The city of Parma, without the ham and the cheese, is more than just eggs. That said, it takes a little getting used to as from first glance, it’s not the most inviting Italian city that I’ve been to. But that said, it’s a grower, and there are some serious sights to be seen.
Top of my list is the Teatro Farnese – billed as the prototype of the modern playhouse. Work started on this in the early seventeenth century and it was apparently built in just one year, although it wasn’t inaugurated for ten – something to do with changing schedules of visiting dignitaries. The stage is massive. The seats are stadium-style, and the floor space can actually be flooded for special effects. But what’s most enthralling about it is that it’s entirely made of wood. Wood everywhere. Carved, ornate wood that looks other-worldly when the sun hits it. Even the bits that look like marble are wood. I know it was purely my imagination, but I could have sworn I felt the air stirring with faint rumblings of the masses as they waited for the curtains to rise.
Next up would have to be the D’uomo – the cathedral – with its magnificent depiction of the Assumption of Our Lady painted by Correggio in the sixteenth century. And, quite surprisingly, even given how little I know about art, this gobsmackingly gorgeous piece isn’t listed among his most famous works in any of the bios I’ve read of him. And if this doesn’t rate, then the rest of his stuff must be out of this world altogether. Quite cleverly, portraits of church elders were used as the faces of prophets – no better way to a man’s wallet than through his vanity.
Third up would be the Baptistry. This is somewhat of an astronomical marvel. On the feast day of St John the Baptist, the sun (if there is any) hits the baptismal font in some way reminiscent of what goes on at Newgrange and other ancient sites. On various dates of the year, the sun hits certain figures on the fresco-covered walls. Beginning on 25 March and until about 10 April, what sun there is strikes a painting of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. All quite astonishing and once again has me asking – how, back then (it was completed in 1220) could they do so much with so little and today, with all our progressive technology, we slap up buildings that don’t stand the test of time. Mad.
And it’s not all happening inside, either. The carvings on the outside walls tell stories and are well worth taking the time to read.
It wouldn’t be this part of the world if it didn’t lay claim to a famous composer. Verdi grew up about 20 miles from the city of Parma and has been officially adopted as one of its own. There’s a massive monument to him that’s worth a look-see but bear in mind that it’s only part of the original – the rest having been ‘sacrificed to expansionism’ (?) after the War. It’s down by the rather impressive Piazza Pilotta, which is living testament to the damage done by war. What isn’t there says as much again as what is.
I can’t quite decide why it took me a while to warm to the city. But I did. And I’d go back. It’s very walkable and has lots of surprises. Home to one of the oldest universities in Italy, it has a culture that has been earned. Perhaps it’s more a university town than a tourist mecca and perhaps it was the absence of large swathes of tourists that made it seem a little ordinary.
It was given by Pope Paul III as a gift to his illegitimate son Pier Luigi Farnese back in the day when cities were given as presents. Parts of it still have the ability to transport you back in time and have you stepping aside for imaginary horse-drawn carriages carrying ladies in hooped dresses and parasols. Definitely one to put on your list, if you’re in the vicinity.