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Scenes of Parma, Emilia-Romagna, February 2016

A week's getaway in northern Italy


You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

First views of Parma, in the rain

We're in Parma, scurrying back from having parked the little Volvo in a courtyard just across the Piazza Duomo and round the back of the cathedral. It's raining alas. That's the famous Baptistery, and next to it our hotel, the Palazzo dalla Rosa Prati (the ancestral pile of the dalla Rosa and Prati families, members of which are apparently still at the reception desk and quite friendly). 16 February 2016.

A very nice room, with duomo-view and good wifi, but sadly no bathtub (they'll let us change to another room tomorrow). The Squirrel seems to be settling in calmly . . .

. . . but in the end, prefers a nice safe cupboard.

The Piazza Duomo, with the Duomo of course, and the Baptistery next door, with umbrellas everywhere

The Duomo of Parma, completed in 1074 and dedicated in 1106 to Saint Mary of the Assumption. Badly damaged in the earthquake of 1117, reconstructions were completed by about 1178. The 63m campanile on the right was finished in the 1290s, and the matching belltower on the left, intended for balance, scarcely got off the ground. These days you can get your postcards there, tourist guidebooks, interesting souvenirs, and tickets to the baptistery and diocesan museum.

The portal vestibule, with its big lions supporting the columns, was added in 1281.

That's the tourists' and normal pious people's entrance, with a white lion by the main door, squashing a lamb. For some reason.

And that's the entrance reserved for pilgrims on some sort of jubilee year trek, though there's no distinction made inside; they mix with us tourists. That lion, the red one, is squashing a dragon. For some reason.

A Latin cross plan with a nave and two aisles, with columns supporting the women's galleries on both sides, raised presbytery and transepts, and frescoes all over the place.

There are at least ten or twelve chapels along the sides, with decorations dating from the 16th to the 20th century

Kristin lost in admiration. The frescoes treat of a number of subjects . . .

. . . nearly all having to do with brutal assassinations, tortures, beheadings . . .

. . . and crowds of naked men lined up on their knees or cowering together in a big tub.

Fresco cycles along the women's galleries show scenes from the life of Jesus, by Bernardino Gatti and Lattanzio Gambara, 1567-1573, very nice to the extent that we can see them from way down here on earth (tip: bring binoculars or buy the Duomo guidebook).

The presbytery and transepts are raised to allow for the crypt below

The single crypt below, extending the width of the building, is reserved for pious people, excluding us, but we'll peek in.

The crypt, off limits alas (the camera's been stuck in through the 15th century iron gate). The columns date to about AD 1100, but the vaulted ceiling is later. There are said to be fragments of mosaic floors dating from a temple of the 3rd or 4th century AD.

This is the Duomo pièce de resistance -- Correggio's strange but brilliant version of the Assumption of the Virgin, with crowds of angels, apostles, and saints leaning in to see up her skirts. (We'll be back.)

The chapel in the left transept. The organ dates from 1487.

An extraordinary bas-relief Deposition, formerly a slab from an earlier pulpit, signed by Benedetto Antelami in 1178, the chap who contributed sculptures for the Baptistery next door and may have been its architect.

The presbytery (corded off from the heathens), with the amazing mensa or altar table

The white and pink marble altar table (everything looks orange in this photo, but the human figures of apostles across the front are actually white), created by one of Antelami's assistants in the late 12th century

The nave looking towards the main door

The altar up the stairs to the chancel or presbytery, with a Christ-in-Glory in the apse cupola by Gerolamo Mazzola Bedoli in about 1540. There is said to be a wonderful marble Bishop's Throne ("cathedra") tucked up there somewhere, made by Benedetto Antelami in the 1190s, but we couldn't find it.

More scenes of malignity and gore (15th century lives of the saints from the Golden Legend, in the Valeri chapel)

The ambo or pulpit, not subtle

Back out into the drizzling rain: the Bishop's Palace across the Piazza Duomo, built in about 1050 but reworked frequently since then. The present façade dates from the 1230s and was extensively restored in the 1920s. Only bishops and their friends are allowed in there, but off in the corner to the right side there is the entrance to the diocesan museum, which extends underground back under the palace; we'll be visiting that later (in the fullness of time).

Baptistery and hotel in the rain

The Baptistery in its sodden glory. We'll be back.

