of largely 18th century buildings, but in fact there were much older buildings sprinkled in.  For instance, attached to that somewhat central European-looking tower is the early 16th century Santo Sepolcro, complete (or incomplete) with unfinished facade, as seems to be so popular here.


We ended up in the center of town – Piazza Garibaldi – which is watched over by the man himself.


Behind him is the Palazzo del Governatore, with an exceedingly complicated sundial on its face.  This supposedly can tell you when it is noon in many cities around the world, though fortunately there is a regular clock just above it for the less horologically inclined.

Our plan, such as it was, was to visit the Duomo, the Baptistery, and the National Gallery.  Around the corner from the Piazza Garibaldi, though, we ran into an interesting looking church that we decided to pop into.  It turned out to be Santa Maria Steccata, a real treasure house of local art.



The overall design of the church is late Renaissance, with some Baroque overlays, and  lavish frescoes cover much of the surface area.


Parma’s most famous son is probably the aptly (nick)named Parmigianino.  For some reason he always makes me think of eggplant.  He is represented in this church with a couple of paintings and several frescoes.  It took an inordinate amount of time to find his work, particularly given that there were diagrams laying out all the artworks scattered throughout the church.  Spatial disorientation turned out to be a running theme of this visit.  We did eventually find Parmigianino’s Santa Cecilia (columns and putti added later by someone else)


and his illustrations of the wise and foolish virgins



Santa Cecilia – and a matching portrait of David – were originally the doors of the church organ, appropriately enough for these two symbols of music.  The Santa Cecilia in particular shows the mannerist predilection for odd, contorted poses.  She reminds me of Michelangelo’s proto-mannerist figures on the Sistine ceiling.

Parmigianino was an interesting, and somewhat sad, figure.  He was recognized early on as a child prodigy, and went to Rome to find fame and fortune.  Unfortunately this was just a few years before the disastrous Sack of Rome, which cut his – and many others’ – visit short.  He returned to Emilia Romagna, first Bologna and them Parma, but in spite of getting some work there, became obsessed with alchemy, a distraction which prevented him from following through on commissions, and eventually landed him in jail.  He ended up dying of a fever when he was only 37.

There are quite a number of other interesting works in Santa Maria Steccata, including this Assumption by Gatti, who I discovered was a fairly prolific local painter.


Here are some peeks inside the side chapels:

After Santa Maria Steccata, we headed for the Duomo.


The romanesque Duomo, along with the accompanying baptistery and somewhat later campanile, make up an ensemble not entirely unlike the one in Pisa (and others in northern Italy, for that matter), though the campanile was built on more solid ground here.  One of my favorite aspects of Italian romanesque is the lion sculptures, two of which guard the entrance to the Duomo.


They remind me of Chinese lions, in that they seem to have been carved by someone who never actually saw a lion, but only ever heard them described.

Inside the Duomo is a riot of decoration, not unlike Santa Maria Steccata, though on a much larger scale.


The undisputed artistic highlight is the cupola fresco, which is another Assumption, this one by Correggio.


This was a (late) Renaissance work, not a Baroque work, and was quite revelatory in its day for its illusionistic upward swirl of figures.  It served as a model for many other similar works, including some of the great Baroque ceiling frescoes in Roman churches.  I’ve been wanting to see this fresco literally for decades, but to be honest, it was a bit of a disappointment.  Initially this was due to the fact that it’s really poorly lighted.  There is, of course, a coin box to turn on artificial lights, which I did eventually find.   But while the great swirl of figures is certainly breathtaking, the central figure, Mary, is so awkwardly posed, it’s hard to feel anything but slightly embarrassed for her.

073After the Duomo, and a much-needed stop for gelato, there wasn’t time to visit the baptistery,  unfortunately, so it was on to the Galleria Nazionale.

This art gallery is housed in part of an enormous palace, the Palazzo della Pilotta, which was built by the Farnese in the 16th century.  Parma had been part of the Papal States, but during the pontificate of Paul III – a Farnese – it was turned into a Duchy and given to Paul III’s, er, nephew.  It was this ‘nephew’s’ son who built the Palazzo della Pilotta.  In addition to being very, very large, the Palazzo was bombed and partially destroyed in WWII, which has made for a discontinuous and very confusing structure.

We ended up circling around it a number of times before we finally found an entrance.  Part of the central courtyard was being set up for a concert, with soundchecks going on, which further added to our confusion.

Once inside, you first go through a theater in order to get to the museum.  There are two entrances to the museum: one, oddly, through a passageway under the stairs of the theater, and the other via a ramp backstage, which as it turned out was a dead end.  This is not an ordinary theater, though, it was built in the early 17th century for a visit to Parma by Cosimo II de Medici, who, as it turned out, got sick and couldn’t make it.  It was only used a handful of times, and was nearly destroyed by Allied bombs in WWII.


It was reconstructed, with the once-painted wooden elements left bare in places where they had to be replaced.


The theater is famous for being the first proscenium, i.e., modern style, theater.

We did manage to find the semi-secret passage way from the theater to the museum, and were lucky enough to be the only visitors to the museum, though at this point it was an hour before closing.  It was an extensive collection in a very nice, open space.  Highlights of the collection included a number of works by Correggio, such as this Incoronation of the Virgin,


and by Parmigianino (of course), such as this portrait of a lady


Note the typical Mannerist depiction of the hand, with the middle two fingers pressed together.

After the galleria we had a stroll back through town to end up at a very typical Parma trattoria, where we partook of the eponymous ham, as well as other local specialties, and drank some quite mediocre, warm white wine.  I would have liked to have spent another day or two in Parma, as I really liked the town and there was much we missed, but still it was a very nice afternoon getaway.

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2 Responses to A Visit to Parma

  1. Molly says:

    Love the photos. Thank you for sharing.
    Your comment “…the central figure, Mary, is so awkwardly posed, it’s hard to feel anything but slightly embarrassed for her” was certainly on-target. Cracked me up!
    Also, I have heard that fingers/hands are quite challenging for artists so it made me wonder if Parmigianino struggled with fingers/hands…it looks awkward yet her face/head/hat is so captivating.


  2. drbobbyarrow says:

    Thanks for the comment, Molly. Those odd mannerist hands are very characteristic of the style, and very intentional. By the mid 1500s most of the problems of anatomy and perspective had been worked out, so there were no technical problems in portraying the body. That’s why, somewhat ironically, figures from the mannerist period can look out of proportion or poorly drawn. Because drawing perfectly proportioned bodies was old hat by then, artists demonstrated their virtuosity – and their maniera – by putting their figures into impossible, contorted poses, sometimes for expressive purposed (e.g., Michelangelo’s Last Judgement), and sometimes, I think, just because they could. Here’s a good example:

    Hands in particular were typically used to convey grace and delicacy, and very often were pictured in elegant but seemingly uncomfortable (or impossible) poses, with the fingers elongated and oddly tapered. The particular pose in that Parmigianino painting is probably the most common, with the two middle fingers pressed together and the outer fingers apart. Here’s my favorite example:

    Mannerism is an acquired taste, and not very highly regarded these days, but I still get a kick out of it.


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