Dwight Peck's personal website

Northwestern Italy in the autumn

A sixteen days' exploration in northern Italy, 18 October - 2 November 2018

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.

An afternoon in Piacenza

21 October 2018

Piacenza is a venerable city of ca. 100,000 souls in the Emilia-Romagna region about 60km southeast of Milan. We're parked here at the Piazzale Milano to begin our explorations at the Palazzo Farnese on the northern edge of the older part of town. One block to our left (though we didn't know it at the time) is the mighty river Po and its confluence with the Trebbia.

The unfinished Palazzo Farnese. In 1545 the Farnese Pope Paul III created his illegitimate son Pier Luigi Duke of Parma, but the civic elite killed the new Duke almost immediately, unfortunately. The Pope quickly declared Pier Luigi's son Ottavio Farnese the new Duke and got him married to the illegitimate daughter of the Emperor Charles V, Margaret of Parma (aka Margaret of Austria) -- in 1556 Piacenza was added to the 2nd Duke's title and territory by the Emperor, and Ottavio established his court here.

Ottavio's wife Margaret set architects to designing it extremely ambitiously, and work was begun in 1568. Not too long afterward, Duke Ottavio (nervous about the locals) moved his court to Parma, and the project languished. After his death in 1586, the half-completed design was wrapped up by his grandson Ranuccio in 1602.

The main residential block of the Palazzo, housing the Civic Museums, including the pinacoteca in the "Duchess' apartments", an archaeological museum, the obligatory museum of the Risorgimento (old uniforms and prints and drawings of Garibaldi), a museum of ancient weapons, some coaches and carriages, lots more.

The redoubtable Duchess Margaret, in the meantime, was pursuing a busy career, serving her half-brother the Spanish king Philip II from 1559 administering his territories as Governor in the Netherlands, where she remained, trying diplomatically to prevent the Revolt of the disgruntled Netherlands with the interference of King Philip's warhawks Cardinal Granvelle and the Duke of Alba.

With the outbreak of the Revolt, Margaret quit in 1567 and was named Governor of Abruzzo, but went back to the Low Countries from 1578 to 1582, whilst in 1586 her son, the new Duke of Parma, was appointed to the Netherlands post in her place. She died in 1586 at the age of 64; her son Alexander the 3d Duke, the Spanish commander, was meant to be boarding his army onto the Spanish Armada in 1587 but the 'divine wind' and Greek-fire ships aborted the plan. After very capable leadership in the Dutch Wars and an invasion of northern France, he died of an illness in 1592, and his son Ranuccio became the 4th Duke and resumed work on this palace.

Of course.

A very cute Madonna and Child, discovered during the building of the Palazzo Comunale in 1281.

We're in the Catherine of Alexandria room, she of the torture wheel and beheading, etc.

This is an interesting Crucifixion fresco, in some disrepair, and this . . .

is the sinopia, or underdrawing on the wall, etc., to guide the fresco artist as he laid his plaster over it. Sinopia was an iron-based natural pigment found in Sinope in modern Turkey.

On a previous visit here, our helpful guide explained that this is the last image of Christ portrayed without his trousers on, or anything at all in fact. It's a fresco by the Maestro di Santa Caterina, our friend from the preceding room, late 14th century.

This is said to be Saint Onuphrius, one of the 'Desert Fathers' in ca. 4th century Egypt who is normally shown as a 'wild man' covered with hair (oddly, he's a patron saint of weavers). Attributed to a Pittore Locale, 1500.

Note the monochrome print on the far wall. When, in 1731, the male line of the Farnese ran out, Don Carlos of Bourbon Spain inherited the title, and by 1734 Piacenza had been absorbed into the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. Much of the family's art collections was ripped off to adorn the Neapolitan drawing rooms, and the pinacoteca here retains their ghosts with prints as above. Some of the rooms are distressingly made up of mostly place-holder prints.

This is one of many huge paintings of the deeds of Alexander Farnese, the 3rd Duke, 1545-1592, the military commander venerated here by his successors. In this one, Parma is angrily witnessing the destruction of the Spanish Armada near Gravelines that was supposed to pick him up (a fictional scene). It's by Sebastiano Ricci, 1687; most of these are by Ricci and Giovanni Draghi in the 1680s for the Fasti Farnesiani, carried off to Naples in 1734 and (most of them) returned to Piacenza in 1928.

