By: Barbara Wysocki
Parma—the name alone conjures a feast for the senses. Great wheels of pungent Parmigiano Reggiano and haunches of glistening pink prosciutto are universally known by the city’s name. But there’s a lot more to Parma than cheese and ham. Historic art treasures and a lively contemporary scene make this charming small city (population 170,000) in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region a pleasure for the eye and mind as well as the palate.
While Parma’s culinary bounty comes from the farms in Po River Valley, its cultural abundance derives from the Via Emilia, an ancient Roman road that still connects Parma to Bologna and Ravenna. A university center for a millennium, the city and the surrounding area have long had great families such as the Sforzas, the Bourbons and the Bonapartes as tastemakers. In 1816, after the fall of Napoleon, his second wife, Marie Louise, became the duchess of Parma and established her court there, bringing the city’s architecture the rich yellow color of the Schönbrunn Palace of her Viennese childhood. In 1618–19 the Vatican-connected Farnese family built a monumental theater, the centerpiece of their Palazzo della Pilotta, now the Galleria Nazionale di Parma.
In addition to works by local greats Correggio and Parmigianino, the Galleria Nazionale’s collection of European art spans the 13th–19th centuries and includes works by Hans Holbein the Younger, Anthony van Dyck, Tintoretto, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, as well as a small panel of a tousle-haired girl attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. The top floor of the Palazzo della Pilotta contains the Bodoni Museum, dedicated to the great engraver and typographer Giambattista Bodoni, inventor of Bodoni typeface and official printer to the court of Parma in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Palatine Library possesses many of Bodoni’s books.
Too often overshadowed, Parma’s art credentials were invigorated by the Metropolitan Museum’s 2001 exhibition Correggio and Parmigianino: Master Draftsmen of the Renaissance. In 2003 the Galleria Nazionale mounted an exhibition centered on Francesco Mazzola, known as Parmigianino. The show was also seen at the Frick in New York. In fall 2008 the Galleria Nazionale stirred academics and audiences with Mostra Correggio Parma. Both shows paired comprehensive museum installations with ceiling-level platforms beneath each artist’s work in nearby churches. In the Madonna della Steccata church, viewers looked up at the last great frescos by Parmigianino, including the soaring archway depicting the biblical parable of the “Wise and Foolish Virgins.”
The recent opportunities for close-up views of Correggio’s cupola frescoes in the Cathedral and in the adjacent church of San Giovanni Evangelista, as well as in the small room in the convent of San Paolo, amply demonstrate the artist’s ability to transform solid space into limitless heavens. Though the platforms were temporary and have been taken down, new lighting designed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and his daughter Francesca allows for improved viewing, especially in the once-dark dome of San Giovanni.
In her 1994 book, Correggio, Galleria Nazionale curator Lucia Fornari Schianchi, who organized both exhibitions, critically examined the work of the artist, whose real name was Antonio Allegri. Schianchi describes viewing the ethereal landscape of the Cathedral’s Assumption of the Virgin as follows: “The sky opens and we are offered a glimpse of the infinite.” The dome, completed in 1530, is often cited as a precursor of the Baroque style. Six years earlier, Correggio had completed the cupola frescoes for the Benedictines at San Giovanni Evangelista, which show that saint’s ascension in a swirl of apostles supported by glowing clouds. In the Cathedral dome, the artist perfected the interplay of movement and illumination.
Allegri took the name of his hometown, Correggio (about 30 miles from Parma), with a pride that remains alive there today. Portico-covered walkways lead to the Teatro Bonifazio Asioli and the Palazzo dei Principi, now the city museum. Flemish tapestries, Mantegna’s Redeemer and small works attributed to Allegri are key components of the well-interpreted collection. The Correggio Art Home, in the artist’s restored birthplace, is also a research center. In addition to maintaining an archive and an Italian-English online database, the Documentation Centre encourages artistic ferment. In fall 2008 Omar Galliani created an ambitious land drawing based on Correggio’s Ganymede, an installation made of marble and designed for viewing on Google Earth.
