Parma: Teatro Farnese

The Teatro Farnese.

OK, perhaps it was not such a clever question, and perhaps I had not done my homework very well. When I bought a ticket for entry to the Palazzo della Pilotta I asked the lady at the counter whether the Teatro Farnese inside the palazzo was a copy of the famous Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza. I had visited that theatre, designed by the architect Andrea Palladio, several years previously. The lady was clearly horrified by my question. A copy? No sirree! The Teatro Olimpico was a Renaissance theatre while Parma had Baroque theatre! I was deeply ashamed about my own stupidity. Later I learnt that the Teatro Olimpico was in fact one of the sources of inspiration for the Teatro Farnese, together with other Italian Renaissance theatres and the Greek and Roman theatres from Antiquity. But the Teatro Farnese is certainly not a copy of any of these theatres. So to sum up, the ticket lady’s indignation was fully justified.


Between 1592 and 1622, the duchy of Parma and Piacenza was ruled by Ranuccio I Farnese. In 1615 this Ranuccio reached an agreement with Cosimo II de’ Medici, grand duke of Tuscany (1609-1621), about a marriage between his son and a daughter from the De’ Medici clan. Two years later, Cosimo announced his intention to travel to Milan to visit the tomb of Saint Carlo Borromeo, canonised in 1610. On his way to Milan he would also stop at Parma, and Ranuccio did everything within his power to prepare him a splendid welcome. Still in 1617, he hired the architect Giovan Battista Aleotti (1546-1636), who had previously been active in Ferrara and had much experience in the field of building theatres. Aleotti was alternatively known as l’Argenta, after his place of birth (just like Michelangelo Merisi is currently known as Il Caravaggio). The architect was ordered to build a theatre in the large armoury of the Palazzo della Pilotta. The theatre had to be completed quickly, so the main building materials were to be wood and painted plaster. The architect was already in his seventies when he was commissioned and he would leave the project for personal reasons before the theatre was finished. Nevertheless, Aleotti certainly left his mark on it.

Seats of the theatre.

Several talented craftsmen and artists helped the architect with the construction of the Teatro Farnese. Among them we find the architect Giovanni Battista Magnani (1571-1653), the sculptor Luca Reti (1598-1660) and the painters Giovan Battista Trotti, nicknamed Il Malosso (1555-1619), Sisto Badalocchio (1585-1647) and Lionello Spada (1576-1622). After Aleotti left, the marquess Enzo Bentivoglio (1575-1639) took charge of the project. The theatre was completed in 1618, but by then Cosimo II de’ Medici had already cancelled his trip because of bad health. On 21 February 1621 the grand duke died of tuberculosis, at the tender age of thirty. Fifty-two-year-old Ranuccio I Farnese followed him to the grave on 5 March 1622. The intended dynastic marriage did in fact take place, but not until 1628. In that year Ranuccio’s son and successor Odoardo I Farnese, aged sixteen, married Margherita de’ Medici, also aged sixteen and second daughter of Cosimo. On this occasion the Teatro Farnese was inaugurated with the staging of a spectacle called “Mercury and Mars”. The music was composed by the famous composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) from Cremona.

Side entrance with the equestrian statue of Ottavio Farnese.

The costs of the theatrical performances were very high. As a consequence, after 1628 the Teatro Farnese was only used a further eight times, in 1652, 1660, 1664, 1668, 1690, 1714, 1728 and 1732, usually on the occasion of a Farnese family wedding or a visit by an important person. In 1732 that person was the Spanish crown prince Charles of Bourbon. The previous year Antonio Farnese had passed away, the last duke of Parma and Piacenza from the Farnese dynasty. His niece Elisabetta Farnese was Charles of Bourbon’s mother, and he became the new duke. However, not much later Charles also became king of Naples, and that caused him to quickly lose interest in Parma and Piacenza. Much art from the north was moved to the south (see Piacenza: Palazzo Farnese). Between 1735 and 1748 the duchy was part of the Austrian territories, but in the latter year it was returned to the Bourbon family and Charles’ younger brother Philip ascended the throne. He did not care much for the Teatro Farnese, which was no longer used under the Bourbons and slowly wasted away.

