One of the nicest things about living in Italy is the ability to take short trips and be in a completely different landscape with only a few hours driving. October is a particularly nice time to tour Italy – especially this year, when we enjoyed warm springlike weather well into the month.
We have become particularly fond of Parma, a city with a remarkable collection of artistic treasures and some of the best food in Italy.
This visit, we were able to see an opera at the Teatro Regio di Parma, the city’s opera house, as part of its annual Verdi Festival. (The composer was born in the small town of Roncole in the province of Parma.) We saw Simon Boccanegra, not one of Verdi’s best-known operas, but certainly one of his most interesting. When the opera was first produced in the 1850s, it was a commercial failure, probably because of its original bleak ending. Verdi worked on revising the opera for many years. As a result, this story of the rise and fall of a 14th C Genoese doge, which began as a standard grand opera tale of thwarted lover, murder and vengeance, became also a story of forgiveness and redemption. I was particularly struck by the final scene, in which a dying Boccanegra has a vision of heaven and his long-lost love – a paradise of angels dressed in white, fields of wheat, even a live sheep!
The singing was fantastic, as it always is in Italian opera productions. A particular pleasure was sitting in the jewel-box opera theater, with most of the seating in rings of boxes. We tried not to notice the firemen stationed right outside in case anything untoward happened – also a common site in Italian opera productions.
The following morning, we visited the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, which was begun in the 12th C. The fine sunny weather allowed for good photos of the 16th C wall and ceiling frescoes, by Lattanzio Gambara and Bernardino Gatti. Those clouds look awfully solid, don’t they?
The church is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The fresco in the dome by Correggio (1530) depicts Mary being “assumed” into Heaven from an unusual bottom’s up perspective – you get a good view of her feet and her billowing skirts.
We were also able to visit the Abbey of Saint John the Evangelist (17th C), which had been closed on our previous visits to Parma. An unexpectedly lovely room upstairs, once the monastic library, was open to the public free of charge. The room had some wonderful old maps, including an unusually detailed map of the Holy Land. And the wonderful ceiling frescoes had inscriptions in 4 languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew and (I think) Georgian – as well as some elephants. Since the room is only open occasionally, there were no formal tourist materials – I am relying on my memory of the short lecture given by the wonderful older gentleman who greeted visitors.
We happened upon a small free exhibit of satiric drawings by Goya, shown alongside paintings by the 20th C German artist George Grosz, who also enjoyed political satire. They were quite interesting, even if the original context for the satire is no longer that easy to understand. See if you can guess which works are by which artists.
In the afternoon, we visited the Fondazione Magnani-Rocca, a wonderful private museum located about 20 minutes outside of Parma by car. About the half the museum is devoted to special exhibits, changing every few months – this time it was Italian fashion posters of the early 20th C.
The museum’s permanent collection is small, but of outstanding quality, and covers a number of different periods and styles.
Here is a sculpture of Tersicore, one of the Muses, by Antonio Canova (1811) – we have become quite fascinated by this artist since seeing a special exhibit of his work in Treviso earlier this year. Not for away is this etching of St. Jerome in his study by Albrecht Durer (1514). The museum has several works by Durer, a German artist who is not always well represented in Italian museums.
French Impressionism is also represented, with Falaises at Pourville at Sunrise (1897) by Monet, and a still life by Cezanne.
I was particularly taken by the Goya, which although a serious work has some similarity with the satirical drawings we saw earlier. Check out the guy on the right, who is looking at us rather than the royal personage.
The Fondazione Magnani-Rocca has a number of other marvelous paintings, including works by Lippi, Durer, Ghirlandaio, and Titian which I described last year.
And of course, we didn’t forget to eat. The famous Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese are available all over Italy – and indeed in many other parts of the world. But they seem to taste better here than anywhere else.
From Parma we drove to Bergamo, a city we had visited once about 15 years ago but haven’t been back to since we moved to Italy.
The cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore, in the Città Alta (upper city) is most famous for its series of intarsia (inlaid wood) panels of Biblical scenes, designed by Lorenzo Lotto and executed by Giovan Francesco Capoferri and Giovanni Belli between 1522 and 1555.
The four scenes depict (left to right, and top to bottom), the Flood, Judith and Holofernes, David and Goliath, and the Parting of the Red Sea.
They are absolutely spectacular and should be the centerpiece of any visit to Bergamo.
There are other works of art in the church too of course.
The ceiling frescoes are are quite amazing, and seem to cover every square inch of available space.
I liked this 14th C statue of Jesus, whose face has a humanity you don’t often see in paintings of the period.
Some of the columns had sculpted human figures at the base appearing to support the columns’ weight. I understand the technical name for these figures are “telemons.” Before I learned the official name, I used to call them “wacky medievals.” They do have a sense of fun about them.
