by Roderick Conway Morris

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Duomo di Parma
Parma from the Campanile of the Duomo withBaptistery roof in the foreground

Gastronomy, Art and Architecture

By Roderick Conway Morris
PARMA, Italy 8 June 1999


If you take the trouble to come here, you can be sure of tasting Parma ham at its succulent and aromatic best, and Parmesan cheese so moist and soft that it melts in your mouth like butter.

But Parma has a great deal else to offer, and although only an hour from Milan by train or car, it is well off the main tourist circuit, making it a rewarding place for discriminating travelers.

In 1556, Parma became the capital of the duchy created by the Farnese pope, Paul III, for his illegitimate son Pier-Luigi in 1545, and it survived as a dukedom until 1860. This is perhaps the reason why it still has the feel of a miniature capital of an antique statelet, rather than just another northern Italian provincial town.

By then the region had already produced two outstanding Renaissance artists: Correggio (c.1494-1534) and Parmigianino (1503-1540), whose names derive from their birthplaces, the former a small town to the west of Parma, the latter the city itself.

It is one of the chief delights of coming here to see the works of these highly idiosyncratic painters in situ. Correggio frescoed the dome of the Duomo with a dramatic scene of the Assumption of the Virgin.

In truth, this work does not entirely come off. The clouds have an oddly boulder-like quality and the flailing limbs of the host rising heavenward do indeed remind one, as one contemporary rudely remarked, of 'a hash of frogs legs' (culinary delicacies never being far from the Parmesan mind).

Much more successful is his cupola in San Giovanni Evangelista, the church of this still very active monastery, which has fine cloisters and a marvelous frescoed library. The church also contains frescoes by Parmigianino, as does nearby Santa Maria della Steccata. Both the Duomo and Santa Maria have superb inlay works and wood carvings in their sacristies, which can be viewed when Mass is not being celebrated.

Absolutely not to be missed is Correggio's Camera di San Paolo. This frescoed umbrella-vault was commissioned by the enlightened and cultured Abbess Giovanna da Piacenza as part of her private apartments. The nude putti rioting amid the lush foliage and naked trompe l'oeil statuary do seem unconventional for a nunnery, and in fact Giovanna fought a long battle with Rome, before the Vatican forced her order to become enclosed in 1524, with the result that these wonderful paintings were lost to the world until they were 'rediscovered' at the end of the 18th century.

Two other monuments that are in an exceptionally good state of preservation are the medieval baptistery by the Duomo, with sculptures and paintings from the 12th century by Benedetto Antelami and his assistants; and the Old Pharmacy of the San Giovanni Monastery, which was founded in 1201 and functioned until 1766. It also still has its historic frescoes and fittings and equipment.

The Farnese had a special passion for music and theater, and in 1628 the spectacularly grand Teatro Farnese in the Ducal Palace was inaugurated to the sound of music by Monteverdi. The theater's interior was almost destroyed by bombing in 1944, but has been artfully reconstructed using the original plans.

The town's glittering opera house, the Teatro Regio, was opened in the late 1820s. Parma's proud musical traditions were further enhanced by Giuseppe Verdi, who was born not far away in Busseto and spent much of his life in this region, and the brilliant conductor Arturo Toscanini, whose house in town is now a museum.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023