Parma, a small provincial town in northern Italy, is world famous for its cheese, its ham, and for the fragrant flowers known as ‘Parma violets’ that lend their name to an aromatic British sweet and a perfume. Its 16th-century cathedral has a dazzling dome painted by Correggio, a master of illusionistic perspective, showing swirling sensuous figures surrounding the Assumption of the Virgin. Next to the cathedral, there is the magnificent octagonal, four-tiered baptistery with open loggias clad in pink marble, one of the most important early Gothic buildings in the peninsula. The celebrated composer Giuseppe Verdi was born within the Duchy of Parma, and music-lovers make a pilgrimage to his birthplace at Busseto, a short distance away. In addition to this surfeit of delicious enticements for all the senses, Parma is also the home of one of the largest museum complexes in Italy: the remarkable Complesso monumentale della Pilotta. This has recently undergone a major renovation that was meant to be completed in 2021 for the celebrations surrounding Parma’s stint as Italy’s capital of culture for 2020-2021, but was instead inaugurated in 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pilotta’s sprawling historic buildings were originally the work of the Farnese, Parma’s ruling family and great art collectors (and the fitting subject of a temporary exhibition at the Pilotta complex last year). Already a wealthy and influential family of northern Lazio, the Farnese’s great period of prominence began when Alessandro Farnese (1468-1549) became Pope Paul III in 1534. A profoundly cultured man (he had frequented in his youth the scholarly entourage of Lorenzo il Magnifico in Florence) and a generous patron, Alessandro also carved out of the papal dominions in northern Italy the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza for his own family. These domains remained in Farnese hands until the family died out in the 18th century.
The Pilotta palace complex – named after the ballgame of pelota, played on special occasions in one of its three courtyards – was begun around 1583 as an oversize addition to the Farnese residence across the river, the Palazzo del Giardino. It was built on a gigantic scale: its tall, severe brick buildings are intricately interconnected and occasionally decorated with blind arches. They were built over several centuries by different architects, with periods of relative neglect alternating with renewed splendour.
After the family’s pre-eminence in Rome waned in the early 17th century, the later members in Parma concentrated their magnificent collections of works of art inside the Pilotta. Among them were paintings by Italian Old Masters and artefacts from further afield, including Asia and the Americas. Around 1649, there came the famed Farnese library that later became the superb Biblioteca Palatina, and the collection of ancient coins. The quadreria (collection of paintings) came in 1662. In 1673, some of the celebrated Farnese marble and bronze statues were also transferred from Rome to Parma.
Francesco Farnese (1678-1727) tried to save his family’s fortunes, but his only lasting achievement was the marriage, in 1714, of his niece Elisabetta (1692-1766) to Felipe V, the first Bourbon king in Spain. In 1731, the last Farnese duke, Antonio, died without direct heirs. Elisabetta Farnese – who had been born in the Pilotta palace and was raised there as befitted her rank – claimed her Parma inheritance for her sons, the future King Carlos II of Spain and Filippo. Filippo established the House of Bourbon-Parma, the cadet branch of the Spanish royal family, and ruled as Duke of Parma from 1748 to 1765.
When the House of Farnese died out, the Pilotta was stripped of most of its major works of art, which were transferred to Naples in 1734. Later, the outstanding collection of antique statuary from the Palazzo Farnese in Rome also ended up in the royal palace of the kings of Naples, transferred there by Ferdinando IV of Bourbon in 1787. This famous Renaissance collection included the large marble sculptures the Farnese Bull and the Farnese Hercules, found in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. Together with the finds from the newly discovered Vesuvian sites, they were attractions for visitors to the new archaeological museum in Naples: the Royal Bourbon Museum.
But the noble and cultural life of the palace in Parma was not over yet. In the 1820s, the energetic second wife of Napoleon I, Maria Luigia d’Austria (1791-1847), sponsored the last grand refurbishing of the Pilotta when she became Duchess of Parma and arrived in the city in 1816, although the main seat of the Duchy still remained the 16th-century Palace of Colorno some 15km away from Parma itself.
During the Second World War, heavy bombing of the city in May 1944 destroyed most of the west and south wings of the Pilotta, including the Teatro Farnese and the Biblioteca Palatina. These were restored in the years immediately following the end of the war. Many parts of the complex were then arbitrarily subdivided. Despite the destruction caused by the air raid, the palace was still large enough to house not only five separate institutions – the Teatro Farnese and the Biblioteca Palatina, the National Gallery of Parma, the National Archaeological Museum of Parma, and the Bodoni Museum – but also many of the municipal offices of Parma.