14th C frescoes from an older part of the church have recently been restored. The horse’s face is more lively than those of the human figures – but you can see a little bit of humanity in the way the saint on the right is touching the shoulder of the man next to him. The Renaissance is not far away.
We also fortunate to be able to visit the Villa Moroni, a private 17th C residence which is only occasionally open to the public.
Once Renaissance painters discovered the uses of perspective, you couldn’t get them to stop. Look at all those people peering over the balcony.
Giovanni Batista Moroni, who painted this Cavalier in Pink in 1560, is believed to be related to the family that owns this building. That’s their story anyway.
I liked this work by an unknown artist because of its depiction of family tenderness – look at the way both parents are making sure the baby doesn’t fall. I often wonder, when I see portraits of very small children, how they managed to get them to sit still.
The Villa also has extensive gardens above and behind the main building, quite a bit more extensive than you might think from the street. It has lovely views of the main part of the city below.
More views of the Città Alta.
Of course, we didn’t forget to eat here, either. We enjoyed our dinner at Frosio, a Michelin one-star restaurant just outside the upper city. Some of the dishes we enjoyed included cardoons with melted cheese, capriolo (roe deer) with celery root puree, and a trio of hazelnut desserts. We had some wine, too – and got a ride from our hotel keeper back home.
Varenna (lAKE cOMO)
From Bergamo, we took a day trip to Varenna, on the shores of Lake Como – about an hour and a half by car each way.
It was a spectacular autumn day – still warm and sunny, but without the oppressive heat and crowds of summer.
We stopped at a small restaurant connected to the Hotel du Lac on the shores of the lake. The restaurant had a terrific view – not always the best choice for food, but the menu looked interesting so we decided to give it a try. We were rewarded with an outstanding meal.
Among the dishes offered were lavarello (lake fish) with polenta – Italy’s answer to shrimp and grits. We also sampled their version of squash gnocchi, enriched with Parmigiano cheese. I preferred it to the Mantua version flavored with almonds. Ted had pasta with duck sauce (one of his favorites) garnished with pomegranate seeds. There are a lot of pomegranates grown in Italy – I wonder why they don’t turn up on Italian plates more often.
We took a boat across the lake to visit Villa Carlotta, a 17th C palazzo famous for its gardens.
We liked Varenna and would recommend it to anyone looking for a slightly less hectic alternative to Bellagio.
Piedmont is the home of our favorite Italian wine grape, the Nebbiolo.
Wine tourism is particularly rewarding in Piedmont because many of the wineries are small and family owned. Many of the winemakers are also surprisingly young. Or maybe they just look young to me, from the vantage point of being a “certain age.”
Here I am with Roberto at the Claudio Fenocchio winery in the Barolo region. We had not tasted much of their wine before, but when we wrote to them they were more than happy to welcome us and let us taste some of their wines. We’re fans now.
The nearby town of Barbaresco is also quite charming. There are great views of the vineyards from the top of their medieval tower (which also features photos of many of the local winemakers). Barbaresco has a community tasting room where you can sample several local wines for a small charge – a good alternative if you haven’t scheduled any winery visits in advance.
We also visited several wineries in the Roero region, on the other side of the Tanaro river, whose wines are also made from the Nebbiolo grape but are less pricey.
We talked to several of the winemakers about the challenges of making consistent high quality wine in an era of climate change. A generation ago, the winemakers’ challenge was achieving a 13% alcohol level, considered a minimum for fine wine. These days, they work hard to keep the alcohol level below 15%. Warmer summers make for higher sugar content in the grapes, and higher-alcohol wines – too high if you’re not careful, and less acid to provide structure and aging potential. To combat this problem, these days, winemakers in the region start their harvests in late August, several weeks earlier than they used to.
This summer was one of the driest in Italy in more than 70 years, which produced additional challenges. Drier weather reduces the productivity of the vines – the wine is more intense, but there is less of it. The vines here are not irrigated – it’s never been necessary, and in any event you can’t put in an irrigation system after the vines have been established. So winemakers are experimenting with new methods – in one case, gently hand tilling vineyards with sandy soil an effort to help them retain more water.
The winemakers will adapt. But if you’re ever wondering why fine wine costs so much, it’s partly because winemakers have to deal with challenges like these.
Of course, we didn’t forget to eat in Piedmont either. The region is famous for its white truffles, which are in season from mid-October to late November. We did not attend the annual truffle fair (we’ve been there before), but we learned that sadly the quantity of truffles was greatly reduced this year because of the aforementioned drought.
But there were a few. Pictured are fonduta (melted cheese) and tajarin (egg noodles), each with a healthy serving of white truffles.
We love this region of Italy, and hope to be back before too long.