Treasures of Parma

Originally published in The Weekly Standard, September 2, 3018

At a time when museumgoing is increasingly homogenized and the world’s large, prestigious fine-arts institutions often offer what feel like prepackaged experiences, Parma’s 500,000-square-foot Palazzo della Pilotta offers something different, with a strong sense of local identity, soulfulness, even eccentricity. This begins with physical scars on the façade that testify to an Allied bombing raid in World War II. The battered structures that make up the museum are asymmetrical and, despite their monumental size, elusive. As you approach the complex, the entrance is tucked into an opening on the left—but there are so few visitors you can miss it.

It is possible to walk around alone in some of the Pilotta’s best-known galleries and even in its stunning Farnese Theatre. In the 12 months from May 2017 through April 2018, the Pilotta had just 121,725 visitors, an average of about 470 each day it was open. There are no memberships. There are no cringe-making political wall texts. There is nothing to buy. There is nothing hip, which of course is itself deeply hip.

It is also true that many of the exhibits have signage only in Italian (sometimes glued to the case or frame); that there is no leaflet noting the collection highlights; that the front lawn is tattered, with an ugly lamppost covered with graffiti; that homeless people sometimes nap just outside the entrance; and, again, that there really is nothing to buy: There is no bookshop, no catalogue, no café or restaurant, nowhere even to get a bottle of water on a hot day.

At the root of the Pilotta’s current distress is a lack of funding. “Italy spends just .021 percent of its budget on culture,” the Pilotta’s low-key new director, Simone Verde, told me. The museum’s expenses in the last fiscal year were about 1.7 million euros (about $2 million). In that same May to April period, ticket sales only amounted to 534,023 euros—and that was a 23 percent increase over the previous year. (For context, in fiscal year 2017 the Detroit Institute of Arts had operating expenses of about $37 million and the Metropolitan Museum of Art had operating expenses of over $300 million.)

Like most Italian museums, the Pilotta doesn’t rely much on private donations. It can apply to the regional ministry of culture for support for special projects and recently received about three million euros. Some of that will go toward acquisitions: Verde wants to buy some 18th-century Parmesan ceramics to add to a tiny existing holding of these rare and recently discovered pieces.

One side of the Pilotta complex, with a decrepit lawn in the foreground
Some façades of the Pilotta still bear evidence of damage from Allied bombing.
Ann Marlowe
When Verde, 38, took over the Pilotta in May 2017, the situation was dire. Though he won’t criticize his predecessor, one can glean the situation from online reviews. “There are some wonderful paintings in this gallery, if you can find them,” an English visitor wrote on TripAdvisor in 2016. Another reviewer complained of the many sections that were closed during his visit and the poor lighting. Only one of the six stories of the Pilotta’s historic rocchetta (“little fortress”) wing is open to the public, housing works by Correggio and Parmigianino, the painters most often associated with Parma. The other floors of the rocchetta are, in the words of Verde, “in ruins.”

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The whole complex has a total staff of 69, including security guards. (Cleaning is outsourced.) There are just three curators and two archaeologists. Oh, and three librarians at the Palatina Library, which, by the way, is not climate-controlled or searchable online. (The books have been digitized, but the cost of web hosting is apparently too steep.) If Verde wanted to fire any of his employees, he would have to go through the culture ministry—and wait a few decades.

T he Pilotta comprises five museums: the Farnese Theatre, the Palatina Library with its 700,000 printed works and 7,000 manuscripts, the Bodoni museum (dedicated to, yes, the typeface inventor), an archaeological museum, and the pinacoteca or picture gallery. (An art academy, not technically part of the museum, is also located on the site.)
The enormous Farnese Theatre was built in 1618-19 to hold tournaments—which may sound incongruous, but Verde explains that it was not uncommon in those days for museums to have such theaters (theaters and museums both symbolizing order). Nearly destroyed during the war, the theater was restored in the 1950s and early 1960s and is still used; Le trouvère, a French version of Il Trovatore, will be staged there in a Robert Wilson production at this fall’s Verdi festival. The theater is a striking space, intimidatingly lofty and yet, with its amber-toned wood construction throughout, homey and warm.

