Italy – Parma

It  is laid out with a regularity which may be called characteristic of the great ducal cities of Italy, and which it fully shares with Mantua, Ferrara, and Bologna. The signorial cities, Verona, Vicenza, Padua, and Treviso, are far more picturesque, and Parma excels only in the number and beauty of her fountains. It is a city of gloomy aspect, says Valery, who possibly entered it in a pensive frame of mind, for its sadness did not impress us. We had just come from Modena, where the badness of our hotel enveloped the city in an atmosphere of profound melancholy. In fact, it will not do to trust to travelers in any thing. I, for example, have just now spoken of the many beautiful fountains in Parma be-cause I think it right to uphold the statement of M. Richard’s hand-book ; but I only remember seeing one fountain, passably handsome, there. My Lord Corke, who was at Parma in 1754, says nothing of fountains, and Richard Lasells, Gent., who was there a century earlier, merely speaks of the fountains in the Duke’s gardens, which, together with his Grace’s wild beasts” and ” exquisite coaches,” and ” admirable Theater to exhibit Operas in,” ” the Domo, whose Cupola was painted by the rare hand of Corregio,” and the church of the Capuchins, where Alexander Farnese is buried, were ” the Chief things to be seen in Parma at that day.

The wild beasts have long ago run away with the exquisite coaches, but the other wonders named by Master Lasells are still extant in Parma, together with some things he does not name. Our minds, in going thither, were mainly bent upon Correggio and his works, and while our dinner was cooking at the admirable Albergo della Posta, we went off to feast upon the perennial Hash of Frogs in the dome of the Cathedral. This is one of the finest Gothic churches in Italy, and vividly recalls Verona, while it has a quite unique and most beautiful feature in the three light-columned galleries, that traverse the façade one above another. Close at hand stands the ancient Baptistery, hardly less peculiar and beautiful ; but, after all, it is the work of the great painter which gives the temple its chief right to wonder and reverence. We found the fresco, of course, much wasted, and at first glance, before the innumerable arms and legs had time to order and attribute themselves to their respective bodies, we felt the justice of the undying spite which called this divinest of frescos a guazzetto di rane. But in another moment it appeared to us the most sublime conception of the Assumption ever painted, and we did not find Caracri’s praise too warm where he says : u And I still remain stupefied with the sight of so grand a work

every thing so well conceived — so well seen from below — with so much severity, yet with so much judgment and so much grace ; with a coloring which is of very flesh.” The height of the fresco above the floor of the church is so vast that it might well appear like a heavenly scene to the reeling sense of the spectator. Brain, nerve, and muscle were strained to utter exhaustion in a very few minutes, and we came away with our admiration only half-satisfied, and resolved to ascend the cupola next day, and see the fresco on something like equal terms. In one sort we did thus approach it, and as we looked at the gracious floating figures of the heavenly company through the apertures of the dome, they did seem to adopt us and make us part of the painting. But the tremendous depth, over which they drifted so lightly, it dizzied us to look into ; and I am not certain that I should counsel travelers to repeat our experience. Where still perfect, the fresco can only gain from close inspection, — it is painted with such exquisite and jealous perfection, — yet the whole effect is now better from below, for the decay is less apparent ; and besides, life is short, and the stairway by which one ascends to the dome is in every way too exigent. It is with the most astounding sense of contrast that you pass from the Assumption to the contemplation of that other famous roof frescoed by Correggio, in the Monastero di San: Paolo. You might almost touch the ceiling with your hand, it hovers so low with its counterfeit of vine-clambered trellis-work, and its pretty boys looking roguishly through the embowering leaves. It is alto-;ether the loveliest room in the world ; and if the Diana in her car on the chimney is truly a portrait of the abbess for whom the chamber was decorated, she was altogether worthy of it, and one is glad to think of her enjoying life in the fashion amiably permitted to nuns in the fifteenth century. What curious scenes the gayety of this little chamber conjures up, and what a vivid comment it is upon the age and people that produced it ! This is one of the things that makes a single hour of travel worth whole years of historic study, and which casts its light upon all future reading. Here, no doubt, the sweet little abbess, with the noblest and prettiest of her nuns about her, received the polite world, and made a cheerful thing of devotion, while all over transalpine Europe the sour-hearted Reformers were destroying pleasant monasteries like this. The light-hearted lady-nuns and their gentlemen friends looked on heresy as a deadly sin, and they had little reason to regard it with favor. It certainly made life harder for them in time, for it made reform within the Church as well as without, so that at last the lovely Chamber of St. Paul was closed against the public for more than two centuries.

