Palazzo della Pilotta – the National Gallery of Parma (1/2)

Parma is a city in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, famous for Parmesan cheese and Parma ham. Besides its gastronomy, the Romanesque buildings, including the frescoed Parma Cathedral and the Baptistery, dominate the city center. What’s the attraction that eventually persuaded me to pay a visit to the city? It’s the Galleria Nazionale, inside the imposing Palazzo della Pilotta, which displays important masterpieces by Correggio and Leonardo da Vinci. In a series of posts about Parma, I’ll introduce to you the cathedral complex, including the Parma Cathedral and the Baptistery as well as the Palazzo della Pilotta, which houses the National Gallery, the Farnese Theater, the Palatina Library and the Archaeological Museum.

The Palazzo della Pilotta is a monumental complex made up of several buildings on which many architects worked at different times. Its name “Pilotta” derives from the game of pelota played at one time by Spanish soldiers stationed in Parma. The construction probably began before 1583, during the last years of the reign of Duke Ottavio Farnese. After the end of the Farnese family rule of Parma, many of the movable assets of the palace were removed by then Duke Charles I, later King of Spain, and taken to Naples in the 1730s. The Biblioteca Palatina, or Palatina Library, was established here by 1769. Elizabeth Farnese, Queen of Spain, was born here in 1692. If you wanna know more about the palazzo, please click here. Unfortunately, the website is only available in Italian, so you have to use Google Translate to translate the pages into English.

Nowadays, various spaces within the palace have been taken up by different cultural institutions and museums such as the National Archaeological Museum, the Accademia di Belle Arti di Parma (Academy of Fine Arts of Parma), an art school named after Paolo Toschi, Museo Bodoniano, a museum dedicated to Giambattista Bodoni (an Italian typographer, type-designer, compositor, printer and publisher), the Teatro Farnese and the Galleria Nazionale di Parma. In this and the next post, I’ll focus on the National Gallery of Parma.

The Parmesan collections were established in Renaissance times by the Farnese family, with Pope Paul III (whose birth name was Alessandro Farnese) and Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. In 1734 Charles III of Spain had most of the works moved to Naples, but thanks to the intervention of Philip of Spain, Duke of Parma from 1748 to 1765, some were kept. Later the collection was enlarged by returns from Naples, donations, as well as acquisitions under Duke Ferdinand.

During the French occupation of Parma, the works were moved to Paris, but then returned in 1816. During the reign of Duchess Marie Louise (Napoleon’s second wife and, as such, Empress of the French from 1810 to 1814) from 1814 until her death (1847), she reordered the collections in the Palazzo della Pilotta and built the hall which now bears her name. She also acquired several noble collections in the duchy to avoid their dispersal.

Among the collections, one most important piece, at least for me personally, is “La Scapigliata” by Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, this painting was one of the reasons why I finally decided to visit Parma. Besides, you will see several important works by Correggio, the foremost painter of the Parma School of the Italian Renaissance, such as “Madonna and St. Jerome“, “Martyrdom of Four Saints” and “Madonna della Scodella”. I originally thought that “La Scapigliata” is absolutely the “Mona Lisa” of this galley, but it turns out the competition is rather “fierce” because Parmigianino’sTurkish Slave” is also stunning. After learning about some practical information such as the opening hours and admission fees of the gallery, we will start our exploration.

1. Practical information

Opening hours

  • Tuesday – Saturday: from 8:30 to 19:00
  • Sundays and holidays: from 13:00 to 19:00
  • Mondays closed

Please note, this gallery is huge but not all the rooms are open to visitors permanently. Several rooms which are temporarily closed will be open on

  • weekdays at 10:30, 12:30, 14:30 and 16:30
  • Sundays and public holidays at 14:30 and 16:30, excluding the first Sunday of the month.

The meeting point is the room where Leonardo’s “La Scapigliata” is exhibited, and at the times mentioned above, a guide will open the door and take you through a series of rooms in around 45 mins. Is it worth visiting these the extra rooms? In my opinion, it is because you can see some important works such as “Madonna and Child” by Anthony van Dyck and “Capriccio with Palladian buildings” by Canaletto.

Admission fees

One single ticket is valid for admission to the Teatro Farnese, the National Gallery and the National Archaeological Museum and it costs:

  • Full price: € 10
  • Reduced price (from 18 to 25 years): € 5

Please note:

  • for groups, the reduced price is € 8
  • for children under 18 years old, the ticket is free
  • admission to the complex is free for all visitors every first Sunday of the month.