The Farnese Theatre in the Pilotta museum complex, Parma, Italy
The 17th-century wood-and-stucco Farnese Theatre, rebuilt after it was heavily damaged in World War II, is the world’s oldest theater with a permanent proscenium arch.
De Agostini / Getty
The Bodoni museum is the newest and most obscure component of the Pilotta, having opened in 1963 on the 150th anniversary of the death of Giambattista Bodoni, the typographer and designer who spent a long and innovative career publishing in Parma. The museum, housed on the third floor of the library, includes prints and books, original artifacts, and a reconstruction of Bodoni’s press.

Leonardo’s ‘La Scapigliata’
Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘La Scapigliata’ (circa 1508) has been in the Pilotta collection since 1839.
De Agostini / Getty
Verde is constantly in motion and constantly evangelizing for the museum. Since coming to the Pilotta, he has ensured that all of the museum is open on every day the museum is open, even if the staff shortage means all the galleries cannot be open simultaneously. (A visitor might, for example, see one section at 2 p.m. and another at 4.) He has overseen the renovation of 63,000 square feet of exhibition space, including the vestibule of the Farnese Theatre and the room containing the museum’s sole Leonardo, La Scapigliata (“the messy-haired woman”). This circa-1500 painting on wood, a little smaller than a sheet of printer paper, returns to the Pilotta this month after a long period on loan. Also, after 40 years, Verde has reopened one of the world’s best collections of coins and medals.

These feats have been achieved at minimal cost. Verde, who comes across as down-to-earth and does not exude the sense of self-importance so common in the art world, brags not about how much money he has spent but how much he has done with so little. The museum’s website cost just 3,000 euros. He has gratefully accepted donated labor and goods—5,000 euros to clean a dome here, 3,000 euros in potted plants from Parma’s garden club there. He likes to explain that he helped clean some portions of the museum himself, as insurance concerns made it risky for anyone else.

The Palatina Library
A room in the Palatina Library, one of the institutions housed in the Pilotta complex. The library was established in the 1760s, merging and expanding preexisting collections.
Giuseppe Masci / Realy Easy Star / Alamy
Still, Verde is a somewhat controversial figure in Parma. One might think that locals would be thrilled to have the former head of research and publications at the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the author of three books take over the struggling museum. Many are. But as Corrado Beldì, a writer and entrepreneur who has lived part-time in Parma for 15 years, explained to me, Verde hails from (gasp!) Rome, and there is an Italian tradition of hiring local directors who often stay in one place for 20 or 30 years. In fact, until recent legislation, Italian museums were prohibited from hiring non-Italian directors. But in August 2015, as ArtNet reported, Italy appointed 20 new museum directors, including 7 foreigners in prominent posts and—revealingly—“four Italians returning from abroad,” presumably contaminated with foreignness. Beldì notes that Verde’s appointment is seen in this context.

With just under 200,000 people, Parma punches well above its weight culturally. Not only is it the origin site and namesake of the “king of cheeses,” but it has been the birthplace and the adopted home of many artists. Giuseppe Verdi was born in a nearby village; Arturo Toscanini was born practically in the shadow of the Pilotta. Still, Parma is the sort of small place in which you will invariably run into friends just walking around town. At dinner one night with Beldì and another local art-world friend, Eugenia Marè, at the innovative fish restaurant Meltemi, the diners at the next table were friends of Marè. A Milanese friend of Beldì was eating nearby with a local aristocrat. Verde himself materialized beside our table after dessert. Marè commented that life is easy for the bourgeoisie in a place like Parma. You see the same people your whole life. So you may not like it when an outsider wants to make changes.

D espite his open-neck shirts and casual manner, Verde comes across as refined—a quality he says the Pilotta is supposed to embody. He wants to place all of its holdings in the context of the history of collecting, and he explained what that might look like as he walked me around the museum. The nucleus of the picture gallery was collected by Parma’s rulers—the Farnese family—beginning in the 16th century, so it offers an “opportunity to see how the museum was imagined in the 16th century,” Verde says, leading me into a bijou room of seven key works.
“Both the Louvre and the Pilotta stem from the Vatican Museum,” Verde tells me. In the case of the Louvre, several of the items in its early collections were taken from the Vatican by Napoleon. The Pilotta’s story involves more familial drama. The Farnese family, Verde explains, came to Parma by the back door. We stop before a portrait on slate of Pope Paul III—born Alessandro Farnese—with one of his illegitimate sons, Pier Luigi Farnese, whom he made the first duke of Parma in 1545. The power-hungry family began collecting (often actually excavating) ancient sculptures and commissioning portraits to cloak themselves in the glamour of ancient Rome. For example, a portrait of Lodovico Orsini, father of Pier Luigi’s wife, depicts him in Roman garb; the profile view, as Verde points out, derives from ancient coinage. A painting of Pier Luigi as an adult by Girolamo Bedoli almost certainly shows in the background a fanciful version of the same Roman male torso in basanite that now sits next to the painting in the Pilotta.

