A Visit to the Val Padana

We recently took a short trip to several small cities in the North of Italy, along the valley of the River Po (in Italian, the Val Padana), with our old friends Mike and Trine. These cities are not often part of American tourist visits to Italy, but they should be – they are rich in culture, and each has its unique history.

Parma: Art and Food

Parma was originally settled by the Etruscans. There was a Roman settlement there already in the 2nd Century BC. During the medieval period, it enjoyed relative autonomy as a self-governing comune. It eventually became a duchy under the Farnese family, and after the Napoleonic Wars came under the sway of the Austrian Habsburgs, which lasted until the reunification of Italy in the 1860s.

The city’s Cathedral was started during the 12th C. Of Romanesque design, it features a remarkable bas-relief of the Crucifixion by sculptor Benedetto Antelami. The feet of a couple of the figures are hanging off the bottom – someone was anticipating the revolution in perspective that was to be the hallmark of the Italian Renaissance.

Parma Cattedrale – Antelami, Crucifixion, 1178

Parma sits in the middle of a rich agricultural area. Fittingly, the facade of the church has depictions of the work of the community through the agricultural year – including one of a farmer slaughtering a pig. The making of prosciutto in the Parma region has been going on for a long time.

Parma Cattedrale – Antelami’s months – November is the month of the pig

The cupola of the cathedral, added later, features a magnificent 16th C fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Antonio da Correggio. I love the image of Mary floating up to heaven with her feet dangling in the air, and the apostles looking on in wonder from below.

Parma Cattedrale – Correggio

The Baptistery next door to the Cathedral also dates to the 12th C, and is filled with unusually exuberant frescoes in the late Gothic style. It includes a series of larger statues, also by Antelami, which continue the theme of agricultural work through the seasons. Since our last visit, the statues have been restored and moved down to ground level, where you can see them better. I hope it’s a permanent change.

Parma, Battistero

The city’s main art museum is the Palazzo Pilotta. The museum has only one major work by local artist Parmigianino – it’s titled “The Turkish Slave,” but it was probably a local noblewoman dressed in an exotic costume. Other works I liked in this museum included The Coronation of the Virgin, by Correggio; an unusual group of angels by the Carracci brothers; and an evocative, mysterious portrait of a young woman by Leonardo da Vinci.

The Dukes of Parma were major art collectors, so the museum also has paintings from later periods. Here are two by women: a portrait by French artist Elizabeth Vigée Lebrun (1755-1842) of her daughter, and a self-portrait by Milanese artist Maria Callani (1778-1803).

I also liked this family portrait by Francesco da Cotignola (1475-1532):

In addition to the art museum, the Palazzo includes the magnificent Teatro Farnese, built in 1618 by Giovanni Batista Aleotti. Unusually for Italy, where marble is the most common building material, this theater is built almost entirely of wood. Even the “marble” columns are wood painted to look like marble. The theater is of an immense scale, as you can see from the picture, and is one of only three Renaissance era theaters in Italy still standing. It is still used occasionally for opera performances.

La Pilotta, Teatro Farnesina

Correggio’s work also appears in the Camera di San Paolo, which was once a convent – now only a few rooms remain, including the wonderfully frescoed ceilings of what were once the private apartments of the Abbess.

There was more art at the Fondazione Magnani-Rocca, about a 20 minute drive outside the city. This museum had, in one room, Madonnas by Durer and Lippi, a depiction of St. Peter Martyr by Ghirlandaio, and a depiction of the dead Christ by Carpaccio – any one of which would have had its own room in many other museums.

But the magnificent Madonna by Titian really blew me away – it was worth a trip to the museum all by itself.

Fondazione Magnani-Rocca: Tiziano Vecellio – Sacra conversazione Madonna col Bambino e i Santi Caterina e Domenico coi donatore – 1513

About half the museum space was devoted to a special exhibit of work by Miro, which we were not allowed to take photos of. Apparently, this museum frequently hosts high quality art exhibits – we’ll be back.

