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PARMA: a journey into art from the Romanesque to Mannerism

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

The masterpieces of Antelami, Correggio and Parmigianino

The Parma Cathedral - dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta - has been a place of art, history and sacredness for over 900 years. Here are kept beautiful bas-reliefs by Benedetto Antelami (as well as various testimonies of Romanesque art), and grandiose frescoes by Antonio Allegri known as Correggio, but also those of less famous but very talented artists such as Girolamo Mazzola-Bedoli (cousin of the most famous Francesco Mazzola known as Parmigianino) who from 1555 to 1557 frescoed the 1200 square meters of the vault of the central nave. Finally, do not forget the impressive cycle of frescoes by Lattanzio Gambara which completely occupies the two walls of the central nave.

Entering this place, therefore, means living the faith, opening up to art and getting closer to one of the most precious treasures of the city.

Following a fire, which destroyed the ancient early Christian basilica, in the ninth century the reconstruction works of the mother church of Parma were started, in a site not far from that of the ancient church. In 890 the Cathedral took on the title of Domus. A serious fire that took place between 1055 and 1058 led to massive reconstruction works, and finished in 1074.

In 1178 the large gabled façade was completed and the architecture of the entire building with three naves was revised and checked by Benedetto Antelami himself, also following the damage resulting from a violent earthquake.

The Gothic-style bell tower was rebuilt between 1284 and 1291. It was planned to build another bell tower, twin of the first, on the left of the facade, never built.

Starting from the 15th century, side chapels were added where frescoes of considerable artistic interest are preserved.


BENEDETTO ANTELAMI (1150? - 1230?)

There is very little biographical information on this extraordinary artist who lived in the transition period between Romanesque and Gothic art and who was certainly the reference point of 13th century Italian sculpture. Perhaps a native of the Val d'Intelvi in Lombardy, he was active only in the Parma area from the seventh decade of the twelfth century to the third decade of the thirteenth century. The reconstruction of the biographical data of Antelami, of his origin, artistic training and professional events that would have seen him work as a sculptor and architect, are based on the only two dated inscriptions left in Parma by the artist: that of 1178 on the Descent from the Cross and that of 1196 on the architrave of the north portal of the Baptistery.

The bas-relief with the Descent from the Cross located in the Cathedral of Parma (signed and dated 1178) is his first known work.

Originally the bas-relief was intended to decorate the ambo (a sort of pulpit from which the word of God was once proclaimed) which delimited the presbytery area together with the high altar and the episcopal chair.

Based on the story of the Gospel according to St. John, the bas-relief represents the moment in which the body of Christ is deposed from the Holy Cross, with various elements taken from the canonical iconography of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. In this work we can read the main cultural references of Antelami: from the first French Gothic culture to iconographies of classical origin. It can be said that the greater attention to the real datum distances the forms of Antelami from the tradition of the Romanesque, pushing them further in the direction of an opening to the Gothic art.

In 1196 Benedetto Antelami undertook his most significant work in Parma, the construction and decoration of the Baptistery, on which he worked for about two decades. The complex iconographic program focuses on the external decorations of the three main portals and on the internal decorations of the lunettes, of the sculptural works depicting the months and seasons placed in the first order of the galleries.


Correggio (1489? – 1534)

Antonio Allegri, usually known as just Correggio, was born in the municipality of the same name in the province of Reggio Emilia, not far from Parma, around 1489. We know that his father's family was originally from Florence, but little is known about the early years of his life and his training. It seems that initially he may have been a pupil of some local painters including an uncle and a cousin. In 1506 he was in Mantua, where perhaps he had just had time to meet an elderly Andrea Mantegna, the painter of the Gonzaga court. In any case, in Mantua Correggio was able to admire the works of that great master, fascinated above all by the illusionistic effects that the artist had imprinted in the Room of the Spouses. In charge of decorating the funerary chapel of Mantegna who died in 1506, Correggio paints a fake pergola in which we can glimpse the interests for the illusory expansion of space, then developed in his subsequent masterpieces. Furthermore, there is no doubt that the young Correggio accepted Leonardo's suggestions, while from Raphael he acquired the propensity for monumental forms and, in the sign of a great cultural openness, he was also a participant in the experience of Venetian artists such as Cima da Conegliano, Giorgione, Titian.

Giorgio Vasari, Correggio's first biographer, says that the artist's death would have occurred after an exhausting journey on foot from Parma, under the weight of a huge sack of coins. But this is a legend that does not stand up to the analysis of facts and sources and which, nevertheless, perfectly captures the uncertainties and difficulties of a precise and complete reconstruction of the life of this extraordinary artist.