The Farnese Palace's pièce de résistance, Botticelli's Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist

David with Goliath's head (1640-60), by 'Pittore Ignoto Attivo a Roma'. We'd forgotten the rather narrow scope of the Palace's picture collections; apart from some frescos brought in from defunct churches and monasteries, most are vanity works celebrating the Farnese family and its greatness. (In the Villa Farnese in Caprarola, just north of Rome, there are rooms full of pictures of the cities the Farneses owned and semi-historical 16th century epic canvases of the Fasti Farnesiani, all of the family's achievements. )

The gatehouse and courtyard

The Farnese palace was built over an old fortress of the Visconti rulers dating from 1352, some of which remains. Now to dash back to the car and go round to the south side of the old city, where the parking garage underneath the Eataly superstore has always got places.

This is the Romanesque Basilica of Sant'Antonino, with its interesting octagonal tower; from its origins in AD 350 (completion in 375), it was dedicated to the co-patron saint of the city and restored and somewhat modified during later eras, especially by an impressive 12th century portico and a late 15th century cloister. It was originally the cathedral of the city, later replaced by the present duomo.

The towering 12th century portico on the left. Sant'Antonino was supposedly martyred in nearby Travo in the Trebbia valley in about AD 303, and his relics are said to be stored here.

Piacenza (Latin Placentia, 'nice place') was established, with Cremona, as military posts in 218 BC, in order to consolidate Roman control over the Cisalpine Gauls of the northern Italian region. Very soon thereafter, it was beset by Hannibal's Carthaginians from Spain, when the Roman legionaries who'd survived their defeat at the Battle of Trebbia outside the city were able to shelter within its new walls. Ten years later, Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal was similarly unable to take the town, but in 200 BC the Gauls burned the place down and sold everybody into slavery.

We're approaching the town centre, the Piazza Cavalli. The completion of the Roman military road, however, the Via Aemilia, in 187 BC, ensured a certain security and prosperity for as long as Roman imperial authority continued in the region.

The Piazza Cavalli and the side of Il Gotico, the Palazzo Comunale. The city was sacked, however, during the 6th century 'Gothic Wars', occupied by Belisarius' Byzantines, and then overrun by the Lombards from the north, who made it one of their preferred ducal properties. Charlemagne's Franks arrived in the 770s, and thereafter Piacenza was connected, especially by the Via Francigena pilgrimage route, to the commercial opportunities of both southern and northern markets.

The Palazzo Comunale, called 'il Gotico' or Gothic thing -- the town hall, in effect, built in 1281 in the Lombard style of broletto for a democratic assembly place and administrative offices.

The two equestrian statues in the Piazza Cavalli, early 17th century creations of Francesco Mochi, give its name to the city-centre Piazza Cavalli, representing here my favorite 16th century military commander, Alexander Farnese, and on the far side his son and successor in the dukedom, Ranuccio.

That's meant to be Alessandro Farnese, 3rd Duke of Parma, son of Emperor Charles V's illegitimate daughter Margaret, who was half-sister to King Philip II of Spain. Parma was brought up at the Spanish court and fought at the sea battle of Lepanto (1571), then joined his mother, who was acting as Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, and took over military command of the Spanish forces during the Dutch Revolt with great success. In his right hand he's carrying his baton of command.

The 3rd Duke of Parma in a conventional equestrian statue pose.

Here's his son Ranuccio I, the 4th Duke (1569-1622), an apparently paranoid gentleman best remembered for the 'Great Justice' of 1612 in which he uncovered a plot against him, chose to believe a tortured plotter, and publicly accused a number of aristocratic neighbors of having been behind it -- including the Gonzaga Duke of Mantua and the Este Duke of Modena -- thus making himself and family social outcasts.

He did, however, build the wonderful Farnese Theatre in the family palace in Parma now called the Palazzo della Pilotta (named for the Spanish soldiers quartered there in later years, who played pelota in the courtyard).
So there's that.

A market day for artisanal products, not very crowded. The church of San Francesco is facing onto the Piazza Cavalli on the far side.