A brutal mercenary by trade, Pier Luigi ruled as duke only from 1545 to 1547 before his numerous enemies caught up with him; his body was hung out a window at one of his palaces. His son Ottavio then sought the ducal throne, and after years spent squabbling with his pope grandfather and emperor father-in-law, he got it. Ottavio’s descendants continued collecting while charting a course between the two great powers, the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, and making dynastic marriages with Orsini, Este, and Bourbons.

‘Parma Embraces Alessandro Farnese’
Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli, ‘Parma Embraces Alessandro Farnese’ (1550s)
Opposite the first Bedoli painting is another, Parma Embracing Alessandro Farnese, that shows one of Ottavio’s sons sitting atop a globe while an armed woman, the embodiment of the city, gazes adoringly at him. (This particular young Farnese would grow up to be one of the most celebrated military commanders of his day.) Then there is a Madonna and Child with saints that shows a turning to devotional rather than aggrandizing imagery. Finally, there’s a small El Greco gem depicting Christ healing the blind that uses the Baths of Diocletian in Rome as a backdrop.

There isn’t much of the original Farnese collection still at the Pilotta. When the male Farnese line died out in 1731 and the duchy was passed to their Habsburg and Bourbon in-laws, the family’s collection was dispersed; it mainly went to Rome and to the Capodimonte museum in Bourbon-ruled Naples. Victor Emmanuel—the Savoyard king of unified Italy after 1861—also took some works to the Palazzo Madama in Turin. Ten works ended up at the British Museum in the 1860s.

Maria Luigia
Antonio Canova’s 1811-14 statue depicting Maria Luigia as Concordia, goddess of harmony.
Waltre Manni via Wikimedia ( CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Bourbons lasted until 1802. Their defeat by Napoleon proved an unexpected boon for Parma and the Pilotta, because in 1809 Napoleon divorced Josephine and married the 18-year-old Austrian archduchess Marie Louise. (Her father, the last Holy Roman emperor, was the nephew of Marie Antoinette.) Named the duchess of Parma in 1814 after Napoleon was dethroned, the princess—who took the Italianized name Maria Luigia as a sign of her commitment to the city—is a local icon. There is even a museum devoted to her life, the Glauco Lombardi, just opposite the Pilotta, showing how influential she has been in Parma. It was her idea to exhibit the Parmigianinos and Correggios in the rocchetta. Today, the Pilotta has Antonio Canova’s stately marble statue depicting Maria Luigia as Concordia, sculpted on the occasion of her marriage to Napoleon, placed prominently at one end of a large hall.

S imone Verde has some bigger exhibition issues to resolve than how best to put the artworks in dialogue with one another. In the 1980s, the picture gallery was the victim of an unfortunate renovation by Parma architect Guido Canali. He placed white metal tubular scaffolding throughout much of the picture gallery, giving those spaces a permanent “under-construction” feeling. Interior partitions were created a few feet from the exterior wall and some paintings were hung on the inside, making them impossible to see clearly and exposing them to accidental damage from viewers.
Simone Verde, director of the Pilotta museum complex, Parma, Italy
Simone Verde, the new director of the Pilotta, stands in one of the gallery halls marred by strange decorative scaffolding.
Ann Marlowe
Here, Verde cannot re-renovate (he also acknowledges that while local favorite Canali’s concept seems démodé today, it might be more appealing in 50 years) but he can at least cover much of the intrusive scaffolding with walls, allowing the artwork to stand out. He has already rehung most of the paintings that faced the exterior walls.

Verde’s plans for the archaeological museum include reorganizing the rooms in something approaching chronological order (currently they jump from Roman to Egyptian and back again) and relegating some objects to a section on the history of collecting. Many ended up in Parma because Filippo, the Bourbon duke of Parma, sponsored the excavations at the nearby Veleia archaeological site in 1760. “All Italian neoclassicism comes from [the] Bourbon family in Parma and in Naples,” Verde says sweepingly, “because of the discovery of Herculaneum and Veleia.” Filippo’s brother Charles was the king of Naples, and his workmen accidentally unearthed Herculaneum while digging the foundations of a summer palace.