2. Masterpieces

The official website is well-organized but unfortunately, it is only available in Italian. Nevertheless, if you use Chrome, you can easily translate the content into English. On the home page, you can check news, events and sometime special openings for holidays. If you wanna read about the masterpieces, please click here. This information will also form the basis of my introductions in the consecrative two posts. Now, let’s get started with Leonardo’s da Vinci’s “La Scapigliata”, my personal favorite in the gallery.

“La Scapigliata” by Leonardo’s da Vinci

The name Leonardo da Vinci shouldn’t sound strange to you but do you really know his achievements? Born in Vinci in the region of Florence, Leonardo was trained in the studio of the renowned Florentine painter Andrea del Verrocchio, who was also the teacher of Pietro Perugino, whose most famous student was Raphael. Much of Leonardo’s earlier working life was spent in the service of Ludovico Maria Sforza in Milan, who commissioned “The Last Supper“. He later worked in Rome, Bologna and Venice, and spent his last years in France at the home awarded to him by Francis I of France, a prodigious patron of art, who acquired the “Mona Lisa” after attracting Leonardo da Vinci to work on the Château de Chambord.

Probably most renowned as a painter, Leonardo’s most famous works include the “Mona Lisa“, which is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris, “The Last Supper“, which still stays in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan and is the most reproduced religious painting of all time, as well as the drawing of the “Vitruvian Man“, which is regarded as a cultural icon and is now preserved in Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice. Just recently, on 15th November 2017, his “Salvator Mundi” was sold for a world record of $450.3 million at a Christie’s auction in New York, making it currently the most expensive painting in the world. I’m lucky to have seen many of Leonardo’s works, which, in addition to the three I mentioned just now, include “St. John the Baptist”, “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, “Bacchus”, “Portrait of Isabella d’Este” and “Virgin of the Rocks” in the Louvre Museum, “Adoration of the Magi”, “Annunciation” and “The Baptism of Christ” in the Uffizi Gallery, “Portrait of a Musician” in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, the ceiling painting of Sala delle Asse in the Sforza Castle in Milan, “St. Jerome in the Wilderness” in the Vatican Museums, “Madonna of the Carnation” in the Alte Pinacoteca in Munich, as well as “Ginevra de’ Benci” in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. Besides his paintings, his notebooks which contain drawings, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting inspired and influenced many generations of artists and scientists. The largest such set is called Codex Atlanticus (Atlantic Codex), and is now preserved at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. When you read my post about this library, you will be amazed at his ingenuity.

Besides being one of the greatest painters of all time, Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath of the Renaissance, whose areas of interest included invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. Sometimes credited with the inventions of the parachute, helicopter and tank, he is a perfect example of the Renaissance humanist ideal.

As a “Universal Genius“, a “Renaissance Man”, an individual of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination“, Leonardo is widely considered one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived. According to the art historian Helen Gardner, the scope and depth of his interests were unprecedented in recorded history, and “his mind and personality seem to us superhuman, while the man himself mysterious and remote“.

Now, let’s come back to Leonardo’s “La Scapigliata” in the National Gallery of Parma. Once entering the gallery from the space exhibiting decorative arts behind the Teatro Farnese, you should turn right. After passing through lots of religious works, you will reach the end of the corridor and you will see this elegant and beautiful lady. I remember, before seeing “Mona Lisa”, many people told me that it’s in reality very small. However, the moment I saw it in the Louvre, I wasn’t disappointed at all because it was not as small as I expected. I have to warn you in advance that “La Scapigliata” is really quite small, but it’s much more accessible than the “Mona Lisa”. Concealed in a glass box, it seems close and distant. It seems close because you can get very close to it and even see the texture of the wooden panel and the thickness of the paint, but it seems distant at the same time because the woman seems to only care about her inner world, paying no attention to whomever that’s watching her.

First of all, why is this painting called “La Scapiliata”? Scapiliata means disheveled in English and here, it refers to the woman’s untidy hair which seems to be inflated by the wind. It wraps her head like winding serpents, creating a special sense of movement. With her hair falling on the shoulder, she turns her body, as suggested by the curved shoulder line. In this painting, the characters of Leonardo’s art are perfectly recognizable, for example, the facial features which are reminiscent of those of his some other female portraits, in particular, “Leda and the Swan“. The woman reclines her head, with the heavy eyelids “forcing” her eyes to remain half-closed, without seeking any contact with the outside world. Her lips seem slightly bent, showing an ambiguous smile. Does the mouth somehow remind you of that of “Mona Lisa”? The skilful and refined use of light and shadow effects creates a sense of grace and perfection.