Arcades in il Gotico. Piacenza was a free commune after 1126, participating in the Lombard League's defeat of Friedrich Barbarossa at Legnano in 1176. Over the centuries Piacenza prospered impressively, not least through trade on the Po River, and was ruled by a succession of powerful families until the administration was taken over by the Visconti of Milan, succeeded in the 15th century by the Milanese Sforza dynasty, and eventually by the Farnese from the 16th until the Bourbons' succession in the 18th.

That's the church of San Francesco, begun for the Franciscan Friars Minor in 1278 and completed in 1363, financed largely by the powerful Landi family. The brickwork may be uninspiring but the portal has an interesting 15th century lunette which shows St Francis getting his famous stigmata.

It's closed, of course.

We're on the Via XX Settembre between the Piazza Cavalli and the Duomo, and . . .

. . . there's the Duomo.

The Duomo di Piacenza, or Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta e Santa Giustina. It's very beautiful, of course, but it looks a little different today.

Here's why. The last time we saw it, in November 2015, it was undergoing works, and the belltower -- well, it was a trompe-l'oeil, a painted belltower tacked onto the front of the renovation scaffolding. A nice but expensive touch.


An unsuccessful attempt to add to our Kristin's-hand-in-the-lion's-mouth series.

-- Spare the guy a couple of euros.

-- Follow the pale blue flag, please, and stay together.

The Romanesque cathedral was built between 1122 and 1233, built over an early Christian basilica that was knocked down by Totila the Ostrogoth during the Gothic Wars, in 546. It houses the relics of Santa Giustina, the co-patron saint of Piacenza, after her own cathedral fell in during the famous earthquake of 1117.

A 16th century fresco of the Madonna Misericordia adorning the pillar (with an anti-tourist protector wrapped round it)

Dour. The columns were contributed by individual trade guilds and individuals, and many of them are signed by their donors.

The interior is a Latin cross with a nave and two aisles, held up by 25 serious pillars.

A look along the transept

The Man with the Golden Face -- that's the resting place of the Bishop of Piacenza the Blessed Giovanni Battista Scalabrini (1839-1905), 'Padre degli Emigranti'. His tomb was broken into in 2013 and the stolen 'grave goods' never recovered.

The altar on the raised presbytery -- this is as close as we can get to it. The wooden sculptures and choir stalls are dated from the 15th century.

Another long-suffering tiny-telamon chap

The ambo, or pulpit

Down in the crypt, on a Greek cross plan with 108 small pillars with different capitals

That, presumably, is Santa Giustina, or what's left in any case. This appears to refer to St Justina of Antioch, who with the converted magician Cyprian got successfully through a large number of official attempts to execute them until beheading, in 302 or 304, finally did the trick. Their remains were taken to Rome by Christian sailors, rediscovered in AD 1000 and taken to Piacenza for her own cathedral, which was destroyed in the earthquake of 1117 and replaced. She's the co-patron saint of Piacenza, though it's also claimed that her remains were transferred from Rome to a church in Lisbon in 1777. To make matters worse, she's also often identified with St Justina of Padua, who also died in 304 and who's definitely residing in the Abbey of Santa Giustina in Padua.

This is a recently-added crypt within the crypt, a chapel for the sepulchres of the cathedral's bishops. It's only got two inhabitants at the moment but plenty of room for more.

St George doing what he does best

Teny and Joe and their Personal Assistant (PA)

Telamon or Atlas sitting on a quizzical sheep

Telamon with no sheep

The beautiful front porch

And, as we're walking round behind, the exterior of the right transept on the right

The Duomo di Piacenza on the skyline

Our car is parked in the garage under the massive Eataly mega-store, so why not?

Oh no, they're at the cheese counters! Eataly was founded in Torino in 2007 by a businessman in the consumer electronics biz and it's grown aggressively. The huge markets may include Italian-made and Italian-themed products with restaurants, food and beverage counters, bakeries, retail items, even a cooking school.

Presently there are 40 Eataly megastores in Rome, Genoa, Torino, Milan etc., in Italy, as well as in the USA in New York, Chicago, Boston, L.A., and apparently Las Vegas as well, and in Tokyo, Munich, Stockholm, São Paulo, and so on.

Now, if we can just find the rest of our party, it's off back to Bobbio.

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 22 November 2018.

Bobbio and
October 2018