The basilica of Santa Maria della Steccata can be counted among the most important churches in Parma. Since 1718 it has been the seat of the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George, a Catholic order with a rather shady history. The church also serves as the mausoleum of members of the Farnese and Bourbon-Parma families. The former family ruled over the duchy of Parma and Piacenza between 1545 and 1731. This duchy had been created by Pope Paulus III (1534-1549) for his illegitimate son Pier Luigi. After the death of duke Antonio Farnese in 1731 the duchy passed into the hands of the Spanish crown prince Charles of Bourbon. His mother Elisabetta Farnese was the late Antonio’s niece. The Bourbon-Parma family then remained in power – intermittently – until 1859. The head of the family still likes to call himself ‘duke of Parma and Piacenza’.
What is interesting is that both the Farnese family and Bourbon-Parma family play a role in the history of the Netherlands. Alessandro Farnese (1545-1592) and his mother Margaret of Austria (1522-1586) both served as governor of the Netherlands when these were part of the Spanish Empire (see Piacenza: Palazzo Gotico and Piazza dei Cavalli). In 1964 Carlos Hugo of Bourbon-Parma, who passed away in 2010, married the Dutch princess Irene. Irene renounced her Protestant faith and converted to Catholicism, which caused quite a stir in the Netherlands in the 1960s. The marriage ended in divorce in 1981. Carlos, Carlos Hugo and Irene’s eldest son, is currently grand master of the aforementioned Order of Saint George, or rather it Parmesan branch (there have been two branches since 1816). But no matter how interesting the history of the Farnese and Bourbon-Parma families might be, this post is mostly about the history, architecture and art of the basilica of Santa Maria della Steccata.
The name of the church refers to a fence (steccato) that had been placed around a small medieval oratory. The façade of this building had a fresco of a lactating Madonna, which drew many worshippers and pilgrims to Parma. The fence had probably been set up as a form of crowd control. Between 1521 and 1539 the oratory was replaced with a proper church. The first architect was Bernardino Zaccagni (ca. 1455-1531), who was aided by his son Giovan Francesco. Zaccagni had previously built the church of San Giovanni Evangelista in Parma. In 1525 Giovan Francesco d’Agrate (1489-after 1563) took over the project from him. The new architect was a brother of the sculptor Marco d’Agrate (ca. 1504-1574), who is known for his particularly macabre statue of Saint Bartholomew in the Duomo of Milan. The dome of the basilica, which was built between 1526 and 1527, was designed by the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546).
The church was built in the shape of a Greek cross. It has four large apses and four square chapels, but no bell-tower. Nowadays visitors use an entrance in the western apse to enter the church. However, the original entrance was on the south side of the building, on the Piazza della Steccata. In the eighteenth century the entrance was moved to the west side. The Santa Maria della Steccata somewhat reminded me of the church of Santa Maria delle Carceri in Prato. That church was designed by Giuliano da Sangallo (ca. 1445-1516). Perhaps Antonio da Sangallo was inspired by his uncle when he designed his dome in Parma?
The eastern apse of the church is no longer visible on the outside today. In the seventeenth century a sacristy was added on this side and in the eighteenth century a set of choir benches for the knights of Saint George. I already mentioned that the history of this Order is rather shady. It is in any case rather unlikely that it was the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) who personally founded the order. The alleged connection with the Eastern Roman emperors from the Komnenos and Angelos dynasties was probably made up as well. It is therefore best to assume that the Order was founded at the end of the fifteenth century by the head of the Italian-Albanian family Flavio Comneno. The name of this family refers to both the emperor Constantine – whose full name was Flavius Valerius Constantinus – and the dynasty of the Komnenoi, but obviously that does not constitute evidence that there was in fact a link with the Roman and Eastern Roman emperors. At the end of the seventeenth century the last scion of the Flavio Comneno family ceded the title of grand master to Francesco Farnese, duke of Parma and Piacenza. Pope Clemens XI (1700-1721) then granted the church of Santa Maria della Steccata to the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George in 1718.