The museums, theatre, and gallery have now been unified and are all available to the public. When faced by what remains of the original palace, however, one is struck by a grim ruin left standing at the heart of the city. The battered structures that make up the museums are asymmetrical and, despite their monumental size, difficult to grasp. Yet while the outer walls of the Pilotta are little more than huge, dour brick wings, a few of the interior spaces retain a majestic outlook.
For many visitors, the highlight of a visit to the Pilotta complex is the unexpected sight of the large theatre that suddenly opens up on the first floor of the palace. It is reached from the ground-floor entrance by means of a stately staircase, surmounted and lit by the windows of a beautiful octagonal cupola. The vast hall was originally intended as an armoury, but was transformed into a Baroque theatrical space of great technical complexity.
Following the tradition of Renaissance court theatres, which have rarely survived in Italy, the Teatro Farnese was built in 1618-1619 by the architect G B Aleotti for Duke Ranuccio I (1569-1622), who wished to use it to stage a grand welcome for Cosimo de’ Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany. The celebrations would mark and consolidate the marriage alliance between the two ducal families. The long-sought Medici visit finally took place only in 1628, six years after Ranuccio’s death, when the marriage between his son and successor Odoardo Farnese and Margherita de’ Medici was celebrated.
Then the theatre could be inaugurated at last in a manner appropriate for the occasion, with the staging of an allegorical performance with music by Claudio Monteverdi: Mercury and Mars. The two gods debate the future life of the young duke Odoardo: Mercury wishes Odoardo to pursue his scholarly interests, while Mars wants him to become a soldier. The ambitious show culminated in a naumachia (‘naval battle’), for which it was necessary to flood the orchestra floor to the astonishment of the public. It ended with Neptune stirring up storms, and causing shipwrecks and fights between sea monsters, before finally being pacified by the descent of Jupiter with a host of attendants from the sky.
The theatre became a model for other Baroque theatres by virtue of its proportions – it is almost two and a half times deeper than it is broad – and technical innovations. The wooden structures were originally painted to imitate precious materials like marble and bronze, and were further adorned with plaster statues, which were later destroyed when a bomb set to fire the theatre in the 1944 air raid. Portions of the original frescoes, painted by such artists as Malosso and Lionello Spada, survived. The stage itself, deep enough to accommodate nine or ten rows of sliding flats for changes of scene, is set back in a monumental composition of giant Corinthian columns, with niches between them that would have held allegorical statues. On the frieze, there are other allegorical figures and putti. Two putti also hover above the centre of the stage holding the Farnese coat of arms.
The action could spill forward into the arena and even into the middle of the ranks of seats, which were able to hold 3,000 spectators. In 2021, in a spectacular and witty exhibition of the Italian designers Fornasetti, ceramic plates filled the 14 rows of seats as if they were theatre-goers. It was a startling use of a hallowed, historic site, and an indication of how effectively contemporary design can bring alive the somewhat unwieldly and oversized Pilotta complex.
One earlier ‘museological’ intervention in the palace came in the 1820s. Duchess Maria Luigia installed the Galleria Ducale, for which the neoclassical ‘Marie Louise Hall’ (also known as the ‘Hall of Columns’) was constructed. At one end of the hall, in what is now the Galleria Nazionale di Parma, there are two colossal black marble Roman sculptures from the 1st century AD: Dionysus supported by a satyr and Hercules. These were found in the Farnese Gardens on the Palatine Hill in Rome and were transferred here in 1822, by order of Maria Luigia. At the other end of the immense hall, a niche frames a large marble portrait of the Habsburg duchess by the leading neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, originally in the palace at Colorno but moved to the gallery in 1848. She is represented as Concordia, the Roman goddess of harmony, because of her significant role as peacemaker between Austria and France.
For other spaces within the gallery, a daring but effective system of tubular metal supports was chosen some years ago to hang many of the paintings in its holdings. Special hanging devices are used for two of the works. One is an intriguing and unfinished small painting of the head of a young woman with dishevelled hair generally attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: La Scapigliata. The other is a c.1532 masterpiece by the Italian Mannerist artist and native of Parma, Francesco Mazzola, better known as Parmigianino: the Schiava Turca (Turkish Slave). The title of this painting derives from the misinterpretation of the sitter’s headwear as a turban. It is, in fact, a typical headdress of noblewomen of the time.
