Day 33: Parma and Fontanellato day trip

We day tripped to Parma in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy with a population around 200,000. The name is Etruscan in origin but the city was an important ancient Roman town.

In the 15th century, the Sforza family imposed their rule and created a kind of feudalism, building towers and castles throughout the area. These fiefs evolved into independent states. Parma was the site of a number of conflicts. In the 16th century it was part of the Papal States until 1545 when the Farnese pope, Paul III, detached Parma and Piacenza from the Papal States and gave them as a duchy to his illegitimate son, Pier Luigi Farnese.

The family initially lived in Piacenza but when the ruler was assassinated, they moved to Parma and not surprisingly, built a fort complex, now the Palazzo Pilotta.

The Farnese ruled in Parma until 1731. When the Bourbons came to rule for a short while, like the Gonzaga, they lost a battle with the Hapsburgs and the city came under Austrian rule until Napoleon took the city. It was given to Napoleon’s wife after his exile—sort of like matrimonial property division?

Even before the Bourbon took over the city, the Farnese moved their art collection to Naples so the Pinacoteca or National Gallery of Parma, housed in the Palazzo della Pilotta, is lacking some of the best works that used to reside in the art gallery, a complex of courtyards built around 1583 for the last Farnese duke.

There are some good pieces, although many were not originally produced in or for someone in Parma but were the result of the redistribution of art taken by Napoleon:

El Greco
Bernini workshop

The main reason to visit Parma is to see Correggio works. Correggio works were highly prized in the 18th century and the first four below were taken by Napoleon to Paris then later returned, but not to the churches they came from:

Parmigianino is the other main reason to visit Parma. His portrait of an unknown woman inaptly called The Turkish Slave:

There is also an unfinished Leonardo da Vinci called La Scapigliata, which must have been part of a larger work but nothing is known about its context.

The Farnese theatre is mainly a re-creation as the original was bombed in 1944 by the Allies. All the bombing in this area was by the Allies, not Germans. It is famous as having the first proscenium arch in a theatre (the square arch around the stage) which is still used today.

Parma Baptistery with its 13th century statues showing the months of the year some with the associated astrological sign:

Visiting Parma provides the opportunity to see works of Correggio in sitù. His masterpiece is found in Parma Cathedral, a Romanesque cathedral.

The illusionistic dome frescoes by Correggio (1526-30) were the second of such works. The composition of the Assumption of the Virgin was influenced by Melozzo da Forlì’s perspective and includes the decoration of the dome base, which represents the four protector saints of Parma: St. John the Baptist with the lamb, St. Hilary with a yellow mantle, St. Thomas (or Joseph) with an angel carrying the martyrdom palm leaf, and St. Bernard, the sole figure looking upwards.

Below the feet of Jesus?, the Virgin in red and blue robes is lofted upward by singing or musical angels. Ringing the base of the dome, between the windows, stand the perplexed Apostles.

Correggio’s work was a catalyst and inspiration for the dramatically-illusionistic, di sotto in sù ceiling paintings of the 17th-century Baroque period. The first such ceiling painting in Rome was by Lanfranco, who was from Parma and would have known Correggio’s work.

In Correggio’s work, the entire architectural surface is treated as a single pictorial unit and opened up so that the dome of the church is equated with the vault of heaven. The illusion in which the figures seem to protrude into the viewers’ space was, at the time, a daring use of foreshortening, but because the iconography of the work was unclear, it was disliked by the religious patrons and Correggio fell out of favour for future religious commissions.

Titian greatly admired the work saying that if the dome were turned upside down and filled with gold that would not be enough compensation for Correggio’s work.

In Camera di San Paolo in the former convent of San Paolo, Correggio executed, around 1519-1520, a sophisticated set of allegorical lunettes in grisaille surrounding a celebration of Diana as the goddess of chastity and the hunt. The dome was also painted by Correggio. The iconography is still a subject of debate.

The chamber was originally part of a complex of six rooms, forming the personal apartment of abbess Giovanna Piacenza. The function of the chamber in particular is not known. The vault is another example of illusionistic painting, mimicking a pergola opening to the sky. The ribs of the vault are in turn painted to resemble bamboo, and divide each vault segment in four zones, each corresponding to a wall.

At the centre of the vault is the coat of arms of abbess Giovanni, formed by three crescent moons in gilded stucco, around which is a series of knotted pink belts. Festoons of vegetables are connected to the latter, one for each vault sector. Each festoon ends with an oval opening in which, above a bright sky background, are groups of puttos with symbols of hunting (animals, weapons). Below, along the walls, are trompe-l’œil lunettes depicting statues inside niches, with simulated lighting from below. The lower zone contains a series of ram heads (perhaps a reference to the Aries zodiac sign, the first in Spring) connected by painted drapery, which in turn support objects such as plates, vases and others.

Finally, above the fireplace, Correggio painted the Roman goddess Diana on a chariot, towed by deers. The goddess (a symbol of purity) is both an allusion to Giovanna’s personal qualities, and, as the goddess of the Moon, to her coat of arms. The architrave of the fireplace has the Latin inscription “IGNEM GLADIO NE FODIAS”, meaning “Do not disturb the flame with sword”: an assertion of the abbess’ independence from the ecclesiastical authorities who were disputing her tenure of the convent.

The room was inaccessible for centuries because the abbey was put into clausura or closed to anyone by the nuns and priests.

In San Giovanni Evangelista, Correggio executed his first illusionistic dome.

We then took a 35 minute drive to Fontanellato, a town on the Po River. The name probably comes from “Fontana Lata” (large spring), referring to the natural springs of the plain that can still be seen. Population around 7000 in the province of Parma, part of the Emilia-Romagna region.

From the 14th century, the Sanvitale family were feudal lords. Rocca Sanvitale is their moated 13th century castle which was sold in 1948 to the municipal administration.

A small room (the Camerino) in the castle of Rocca Sanvitale contains a fresco decoration (1523-1524) by Parmigianino depicting the story told by Ovid of the hunter Actaeon, who happened innocently to catch sight of Diana bathing. He was transformed into a stag by the enraged goddess, and eventually killed by his own dogs.

Parmigianino was 10 years younger than Correggio and clearly saw the Camera in San Paolo as he repeats the illusionist pergola. Again, the purpose of the room and interpretation of the images are unknown.

Unfortunately no photos were allowed but here’s the 3D postcard.

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