Palazzo della Pilotta – the Farnese Theater & the Palatina Library

In the Palazzo della Pilotta, besides the National Gallery of Parma, the Farnese Theater and the Palatina Library are absolutely another two must-sees. In this post, I’ll focus on introducing them to you. By the end of the post, I’ll also mention briefly the Archaeological Museum and the Museo Bodoniano, a museum dedicated to Giambattista Bodoni. Now, let’s get started with some practical information such as the opening hours and the admission fees of these attractions.

1. Practical information

1.1 Opening hours

The Farnese Theater is open:

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

The monumental area of ​​the Palatina Library is open:

  • Monday to Saturday: from 9:00 to 13:00
  • closed on Sundays and public holidays

The opening hours of the Farnese Theater apply to the National Archaeological Museum. However, the section dedicated to prehistory is subject to variable openings. The rooms that are dedicated to the Iron Age and Parma Romana are currently closed for restoration work (as of 2018-06-02).

The Bodonian Museum (Museo Bodoniano) is open on Saturdays from 9:00 to 13:00, and from Monday to Friday from 9:00 to 13:00 upon reservation (tel: 0521 220411/ e-mail: It is closed on Sundays and public holidays.

Please note, I recommend you checking the official website for updated information before your visit and if you are visiting the palace on holidays, I suggest you check the events and press release on the homepage because there might be news about special opening hours (for example, during the Labor’s Day).

1.2 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:

  • the Palatina Library and the Bodonian Museum can be visited free of charge 
  • 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
  • reduced-price ticket (€ 5) is available for groups that want to visit only the Farnese Theater only on Sunday mornings, but reservation in advance by Thursday is compulsory (e-mail:

Now, lets start our journey from the Farnese Theater. Please note, by going through the theater and the exhibition space behind it, you will enter the National Gallery of Parma.

2. The Farnese Theater

2.1 History

Located on the first floor of the Palazzo della Pilotta, the Farnese Theater occupies a huge hall, which was originally designed as an antiquarium and used for the court’s knightly exercises. Between the end of 1617 and the autumn of 1618, it was transformed into a theater.

During the Farnese period

Built within a short time using light materials such as wood and painted stucco, the theater was commissioned by Ranuccio I Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza from 1592 until his death (1622). It was actually an event of great political importance because Ranuccio intended to take the opportunity to strengthen his ties with the Medici family when Cosimo II de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, scheduled a stop in Parma during his trip from Tuscany to Milan to visit the tomb of Charles Borromeo. Ranuccio re-established ties with the Medici family in 1615 with a marriage agreement and this time, during the Grand Duke’s visit, he wanted to show Cosimo and even the whole Italian aristocracy the grandeur and splendor of the Farnese family.

In 1617, Giovan Battista Aleotti, also called “L’Argenta” because of his birthplace, was invited to Parma for the project. Being an architect and hydraulic engineer whose interests ranged from mathematics to architecture, to stagecraft and philosophy, he had already built the Teatro degli Intrepidi in Ferrara in 1605 and worked for the Farnese family in Parma in 1616. Cosimo’s planned journey ended in 1619, but the inauguration of the theater only took place in 1628, on the occasion of the wedding between Margherita de’ Medici and Odoardo Farnese, with the performance of “Mercurio e Marte” (Mercury and Mars). It is said that the performance was enriched by a tournament and highlighted by a spectacular naumachia (the staging of naval battles as mass entertainment), for which it was necessary to splash the audience with a huge amount of water, pumped through a series of water tanks under the stage.

Given the complexity of the set-ups and the functioning of the stage machinery, as well as the high cost of the performances, the theater was only used nine times from 1652 to 1732, on the occasion of illustrious visits or marriages of the Farnese court. If you are interested in what the nine performances are, please click here. In 1689 a small theater, designed by the Bolognese architect Stefano Lolli, was commissioned by Ranuccio II Farnese in the space adjacent to the grand theater.

From 1732 to today

During the reign of the House of Bourbon, whose intellectual and philosophical ideas of enlightenment didn’t match well with the grandeur of the Baroque theater, the Farnese Theater was neglected and slowly filled with dust. It was finally abandoned when Marie Louise commissioned the new ducal theater, inaugurated in 1829. Though neglected and then abandoned, the theater didn’t just remain empty and silent. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, numerous princes, artists and writers came to visit it, including the French philosopher Montesquieu and the English writer and social critic Charles Dickens. Evidence can be found in their travel journals but mostly, they sighed for the cracked and rotten wood, the ragged paintings, the faded colors, the stains, the dirt and the disorder. As mentioned by the indignant Dickens, even mice became the master of the field. Partial restorations took place in 1847 but the first time the theater reopened its door to the public was on 5th September, 1909, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the referendum, which decided the Province of Parma would become part of the Kingdom of Italy.