One holding from Veleia in the archaeological museum is an extraordinary artifact from Roman times. A time-blackened bronze slab—about 5 feet tall and 9 feet wide—from circa a.d. 150 recording the financing of food for poor youths in Rome, it is a utilitarian object that aligns with current austere standards of beauty.

There is nothing in the Pilotta that would be on a tourist’s top-10 list of Italian masterworks. But the galleries are nonetheless full of wonderful discoveries, like the collection of Bartolomeo Schedoni canvases of which Verde says—again, sweepingly—“All of French painting comes out of that. French painting was much inspired by baroque classicism and academicism in Bologna, in particular by the Carracci school. Schedoni belongs to this movement.” Schedoni (1578-1615) was an impetuous, hard-living painter who used striking lighting effects like the equally emotional Caravaggio, who may have influenced him.

Johan Zoffany portrait of Maria Amalia
Johan Zoffany portrait of Maria Amalia (duchess of Parma and sister of Marie Antoinette) and her dog.
Sailko via Wikimedia ( CC BY-SA 4.0)
I noticed for the first time the Bourbon painter Johan Zoffany (1733-1810), a founding member of Britain’s Royal Academy and portraitist to the English royal family (“a lot of his work has ended up in Calcutta,” Verde notes). His portrait of Duchess Maria Amalia could be from the early 20th century.

The Pilotta also offers new views of well-known artists. Don’t miss the two huge, brilliant Ludovico Carraccis. The 1530 Holbein (or at least “Holbein school”) portrait of Erasmus is worthy though hung in a very dark area, and there is an intriguing unlabeled adoration of the Christ Child on glass a few feet away. Perhaps the rarest holdings are Benedetto Antelami’s touching sculptures from 1178 for Parma cathedral’s dismantled pulpit—a pleasure to behold even with their peeling paper labels pasted directly on the mountings.

P arma itself is a fascinating place to explore. I found an enthusiastic welcome from people I was introduced to by local friends, but more reserve from random encounters: civility rather than warmth. It is one of the most insular of successful Italian cities, yet the presence of African and Chinese immigrants is now inescapable. (My friends were quick to point out that the immigrants have not brought crime in their wake.) Unemployment is low in Parma, thanks to tourism, agriculture, and their offspring, “ agritourism.” Parma prides itself on its traditional cuisine, yet—like everywhere in Italy I visited this summer—in many ways lags behind American foodie destinations. Hardly any menus label the produce by origin or as organic, and the directors of a local state-run organic farm say many restaurants buy their produce in the supermarket. It tastes that way. During my visits a 90-degree-plus heat wave raged, but restaurants’ daily menus seemed more suited to December.
The relationship between the city and the museum raises provocative questions about how Parma wants to configure its public sphere. The Piazzale della Pace, the large square on the east front of the Pilotta, attracts the homeless and migrants but not local families. Perhaps Parma could clean up its parks by adding commercial establishments, as New York did with Bryant Park. Currently there’s only a market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

As my friend Eugenia Marè told me, the Pilotta and the Piazzale della Pace have other resonances for people who live here. The 1944 bombing raid that smashed the Farnese Theatre also wrenched the Farnese palace from its façade and obliterated the church that had long stood in front of the complex, where only a scruffy lawn is now.

It is worth noting that other public museums in Italy share some of the defects of the Pilotta. Venice’s much-touristed Correr Museum also has what look like printed-out labels on its numismatics collection, housed in worn wooden cases that evoke provincial museums, not a museum in the Piazza San Marco charging 20 euros for admission.

Verde says that his plans to install a restaurant and two small café-bars have prompted criticism that he is “putting the museum up for sale.” Nevertheless, he is forging ahead, pointing out a derelict interior courtyard that will become the terrace of a restaurant. He has just started a Friends of the Pilotta group, headed by a local industrialist, Orietta Sarassi of the OPEM machinery concern, who will soon be recruiting companies for sponsorships—still a relatively new concept in Italy. Even in industrial Parma, a rich city, the amount of money that constitutes a significant gift is tiny by U.S. standards. The American concept of corporate civic and social engagement doesn’t really exist in Italy, so the notion of a multimillion-euro corporate contribution is in the realm of fantasy.

Still, if Verde succeeds in obtaining the funding he is chasing, the Pilotta promises to be an amazing experience. And even now it is very much worth seeing, warts and all, for anyone who wants to get off the cultural conveyor belt and meet a city and its museum in their raw, imperfect splendor.


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