Renowned for paying particular attention to human physiognomy, Leonardo influenced generations of artists. This painting, which became part of the Parmesan collection in 1839, is said to have been dated to Leonardo’s mature period, around the time of “Virgin of the Rocks” or “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist”. The young woman appears to be introspective, immersed in her own mental and emotional processes. We, as outsiders, can sense a bit of happiness but are still uncertain about her mysterious state of mind. As written by Alexander Nagel and translated by Wikipedia, “The eyes do not focus on any outward object, and they give the impression that they will remain where they are: they see through the filter of an inner state, rather than receive immediate impressions from the outside world. It is the attitude of being suspended in a state of mind beyond specific thought—unaware, even, of its own body…here an inner life is suggested by a new order of pictorial effects, without recourse to action or narrative.”

One debate among many scholars about this painting is “Is this a painting or a preparatory sketch and is it finished?” As I learnt from the official website, this work is characterized by a particular executive choice, that is to say, a mixture of techniques of painting and preparatory sketch. This contrast has created several hypotheses on the origin of this work. Some scholars consider it as a preparatory drawing for a larger painting, perhaps for “Leda” or for one of the two versions of the “Virgin of the Rocks”, while others consider it an independent work, like a small portrait or a “Head of Madonna”. The latter theory could be supported by a statement which I read from Wikipedia, and it says: “It is perhaps the same work that Ippolito Calandra, in 1531, suggested to hang in the bedroom of Margaret Paleologa, wife of Federico II Gonzaga. In 1501, the marquesses wrote to Pietro Novellara asking if Leonardo could paint a Madonna for her private studio.” As I read from, the author thinks that this work is an independent work and remains unfinished because Leonardo chose to do so. The contrast between the sketchiness of the hair and neck and the refined modeling of the face suggests that the choice was intentional, and it’s probably because Leonardo was inspired by the ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder, who remarked that the great artist Apelles left his last depiction of the Venus of Cos incomplete and that the work was nonetheless more admired than his first, finished painting of the goddess.

Last but not least, I’d like to share with you one thought that I read from and I found it rather inspiring. The author says that critics argued, instead of simply sketching a woman with uncombed hair, Leonardo was creating a work of art that depicts the natural beauty and power inherent in women. “La Scapigliata”, therefore, was a symbol of equality between men and women at a time when such equality did not exist. In this regard, we can say that Leonardo anticipated the many feminist movements, which have erupted throughout the world hundreds of years after his death.

Capitals with scenes from the book of Genesis and the Book of Kings by Benedetto Antelami

Benedetto Antelami was one of the most famous medieval architects and sculptors, belonging to the Romanesque School. In 1178, he was working at the Parma Cathedral, where a bas-relief of the Deposition from the Cross can still be seen nowadays. Later, in 1196, he was working with the sculptural decoration of the Baptistry of Parma, a building of which he was probably also the architect. You can read more about the cathedral and the baptistry in my posts about the Parma cathedral complex.

The three capitals also come from the Cathedral of Parma and they were probably part of the decoration of the presbytery’s lost pulpit. Originally, there were four capitals but the fourth one was sold abroad by a Parma antique dealer in the late 19th century. Later, in 1881, it was donated by the cavalier Domenico Bosi to the Archaeological Museum.

All three capitals are sculpted with scenes from the Old Testament, with the first two depicting episodes from the book of Genesis and the third one depicting episodes from the Book of Kings. From the first two capitals, we can easily recognize the scenes such as the entry of Adam and Eve into Paradise, the shame of the progenitors, the expulsion from Paradise and the killing of Abel. However, the scenes depicted on the third capital might be a bit strange if you are not familiar with the Book of Kings. They are Judgment of Solomon and Absalom’s Death and David’s Broken Heart. While you are appreciating these sculpted capitals, do pay attention to the gestures, actions as well as the facial expressions of the protagonists. In this way, you will be amazed at Antelami’s mastery over marble.

Now, let’s go back to “La Scapigliata” and wait for the opening of the special rooms of the gallery. As I mentioned in the first chapter (practical information), several rooms which are temporarily closed will be open on weekdays at 10:30, 12:30, 14:30 and 16:30 and on Sundays and public holidays at 14:30 and 16:30, excluding the first Sunday of the month. At these times, a guide will take you through a series of rooms in around 45 mins and you can see many more works. In the sections below, I’ll introduce to you in detail the “Madonna and Child” by Anthony van Dyck and “Capriccio with Palladian Buildings” by Canaletto, exhibited in the last large hall.