All Parma is full of Correggio, as Venice is of Titian and Tintoretto, as Naples of Spagnoletto, as Mantua of Giulio Romano, as Vicenza of Palladio, as Bassano of Da Ponte, as Bologna of Guido Reni. I have elsewhere noticed how ineffaceably and exclusively the manner of the masters seems to have stamped itself upon the art of the cities where they severally wrought, — how at Parma Correggio yet lives in all the sketchy mouths of all the pictures painted there since his time. One might almost believe, hearing the Parmesans talk, that his manner had infected their dialect, and that they fashioned their lazy, incomplete utterance with the careless lips of his nymphs and angels. They almost entirely suppress the last syllable of every word, and not with a quick precision, as people do in Venice or Milan, but with an ineffable languor, as if language were not worth the effort of enunciation , while they rise and lapse several times in each sentence, and sink so sweetly and sadly away upon the closing vocable that the listener can scarcely repress his tears. In this melancholy rhythm, one of the citizens recounted to me the whole story of the assassination of the last Duke of Parma in 1850 ; and left me as softly moved as if I had been listening to a tale of hapless love. Yet it was an ugly story, and after the enchantment of the recital passed away, I perceived that when the Duke was killed justice was done on one of the maddest and wickedest tyrants that ever harassed an unhappy city.

The Parmesans remember Maria Louisa, Napo-eon’s wife, with pleasant enough feelings, and she seems to have been good to them after the manner of sovereigns, enriching their city with art, and beautifying it in many ways, besides doing works of private charity and beneficence, Her daughter by a second marriage, the Countess Sanvitali, still lives in Parma; and in one of the halls of the Academy of Fine Arts the Duchess herself survives in the marble of Canova. It was she who caused the two great pictures of Correggio, the St. Jerome and the Ma donna della Scodella, to be placed alone in separate apartments hung with silk, in which the painter’s initial A is endlessly interwoven. ” The Night,” to which the St. Jerome is ” The Day,” is in the gallery at Dresden, but Parma could have kept nothing more representative of her great painter’s power than this ” Day.” It is ” the bridal of the earth and sky,” and all sweetness, brightness, and tender shadow are in it. Many other excellent works of Correggio, Caracci, Parmigianino, and masters of different schools are in this gallery, but it is the good fortune of travelers, who have to see so much, that the memory of the very best alone distinctly remains. Nay, in the presence of prime beauty nothing else exists, and we found that the church of the Steccata, where Parmigianino’s sublime ” Moses breaking the Tables of the Law ” is visible in the midst of a multitude of other figures on the vault, really contained nothing at last but that august and awful presence.

Undoubtedly the best gallery of classical antiquities in North Italy is that of Parma, which has derived all its precious relics from the little city of Valleja alone. It is a fine foretaste of Pompeii and the wonders of the Museo Borbonico at Naples, with its antique frescos, and marble, and bronzes. I think nothing better has come out of Herculaneum than the comic statuette of “Hercules Drunk.” He is in bronze, and the drunkest man who has descended to us from the elder world; he reels backward, and leers knowingly upon you, while one hand hangs stiffly at his side, and the other faintly clasps a wine-cup — a burly, worthless, disgraceful demigod.

The great Farnese Theatre was, as we have seen, admired by Lasells ; but Lord Corke found it a ” useless structure ” though immense. ” The same spirit that raised the Colossus at Rhodes,” he says, ” raised the theatre at Parma ; that insatiable spirit and lust of Fame which would brave the Almighty by fixing eternity to the name of a perishable being.” If it was indeed this spirit, I am bound to say that it did not build so wisely at Parma as at Rhodes. The play-house that Ranuzio I. constructed in 1628, to do honor to Cosmo II. de’ Medici (pausing at Parma on his way to visit the tomb of San Carlo Borromeo), and that for a century afterward was the scene of the most brilliant spectacles in the world, is now one of the dismalest and dustiest of ruins. This Theatrum orbis miraculum was built and ornamented with the most perishable materials, and even its size has shrunken as the imaginations of men have contracted under the strong light of later days. When it was first opened, it was believed to hold fourteen thousand spectators ; at a later fête it held only ten thousand ; the last published description fixes its capacity at five thousand ; and it is certain that for many and many a year it has held only the stray tourists who have looked in upon its desolation. The gay paintings hang in shreds and tatters from the roof; dust is thick upon the seats and in the boxes, and on the ‘cads that line the space once flooded for naval games. The poor plaster statues stand naked and forlorn amid the ruin of which they are part ; and the great stage, from which the curtain has rotted away, yawns dark and empty before the empty auditorium.