The cathedral of Parma is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Santa Maria Assunta in Italian. It is an impressive building on the east side of the Piazza del Duomo, with the Baptistery and the episcopal palace housing the museum of the diocese (Museo Diocesano) on the south and west sides respectively. Unlike the Baptistery and museum, the cathedral can be visited for free. However, if you want to admire the splendid interior on a dark day, make sure you have enough 2 Euro coins in your pocket, for that is the price you pay to turn on the lights in the nave and choir. Unfortunately it is not yet possible to pay with cards. It is essential to have at least one 2 Euro coin available, as the dazzling dome fresco painted by the great artist Correggio looks so much better with the lights on. Given the official name of the cathedral it should hardly come as a surprise that the theme of the fresco is the Assumption of the Virgin.
Christianity managed to get a foothold in Roman Parma in the fourth century. The first bishop of the city was said to have been a certain Urbanus or Urbano. Little is known about him with certainty. We for instance do not know whether it was Urbanus who was responsible for the construction of the first cathedral, which must have been built at some stage in Late Antiquity. In any case this Paleochristian cathedral was destroyed by a fire in the ninth century. Bishop Wibod or Guibodo (ca. 855-895) subsequently launched a rebuilding campaign, but in the eleventh century the second cathedral of Parma was also destroyed by a fire. Inside the cathedral we may read that the second rebuilding started under bishop Ugo, but other sources claim that his successor Pietro Cadalo was responsible. However this may be, there can be no doubt that Cadalo played an important role in the project, although the main reason we still remember him today is that he also served as antipope Honorius II (1061-1064). An important church reform initiated by Pope Nicholas II (1059-1061) had regretfully resulted in the election of two popes in 1061. Pope Nicholas had issued a new decree containing rules for the election of the Holy Father. Both the Roman nobility and the Holy Roman emperor had lost their influence. From now on, only the cardinals were involved in the election. The decree caused a lot of friction, as did the cordial relations that Nicholas had established with the Normans in Southern Italy.
After Nicholas’ death the cardinals, led by Hildebrand, elected the bishop of Lucca as Pope Alexander II (1061-1073). However, he did not receive support from Agnes of Poitou, the widow of the emperor Henry III and mother of his son Henry IV, then still a boy. Together with the Longobard bishops she nominated Pietro Cadalo as pope. Cadalo also had the support of the Roman aristocracy and in May of 1063 he managed to capture the Castel Sant’Angelo. The castle remained in his hands for many months, but in 1064 he was formally deposed as pope in favour of his rival Alexander. Nevertheless, right up until his death in 1072 antipope Honorius II continued to consider himself the legitimate pope, even though his power did not extend beyond his own diocese of Parma. There can be little doubt that he used the time that was left to him to leave his mark on the new cathedral of the city. In 1106 the Duomo was consecrated by Pope Paschalis II (1099-1118). Then, in the final quarter of the twelfth century, bishop Bernardo II had an important element added to the building. The conspicuous Romanesque hut-shaped façade that he commissioned – a facciata a capanna as the Italians say – was subsequently completed in 1178. The well-known sculptor Benedetto Antelami (ca. 1150-1230) was involved in both this project and the interior design of the Duomo. I will come to speak of Antelami in just a moment.
The campanile of the cathedral, which is 63 metres high, was finished in 1294. It was built by order of Obizzo Sanvitale, who served as bishop of Parma between 1257 and 1295. Topping the spire is a gilded bronze statue that functions as a weather vane. In the local dialect it is called the Angiol d’Or or golden angel. The statue that we may currently admire is a copy; the original is now in the Museo Diocesano. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century the Duomo was extensively remodelled. Chapels were added on both sides of the building, many changes were made to the interior and the cathedral got the dome of which the inside would later be so beautifully decorated by the aforementioned Correggio.
