CHIAVARI, 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, because if you are tired of just seeing other tourists in your travels around Italy, get on a train and come to Parma.
The train station isn’t far from the center of town and you can walk there in less than ten minutes. The only problem is the street you have to walk down, Strada Giuseppe Garibaldi, is lined with food shops, and it is very, but very easy to be totally distracted by glowing wheels of Parmesan cheese and mounds of home-made tortellini, not to mention the prosciutto and salami. 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.
Parma’s Cathedral was one of the buildings damaged by the earthquake in 1106.The Gothic belfry was added in 1284 and both the Cathedral and the belfry have been in pretty good shape since then. As I pushed open the heavy door I looked up and saw an organ tuner running his fingers over the keyboard of the old church organ. He would randomly hit keys, stop, step back, and wait. Slowly the ancient pipes would push out the musical notes which then floated upward toward the dome and, as they reached Correggio's fresco of the Assumption that is painted there, they would fade away like a whisper. I walked around and then sat for a bit, thoroughly enjoying the fact that I had the church to myself. But then when a young couple came in and broke my reverie, 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 master 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 twelve signs of the zodiac, animals and fabulous beasts, creatures from Hell, sea monsters, centaurs, mermaids and unicorns, all in all an unprecedented menagerie in pink marble. On the outside of the building he crowned each portal with scenes from the old and new Testament.
|The Baptistry and Cathedral Bell Tower in the Late Afternoon|
Parma is a city that has been dominated by Spain, France, Austria and the Catholic Church, and ultimately the Dukes of Farnese. 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 and its territory under the control of the Farnese family.
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 their 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 and its territories were 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.
But the Parmigiani don’t focus on their Farnese heritage too much, they have other things to think about. For example, one of Italy’s leading composers of opera, Giuseppe Verdi, was born in nearby Roncole, and the resourceful Parmigiani have 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.
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 that restaurant. They devour many gastronomical delights Parma and Emilia Romagna is known for, and drink down glasses of sparkling Lambrusco wine while they discuss and argue the finer points of the opera and the cast performing it. This tradition did not originated in Parma but the Teatro Regio Parma is the only opera house in the world where it is still practiced.
So you see it really does all go back to what I said before, the biggest problem with Parma is it’s much too easy to be distracted by the food. 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 panettone 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|
So if you ever get the urge to wander off the beaten path and see another side of Italy, Parma might be a good place to start for this is only part of the story, but I’ll leave that for you to explore.