As early as 1689, duke Ranuccio II Farnese (1646-1694) had a smaller theatre built next to the Teatro Farnese. Under Marie Louise of Austria, duchess of Parma between 1814 and 1847, the large theatre was finally declared redundant. The duchess had a new theatre built, the Teatro Regio di Parma, which was opened to the public in 1829 and is situated close to the church of Santa Maria della Steccata. In 1944 the Teatro Farnese suffered a near-fatal blow when the Palazzo della Pilotta was heavily damaged by an Allied bombing raid. The theatre was almost completely destroyed. Fortunately many drawings, engravings and paintings of the theatre had been made over the centuries. These made it possible to start rebuilding the Teatro Farnese in 1953, re-using much of the original wood. In 1965 the restoration work was completed. Nowadays the theatre is again used for performances.

Teatro Regio di Parma, opened in 1829.


The Teatro Farnese has the shape of a large U. It is 87 metres deep, 32 metres wide and 22 metres high. The theatre could accommodate more than 3,000 spectators, who have now been replaced with faces painted on plates. Above the ordinary seats we see two colonnades, one built on top of the other, which contain the box of honour of the dukes of Parma and Piacenza. The stage is about twelve metres wide and has a staggering depth of forty metres. The huge depth is now somewhat hidden from view because of the presence of a large curtain. Above the stage and just below the roof we see a remarkable inaugural inscription. It mentions the year 1618 (MDCXVIII) and the name of Ranuccio Farnese (RAINVTIVS FARNESIVS), and indicates that the theatre was dedicated to the Roman goddess of war Bellona and to the muses. In Antiquity the nine muses were considered protectresses of the arts.

The theatre we can visit today is, from an architectonical point of view, a faithful copy of the seventeenth-century original. However, its appearance is very different. The original wooden theatre had been completely painted white and red, thus replicating a theatre made of white marble and red porphyry. Moreover, reliefs, capitals and cornices were all gilded. When the theatre was restored, or rather rebuilt, in the twentieth century, it was apparently decided to leave the wood as it was. The original theatre was lavishly decorated with statues made by a team of sculptors led by Luca Reti. The materials they used were unfortunately not very durable. The statues were made of plaster, had iron frames and were filled with straw and rags. Many of these statues had already withered away when the 1944 bombing raid took place. In the corridors behind the stands the remains of some of them have been put on display. Here we for instance find a statue of Mercury that was no doubt intended for the opening spectacle “Mercury and Mars” in 1628.

Ottavio Farnese.

Above the two side entrances we may still admire the equestrian statues of Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese, the father and grandfather of duke Ranuccio. Alessandro Farnese was duke of Parma between 1586 and 1592 and won great fame with his campaigns in the Netherlands (see Piacenza: Palazzo Gotico en Piazza dei Cavalli). His greatest achievement was the conquest of the rich city of Antwerp in 1585. Although he is generally known as the “duke of Parma” in the Low Countries, it should be noted that he did not become duke until the death of his father Ottavio in 1586. Given his military background, the statue of Alessandro Farnese was placed on the “war side” of the Teatro Farnese. The aforementioned Roman goddess of war had been painted here. Ottavio Farnese’s statue was placed on the other side, near Ceres, the goddess of agriculture.

Lionello Spada from Bologna was responsible for painting the wooden ceiling. He was aided by Il Malosso and other painters from Bologna, Cremona and Piacenza. Virtually nothing of their work has been preserved. This has nothing to do with the 1944 bombing raid, but was a clear-cut case of neglect. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the paintings were judged to be in poor condition and in 1867 the ceiling was removed. A rather special feature of the theatre is that it could be flooded. This was done in 1628 to create a mock naval battle (naumachia), just like the Roman emperors used to do. Apparently the architect Giovan Battista Aleotti had managed to design a theatre that was watertight. Unfortunately I have not been able to find out whether the Teatro Farnese has been used for mock naval battles again after 1628. Such spectacles must have been hideously expensive, so the 1628 show may have been a one-time occasion.

Sources: website of the Palazzo della Pilotta, my Trotter travel guide for Northeast Italy and Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 25.

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