Teatro Farnese was based on the design of Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza:
An article I read recently about Vincenza and its impressive Palladio palaces and monuments reminded me of our visit to the Teatro Farnese in Parma. The Farnese Theatre is one of the breathtaking sites in Parma today. It was designed by Giovan Battista Aleotti, an Ferrara-trained architect, who based his design on Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza.
Built for Visit of Cosimo II
The horse-shoe shaped Teatro Farnese was built between 1618 and 1619 on the order of Ranuccio I, Duke of Parma. The building was intended to celebrate the visit of Cosimo II de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The Grand Duke was going to pass through Parma on his way to Milan to visit the tomb of San Carlo Borromeo. Ranuccio was also hoping that on that visit, he could create a political alliance through the marriage of his son to a Medici. Unfortunately, the long awaited visit did not take place. Cosimo II never made that trip to Milan due to health problems … or could it be that he got wind of Ranuccio’s planned political marriage discussions?
However, Ranuccio had his desire fulfilled some ten years later when his son Duke Odoardo Farnese married Margherita de’ Medici. In 1628, the Teatro Farnese was inaugurated on the occasion of the wedding. It must have been a big relief to the architect that his creation was finally given recognition.
Even by today’s standard, it is amazing that it took just one year to build the Teatro Farnese. The theatre is housed in a huge room which was originally an armoury in the Pilotta Palace. It was built entirely out of wood and plaster and painted so that it looks like expensive marble. I’ve always assumed that anything that looks like marble in Italy is marble, but the Teatro Farnese has debunked my belief.
The horseshoe shaped stalls are surrounded by two levels of loggias with Palladian windows. The lower row of Doric columns and the upper Ionic columns are topped by a balcony gallery. The theatre accommodates 3,000 people, with the nobles sitting in the upper chambers. On the Corinthian arch is the Duke’s coat of arms and an inscription dedicated to Bellona and the Muses. The two equestrian statues are of Ranuccio’s father Alessandro and his grandfather Ottavio.
Teatro Farnese is the first theatre in the history of Italian theatres to have a stage equipped with an innovative system of movable scenery and galleries. Special effects were used to recreate land and sea not only on the stage but also in the huge auditorium. During the inauguration, “Mercurio e Marte” (Mercury and Mars) was performed to the music of Monteverdi. The auditorium was flooded to simulate a naval battle and a tournament. It must have been an amazing spectacle.
Despair by Charles Dickens
Up till 1732, a total of only eight performances took place at the Teatro Farnese. It was used more as a venue for noble weddings and for hosting Farnese court visits. The fate of Teatro Farnese was sealed when Maria Luigia (Duchess of Parma and second wife to Napoleon I) commissioned the building of today’s Teatro Regio. The Teatro Farnese fell into such a state of disrepair that when Charles Dickens passed through Parma in the 1840s, he described the Farnese Theatre as “one of the dreariest spectacles of decay that ever was seen – a grand, old gloomy theatre, mouldering away….A hundred and ten years have passed since any plays was acted here….”
Although the Teatro Farnese was refurbished for the first centenary celebrations of Verdi in October 1913, it was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944.
Fortunately for us, it was rebuilt between 1956 and 1965. The original scale and materials were used and wherever possible, any surviving wood and decorations were integrated.
What Dickens Missed out on
Poor Dickens never got to see the grand Teatro Farnese that we are enjoying today. It’s at times like this that I wish that I had some Shakespearean repertory training so that I could stand on the grand stage and recite something theatrical. But alas, for me it was not to be! All I could manage was to make some noise so that Tony could test his video volume.
The Teatro Farnese now serves as the majestic entrance to the National Gallery of Parma. In October each year, some of the Verdi Festival performances are held here. What a grand theatre to enjoy Verdi operas, or any opera for that matter.
And here’s the video we made:
How to get there:
The Teatro Farnese is located in Parma’s historical centre, on the first floor of the Pilotta Palace. We came by train from Bologna and from Parma Railway Station it is an easy 10 minutes walk. Or, if you’re approaching from the Piazza Garibaldi, Parma’s main square, it’s a 5 minute walk.
Palazzo della Pilotta
Piazza della Pilotta – 15 – Parma – PR – 43121