Piacenza: Palazzo Farnese

The Palazzo Farnese.

The Palazzo Farnese is an enormous palazzo in the centre of Piacenza. If the plans for the building had been fully executed, it would have been twice as large, but the palazzo was in fact never completed. Its history is nonetheless intriguing and starts with the Visconti family from Milan. The Viscontis became masters of Piacenza in 1335 and it was Galeazzo II Visconti, Lord of Milan (see Milan: Castello Sforzesco), who in 1373 ordered the construction of a citadel there. The Piazza della Cittadella is named after this medieval fortress. Part of the stronghold has been preserved, although that was not at all intended. The part of the Palazzo Farnese to the west of the inner court is more or less the old Cittadella Viscontea, of which the two corner towers and battlements remind us of how the building once served a military purpose.

In 1538 Ottavio Farnese married Margaret of Austria, an illegitimate daughter of the emperor Charles V. It was Margaret who wanted the former citadel of the Viscontis replaced and who commissioned the new Palazzo Farnese. The first design for the new palazzo was made in 1558 by the architect Francesco Paciotto (1521-1591) from Urbino. However, actual construction did not commence, and so in 1561 Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-1573) was hired to make changes to the design. The first construction phase subsequently ran until about 1568, but then there was a pause of at least twenty years before the project was revitalised by Margaret’s son Alessandro Farnese. Alessandro’s son Ranuccio, Duke of Parma and Piacenza between 1592 and 1622, continued the building activities until 1602, when the palazzo was declared complete for the moment. The original plans for the Palazzo Farnese envisioned a rectangular palazzo comprising an inner court surrounded by four wings. About half of what had been planned had now been realised.

Inner court of the Palazzo Farnese; the remains of the Cittadella Viscontea are visible.

After 1602 it was mostly the interior of the Palazzo Farnese that was thoroughly altered and embellished. But then in 1731 Antonio Farnese died, the last Duke of Parma and Piacenza from the Farnese family. Crown prince Charles of Bourbon of Spain, the future Charles III, became the new Duke, for the simple reason that his mother Elisabetta Farnese was the late Antonio’s niece. After the arrival of the Bourbon family, the Palazzo Farnese fell into disrepair and much of the art from the palazzo was moved to Naples, of which Charles had become King in 1734. It is a very sad story, but there is no need to tell it in detail here. In the nineteenth century the Palazzo Farnese became state property and in 1976 the building was made available to the municipality of Piacenza (the comune did not become the owner of the palazzo until 2014). The complex currently houses the Musei Civici, the municipal museums of which the first were opened in 1988. In this post I will discuss some of the highlights of the museums, of which there are nine.

Wooden scale model of the Palazzo Farnese, as envisioned by Vignola.

Armour by Pompeo della Cesa.

Arms and armour

The Armeria is the small arms museum of the Musei Civici. It offers a collection of weapons and armour that mostly dates from the sixteenth century. Many of the objects that have been put on display were once part of the personal collection of count Antonio Parma (1787-1850), who – in spite of his name – was not from Parma, but from Piacenza. The true highlight of the collection is a suit of armour made by the famous Milanese armourer Pompeo della Cesa (ca. 1537-1610). Della Cesa also made armour for Alessandro Farnese, already mentioned above, but the suit that is exhibited in the Armeria was made for the Dal Verme family.


In the section dedicated to sculpture we find, among other things, a Madonna and Child that were once part of the façade of the Palazzo Gotico in the centre of Piacenza. The statue dates from the first half of the thirteenth century and originally stood in the church of Santa Maria in Bigulis. That church was demolished in 1281 to make way for the Palazzo. The statue was first installed in a niche in the west side of the Palazzo Gotico and later moved to a niche in the north side, overlooking the Piazza dei Cavalli. In 1812 the ‘Madonna di Piazza’ was again moved, this time to the church of San Francesco, but it was quickly returned to the façade of the Palazzo Gotico. In 1988 the original statue was added to the collection of the Palazzo Farnese; the façade of the Palazzo Gotico nowadays sports a replica.