The special rooms

Before entering the last large hall which I will introduce in detail later, we will go through several exhibition spaces. For example, the lower north-west wing, where works by artists from Parma and the area of Po such as Filippo Mazzola, father of Parmigianino, and Alessandro Araldi can be seen. Besides, also in this area, the School of Ferrara is well represented with the presence of works by artists such as Dosso and Battista Dossi. The altarpiece depicting Archangel St. Michael defeating the devil and the Assumption of the Virgin was originally in the Reggio Emilia Cathedral. In the Carraccis’ Atelier, you will see a group of canvases by the three artists, that is to say, Annibale, Agostino and Ludovico Carracci. The study of Correggio’s concepts can be seen in Annibale’s and Agostino’s works, which are moving away from the complexity of Mannerism and towards a more natural style while the two big paintings executed by Ludovico for the Cathedral of Piacenza show influences from Michelangelo and Venetian painting. Just a reminder, in my second post about the Galleria Estense in Modena, I made a comparison between the Carraccis’ (in particular Annibale Carracci) and Caravaggio’s works and if you are interested in these artists, you can take a look. Painting in Parma in the second half of the 16th century and at the beginning of the 17th century is mainly influenced by Correggio, the Carraccis and Caravaggio and is represented by artists such as Giambattista Tinti, Giulio Cesare Amidano, Bartolomeo Schedoni, Giovanni Lanfranco, Sisto Badalocchio and Leonello Spada, whose works can be seen in the next two halls. After going down the stairs, we will arrive at the last hall of the “special rooms” and there are some works that I’d like to introduce to you in detail.

The last hall

In this large hall, exhibitions of various themes, such as “Foreign Painters in Parma”, “17th- and 18th-century Altarpieces”, “Great Masters of Venetian Paintings” and “Italy in the Grand Tour” are hosted. I suggest you pay special attention to the third theme because in this section, three altarpieces were made for the Church of Santa Maria Maddalena of Parma by Giambattista PiazzettaGiambattista Pittoni and Giambattista Tiepolo on the occasion of an artistic renewal wanted by the Cappuccini friars at the beginning of the 18th century. Isn’t it a great opportunity to compare the similarities and differences of the styles of the three Venetian masters? Now, I’ll show you masterpieces of the first and fourth themes represented by Anthony van Dyck and Canaletto respectively.

“Madonna and Child” by Anthony van Dyck

Sir Anthony van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque artist who, after enjoying great success in Italy and the Southern Netherlands, became the leading court painter in England. Besides the works depicting biblical and mythological subjects, he is most famous for portraits of Charles I of England and his family and court, “painted with a relaxed elegance that was to be the dominant influence on English portrait-painting for the next 150 years” (Wikipedia). In his early 20s, he already became the chief assistant to the dominant master of Antwerp, and even the whole of Northern Europe, Peter Paul Rubens, who had immerse influence on the young artist and once referred to the 19-year-old van Dyck as “the best of my pupils”.

The theme of the Virgin and Child appears several times in the Italian drawing notebook of Anthony van Dyck, who tried his hand on this subject on many canvases with variations. This one in Parma is among the happiest versions, as you can see from the smile of Mary. In my opinion, this work perfectly combines tranquility and motion. The former is well represented by the elegance of Mary’s gestures, the softness of her pose, her peaceful look and the sweetness of the child’s sleep. Nevertheless, the slight twisting of Mary, who seems to be stretching upwards, and the abandonment of the Christ Child, who seems to be slipping down, add a sense of movement and liveliness to the composition. Though seeming to be moving in opposite directions, the mother and child are connected by the harmonious physical contact of their fingers. The abandonment implies the death of Christ, which can also be seen from the apple in his left hand, the symbol of redemption.

This painting is among the works completed by van Dyck during his trip to Italy (from 1621 to 1627) and was sold to the Gallery by the widow of the painter Giuseppe Baldrighi. It certainly demonstrates influence from the Venetian art, in particular from Titian, whose works van Dyck admired and studied during his two-month stay in Venice, after his stop in Genoa and Rome. As I read from Wikipedia, for van Dyck, Titian’s “use of colour and subtle modeling of form would prove transformational, offering a new stylistic language that would enrich the compositional lessons learned from Rubens.”

