Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Real Italy: Parma

You won't easily find a small town like Parma anywhere in the world. Its unique blend of art, history and culture will strike you as soon as you start strolling along the wonderful streets lined with beautiful palaces and old churches or in one of the town's parks. Parma is not just a beautiful town, it is a small jewel where you can experience the same stylish atmosphere and ways of life typical of some of the best European capitals, not to mention its fabulous cuisine!

Altitude: meters above sea level
Nearest airport: MILANO and BOLOGNA
Train connections: easily accessible from MILANO and BOLOGNA
Zip code: 43100
Telephone: dial +39.0521 before the number you want to call

Parma was a Roman colony on the Via Emilia founded by the consul Marcus Emilius Lepidus in 183 BC. In became a rich comune in the Middle Ages and over the centuries it was ruled by the Viscontis, the Sforzas, the French and the Pope. Finally, it was made into a duchy by Pope Paul III in 1545 and given to his son Pier Luigi Farnese. The Farnese family reigned in Parma for almost two hundred years, where they left traces of their grandeur. The town was inherited by the Bourbons in the early 18th century, who gave its court and social life a typically French flavor. After the Napoleonic rule, which lasted from 1802 to 1814, it was decided at the Congress of Vienna that Parma should go to Napoleon's wife, Marie Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis I of Austria. When she died in 1874, the duchy returned to the Bourbons until 1860 when it became part of the Italian Kingdom by plebiscite.

Parma is no doubt an outstanding and renowned art town. Start your visit from the famous Duomo (Cathedral). The Battistero (Baptistery) and the Palazzo del Vescovado (Bishop's Palace) are in the same superb square, which has maintained its original medieval flavor.

The Duomo

The Duomo is one of the main example of 12th century Romanesque architecture in northern Italy. Its facade features three orders of loggias and is flanked by a tall Gothic tower in brickwork built in 1294. The inside is divided into a central nave and two aisles by beautiful columns that also support the women's gallery. The presbytery stands exactly on the crypt and is above the floor level. The walls in the aisles are decorated with some precious 16th century frescoes. In the dome you'll see a masterly composition made by Correggio between 1526 and 1530. On the right wall of the right branch of the transept there is the well-known "Deposition" by Benedetto Antelami (1178).

The Battistero

The Battistero is a unique octagonal building made between 1196 and 1270. Outside you'll see three portals adorned by the statues and reliefs by Benedetto Antelami. They are some of the best examples of Romanesque sculpture in Italy. Inside you'll see remarkable niches, two orders of small loggias and the ribbed dome containing some important sculptures representing the months, the seasons and the signs of the zodiac. Most of the frescoes in both the lunettes and the dome were made in the late 13th century. Right in the middle of the building is a font dating from the 13th century and also a stoup. Right behind the cathedral apse stands the church of San Giovanni Evangelista.

San Giovanni Evangelista

It is a Renaissance church built in 1512 with a fa硤e and a tower dating back to the 17th century. It contains a valuable cycle of frescoes by Correggio (1520-1523) and Parmigianino. Michelangelo Anselmi (1520-21) decorated the ceiling supervised by Correggio. There is also a splendid choir by Marcantonio Zucchi (1512-13) in the apse and a Transfiguration by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli (1556). Its is worth seeing the Sacristy, with its wooden cupboards carved at the beginning of the 16th century and the Cloisters of the monastery dating back to the Cinquecento. The three cloisters are really worth a visit too. The first is called Chiostro di San Giovanni Abate, the second Chiostro del Pozzo or del Capitolo, the third Chiostro Grande or di San Benedetto. The Chiostro del Pozzo features a portal and two marble mullioned windows made by Antonio d'Agrate.

Storica Speziera di San Giovanni Evangelista

At the back of the Benedictine Monastery is the old pharmacy founded in 1201 and working till 1766. It was restored and reopened in 1959. Its three big halls are decorated with frescoes of the Cinquecento and contain furniture and shelves dating back to the 16th and 18th centuries, full of 192 15th and 17th century ceramic jars and big mortars.

Camera di San Paolo or del Correggio

This is an important and popular place in town. It served as the private apartment to for the Abbess of the old Benedictine monastery. In 1514 it started to be restored and decorated. Correggio worked on it in 1519 and created a masterpiece of the Cinquecento. The chamber is covered by an umbrella vault divided into sixteen webs on which Correggio painted a pergola decorated with lunettes and tondi containing putti. In the next room you can see frescoes by Alessandro Araldi (1514).

Palazzo della Pilotta

The Palazzo della Pilotta is a large building, with three spacious courtyards, built by Farnese between 1583 and 1622, but left unfinished. It was meant to serve as lodgings for the court servants. Now it is an important cultural center.

It houses the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (National Archaeological Museum), the Galleria Nazionale (National Gallery) and the Libreria Palatina (Palatina Library).
The Galleria Nazionale is one of Italy's most important art museums. It contains works by Correggio, Parmigianino, Beato Angelico, Leonardo, Van Dyck, Tiepolo, Canaletto and many others... The building also contains the wonderful Teatro Farnese, one of the most beautiful playhouses in the world. It was rebuilt according to the original 1617 plan in the 1950s, after it had been destroyed during World War II.

Teatro Regio

The Teatro Regio (Royal Theater) was built by Nicola Bettoli and was opened in 1829. In is one of the most important opera houses in Italy.

Piazza Garibaldi

Piazza Garibaldi (Garibaldi Square), right in the center of Parma, dates back to the 19th century. There you can see a monument to Garibaldi, the Palazzo del Governatore (Governor's Palace) and its tower (1673), and the Palazzo del Comune (Town Hall) (1673).

If you have some time left, then go to Fontanellato, about 18 km from Parma. To get there, take the via Emilia heading west towards Milan, then take the provincial road to Busseto and Cremona just after crossing the river Taro.

The Castle at Fontanellato

The center of the village is basically made of the old Castle perched on the rock called Sanvitale, after the name of the family who lived here for centuries. Square-based, the castle is surrounded by a three-meter deep moat still full of water. The halls inside are furnished with pieces of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Although the towers and the square courtyard were originally built for defensive purposes, later they well suited the needs of the court, who embellished the castle. Parmigianino, for example, painted a small hall with mythological scenes in 1525, a masterly work of the Italian Rinascimento.

Parco di Palazzo Ducale

After visiting the town, don't forget to take a walk in the beautiful park of Palazzo Ducale, bought by Ottavio Farnese in the late 16th century and renovated by Ranuccio II in 1690, when a pond and a small island were also added. It was transformed again in the 18th century, when a small temple and some statues were made.

At the entrance to the park stands Palazzo Ducale, built between 1561 and 1564 on a project by Vignola. It was extended in the late 18th century by Petitot. Its halls contain some precious frescoes by Agostino Carracci, Bertoja, Tiarini, Malorosso and Cignani. Presently it houses the carabinieri headquarters (police). Another beautiful park is inside the Cittadella.

La Cittadella

Pier Luigi Farnese decided to have the fortress built in 1546. The works began only in 1591, however. It comes in the shape of a pentagon with five ramparts originally surrounded by water, now replaced by lawn. The inner area is a public park that offers some sports facilities. Don't miss a walk on the bastion.

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