After many years of neglect, the National Archaeological Museum of Parma in the Pilotta is currently undergoing a complete renovation. Its many objects range in time from local prehistory to medieval Italy, and even include a small but notable ancient Egyptian grouping. The museum was founded as the Ducal Museum of Antiquities in 1760 by the first duke of the House of Bourbon-Parma, Filippo I, primarily to house the artefacts unearthed from the newly discovered Roman city of Veleia near Piacenza.
One important early find from Veleia is the Tabula Alimentaria, the largest inscribed ancient bronze tablet discovered so far, measuring 1.38m by 2.86m in its entirety. In 1747, the dean of a local parish church picked up some bronze fragments that he found by chance in a field, providing a vital clue that this was the location of the long-forgotten Veleia. Unaware of their great significance, however, the clergyman sold the fragments. Later, local scholars who recognised their importance recovered the fragments, which were reassembled in 1817.
The Tabula Alimentaria Traianea, dating to c.AD 103, refers to the institution of mortgage loans (the alimenta) granted by the emperor to landowners, the interest on which was allocated for the care of poor children. It was a great financial reform established by Nerva and developed by his successor Trajan, in order to support young people, future generations of soldiers and officials of Italic origin.
Just over a decade after the tablet’s chance discovery, excavations at Veleia began. More interested in the arts than in politics, Filippo was fuelled by sibling rivalry with his brother in Naples, who was basking in the glory of the contemporary, astonishing discoveries coming from the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Not content to be left out of the archaeological fervour, Filippo sponsored the excavation of Veleia. And so, between 1760 and 1765, almost the whole of the ancient city was brought to light. Twelve large marble statues of the Julio-Claudian family, dating to the 1st century AD, were found in 1761 on a podium in the city’s forum, where they had been set for commemorative and propaganda purposes.
Not only was the Ducal Museum of Antiquities the first institution undertaking archaeological activities in northern Italy, but it also performed the role of district museum for the territory of the Duchy. In the mid-18th century, for instance, the museum acquired the finds unearthed during the explorations of the Roman-Ligurian site of Luceria/Nuceria, near Ciano d’Enza (2nd century BC to 5th century AD), financed by a society of noble Parmesans.
More than a century later, the museum would include the artefacts found in Parma itself when urban renewal over the years led to the slow rediscovery of the city’s Roman past. It had been a thriving colony, first established in 183 BC along the Via Aemilia, the major road crossing the fertile lowlands of northern Italy. Among the Roman finds were terracotta masks from a theatre, bronze statuettes and furniture fittings, mosaic fragments, jewellery, coins, and cinerary urns.
Filippo I also set up the sumptuous library at the Pilotta, the Biblioteca Palatina, in 1761. On the third floor of the library were once the workshop and private apartments of Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813); now they are home to the Bodoni Museum, which reopened its doors at the end of November 2022. The museum was originally inaugurated in 1963 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of death of this influential Piedmontese typographer, who made Parma a flourishing centre of printing. Protected inside special boxes, the technical and bibliographic material of the library and the Bodoni workshop survived the wartime bombing that almost entirely destroyed the library.
Bodoni was the inspiration for the superbly innovative Italian publisher Franco Maria Ricci (1937-2020), the creator of what was considered the most beautiful magazine in the world, the famous FMR, issues of which are now collectors’ items. Ricci used Bodoni’s fonts for all his publications: the magazine, a series of beautiful books on the arts, and travel diaries with magnificently reproduced illustrations. When his publishing house closed down, Franco Maria Ricci built for himself at Fontanellato, in the countryside outside Parma, an elegant mansion to house his collection of paintings and sculptures, a labyrinth made up of different species of bamboo, and a small brick pyramid that serves as a chapel. It is a relatively small-scale, somewhat esoteric architectural complex, but one of great sophistication, a proper container for choice works of art that evoke a personal sense of beauty. And it is tailored to please the visitor, too, by including a pleasant café and an excellent restaurant in a courtyard lined with porticoes and filled with large bronze reproductions of Bodoni’s individual letters.
Though many of the Farnese riches had been removed from the Pilotta to Naples, the palace’s historic residents – Duke Filippo, the former empress of France Maria Luigia, and the influential printer Bodoni – ensured this was still a cultural hub, a legacy that visitors to the renovated complex in Parma can now explore for themselves.
The Complesso monumentale della Pilotta in Parma is open 10.30am-6.30pm Tuesday to Sunday. See https://complessopilotta.it for further details. For more information about the Labirinto della Masone di Franco Maria Ricci in Fontanellato, visit www.labirintodifrancomariaricci.it.