“Capriccio with Palladian Buildings” by Canaletto

Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto, was an Italian painter and one of the founders of painting of city views or vedute. (A veduta (Italian for “view”) is a highly detailed, usually large-scale painting of a cityscape or some other vista.) He also painted imaginary views, but the distinction in his works between the real and the imaginary is not quite clear. In the period between 1746 and 1756, he worked in England where he painted many sights of London. Thanks to the British merchant and connoisseur Joseph Smith, he was highly successful there.

According to various sources, the reason why Canaletto’s works are almost scientifically accurate portrayals of the environment is probably that he used a camera obscura, an optical device consisting of a dark box with a pinhole on the front and a projection plane on the back. This theory is supported by the tendency for distant figures in some of his works to be painted as droplets of color, an effect possibly achieved by using such a device, which blurs far-away objects. If Canaletto did use a camera obscura, with its help, he probably first made sketches of the composition of the painting “in the nature”, focusing on proportions and perspectives, and then improved and perfected it in his studio. Nevertheless, research by art historians working for the Royal Collection in the United Kingdom has shown Canaletto almost never used it. In either case, the visual effects that he achieved and the details that he took great care of, are without any doubt unprecedented and breath-taking.

Do you know why this particular genre of painting developed and achieved extraordinary international success in the 18th century? At that time, young people from aristocratic families were desperate for new experiences and they conducted the Grand Tour (the 17th- and 18th-century custom of a traditional trip of Europe). Always wishing to take a memento of their travels home, or a “souvenir” as we say nowadays, they made vedute flourish and popular.

Thanks to Canaletto and other vedute artists, the 18th-century Venice and many other cities such as Rome and London were immortalized in their photograph-like paintings. In my third post about the Brera Pinacoteca in Milan, I introduced not only Canaletto but also his nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, whose “canvases depict a precise moment of the day, investigating both its colors and the peculiar effects of its light and thereby opening the door to the evolution of the genre in the 19th century.” If you are interested, you can take a look.

Now let’s come back to this painting. It is one of the most famous works by Canaletto but can you tell which city it is portraying? Painted with such details and precision, it should present the city to us clearly. However, though I had been to quite some cities in Italy, I couldn’t recognize the view. The gondolas on the canal are reminiscent of those of the lagoon city, Venice, whilst the buildings on the right and left of the painting remind me of the Basilica Palladiana and the Palazzo Chiericati in Vicenza (as you can see in the 1st and 2nd pictures above). How do I know about them? They are among the most famous buildings designed by one of my favorite architects, Palladio, who is widely considered to be one of the most influential individuals in the history of architecture. His twenty-three buildings in the city of Vicenza and many Villas of the Veneto are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. After my visit to the center of Vicenza and the surrounding areas, I dedicated three posts to him and his achievements. If you are interested you can take a look.

City of Vicenza – A gem in architectural history of mankind (1/2)

City of Vicenza – A gem in architectural history of mankind (2/2)

Villa “La Rotonda” in Vicenza and Villa Caldogno in Comune di Caldogno

You must be wondering now which is the bridge in the middle of the painting. As I read from the official website, it’s supposed to be the Rialto Bridge crossing the Grand Canal in Venice. Nevertheless, as you can see in the 3rd picture above, it looks totally different from the Rialto Bridge in reality. Why? This version of the Rialto Bridge, conceptualized by Palladio, was among the first designs but was never realized. Here, Canaletto “built” it in his Capriccio. What does “Capriccio” mean? I think you’ve already guessed its meaning but just to make sure, it refers to an architectural fantasy, placing together reality and imagination, and in this case, buildings and other architectural elements that are located in different places or do not even exist. I guess now you’ve fully understood why this painting is called “Capriccio with Palladian Buildings”.

By now I have finished the first post about the National Gallery of Parma and in the next one, I’ll take you to go through the Marie Louise Hall, where you can see a sculpture of the duchess by Antonio Canova. More importantly, we will go through a series of rooms dedicated to the foremost painter of the Parma School of the Italian Renaissance, Correggio, whose masterpieces such as “Madonna and St. Jerome“, “Martyrdom of Four Saints” and “Madonna della Scodella” are exhibited here. Last but not least, we will see another beautiful woman, the “Turkish Slave“, who was portrayed by Parmigianino and is competing with “La Scapigliata” to be the “Mona Lisa” of the gallery.

Palazzo della Pilotta – the National Gallery of Parma (1/2) was last modified: February 19th, 2020 by Dong

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