A nice little restaurant, our first night's selection, the Angiol d'Or on the Piazza Duomo (named for the copper angel that stood atop the Cathedral's bell tower, now replaced by a copy with the original preserved in the diocesan museum, where we'll see it in its glory in a few days' time). The primo pasta was exquisite, the secondo (duck) not so much, the staff were very friendly, but we found a new favorite in the Piazza Garibaldi for the rest of our stay.

The homey Fiaccadori bookstore on the Strada al Duomo. Parma's had an enormously complex history, given its strategic position along the Bologna-Milan axis of floodplains of the River Po, north of the Apennine uplands. There were Bronze Age villages here from circa 1500 BC (a necropolis from early date was located on what is now the Piazza Duomo), and there was subsequently an Etruscan city on the site.

Lovechips! A Roman garrison-city colonia was established here in 183 BC, according to Livy, to consolidate the Republic's push into Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy), at the time when the Via Emilia military road was being constructed to link communications from Rimini on the Adriatic (the terminus of the Via Flaminia from Rome) through to Piacenza on the river Po. The forum was located in what is now the Piazza Garibaldi, and the decumanus maximus, or main street, ran roughly down what is now the Via Cavour.

The Via Cavour in the rain, heading south. The city, with its navigable Torrente Parma leading northward to the Po, was sought after; though sacked by Attila the Hun ca. AD 450, it experienced an economic revival in the late 5th and 6th centuries under Theodoric I and the subsequent Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna, but somewhat declined as a Lombard, or Longobard, duchy.

The Chiesa della Steccata in the rain (we'll be back). Under the Franks, after 774, Parma was a county seat, formally part of Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire but, like most northern cities, ruled by its prince/bishops, usually on the side of the Emperor during the long Guelph/Ghibelline internecine hijinks, and occasionally providing new anti-popes to the confused history of the papacy, namely Honorius II who gave the Norman conquerors of southern Italy such fits and and subsequently anti-pope Clement III, the Emperor's entry in the "Investiture Controversy" and anti-reform sweepstakes of the late 11th century (whose body was apparently dug up and dumped in the Tiber by the real pope's friends).

On Garibaldi Street, this is the Teatro Regio or Royal Theatre, a famous opera house always associated with Verdi, who was virtually a hometown boy. Building was begun in 1821 by Marie Louise, the Duchess of Parma, who was given the duchies of Parma and Piacenza by treaty after the abdication in 1814 of her husband, Napoleon Bonaparte, and lived here from 1816 to her death in 1847. The neoclassical building opened in 1829, then called the Nuovo Teatro Ducale, with a bunch of Rossini operas in its first year.

We've just arrived in the city, but first things first; we've been searching out a shoe-repair shop with a bagful of work to keep them busy, and following directions from helpful pedestrians here we are, in the street called the Borgo Basinio Basini -- normally "borgo" refers to medieval new towns that have grown up outside the walls of an old town or fortress, but in Parma the word is used for many of the smaller streets, perhaps just to mean neighborhoods.

Idling whilst Kristin makes her shoe-repair arrangements, we're admiring a ham-and-cheese shop across the little street, just reopening for the late afternoon trade. (Ham and cheese are both very . . . very Parma!)

Happy fruiterers posing, in the Piazza S. Bartolomeo. During the era of republican communes of the late 11th and 12th centuries, Parma was involved in nearly continuous wars with regional cities along the Po river trade routes, like Piacenza, Cremona, and Reggio Emilia, along with the same family/clan battles amongst its own citizens that plagued most of its neighbors, but it was generally aligned with the pro-imperial Ghibelline sympathies. Guelph papalist families were in the ascendance, however, when the Emperor Frederick II ("Stupor Mundi") was making his last campaigns to extend his authority northward, and when they threw out his officers, he laid siege to Parma for seven months; in his absence in February 1248, the Parmigiani sallied out and routed his forces in the "Battle of Parma" which put paid to his ambitions and, within two years, his reign.

A statue in the nearby Piazza della Steccata, commemorating another remarkable artistic native-son, Il Parmigianino (1503-1540), described as a "Mannerist" though we're not sure what that really means.

That's disgusting.

The city centre, the Piazza Garibaldi planted on the Via Giuseppe Mazzini off towards the right and the Strada della Repubblica to the left, long ago the Roman Forum. That's the Palazzo del Comune, first built as the Palazzo del Podestà in about 1240, with improvements carried out in the early 17th and late 18th centuries. Our favorite restaurant turned out to be the Duchessa, on the ground floor to the right.