And oh yes – there were peacocks.

But Parma is more than just art. As noted above, Parma sits at the center of a rich agricultural region (it’s sometimes referred to as the Food Valley). One of the highlights of our visit was a half-day guided tour of facilities making Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and the famous prosciutto de Parma.

Neither of these facilities were open to the general public, but you could visit them as part of a small group guided tour with a certified guide When we entered the caseificio (cheese making facility) we were issued a special kit, including a smock, booties, a hair net and a mask that looked pitifully small next to the heavy duty Covid masks we were already wearing. Making cheese, we learned, was a tricky business of managing the “good” bacteria (which gives the cheese its special flavor) and keeping out the “bad” bacteria (i.e., us) as much as possible.

We arrived in mid-morning, when the milk (a combination of that morning’s and the last evening’s milk from designated local farms) had already started on its mysterious transformation from liquid to semi-solid. We watched as the workers “caught” the wheels of cheese from specially designed vats into a sort of cheesecloth hammock – a process likely harder than it looked, because each of those wheels weighed roughly 20 kilos (about 45 pounds). The cheese is drained for a while, then put in the special “shells” which form the distinctive rind, then soaked in brine and drained some more.

The whey left behind when the cheese rounds are lifted out is not wasted. Some is used to make the local ricotta cheese. Some is used to feed the pigs being raised for prosciutto. Sustainable agriculture is not a new concept in Italy.

Eventually, the dry cheese rounds are aged in vast warehouses filled with tall shelves – you wouldn’t want to be in this room during an earthquake! As they age (a minimum of 12 months, sometimes 36 months or more), the cheese rounds must be periodically rotated, and the mold that forms on the outside carefully dusted off. This operation used to be done by hand – these days, it is performed by specially designed robots.

Parma, at the caseificio – cheese mold-scraping robot

As you might imagine, the quality control challenges of the cheese making operation are immense. The process of making the cheese must start within hours of delivery – the milk is not refrigerated. Since cows must be milked every day, and don’t take holidays, neither does the cheese-making. The cheese master lives on site with his family, although I imagine the other workers get to rotate. Truly a labor of love.

Before it can be sold, the cheese must be checked by local inspectors, who use small hammers to make sure the cheese does not have a hollow center. Every single cheese is inspected. Now you know why it costs so much.

After the visit, we had a small cheese tasting, I actually prefer the younger cheese (i.e., aged only 12 months) although the older cheeses have a deeper flavor and are better for grating.

Parma, at the caseificio – testing the final product

Then it was on to the Prosciutto farm.

Here the work is more seasonal. There’s a lot of activity when the pork legs arrive, making sure they are propertly salted. The “salt master” is the most important part of the operation. After the legs are prepared, they are left to dry in specially designed warehouses, with windows that can be opened to catch the Mediterranean breezes, which are believed to to impart to the ham a special flavor. Don’t argue with success.

The hams are also subject to right quality control inspections, although in this case they pull random samples rather than test every ham. Special testers made of bone are used – very carefully, so as to not break the skin that seals in all the juicy goodness.

Of course, our visit was followed by a small prosciutto tasting. And that was all before lunch!

At the Salumificio

Cremona – City of Stradivarius

I have a special attachment to Cremona because it was the first city I saw in Italy, during my first visit in 1970. Of course, 50 years is not much in the life of a city that has been around at least since the Roman colony was established there in the 2nd Century BC.

The facade of the Cathedral was completed in the 14th C, but most of the interior decoration comes from the 15th and 16th Centuries. The nearby Baptistery is even older – it was started in the 12th C – and features a dome made entirely of brick.

Cremona was the home of many of the world’s most famous stringed instrument makers – Amati, Guarneri and of course Stradivarius. The city has a wonderful museum devoted to this history. Unfortunately, some of the more interesting features of the museum (including a special sound dome which allows you to hear the difference in timber between a Stradivarius and a modern instrument) was closed due to Covid restrictions.

