SARONNO, Italy - Parma is one of Italy’s little cities of art. It’s not a city that gets a lot of tourist attention, and that may be a good thing. It’s an easy city to visit, the train station isn’t far from the center of town, you can walk there in less than ten minutes, which is exactly what I was doing just a few weeks ago. The only problem is the street from the train station to the center of town is lined with food shops, and it is very, but very easy to be distracted by glowing wheels of Parmesan cheese and mounds of home-made tortellini. But if you are strong, and resist, you will be rewarded.
It is true that over the years the city has been ravaged by fires and earthquakes, but there is no trace of them now. What you will find within the walls of the old city, are buildings dating back to the 11th and 12th century. One of them is the Palazzo Vescovile, an 11th century bishop's palace. The palace is in a medieval square which it shares with the town’s Cathedral and Parma's great octagonal baptistery, both of which were built in the 12th century.
|Cathedral of Parma|
I decided to go into the Cathedral first. As I pushed open the heavy door , silvery musical notes were hanging in the air. I looked up and saw an organ tuner running his fingers over the keyboard of the church's organ. He would randomly hit keys and then stop and then step back and wait. When the ancient pipes finally pushed out musical notes they floated upward toward the dome and then faded away like a whisper as they reach Correggio's fresco of the Assumption that is painted there. I walked around and then sat for a bit, thoroughly enjoying the fact that I had the church to myself. When a young couple came in I left and walked across the square to the Baptistery.
The pink Verona marble Baptistery is considered one of the most interesting buildings in Italy. It was started in 1195 under the supervision of sculptor Benedetto Antelami, or as the architrave over the north door puts it: "twice two years before 1200 the sculptor Benedetto doth began this work.". Antelami was also responsible for all of the Baptistery’s elaborate carvings, both inside and out. On the inside he intricately sculpted representations of the four seasons, the signs of the zodiac, animals and fabulous beasts, creatures from Hell, sea monsters, centaurs, mermaids, and unicorns. A miraculous marble menagerie. On the outside of the building scenes from the old and new Testament crown each portal.
|Detail Parma's Baptistery|
Parma is a city that has been dominated by Spain, France, Austria, the Catholic Church, and through the church, the Dukes of Farnese. But unlike its other rulers, the Farnese were patrons of the arts and under their influence Parma entered its golden age. The rich heritage they left behind changed the medieval character of the city forever.
The Farnese were already a well established family back in 1513 when Parma was part of the territory controlled by the Popes and the Catholic church. They were a family of successful mercenaries, and through their ties to the church and a series of well-planned marriages they managed to achieve considerable wealth and power. But it was Julia Farnese, the Papal Venus as she came to be known, who was responsible for bringing Parma under the control of the Farnese family.
|Portrait of Giulia Farnese by Raphael|
When Giulia Farnese was born in 1474, she was promised in marriage to Orsino Orsini, the son of the Count of Pitigliano. They married when she turned 15 and he was 18. He was dark and handsome, she was beautiful and fair. Giulia's father was particularly happy with the union as Orsini was related to some of the most powerful families in Italy, including Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, father of the infamous Lucrezia.
At the wedding the Cardinal, who was almost 60 years old at the time, fell head-over-heels in love with Giulia. And it wasn't long before she became his mistress. The powerful Cardinal and Giulia had a long relationship, and when he became Pope, taking the name Alexander VI, he favored his mistress by making her brother Alessandro, a Cardinal. Alessandro went on to become Pope Paul III, and the Farnese family legacy was insured. It was not many years later that Parma was given to Pope Paul III's son, Pier Luigi Farnese, in payment for services rendered as a knight for the Catholic Church. And thus the Duchy of Farnese was created.
Parma is also the birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi, one of Italy’s leading composers of opera. So it is not surprising that the resourceful Parmigiani managed to combine their two main loves – opera and food – in one happy place. At the Teatro Regio, Parma's historic opera house, the back of one of the opera house boxes is fitted like a restaurant, its walls decorated with photographs and posters of scenes from past operas and their stars.
|Always a Crowd at the Teatro Regio|
During the intermission of an operatic performance, the Club of 27, a private group of opera lovers whose membership is limited to 27 as that was the number of operas Guiseppe Verdi wrote, gather in the restaurant. Here they discuss and argue the finer points of the opera being performed, and its cast, as they devour gastronomical delights and drink down glasses of sparkling Lambrusco wine. This is not a tradition that originated in Parma but the Teatro Regio Parma is the only opera house in the world that has continued this ancient tradition of high-spirited dining in the back of the boxes.
It goes back to what I said before, the biggest problem with Parma is it’s much too easy to be distracted by the food. Under ‘What to Buy” in the Geografico DeAgostini Guide to Parma, the food and pastry shops are listed first. Not only is it home to Parmesan cheese and Parma ham, it is also home to Parmalat, Barilla pasta, a large sugar industry, a company that sells Borgotaro porcini mushrooms, Italy's third largest Christmas cake factory, three food museums and the European Union’s Food Safety Authority. Is it a surprise the saying "you live to eat well, you don't eat to live" originated here? I didn't think so.
|One of the Many Food Shops in Parma|
It was getting late and I had a train to catch so I reluctantly made my way back to the train station. The sky was darkening as I boarded the train that would take me back to Milan and a spring fog was starting to settle over the city like a soft feather quilt. I watched as the gray sky outside the train window deepened to charcoal and then went black. In a little more than an hour I would be back in Milan. There are some days when I feel incredibly lucky to live here in Italy, and this was one of them.