While the hut-shaped façade of the Duomo is still clearly Romanesque, the campanile – which is a century younger – already has the pointed arches that are so characteristic of Gothic architecture. The façade is plain and simple, but it does have a couple of elements that catch the eye. First of all, it has three horizontal loggias or colonnades. Then there is the splendid vertical loggia (pròtiro) supported by lions. These lions were made in 1281 and they are attributed to the sculptor Giambono da Bissone, the man who probably also made the lions of the cathedral of Cremona. We know little about him, but he is counted among the Maestri campionesi, specialised craftsmen from Campione d’Italia near the border with Switzerland. The sculptures on the inside of the first arch of the pròtiro are particularly interesting. Here we see the months of the year, beginning with March (lower left corner) and ending with January (lower right corner). The details are marvellous. We for instance see the month of January represented by a two-faced figure, the month of September by someone involved in the grape harvest and the month of November by a butcher killing a pig for the winter season.
The main door of the cathedral dates from 1491 or 1494, depending on the source. The door was made by Luchino de’ Bonati, also known as Luchino Bianchino, a local wood carver. To the right of this door we find an inscription incorporated into the building. This is the tombstone of Blasius of Parma (ca. 1350-1416), also known as Biagio Pelacani in Italian. A mathematician and philosopher, Pelacani taught at the universities of Bologna, Padova and Pavia. He moreover occupied himself with astrology, which in those days was seen as science. Being a scientist was not without risk in the fourteenth century. In 1396 Biagio Pelacani was prosecuted and convicted for having heretical thoughts. However, his work as a scientist was so highly admired that he was allowed to continue his teaching in Padova under the protection of the Da Carrara family. After his death in Parma in 1416 he was buried in the local Duomo, which explains the presence of his tombstone on the façade of the building.
Interior – Renaissance paintings
The splendid interior of the Duomo (see the image above) is likely to make an impression on visitors. Although usually enough natural light enters the building through the windows of the clerestory to be able to admire the decorations in the nave, it might be wise to turn on the artificial lighting. With a little bit of extra light one has an even better view of the fine details of the Renaissance paintings. The cross-vaults were painted between 1555 and 1557 by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli (ca. 1500-1569), a Parmesan painter. Bedoli also painted the large apse fresco of the cathedral (1538-1544). It represents Christ in Glory between the cross to which he was nailed and the column against which he was scourged.
The walls of the nave were decorated with frescoes painted by Lattanzio Gambara (ca. 1530-1574). This painter was from Brescia in Lombardy, and I have previously discussed some of his work in that city. His commissions in Brescia were far more modest and far less important than the job he was given in Parma in 1567. In the cathedral he painted, from bottom to top, scenes from the Old Testament, scenes from the New Testament and several allegorical figures. The fresco cycle, which was completed in 1573, was complemented with a fresco of the Ascension of Christ on the counter-façade above the main entrance. The cycle may surely be seen as Lattanzio Gambara’s magnum opus. Just a year after its completion, the painter died under mysterious circumstances when he fell off a scaffold.
Gambara’s fresco cycle is mainly impressive because of its sheer size, but it cannot be considered truly original. In that respect it loses out to the simply fantastic dome fresco that Correggio painted. In the BBC-series Italy Unpacked (see the episode The Art of the Feast) art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon rightfully called Correggio’s fresco “one of the most innovative, awe-inspiring works of art of the whole Renaissance”. The painter’s real name was actually Antonio Allegri (1489-1534), but most people called him Il Correggio, after the town in the Emilia-Romagna where he was born and later died. In 1522 he was commissioned to paint the inside of the dome and in 1524 he began executing this very challenging assignment. At the time he had just completed a similar fresco for the church of San Giovanni Evangelista elsewhere in Parma, and in a sense that fresco can be seen as the dress rehearsal for his Assumption in the cathedral. That gigantic fresco, which measures 10.93 by 11.95 metres, was completed in 1529 or 1530. The beautiful work looks a lot like a whirlwind or vortex. Visitors looking up will perhaps experience a feeling of being sucked up towards heaven, together with the dozens of other people and angels featured in the fresco.