During the Second World War, in 1944, a series of bombing destroyed a large part of the Pilotta Palace, including the Farnese Theater. It was only in 1953 that the reconstruction began and the first urgent intervention was the reconstruction of the vault. Unfortunately most of the plaster sculptures of the Reti family were destroyed, but the fresco decorations, which was thought for centuries completely lost, resurged from the dust and repainting. In 1965 the intervention was completed and the theater was restored to its “original grandeur”. Nowadays, it’s mostly used as a space for entertainment and exhibition and don’t forget, it’s also the entrance hall to the National Gallery of Parma.

2.2 Architecture and decoration

Designed to realize the opera-tournament, in which the melodrama merges with the game imitating war scenes, a sumptuous genre that only the princely families could afford, the Farnese Theater is one of the biggest Baroque theaters in Europe.

Once you are inside the theater, you can admire the ancient structure inspired by Roman architects such as Vitruvius and Sebastiano Serlio. What’s more, you can see influences of the Roman theater designed by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola in the courtyard of Palazzo Farnese in Piacenza, of the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza designed by Palladio and Vincenzo Scamozzi, as well as of the Buontalenti theater in the Vasari Palace of the Uffizi in Florence. In design, Aleotti might have also looked into the Teatro delle Saline in Piacenza, which was built in 1592 and was one of the first fixed theaters in a closed environment. In it, the audience seats were laid out in the “U” shape, which can also be seen in the Farnese Theater in Parma.

The entrance is framed by two pairs of columns, surmounted by a ducal crown. Once you enter, you should see the monumental proscenium with niches originally filled with stucco statues. Above the Farnese ducal coat of arms, there is a writing dedicated to the muses who are protectors of the theater. It writes that the theater was inaugurated in 1618 but in reality, it was only inaugurated ten years later, in 1628. The entire stage is 40 meters deep and 12 meters wide. With three orders of sliding sheets on rails as well as the upper galleries for movement, it allowed the creation of the first mobile scenes of theatrical culture. The spaces around and under the stage are hidden from the public, which are specially invented by Aleotti for the Farnese Theater for the “marvel“. In my opinion, it does seem like our present-day 4-D movie theaters.

When you stand in front of the stage and look back, you will have a great view of the entire cavea, (Latin for “enclosure”), which refers to the seating sections. Surmounted by a double loggia, which is only partially accessible, this area is made up of fourteen steps and could accommodate over three thousand spectators. If you have been to Vicenza, does the loggia remind you of some building in the city? Each module of the loggia is similar to the structure called Palladian window, or Serlian window, which is a large window consisting of a central arched section flanked by two narrow rectangular sections. It became popular in Italy after Palladio applied it to the Basilica Palladiana in Vicenza. The cavea was designed in the elongated “U” shape because Aleotti wanted to provide perfect acoustics and a good view of the stage for the entire audience. At the center of the cavea, we find the balcony reserved for the dukes.

Besides the frescoes, it’s impossible to miss the two equestrian statues of Alexander and Ottavio Farnese, which are still placed nowadays within the two triumphal arches that are connected to the steps of the cavea. Alexander, father of Ranuccio I and Captain-General of the Army of Flanders, is accompanied by Victory and a military stratagem while Ottavio, Ranuccio I’s grandfather, is flanked by Liberality and Courage.

2.3 Exhibition of decorative arts

Please note, behind the main stage, you will see a large hall exhibiting decorative objects and by going through this hall, you will enter the National Gallery of Parma.

3. Palatina Library

Compared with modern libraries, these centuries-old libraries always overwhelm me with the power of knowledge. By walking through it, you will see numerous volumes on the wooden shelves, some of which are already torn. They are witnesses of the culture and history of this region or the entire Italy. As I learnt from Wikipedia, today the Library’s collection contains more than 708,000 printed works, about 6620 manuscripts, 3042 incunabula and 52,470 stamps. It holds some mediaeval manuscripts, among which the biblical manuscripts 360 (a Greek minuscule manuscript of the New Testament on parchment with marginalia. Paleographically it has been assigned to the 11th century.) and 361 (a Greek minuscule manuscript of the New Testament on parchment adapted for liturgical use. Paleographically it has been assigned to the 13th century.) are particularly noteworthy.