Chamber San Paolo (or Chamber of the Abbess)

In 1520 Correggio completed one of his highest and most complex achievements: called to Parma by Giovanna Piacenza, the abbess of the local Benedictine monastery of St. Paul, he created the decoration of a small private room (dining room?) known as Chamber San Paolo (or Chamber of the Abbess). The reflection of ancient classical models, which only his stay in Rome can explain, is very evident here, as is the refined cultural environment of his clients around which the artist gravitates. Despite the numerous interpretative proposals, even today the true meanings of the fresco remain hidden and unresolved: it is one of the most fascinating iconographic mysteries of the Italian Renaissance.

Abbey's dome of St. John the Evangelist

Following the success obtained for the fresco in the Chamber of the Abbess, Correggio was immediately enlisted in Parma for another ambitious pictorial operation: the decoration of the Abbey's dome of St. John the Evangelist. The theme behind the painting is the vision of St. John on the island of Patmos about the second advent of Christ as described in the Apocalypse.

We have no evidence of the reactions of the clients and the public to this innovative work by Correggio which inaugurated the illusionistic freedom typical of Baroque art. However, judging by the fact that in 1526 the artist was commissioned to fresco the dome of the nearby Cathedral of Parma, it can be considered that the work had been a great success. Indeed, it was probably the decoration of the Abbey's dome of St. John the Evangelist that sanctioned the affirmation of Correggio's fame in Parma.

Cathedral's dome

In about 1524, after the fresco in the St. John's dome was finished, Correggio began work on the dome of the Parma Cathedral, with the representation of the Assumption of the Virgin: a multitude of angels arranged in an ascending vortex accompanies the ascent of the Madonna from the cloudy sky. Here the figures lose their individuality, becoming an integral part of a grandiose choral scene, enhanced by the use of soft but clear and flowing colors that create a harmonic continuity up to the apex of the vault.

Correggio conceived his decoration relying, as he had already done in St. John the Evangelist, on an illusionism devoid of geometric segmentations that goes well beyond the possible influence of Mantegna who, as a fifteenth-century artist, circumscribed his characters within a rigorous geometric scheme. Here the artist has instead organized the painted space around a vortex of bodies in flight that creates a spiral never seen before, in which the architecture is canceled by the visual elimination of the corners and the wall structure: the characters, in fact, more than to appear painted on plaster, for an excellent pictorial balance they seem to hover in the air in an infinite space.

It is believed that the work was not completed in its entirety as the initial contract wanted: Correggio, in fact, worked only on the fresco of the dome and did not continue to paint the other surfaces of the presbytery. It was believed that this alleged interruption of the work was due to the disagreements that arose between the artist and the Brotherhood of Fabricators of the Cathedral who had commissioned it. In fact, there is some evidence that the frescoes on the dome of the Cathedral were not particularly successful. One of these is an undocumented rumor that tells how a sarcastic comment circulated on the work at the time called "a stew of frog legs". In fact, beyond the presence of so many naked bodies, Correggio's frescoes were not easily legible in the religious and ideological heart of a Cathedral .


Parmigianino (1503 – 1540)

Francesco Mazzola, usually known as just Parmigianino, was a fundamental exponent of the Mannerist current and of Emilian painting in general. His nickname, as well as from his hometown, derived not so much from his petite build and gentle appearance, as from his exceptional precocity.

Parmigianino's family lived in "Vicolo delle Asse", now renamed "Borgo del Parmigianino".

His father Filippo and his uncles were also painters of a certain talent, but above all skilled in creating their own little local fame. In fact, it was the uncles who took care of little Francesco after the premature death of his father Filippo (according to Vasari in 1505 due to a plague epidemic) and placed him to study drawing and painting in their flourishing workshop.

Initially influenced by Correggio's style, Parmigianino showed he knew how to detach himself from it as soon as he received his first important commission: the frescoes for the church of St. John the Evangelist (1521-1524). Although in his early twenties, the repertoire from which he draws and the ease with which he paints already seem to denote a strong personality. In addition to being a portrait painter, Parmigianino is also known as an excellent engraver and, above all, he is considered the first great interpreter of the etching technique in Italy. The engravings taken from his works helped to spread his style and his fame throughout Europe.