Tympanum with a Majestas Domini, second half of the 12th century.

In the museum collection we find much work by local sculptors, usually in the Romanesque style and influenced by the sculptors Niccolò (or Nicholaus) and Wiligelmus. The two men are assumed to have worked together on the façade of the cathedral of Piacenza. The style of Benedetto Antelami (ca. 1150-1230) is visible in some works as well. Among the highlights are statues of the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel and a tympanum featuring the Majestas Domini, all from the twelfth century. And then there is the Benvegnù relief, which was named after the most conspicuous word that is mentioned on it: benvegnù, or ‘welcome’ in the Italian vernacular of the Middle Ages. The relief could originally be seen above the entrance to the castle of Montechiaro, which lies about twenty kilometres south of Piacenza. Owners of the castle were, since 1322, the Anguissola family from Piacenza. It follows that the relief probably dates from that era. On the relief, we see how the lord and lady of the castle (the two figures on the right) show their hospitality by welcoming a group of five people into their home. One of the guests has a falcon on his arm. The text on the relief is a bit weathered and difficult to read, but it can be translated as follows:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are all welcome (bevegnù), and whoever enters here will be welcomed (recevù) in the best way possible.”

Benvegnù relief.

The museum also has some sculptural work that was made slightly later, such as a collection of tondi with busts of apostles. These were made in 1460-1480 by a local artist.

Tondi with busts of the apostles (15th century).

Medieval frescoes

Almost all of the medieval frescoes in this section of the museum are from the deconsecrated church of San Lorenzo in Piacenza. This church was probably built in the twelfth century. In 1261 it passed into the hands of the Augustinians, who rebuilt the church. Around the year 1600 the walls of the building were plastered over, so that the late medieval frescoes adorning these walls were no longer visible. Up until 1805 the San Lorenzo was used as a church. It then served as, among other things, a stable, nightclub, army storage facility and boat house. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the frescoes were rediscovered. In 1958 part of the vault of the former church collapsed; two years later the frescoes were carefully detached and restored. Since 1988 they can be admired in the Palazzo Farnese. They can be divided into two separate categories.

Scenes from the life of Catherine of Alexandria – Maestro di Santa Caterina.

Celebration of Mass – Bartolomeo and Jacopino da Reggio.

First of all, there are frescoes that are attributed to a painter called the Maestro di Santa Caterina. His real name is unknown, but it is assumed that he was a pupil or follower of the Milanese painter Giovannino de’ Grassi (1350-1398). For one of the chapels in the San Lorenzo the Maestro di Santa Caterina painted a series of frescoes about the life of Catherine of Alexandria. She was said to have been a Christian woman who defeated fifty pagan philosophers and orators during a theological debate organised by the emperor Maxentius (306-312). Her victory supposedly caused many of her opponents to convert to Christianity themselves. Afterwards, Maxentius had her tortured and condemned to death on the breaking wheel, which broke into pieces as she touched it. The emperor then had her decapitated. The frescoes can be dated to 1370-1400.

For the apse of the San Lorenzo the same artist painted a large fresco of the Baptism of Christ. Below the large scene of the Baptism we see smaller scenes from the Book of Daniel. The left and central scene feature the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, while in the right scene we see a party held by the Babylonian prince Belshazzar. Unfortunately the bottom part of these scenes is missing, but the colours are still (or again) quite fresh and the details are wonderful. Note for instance the text on the wall in the Belshazzar fresco. This must be the (Aramaic) text Mene mene tekel ufarsin from Daniel 5:25. Only Daniel was able to read and interpret these words. What they came down to was that the Babylonian Empire was doomed.

Baptism of Christ and scenes from the Book of Daniel – Maestro di Santa Caterina.