Across the Piazza Garibaldi, there's a statue of Himself, in front of the Palazzo del Governatore -- work was begun on that thing in 1283, and like the Palazzo Comunale across the street, it was significantly reworked following the collapse of the Palazzo Comunale tower in 1606. The Garibaldi statue is apparently the best-known work by Davide Calandra, done in 1893, and the building or some of it is now a centre for contemporary art.


The next day: More walkabout, and then the pinacoteca, the Galleria nazionale di Parma

Bloody weather. Bring the brolly. 17 February 2016, so what did we expect?

The lunette on the side door of the baptistery. From the 1340s onward, Parma was absorbed into the territorial sphere of the Milanese Viscontis and then Sforzas, and the city and countryside became carved up by leading families supported by Sforza allies. During the 'Italian Wars', the French of Louis XII and Francis I occupied the city from 1500 to 1521, after which it was absorbed into the Papal States.

In the Piazza della Pace on Garibaldi street, the park in front of the Palazzo della Pilotta, this is the memorial to the resistance fighters (half of it, actually, we didn't notice the rest of it until the next day) who distinguished themselves in World War Two, including a prominent role, with the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, in the liberation of the city in April 1945.

Strada Giuseppe Garibaldi in front of the Piazza of Peace. In 1545, Pope Paul III handed Piacenza and Parma over to his illegitimate son, the brutal mercenary commander Pierluigi Farnese, as the first Duke; after his assassination in Piacenza two years later, however, the Emperor Charles V's men occupied Piacenza and the Pope sent a legate to administer Parma. Pierluigi's son Ottavio tried unsuccessfully by force and contrivance to regain the dukedom, but the next Pope, Julius III, conferred the duchy upon him again in 1551.

That wasn't the end of it, though; for chaotic political reasons, both the Pope and the Emperor Charles V then tried to coerce him into giving up his claims to the duchy, but with the aid of a French army he was able to withstand a siege of Parma in 1551 by the Emperor's man Ferrante Gonzaga with papal troops -- the Pope relented, however, and Charles V, whose illegitimate daughter, the redoubtable Margaret of Austria, was Ottavio's wife, then acquiesced as well.

The Palazzo della Pilotta across the Piazza della Pace -- this is the original Farnese Palace begun in about 1583 when the 2nd Duke, Ottavio Farnese, left his palace in Piacenza uncompleted and moved his capital here.

But this rainy morning we're going to canvass the street markets, which seem to fill up the entire old city.

We're on the Via Carducci, seeking specific long-sought items perhaps unavailable elsewhere.

Our favorite fruit and vegetable market, in the Piazza S. Bartolomeo, and . . .

. . . back down the Borgo Basini to see if our shoes are ready. They're not.

But whilst waiting about to learn that sad news, there's another opportunity to memorialize the cosy and always busy ham-and-cheese shop across the alley. Yum.

Along Garibaldi street near the Piazza della Pace, that's the interesting church or sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata, to which we will now make a preliminary visit. (A 'scouting mission', I almost said, but I'm retired now.)

Like all Italian church entrances, begging ladies keep their station, but in three visits to this one, they were too busy chatting to pay us any mind.

The church, built on the site of a 14th century oratory, is in the form of a Greek cross, that is, with nave, transepts and chancel of equal lengths. Note that illuminated icon of the Virgin above the altar.

The church is home to most of the Renaissance era Farnese Dukes of Piacenza and Parma and their families, as well as some of the successor Bourbons of the 18th century; there are 26 of them down in the crypt, and this is Ottavio the 2nd Duke.

The great escape

The central cupola in the crossing is by Bernardino Gatti, in about 1565 or thereabouts. There are Parmigianino frescoes round the walls, but not enough light to see them well.

The 14th century icon of Madonna and Child from the small earlier oratory was known to be a major worker of miracles, so in the end the citizens and guilds all chipped in to build the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata to make it more accessible to devout viewers; begun in 1521 and completed in 1539, its emotionally charged visitors were able to get close to it separated by some fences or steccata, whence the church got its name.

There it is. Lots of miracles pretty much guaranteed. (Beautiful porphyry spirals)

And now, it's back to the streets, and to the Street Markets.

Who knows what treasures . . .

Back to the hotel, still in the rain

After a suitable rest, we're off to visit the National Art Gallery of Parma.


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 23 March 2016.


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