Parma is an excellent place to buy art and to admire it. Parmigiani value antiquity in their galleries; the number of generations a family has been in business counts more than hits on a website. After a lunch of tortelloni washed down with a glass of sparkling red Lambrusco, take a stroll through the narrow cobblestone streets. Oliva, located on the same street as Pierpaolo Antelmi’s pink marble Baptistery, is in its fourth generation selling vintage maps and engraved works on paper. Consigli Arte has Renaissance and Baroque paintings but specializes in furniture and Gallé ceramic vases. Just off Via Repubblica, small shops cluster along Via XXII Luglio and Via Nazario Sauro. Ferraglia Antichità has Italian, French and Spanish furniture from the past five centuries, as well as clocks and objets d’art from those periods. Libreria Antiquaria Credula Postero stocks wine to complement its antiquarian books and manuscripts dating back to the 12th century. The shop’s young owner, Camilla Robuschi says, “I learned from my father.”
The castle town of Fontanellato, a half-hour drive from Parma, hosts a highly respected antique market the third Sunday of every month except January. Complete with moat, the Rocca Sanvitale is more than a splendid backdrop for the 300 stalls. In addition to rooms with furnishings from the Baroque era to the 19th century, the Sala delle Grottesche has Parmigianino’s 1524 fresco cycle depicting the myth of Diana and Actaeon. Luca Mazzieri, producer of a 2003 documentary on the artist, describes the room with its 14 lunettes as “very beautiful and very important.”
There’s a change of tempo at the Traversetolo villa, also about 30 minutes from the city, with its private art collection bequeathed to the Fondazione Magnani-Rocca. Temporary exhibitions such as this spring’s show of Rembrandt engravings add to the depth of the museum’s large collection, which includes Fra Filippo Lippi’sMadonna and Child and Peter Paul Rubens’ Portrait of Ferdinand Gonzaga, as well as 20th-century work by Giorgio de Chirico and Giorgio Morandi.
While the venerable is valued, there’s also a contemporary art community in Parma. Carlo Mattioli is among the Italian printmakers shown at the gallery Briciole d’Arte Italian artists from the second half of the 20th century to the present are the focus at Galleria Centro Steccata, with recent work by Dario Brevi and an archive devoted to the works of Franco Francese. Galleria d’Arte Niccoli adds international artists such as Henry Moore, Jean Arp and Yves Klein to the 20th-century Italian artists on its past exhibition roster. Four decades ago the Galleria Niccoli expended its vision by establishing a program to exhibit contemporary Italian art in Japan.
American artist Nancy Goldring has found Parma audiences enthusiastic about her drawings and photo-projections. In September 2008, her installation Lo Studiolo was at Palazzetto Eucherio Sanvitale, running concurrently with her Sense of Place at the city’s Kika Gallery. Kika partner Chiara Allegri describes its diverse undertakings with the example of two recent painting exhibitions dealing with the theme of escape. Artist Mario Stuppini, she says, emphasized “the importance of physical and emotional pleasure,” while Guido Andrea Pautasso explored “the anxiety of modern man to find his place.”
The most recent arrival on the scene is the bright orange ArtBox, an innovative stand-in while the university’s Center and Archive for the Study of Communication, which describes itself as Italy’s largest gallery for contemporary art, prepares for a move to new quarters. Meanwhile, ArtBox welcomes small shows such as this past autumn’sTrasformazioni Tramondi, a combination of Iacopo Vaja’s black-and-white photos and Magic Mind Corporation’s art film. Magic Mind’s Giacomo Agnetti says, “Life for artists is not easy in Italy,” but he feels the recent wave of immigration to Emilia Romagna is “bringing new air.”
Fiere di Parma is an art-fair venue on a grand scale. Galleries, primarily from Italy, gather for Gotha (antiques), Arte Parma (contemporary art) and Mercanteinfiera (a combination of both). While not as well known as other art fairs, these are well established and known for their quality and depth.
New York-based architect Umberto Squarcia returns regularly to his hometown. “We hold on to our heritage,” he says, “but we encourage young artists, too.” Craving something old and something new? Parma savors both.
Galleria Centro Steccata
Galleria d’Arte Niccoli
Galleria Nazionale di Parma
Libreria Antiquaria Credula Postero
Madonna della Steccata
Monastery of San Giovanni Evangelista
Oliva di Soncini Guido & Co.