18th century

The Palatina Library was born on 1st August 1761, when Don Philip of Bourbon, Duke of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla, appointed Paolo Maria Paciaudi as the antiquarian and librarian with a decree, in which he expressed the will of equipping his duchy with a library for public benefits. As I mentioned when I was talking about the Farnese Theater, Philip was an enlightened ruler who stimulated education and philosophy and he intended to establish a library to serve the education of all kinds in a country where the culture was in serious decline. The library had to be created, not depending on the previous collections accumulated by the House of Farnese, which Charles III of Spain, brother of Don Philip, transferred to Naples in 1736.

Paolo Maria Paciaudi came to Parma in 1762, after traveling in France where he met politicians, courtiers and intellectuals and visited libraries and observed their systems. After failing to acquire the collections of Cardinal Domenico Passionei in Rome and of the Pertusati family of Milan, Paciaudi, depending on his bibliographic knowledge, bought thousands of books in the market. He ordered the books by subject, dividing them into six main classes, Theology, Nomology, Philosophy, History, Philology and Liberal and Mechanic Arts, and arranged them on the wooden neoclassical shelves designed by the French architect Ennemond Alexandre Petitot, thus the name of the long corridor, “Petitot Gallery“. In May 1769 , the library was officially inaugurated, in the presence of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, brother-in-law of Don Ferdinand of Bourbon (son of Don Philip of Bourbon).

19th century

In the 19th century, for a long period, the fate of the library went hand in hand with the political events of the city of Parma, from the French occupation to the reign under Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma from 1814 to 1847. As a liberal sovereign who cared about this place of culture, she encouraged the growth of its heritage, that is to say, the expansion of the halls, as well as their embellishment. If you read my posts about the National Galley of Parma, you will see the imposing hall named after her. In 1804, the Napoleonic administration of the duchy appointed Angelo Pezzana as the director of the library, a position he held till 1862. He not only managed to acquire the best ancient and modern works that were missing, but also succeeded in assuring important manuscripts and printed collections. He catalogued the books under five classes, Theology, Jurisprudence, Science and Arts, Belle-Lettere (Fine Literature) and History.

20th century

In the 20th century, Giovanni Masi was the director of the library from 1935 to 1952 and he was confronted with the rough task of reconstructing the library, which was severely damaged during the 1944 bombing that destroyed part of the Pilotta. The rebuilt “Petitot Gallery” was inaugurated by Maria Teresa Danieli Polidori, director of the library from 1952 to 1957.

Please note, the Music Section of the Biblioteca Palatina has a collection that exceeds 170,000 volumes, which includes handwritten and printed sheet music books, periodicals, correspondence as well as books of musical literature. It documents, in a special way, the musical activity of the city and its surroundings from the 18th to the 19th centuries. If you wanna know more about the (hi)story of the library, please click here and read it on the official website.

4. National Archaeological Museum of Parma

Sadly, during my visit (2018-05), a large part of the museum was closed due to restoration work and I visited only a few rooms. Here I’ll give you a brief introduction and hopefully during your visit, the restoration would have already been completed.

The National Archaeological Museum of Parma is one of the oldest museums in Italy, which was established in 1760 to house the precious findings from the excavations of the Roman city, Veleia (an ancient town of Aemilia). In the next two centuries, it was enriched with not only the acquisition of Egyptian, Etruscan and Roman collections but also artifacts from the scientific excavations conducted throughout the Parma area. Most importantly, since its foundation, the museum has been a point of reference for archaeological research in the duchy.

The museum takes up two floors, with the upper floor housing collections not related to the territory of Parma such as the EgyptianGreekEtruscan collections and the findings from the excavations of Rome and Veleia. Particularly noteworthy on this floor are the famous Tabula Alimentaria Traianea (the largest Roman inscription tablet) and the 12 marble statues of the members of the Julio-Claudia family. On the lower floor, you will learn about the history of the territory of Parma from the Palaeolithic to the High Middle Ages.

Also located in the Pilotta Palace is the Bodoni Museum, a museum dedicated to Giambattista Bodoni, a famous Italian typographer, type-designer, compositor, printer and publisher. Its treasure is composed of thousands of volumes, a rich correspondence and various typographic tools of Bodoni’s printing office. If you are interested, please check the opening hours because on weekdays it’s only open upon reservation.

By now, I’ve finished introducing to you the Farnese Theater and the Palatina Library and giving you a brief introduction to the Archaeological Museum and the Bodoni Museum. In my other two posts, I wrote about the National Gallery of Parma, which is located in the same palace as the theater and the library. Trust me, if you come to Parma, the Pilotta complex is a must-see not only because it hosts the amazing “La Scapigliata” by Leonardo da Vinci and some masterpieces by Correggio but also because of the ups and downs it has gone through and the history it has witnessed.

Palazzo della Pilotta – the Farnese Theater & the Palatina Library was last modified: March 5th, 2020 by Dong

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.