Cremona was hard hit by the first wave of the Corona virus, in the spring of 2020, and unlike the other cities we visited in this region it has not yet recovered its pre-pandemic vitality. It was also the only city which had an explicit Covid memorial, very close to the town center. We’ll have to return another day.

Cremona – COVID memorial

Mantova – Fooling the Eye

Mantova (known as Mantua in English) has more art than you might expect from a city of barely 50,000. Perhaps fittingly, the city has a wealth of the art known as “trompe l’oeil” – something that fools the eye into seeing something that it is not.

The Ducal Palace was begun in the 13th C and added to, higgledy-piggledy, over the centuries. The later Dukes sold much of their art, and today what remains is what was painted directly on walls or ceilings, and couldn’t be easily removed.

The most famous room in the Ducal Palace is the Camera degli Sposi, the presence chamber of the Duke and Duchess. The frescoed walls, painted by Mantegna between 1465 and 1474, depict members of the ruling Gonzaga family in scenes that are meant to suggest a courtyard, with curtains swaying in the imaginary breeze, or an outdoor meeting, with dogs and horses waiting impatiently.

The ceiling features an imaginary skylight, with local citizens gazing down and angels playfully dangling from the parapets. Mantegna seems to be unable to resist demonstrating his mastery of perspective- one angel even is shown from the point of view of the soles of his feet. We’re a long way here from the foot carefully set outside the edge of the frame in the Parma Cathedral.

Mantegna even included a portrait of himself among the decorations.

In another room, the Hall of Troy, both ancient statuary and contemporary painting were used to depict various scenes from the Trojan War.

Mantegna spent most of his working life in or near Mantova (although there are other important works of his in Verona and Padova). He is buried in the church of Sant’Andrea, not far from the Ducal Palace.

Sant’Andrea, Mantova – Mantegna

The Palazzo del Te was the summer palace of the Gonzaga built in what was then a small wooded area near the end of town, called Tejeto. The interior decoration is the acknowledge masterwork of Giulio Romano, a 16th C artist who was a student of Raphael.

Palazzo Te, Mantova – Giulio Romano

The fresco of the Banquet of Olympus, with Cupid and Psyche, clearly is indebted to the similar work by Raphael and his school at the Villa Farnesina in Rome.

Romano was also a master of trompe l’oeil. In the most famous room, depicting the Fall of the Giants, the destruction by Zeus of the ancient Titans stretches from the floor to the ceiling in one interrupted work. Romano uses perspective to suggest the corners of the perpendicular room are curved, and the ceiling is a dome.

Verona – Just a Peek

We spent our last day in Verona, less than 25 miles from Mantova and nearly five times as large. The city sits on the Adige River, some years the source of devastating floods but this year, just picturesque.

We visited the church of San Zeno. a 4th Century bishop who is the city’s patron saint. Construction of the cathedral began in the 10th C in the Romanesque style and was completed in the 14th C, an earthquake later, in the Gothic style.

The bronze doors date from the 12th C, and include 48 small sculptures depicting Old and New Testament events, as well as some other scenes, including an exorcism (on the left) and Jesus’ post-Crucifixion descent into Limbo (on the right).

The interior of the church retains the original two-level interior. Most of the interior art dates from the 12th and 13th C, including the usual assortment of wacky medievals (telamons) holding up the pedestals. There is an unusual statue of San Zeno, who reportedly loved fishing and is shown, laughing, with his latest catch.

Behind the altar is a magnificent altarpiece by Mantegna. It is still in its original position, and the light source inferred by the painting comes from the actual position of the church windows.

The church of Sant’Anastasia dates from the 15th C, and its interior is decorated in exuberant late Gothic style. The frescoes include a wonderful depiction of St. George killing a dragon and rescuing a beautiful Princess, by Pisanello.

Wacky medievals hadn’t completely gone out of style, though. The hunchback holding up the baptismal font was reputed to bring good luck.

Sant’Anastasia, Verona – laboring telamon

And so we bid farewell to fair Verona.