The fresco of the Assumption basically shows us two contrary movements. Surrounded by figures such as Adam and Eve, the Virgin Mary can be seen ascending, while down below the apostles who have put her in her tomb look on in astonishment. Simultaneously the Virgin’s son Jesus Christ is descending from heaven to meet his mother. This literally makes him the central figure of the fresco, which has the Assumption of his mother as its theme. Although Correggio’s work is nowadays generally seen as a masterpiece, reviews in the past have been mixed. The work has been both admired and slammed. In the aforementioned Italy Unpacked episode Graham-Dixon for instance mentions both the praise of the Venetian painter Titian (1488-1576) and the severe disapproval of an anonymous canon, who allegedly called the work a ‘stew of frog’s legs’ (un guazzetto di zampe di rane). The fresco does feature naked behinds and occasionally a few genitals, but most viewers in the twenty-first century are unlikely to find the fresco as shocking as several of Correggio’s contemporaries.
Interior – medieval decorations
Although the interior of the Duomo is dominated by decorations in the style of the Renaissance, quite a few medieval decorations have been preserved. I first of all refer to the surviving Romanesque capitals. These date from the beginning of the twelfth century. According to this marvellous collection of images, they are attributed to the sculptor Niccolò (or Nicholaus) and his school. Once the capitals were all painted in bright colours, but currently only one still has colour and somehow I get the impression that these are not even the original colours. This capital depicts the Virgin Mary between two angels. Other capitals have knights on horseback, tales from the Bible (Abraham and Isaac for example) and mythological creatures. The high altar also dates from the Middle Ages. It was made in the twelfth or thirteenth century and features beautiful reliefs of the apostles and Jesus Christ giving his blessing.
The cathedral’s most prized possession among the medieval decorations must be the relief of the Deposition from the Cross that Benedetto Antelami sculpted in 1178. The Deposition can currently be found in the right transept of the building. The panel must have once been part of a pulpit, but this pulpit was disassembled in the sixteenth century. Fortunately the Deposition was preserved. There is no doubt at all that Antelami made the relief and the year 1178 is also one hundred percent certain, for the simple reason that the relief features a long text in Latin, which reads:
ANNO MILLENO CENTENO SEPTVAGENO / OCTAVO SCVLTOR PAT(RA)VIT M(EN)SE SE(C)V(N)DO // ANTELAMI DICTVS SCVLPTOR FVIT HIC BENEDICTVS
Or in English: “In the 1178th year a sculptor made this in the second month. This sculptor was Benedictus, also known as Antelami.”
Assuming that the year started in March in those days, just like it does on the relief of the months outside the cathedral (see above), the ‘second month’ must refer to the month of April. A very convenient element of the relief is that captions have been added to all the figures, so that there is no need to speculate about their identity. The central figure is of course Jesus Christ, King of the Jews, who is taken from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Joseph is holding the Saviour by the waist and can be seen giving him a kiss, while Nicodemus is climbing a ladder and trying to remove the nail from Jesus’ hand. The Virgin Mary is holding his other hand against her head, one of the most touching elements of the relief. To the left of her we see Saint John the Baptist and three more women named Mary, i.e. Mary Magdalene, Mary of Clopas and Mary Salome.
The smaller figure with the banner below Jesus’ right arm represents the Triumphant Church (Ecclesia). The figure is holding a chalice and uses it to collect the blood of the Saviour. On the other side of Jesus we see a figure with a broken banner. The archangel Raphael above her forces her to bow her head. The caption makes clear that this is Synagogue, the old Jewish religion. The message conveyed by the relief is clearly that the days of Judaism are over. The panel furthermore features the archangel Gabriel, who can be seen grabbing Christ’s hand behind Mary’s head, and we also see the sun and moon. To the right of the crucifixion soldiers are playing dice for the Messiah’s robe. The dice are clearly visible in the hand of one of them, a lovely little detail. The man with the round shield is the centurion Longinus. According to the caption he recognises Jesus as the son of God (Matthew 27:54). The solemnity of the left side of the scene contrasts sharply with the utter banality of the game of dice.
