The history behind the sights of Italy
Monday, December 30, 2013
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Parma: Romanesque Cathedrals
Parma is home to about a million churches, just like every other Italian city. But what makes Parma different is that nearly every one (at least, every one that I saw) is built in the Romanesque style.
Romanesque architecture is easily recognizable. It incorporates the architectural styles of ancient Roman and Byzantine churches with the following features: thick walls, rounded arches, large piers, barrel vaults, arcading, and towers. In short: kind of boring. Romanesque churches are typically smaller than later styles, and those that are large get their size from width, not height. They aren't as glamorous as the later gothic style, which tends to be saturated with intricate sculpture, stained glass windows, impressive cross-vaults with fancy fanned details, and enormous pillars.
Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan is a great example of Romanesque architecture. The facade is pretty plain; just a boring expanse of brick with very few decorative features.
Romanesque facades tend to eclipse all the business going on in the back of the church, where any number of domes and semi-circular apses - adopted from Byzantine architecture -overlap each other.
There's a Romanesque church on nearly every street in Parma. Some look like Santa Maria delle Grazie with plain, brick facades.
Others have had fancier plaster or marble facades overlaid at some point along with more decorative features, but the basic form is the same.
It's easy to see which facades aren't original and have been dolled up over the years - the rest of the church is still plain old brick.
Because it's a cathedral and not just a church, it's fairly large. The body of the church is best described as a collection of various geometrical shapes mashed onto one another.
I prefer Gothic exteriors to Romanesque, but when it come to the inside, Romanesque wins. Gothic interiors tend to be mainly stone and stained glass. Their sheer size makes them impressive, but they lack the frescoes that most Romanesque interiors are covered in.
Parma's cathedral is a prime example of these lavishly frescoed interiors - nearly every surface is covered.
And, like all cathedrals, it is made up of a nave (the main aisle) and two side aisles. Romanesque architecture utilizes rounded arches to separate the three aisles.
Parma's cathedral departs from the simple, basic piers that are a staple of Romanesque. Here, they've surrounded them with smaller shafts, just like Milan's cathedral (though they clearly lack the massive size of those in Milan).
The best part about Romanesque architecture is that it almost always involves a dome of some size. In the larger churches and cathedrals, this means that the interior will be beautifully painted. Wall frescoes are great, but the proportions of a dome make for a stunning perspective when painted.
Painted by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli in 1538, "Christ, Mary, Saints, and Angels in Glory" depicts...well, Christ, Mary, saints and angels in glory, I suppose. I guess they look like they're having a glorious time?
Sunday, December 22, 2013
Parma: Parmesan, Palazzos, & Pastels
Parma has jumped to the top of my favorite Italian cities list. Not many tourists make a point of visiting, and they should. I found it to be a gorgeous, charming town - albeit a tad confusing to get around. Usually I'm lost with a purpose, but in Parma, I was usually just plain lost.
Parma's roots go all the way back to the Bronze Age; 1500ish BC. It's thought that the first major buildings were constructed on the modern day Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Macina. Parma was founded by the Etruscans, a powerful force in Italy for centuries before Rome more or less engulfed them into its empire. Most historians speculate that the name Parma came from the Etruscan word for shield; maybe because the original settlement was shaped like a round Etruscan shield, or maybe because of its orientation, which faced north and thus shielded the settlement from the vicious Gauls. The Romans came in around 145 BC and the city was subsequently destroyed, rebuilt, attacked, and repaired numerous times as a part of the Empire until the early Middle Ages, when it was sacked by none other than Attila the Hun. Following this, Parma changed hands a number of times; Germans, Goths, Byzantines each ruled the city for some time. Eventually, the Lombard kingdom of Italy took over.
However, nearly everything you see in Parma today comes from the 13th century AD or later, like the Palazzo della Pilotta. It (like much of Parma's architecture) was built in pale tan brick, which is a welcome change after seeing so much red brick in other Italian cities.
A large destroyed portion showcases the damage that was done by WWI and WWII bombings.
You can stroll through the courtyard where the who's who of royalty used to mingle.
Or wander through the Cortile della Pilotta which used to serve as a grand hall.
Not too far away is the Palazzo del Governatore, which serves as a main town square.
It's a hodgepodge of buildings from various centuries...
... and has recently been taken over by a festive tree.
What made me fall in love with Parma was, surprisingly, not the historical architecture. Rather, it was the regular buildings, apartments, and shops.
Each one is bright and colorful. On their own, some are rather atrocious, but when they're mashed together it somehow works.
Many were various pastel shades, making the city look like a giant easter egg.
Or the new grey brick facade put over an old, brown brick building.
Of course, Parma is full of cheese and meat shops. It's known for its parmesan cheese and prosciutto and there is no shortage of places to sample and buy.
Adding to Parma's charm is its calm. Once you get off a main street, you'll find yourself practically alone. Aside from Varenna on Lake Como, it's the calmest Italian town I've visited.
The best thing about Parma is its plethora of Romanesque churches. But that's another post entirely!