Undoubtedly Parmigianino was one of the few who had the opportunity to observe the Chamber San Paolo as long as the Abbess Giovanna Piacenza lived, perhaps as an aid to Correggio or perhaps as a simple visitor. A few years later, in fact, the monastery was placed under a more rigid fence that hid it from the public until the eighteenth century. Thus, mindful of the perspectives painted by Correggio, Parmigianino in his early twenties perfected his pictorial style, based on iridescent colors and icy elongated shapes, in the frescoes of the Saletta di Diana e Atteone in the Sanvitale's fortress of Fontanellato, a medieval village located about ten kilometers from Parma. The frescoes of Fontanellato are today among the most famous works of the Renaissance and represent the myth of Diana and Atteone told in Ovid's "Metamorphosis". The small room decorated by Parmigianino has been the subject of many studies, and various hypotheses have been put forward on its use: there are those who see its use as a bathroom (which goes well with the theme of "Diana's bathroom"), or as an environment linked to the alchemical interests of Sir Galeazzo Sanvitale, the nobleman who commissioned the work. But the most convincing hypothesis is that which sees it as a place of meditation and prayer for the death of the son of Sir Galeazzo and his wife Lady Paola Gonzaga, which took place only a few months earlier in mysterious circumstances. And it is to the child and to the alleged sins of the mother that this extraordinary and hermetic frescoed room was dedicated: Lady Paola, in the pictorial fiction, assumes the attributes of Atteone, the hunter who unfortunately meets Diana and her Nymphs, becoming transformed into a deer for punishment and then mauled by his own dogs. It must be said that the court of the Sanvitale of Fontanellato was undoubtedly a very active cultural and artistic center and perhaps it was here that the young artist Parmigianino came into contact with a stimulating environment for many reasons including the probable experimentation of alchemical practices.

In 1523 Parmigianino went to Rome, where he was received by Pope Clement VII: here he actively entered the circle of the students of the now famous master Raphael. Among the works of the Roman period stands out the famous and disturbing Self-portrait in the convex mirror, donated by the author to Pietro Aretino, and now preserved in Vienna.

Between 1530 and 1535, Parmigianino completed his highly original artistic and poetic expression of formal abstraction. In fact, the portrait of a gentlewoman known as the Turkish slave, one of the most expressive as well as one of the artist's best known portraits, dates back to that period. The mischievous sensuality of the subject is enhanced by the gaze fixed on the observer, by the ambiguous smile and by the compositional skill of the curvilinear rhythms that frame the figure. The title of Turkish slave is linked to the particular headdress that was seen as a turban, but in reality it is a hairstyle typical of the noble women of the 1500s.

Leaving Rome, after a period spent in Bologna, Parmigianino returned to Parma in 1531 where he was commissioned to decorate the basilica of Santa Maria della Steccata. According to Vasari, after a start full of enthusiasm, the artist begins to neglect painting to devote himself with growing passion to the study of alchemy, pursuing the dream of transforming mercury into gold. The result of this lack of artistic concentration is that Parmigianino is no longer able to find inspiration for the works he had been dealing with for over eight years. In fact, he only succeeds in completing the large fresco on the vault of the presbytery (Three wise virgins and three foolish virgins), but the decorative task of the basilica of the Steccata was never completed.

Illuminating his psycho-physical condition of those years are the various changes of residence and the definitive abandonment of the family home, so much present in the first part of his biography. No document explains this private story of the artist: discarded the hypotheses of an economic or political controversy, it could have been a scandal, perhaps linked to the practice of alchemy of which Vasari speaks or to the revelation of his homosexuality, as some clues seem to suggest.

On 3 June 1538 the Brotherhood of Fabricators of the Steccata ordered the restitution of the money received for default. Having obtained a new extension until 1539, but not yet completed the work, the Confraternity took legal action with the result that Parmigianino was imprisoned for almost two months. After his release, the painter fled in a hurry to Casalmaggiore, a town just outside the borders of the then state of Parma, today in the province of Cremona. To survive, the artist painted a valuable altarpiece for the local church depicting Saint Stephen, Saint John the Baptist and the Virgin and Child, now exhibited in the Dresden Gemäldegalerie.

In August 1540 the artist most likely fell ill with the plague, and made a will, leaving heirs of his three servants still underage and his sister Ginevra: within a few weeks he died at the age of 37. He wanted to be buried in a small church in the village of Fossacaprara which is a couple of kilometers from the municipality of Casalmaggiore. As per his instructions, Parmigianino was buried naked, with a cypress wood cross on his chest, according to the custom of the Franciscan friars.

To date we don't know for sure that his body is really buried in that precise place, because so far no probes have been made to discover the body. Some scholars even claim that the famous painter - as he died of the plague - may have been buried in the churchyard, in a common grave together with other plague victims.

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