A journey between present and past in a city full of history and intrigue
This city in the Emilia-Romagna region boasts long and rich tradition, spanning from art to literature, as well as music and food. Parma’s history before the unification of Italy is full of rather unique facts. Not everyone knows that Parma had been the price paid in 1815, when the powers that were had gathered in Vienna Congress. Having defeated Napoleon, it was necessary to give a dignified position to his wife Maria Luigia, who was still a Habsburg. Consequently, they entrusted her with this small state. She was a wise and loved ruler. Moreover, she promoted the arts, and she can be thanked for numerous cultural initiatives such as the Regio theatre, to which Verdi’s name would be later linked, while also adding the Farnese Theatre, a rare example of a court theatre built between the 16th and 17th centuries.
On the surface, Parma could be compared to a beautiful elderly and aristocratic lady, however if you look further you can see find s eccentricities. Need an example? In the dome of the Duomo, the Parma Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta (Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary), above the heads of the faithful there is a fresco of a Madonna who, accompanied by a whirlwind of angels, clouds and saints, ascends to heaven so quickly that her skirts are raised and tangled around her face, which is now hidden, and leaving her legs bare. This revolutionary work was painted by Correggio around 1525 and anticipated Baroque by a century. However, likely due to the criticisms received, the painter did not finish the decorations of the church.
Also in the Duomo, the medieval sculptor Antelami left traces of the first onset of anti-Semitism in Europe. This is the bas-relief of the Deposition, where the archangel Raphael abruptly forces a female figure, personification of the Synagogue, to bow her head. The image marked the definitive breakdown of the initial harmony between Christianity and Judaism.
If Europe isn’t enough for you, Parma also has the extravagance and originality of boasting a Museum of Chinese and Ethnographic Art. A collection of great importance which includes, in addition to Chinese works, you can also find Indonesian artefacts, as well as pieces from Africa and Brazil ( www.museocineseparma.org ).
On the other hand, we can turn back time, becoming children again, at the Puppet Castle (Castello dei Burattini). This museum was founded in 2002 around the Ferrari collection, a family of master puppeteers since 1800. There are about 400 artifacts, including puppets and marionettes built in Italy and abroad, as well as sets and scripts. The photographs and publications are also quite interesting, making the Puppet Castle an essential point of reference for the study of animation theatre (www.castellodeiburattini.it).
However, you can’t leave Parma without visiting the Church of the Holy Cross [Sant Croce], the destination of medieval pilgrimages in the stretch of the Via Francigena that led to Rome through the Apennines. The building was consecrated in 1222 and is located outside the city walls, also including a hostel. Inside, the church offers extraordinary medieval capitals where Christian and pagan images, like the centaur who shoots the arrow, express all the imagination and expressive force of the Middle Ages. The building is certainly less famous than the popular Cathedral, however it has all the charm and history of medieval monuments.
Strengthened by its intriguing past and eager to show the importance of this city, Parma has organized “Quadrilegio 2020”, a series of events centred around contemporary art, including exhibitions, installations, debates and workshops that will take place mainly in 4 designated spaces, but also in historic buildings, streets and squares. (https://parma2020.it/evento/it-IT/quadrilegio-2020—conoscere–capire–ascoltare.aspx)
The food in Parma is as superb as the city’s famous parmesan, a cheese created in the Benedictine abbeys and whose production has continued uninterrupted since the Middle Ages. Tasting real Parmesan means feeling the flavour of our history, without leaving out the famous Parma ham. A visit of this city wouldn’t be complete without a food tour.
Perhaps it is also surprising that this contradictory city was the birthplace of Arturo Toscanini as well as Bernardo Bertolucci. The former was contentious conductor who preferred to go into exile rather than bow to fascism, while the latter was a film director who in 1971 scandalized Italy and the world with his Last tango in Paris. Toscanini became the symbol of the rebirth of Italy, when he conducted the first concert held at the Scala in Milan after WWII, while Bertolucci was sentenced to prison for offense against modesty and has always been a symbol of transgression.
Anna Maria Calabretta