Chapels and crypt
In the cathedral we find a great many interesting chapels with nice works of art. Many chapels have sixteenth-century interiors. In the chapel dedicated to Saint Agatha we may admire an impressive Crucifixion painted by Bernardino Gatti, nicknamed Il Sojaro (ca. 1495-1576). This painter was inspired by both Correggio and Pordenone. And as we have seen in Cremona and Piacenza, Il Sojaro had a reputation for completing works that the latter had left unfinished. The Cappella Centoni also has a sixteenth-century appearance, including an altarpiece by Alessandro Araldi (ca. 1460-1528). This painter made his bones decorating the Camera delle Grottesche, which is the room before the more famous Camera della Badessa or Camera di San Paolo elsewhere in Parma. The (rather shallow) chapels in the left transept are also worth a visit. Here, in the chapel dedicated to Saint Firmus, Orazio Samacchini from Bologna (1532-1577) painted the tale of Moses and the Bronze Serpent (from the Book of Numbers).
In two of the chapels the medieval decorations have been preserved. These chapels are the Cappella Valeri and Cappella del Comune. Both have beautiful fifteenth-century wall frescoes that are attributed to the relatively unknown painter Bartolino da Grossi and his studio. It is possible that Bartolino was only active in his hometown of Parma, as I have not been able to find anything about his life.
Between about 1430 and 1440 he and his associates painted frescoes in the Valeri chapel about the lives of Saints Catherine of Alexandria, Christopher and Andrew. The frescoes were commissioned by a scion of the local Valeri family who had lived in exile for a while and wanted to brush up his reputation a bit. The frescoes in the Cappella del Comune are attributed to Bartolino da Grossi as well. They date from the start of the fifteenth century and were painted in the aftermath of a plague in Parma. On the wall we see scenes from the life of Saint Sebastian, a saint who is often invoked during epidemics and who is known as a helper of plague-sufferers. Regretfully the gates of both chapels are usually kept shut, so visitors have to admire the excellent frescoes through the bars. Wikimedia Commons fortunately has a nice collection of images of the interior of the two chapels.
I have visited the Duomo of Parma twice, in 2020 and 2021, and on both occasions the crypt of the cathedral was closed. This was probably related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and apparently not even Saint Sebastian was able to keep the crypt open to the public. In this crypt the relics are kept of Saint Bernardo degli Uberti (ca. 1060-1133). He is considered the patron saint of the diocese and served as bishop of Parma between 1106 and 1133. Bernardo had a prominent role in the Congregation of Vallombrosa, a branch of the Benedictines founded in the eleventh century by Saint John Gualbert (Giovanni Gualberto; died 1073). Just six years after his death Bernardo was canonised. If the crypt is locked, it is also regretfully impossible to visit the two chapels down there. The Cappella Rusconi was painted by order of bishop Giovanni Rusconi (1380-1412). The frescoes may have been executed by Martino da Verona. The other chapel is the Cappella Ravacaldi, which was provided with splendid frescoes by Bartolino da Grossi and his team. I hope to return to Parma one day to see the real frescoes and not just some images on the Internet.
Sources: website of the Duomo, Italian Wikipedia, the brochure ‘Antelami a Parma’, Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 27-28, my Trotter travel guide for Northeast Italy and John Julius Norwich, The Popes, Chapter IX.
 The future Pope Gregorius VII (1073-1085).
 Correggio can be compared to Caravaggio, whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi, but who was from the town of Caravaggio.
 Rather oddly, an information panel in the cathedral itself claims that Correggio painted the fresco between 1530 and 1534.
 Some other parts were preserved as well, and these are kept in the Museo Diocesano and Galleria Nazionale di Parma. According to an alternative theory the combined parts constituted a dossal or rood screen rather than a pulpit.