The job to embellish the interior of the church was initially entrusted to Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, commonly known as Parmigianino (1503-1540). His statue can be found on the Piazza della Steccata. Unfortunately in the end Parmigianino only completed a fraction of the decorations. The frescoes of the three wise and three foolish virgins on the soffit of the arch in the eastern arm of the church were made by him (1530-1539). The lamps of the wise virgins are lit, while those of the foolish virgins are burned out. Visitors with sufficient Biblical knowledge will probably note that the parable in Matthew 25:1-13 mentions five wise and five foolish virgins, but perhaps there was not enough space to paint so many virgins. The rest of the decorations on the arch – rosettes, animals, garlands etc. – were also painted by Parmigianino, and so are the images in grey of Adam, Eve, Moses and Aaron.
In 1531 Parmigianino painted two organ hatches that are located in the western arm of the church. The hatches feature Saint Cecilia (see above) and king David. Both have a clear connection with music. Cecilia is considered the patron saint of music and David was famous for his ability to play the harp (although the instrument Parmigianino painted here looks more like a lute). Both paintings were retouched in 1580 by the Dutch painter Jan Soens from Den Bosch. Soens (ca. 1547-1611/14) worked at the court of duke Ranuccio I Farnese. For the Santa Maria della Steccata he also painted a splendid Flight to Egypt. In the foreground of the panel we see Saint Joseph scooping water from a little creek. On the right a startled crane is about to take off next to a duck. Mary and the Christ child are painted somewhat in the background, together with the donkey and two angels (see the image on the left).
It is not entirely clear why Parmigianino was unable to finish the work in the church, but it is certainly possible that his untimely death in 1540 prevented completion. However this may be, with Parmigianino gone, a new artist had to be found to paint the large fresco in the conch of the eastern apse. The commission was ultimately granted to Michelangelo Anselmi (ca. 1491-1556), who painted a beautiful Coronation of the Virgin. The fresco was, however, designed by Giulio Romano (1499-1546). Below this fresco and above the high altar we see the fourteenth-century fresco of the lactating Madonna which was already mentioned in the introduction of this post.
The fresco painted on the inside of the central dome is a work of Bernardino Gatti, nicknamed Il Sojaro (ca. 1495-1576). His Assumption of the Virgin was added between about 1561 and 1572. It seems almost undeniable that Il Sojaro was inspired by Correggio’s fresco of the Assumption in the cathedral of Parma. We see the same two contrary movements: the Virgin Mary is ascending while Jesus Christ is descending from heaven to meet his mother. Il Sojaro was a competent artist, but his fresco is much less impressive than that of Correggio, which is also much bigger.
The church has several interesting funerary monuments. Together with his brother Marco, Giovan Francesco d’Agrate for instance made the monument (1528-1535) for Sforzino Sforza. And then the monument for Adam Albert von Neipperg (1775-1829) immediately catches the eye. In 1821 this one-eyed Austrian general married Marie Louise of Austria, the second wife of the French emperor Napoleon. In 1814 the Congress of Vienna had granted Marie Louise the duchy of Parma and Piacenza. She ruled the duchy until her death in 1847, and then it was returned to the Bourbon-Parma family. It was Marie Louise who, in 1823, had a crypt built to serve as a mausoleum for the dukes from the Farnese and Bourbon-Parma families. That is how Alessandro Farnese, who had initially been interred elsewhere in Parma, found his final resting place in the Santa Maria della Steccata. In 2020 his sarcophagus was opened for scientific research. The researchers wanted to know whether the duke had died of natural causes in 1592 or had been poisoned. No signs of foul play were found. At the end of August of 2021 the duke was once again laid to rest in the crypt.
Scions of the Bourbon-Parma family are still buried in the crypt today. Recent examples include Carlos Hugo of Bourbon-Parma in 2010 and even more recently his sister Maria Teresa of Bourbon-Parma, who died of COVID-19 in March of 2020. Adam Albert von Neipperg’s monument was, by the way, made in 1831 by Lorenzo Bartolini (1777-1850). It originally stood in another church in Parma, but was moved to the Santa Maria della Steccata in 1905.