Continuing our efforts to bolster the Italian economy, we spent a few days in the Italian lakes region.
Since it is about a 6 hour drive from our house to Lago Maggiore, we stopped off for a night in Parma.
Parma is a wonderful old town which was founded by the Etruscans, with the Roman settlement dating back to the 2nd C BC. We didn’t have time for a complete tour – we limited our sightseeing to the Cathedral and the nearby Baptistery.
Construction of the Cathedral began in 1059, and the church was consecrated in 1106 – amazingly fast in an era where cathedral construction often took decades if not centuries. In the 1170s, a northern artist named Benedetto Antelami executed a marble bas-relief of the Deposition (removal of Christ from the Cross). The work is in the traditional Byzantine-influenced style popular at the time, with static figures executed in profile. But off on the right the artist goes rogue by depicting a few Roman soldiers eagerly betting for the robe of Christ. And if you look closely, the feet of some of the figures drop below the frame of the work – someone was experimenting with perspective a few centuries before the Renaissance was invented.
The Baptistery, built in pink Verona marble, is the traditional octagonal shape (the 8th day represents paradise). Construction of the building began in 1196, but the ceiling and wall frescoes continued on a start-and-stop basis into the 14th C. In addition to the traditional religious subjects, there are representations of the Zodiac, local arts and crafts, and even St. George killing a dragon.
Parma is also, of course, famous for its food. You don’t have to eat at a particularly fancy restaurant to eat well in Parma. And somehow, the prosciutto and Parmigiano cheese taste better here than they do anywhere else.
Lago Maggiore is a large lake located northwest of Milan and on the south side of the Alps – its northern shoreline is in Switzerland. We spent a few days with some American friends in Verbania, on the western (Piedmont) side of the lake.
The lake offers some spectacular scenery, and we took advantage of it from various perspectives, with a hike on one day and a ride up a funicular on another (although “funicular” is rather a grand name for what were really open air buckets).
This part of the lake, despite its location at 45 degrees north has a temperate microclimate, allowing gardeners to grow things like bougainvillea, hibiscus and palm trees, which are not usually seen at these latitudes.
The Villa Taranto, a botanical garden in Verbania, has floating lotus plants so large they look like you could stand on them. (We didn’t try, though.)
We also visited the Borromean islands, named for the aristocratic Borromeo family which lived there for many years.
The villa on Isola Madre has a phenomenal collection of 18th C puppet theaters, including not only the puppets but the stages and much of the scenery. As a theater fan, I found it fascinating to see so many special effects reproduced in miniature for a private audience. The stage sets were quite varied, from the magical to the horrible – it was clear that these performances were not designed solely for children.
Nearby Isola Bella is justly famous for its formal gardens, with climbing roses, white peacocks and spectacular views of the lake. The accompanying villa, while beautiful, was a bit over the top in terms of decoration. Many of the rooms featured the family motto, Humilitas, with no apparent irony, since there certainly wasn’t much humility on display.
We also visited the Sacro Monte (sacred mountain), a series of 15 chapels depicting the Crucifixion and Resurrection, on a hill overlooking Domodossola, a town near the Swiss border.
Most of the chapels were closed due to Covid (they are too small to permit social distancing) but you could peer in and admire the high-quality sculptures. The limited light didn’t allow us to take good pictures, but these public domain photo will give you a good idea of the expressive power of the work
Lago d’Orta, less than an hour west of Lago Maggiore, is smaller and quieter, but in my estimation just as beautiful.
We took a hike up to another Sacro Monte above the town, this one dedicated to the life of St. Francis of Assisi. It was beautiful and serene, like most places dedicated to St. Francis are, and offered good views of the Lake.
The Isola di San Giulio is very small, but its church is notable for the quality and variety of its internal decoration. Somehow the locals resisted the urge to paint over all the old stuff when they wanted something new, so it’s possible to see medieval frescoes and baroque statues in close proximity.
I was particularly interested in this unusually early depiction of a handshake (sometimes you see saints embracing each other, but handshakes are rare). And I liked the depiction of the Virgin energetically stomping on the Satanic serpent, instead of the more common pose of her standing demurely.