The second group of frescoes is also from the church of San Lorenzo, but these frescoes are attributed to Bartolomeo and Jacopino da Reggio. We have previously seen some of their work in the church of San Giovanni in Canale in Piacenza. In the Palazzo Farnese we can admire a Trinity (although loss of the left part has reduced it to a Duality) and a Coronation of the Virgin. Both frescoes date from 1355-1360. A Celebration of Mass (see above) is also attributed to Bartolomeo and Jacopino. Note the splendid details of this fresco: the singing monks have been painted with their mouths open and in their book of psalms we can clearly see the words and musical notes.

Frescoes by Bartolomeo and Jacopino da Reggio.


More paintings can be found in the Pinacoteca of the Palazzo. The supreme highlight and the museum’s most prized possession is undoubtedly a tondo by the Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445-1510). The tondo features the Virgin Mary in adoration of her son, baby Jesus. The young Saint John the Baptist – San Giovannino in Italian – has been depicted as well. In the background we see two rose bushes and a landscape with mountains. The painting previously hung in the Castello di Bardi, a castle that is situated some forty kilometres south of Piacenza. The castle was the property of the Landi family from Piacenza.

Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist – Sandro Botticelli.

The tondo was first mentioned in a document in 1642, which means we do not know anything about the early history of the work. There is no record of the work being commissioned from Botticelli either. However, given the striking similarities between the tondo in the Palazzo Farnese and other works by Botticelli, such as the Madonna del Magnificat in Florence and the Madonna del Libro in Milan, no one seriously disputes that the work in Piacenza was made by the great Florentine master. The tondo is dated to 1475-1480 and the circular frame is attributed to the workshop of Giuliano da Maiano (ca. 1432-1490). The castle of Bardi became state property in 1860, after which the mayor of Piacenza requested the tondo to be transferred to his comune.

Adoration of the Magi – Simone dei Crocifissi.

In the Pinacoteca we may also admire seventeen small paintings from the Rizzi-Vaccari collection. The collection is composed of panel paintings that two members of the Rizzi family donated to the museums of the Palazzo Farnese in 2006. The paintings have been kept together and put on display in a separate room. Among the highlights are a Madonna and Child with angels that is attributed to Sano di Pietro (1405-1481) from Siena and a particularly well done Adoration of the Magi, attributed to Simone dei Crocifissi (ca. 1330-1399).

The Pinacoteca has several more modern works as well. A good example is an enormous painting by Ilario Spolverini (1657-1734) from Parma that features Joshua commanding the sun to stand still at Gibeon. This story is told in Joshua 10:12:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies.” (NIV)

With the Lord on his side, Joshua then crushed the Amorites. Spolverini made his panel painting in 1721-1726. It was commissioned from him by Dorothea Sophie of Neuburg. She was first married to Odoardo Farnese and subsequently to his half-brother Francesco Farnese. From her first marriage a daughter was born in 1692. This Elisabetta Farnese married King Philip V of Spain, which paved the way for her son Charles of Bourbon to become Duke of Parma and Piacenza in 1731. That story has already been told above and Elisabetta will re-enter the stage when I discuss the Fasti Farnesiani.

Joshua at Gibeon – Ilario Spolverini.

Fasti Farnesiani

Pope Paulus III (Alessandro Farnese) – Sebastiano Ricci.

Perhaps the term Fasti Farnesiani makes one think of the fasti consulares or fasti triumphales, i.e. the lists of Roman consuls and generals that had earned to right to celebrate a triumph. These lists were found in the Forum Romanum in Rome during excavations that had been initiated by Alessandro Farnese. It should be stressed that he was not Alessandro Farnese, son of Margaret of Austria, but that Alessandro Farnese’s uncle (his father’s older brother). It is not inconceivable that Ranuccio II, Duke of Parma and Piacenza between 1646 and 1694, had the fasti in Rome in mind when he commissioned the Fasti Farnesiani in Piacenza, but is hard to be certain. The Latin word fastus has a second meaning: ‘pride’ or ‘haughtiness’. The Fasti Farnesiani are all about a series of paintings that celebrate the great deeds of members of the Farnese family, deeds that made the family proud. Ranuccio II specifically chose two Farneses who – rather confusingly – were both called Alessandro Farnese. One was Pope Paulus III (1534-1549), the man who was responsible for creating the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza in 1545. The second Alessandro Farnese was Margaret of Austria’s son, already mentioned above, a famous general.

A grand total of 19 paintings featuring Pope Paulus III and his deeds were made, all by Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734). Ricci also painted some of the works celebrating the heroic exploits of general Alessandro Farnese, but most of the 23 panels with this theme were made by Giovanni Evangelista Draghi (1654-1712). One of the paintings about Paulus shows the Pope approving the design of the castle of Piacenza. This cannot be the Palazzo Farnese; the scene must refer to a castle planned by Pier Luigi Farnese, the first Duke of Parma and Piacenza. He was a one of Paulus’ illegitimate sons: the future pope had fathered him when he was still a cardinal. Pier Luigi was murdered in 1547 and the castle was never built. Another painting shows how Pope Paulus makes peace between the emperor Charles V and King Francis I of France, two eternal rivals. General Alessandro Farnese can be seen taking command of the Army of Flanders and conquering Antwerp, which was his most important achievement. Neither of the two collections of paintings is complete: Charles of Bourbon had all of them moved to Naples and only part of the paintings were returned to Piacenza. The empty spots on the walls have been filled with photographic reproductions.

Fasti Farnesiani with original works and photographic reproductions.

And then there is a third series of Fasti Farnesiani. This time the paintings were commissioned by Francesco Farnese, who ruled the Duchy between 1694 and 1727. When his stepdaughter Elisabetta Farnese married King Philip V of Spain in 1714, Francesco hired the aforementioned painter Ilario Spolverini to make several panel paintings, which were completed in 1717-1719. Unfortunately the collection became divided between Piacenza, Parma and the Royal Palace of Caserta, built by Charles of Bourbon as a residence for the Kings of Naples and Sicily.

Coach museum

Although our expectations were modest, the Museo delle Carrozze proved to be a pleasant surprise. It has a collection of a few dozen coaches from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The story of the museum begins in 1948, the year that count Silvestro Brondelli di Brondello donated thirty coaches that he had inherited from his uncle to the city of Piacenza. More and more coaches were added to the collection, and after a partial opening in 1990 the coach museum opened its doors to the public in 1998. Many different types of coaches have been put on display: fast coaches, slow coaches, coaches used for funerals, coaches used by fire brigades, coaches for travel on ice etcetera. The Museo delle Carrozze can be found in the basement of the Palazzo Farnese.

Museo delle Carrozze.

Archaeological museum

The archaeological museum is not that special, but it does have one world-famous object: a bronze sheep’s liver from the second or first century BCE that is known as the Fegato Etrusco. Etruscan soothsayers – haruspices – used real sheep’s livers to read the will of the gods and predict the future. The Fegato Etrusco was found in 1877 in Gossolengo, not far from Piacenza.

Bronze sheep’s liver (Fegato Etrusco).

Along the edges of the liver we can read the names of sixteen deities that have a connection with heaven, water, earth or the underworld. It should be noted that we still know fairly little about Etruscan religion, but some of the names can be linked to Greek and Roman gods. Tinia, for instance, can be equated to Zeus/Jupiter, and in the names of Uni and Neth we may recognise those of Juno and Neptune. Some of the names reappear on the inner part of the liver. This part is split between a pars familiaris and a pars hostilis. If a real sheep’s liver was examined and signs were found on the pars familiaris, it was considered a favourable omen. Signs on the ‘hostile side’ were obviously considered unfavourable. I already knew the Fegato Etrusco from the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, the Netherlands, which has a replica of the liver.

I have so far discussed seven out of nine museums and will merely mention the remaining two. Visitors may additionally enjoy a glass and ceramics museum and a museum dedicated to the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century. Doubtlessly these sections of the Palazzo Farnese are interesting as well, but we were a bit tired of museum stuff and therefore skipped them. We will certainly return to Piacenza one day.

Sources: Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 15-16, the website of the comune of Piacenza, the website and information panels of the Palazzo Farnese and Italian Wikipedia.


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