Parma: Galleria Nazionale

Marie Louise of Austria – Antonio Canova

The Galleria Nazionale is the largest and most important museum in the Palazzo della Pilotta in Parma. Our first visit to the museum was in the summer of 2020, but unfortunately many of the rooms were closed back then because of COVID-19 restrictions. As a consequence we missed the works by local celebrity Correggio (1489-1534) and were also unable to admire the many beautiful medieval paintings in the museum collection. Of all the works in the medieval gallery, only a panel painting by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini was visible (from a considerable distance). I used maximum zoom to take a picture of it, and was then instructed by a custodian to follow the signs.

In the summer of 2021 I was back. This time most of the rooms were open, but I did not exactly get a warm welcome. The lady checking my COVID pass (green pass) was rather surly and gave me the impression that she was more than happy to not let me in. After the check I bought a ticket and was given several brochures. I was now simultaneously holding a smartphone (for the green pass), my wallet, a camera bag and a pile of brochures, so my hands were rather full. I therefore decided to drop everything on an empty chair to rearrange these things and stow away what I did not need. You might have guessed already: the chair was the surly custodian’s. She gave me a look that could kill.


Fortunately the less than cordial reception was followed by a very interesting tour of the museum. The history of the museum goes back to the private collection of the Farnese family, which ruled the duchy of Parma and Piacenza between 1545 and 1731. Split between Rome and Parma, this private collection comprised about 3,000 works of art, especially paintings, but also other objects and antiquities. When, after the death of the last Farnese in 1731, the Spanish crown prince Charles of Bourbon became the new duke, many works were moved to Naples, of which Charles became king in 1734. Only a work by El Greco (1541-1614) featuring Jesus healing a blind man and a portrait of Pope Paulus III by Sebastiano del Piombo (ca. 1485-1547) remained in Parma.

Pope Paulus III – Sebastiano del Piombo.

Sebastiano del Piombo’s real name was Sebastiano Luciani. He was nicknamed ‘Del Piombo’ – ‘of the lead’ – because in 1531 he had been appointed Keeper of the Seal to the Papacy by Pope Clemens VII (1523-1534); the papal seal was apparently made of lead. Del Piombo continued to hold this position under Clemens’ successor Pope Paulus III (1534-1549), whose real name was Alessandro Farnese. In 1545 Paulus created the duchy of Parma and Piacenza for his illegitimate son Pier Luigi. Around 1534 Del Piombo painted a double portrait of the pope and a young man. The young man is possibly Ottavio Farnese, a grandson of Paulus III. It is quite evident that the portrait was never completed. The young man for instance only has a head, while his body is missing. The painting had such a close connection with the city of Parma that it was apparently deemed inappropriate to have it moved to Naples.

Between 1735 and 1748 Parma was under Austrian rule, but in the latter year it was returned to the Bourbons. Charles’ younger brother Philip became the new duke. Four years later Philip founded an Academy of Fine Arts and a new ducal art gallery. This was not an easy project, as the duke basically had to start from scratch. Nevertheless, Philip succeeded in getting his gallery stocked with artworks again. Then Marie Louise of Austria entered the stage. She is most famous for her marriage to Napoleon Bonaparte, but she also happened to be duchess of Parma between 1814 and 1847. Marie Louise converted the Galleria from a private collection to a public museum. Her statue, made by the Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822), can certainly be counted among the highlights of the museum (see the image above). Canova sculpted Marie Louise as Concordia, the Roman goddess of harmony.

Some highlights

Ranuccio II Farnese aged 40 – studio of Bernini.

Two important sources for the works of art in the Galleria Nazionale were the (deconsecrated) churches of Parma and several private collections that were acquired in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. After the unification of Italy in 1861 the museum became a state institution. The number of rooms in the museum was extended and the collection grew ever larger. As a consequence, it is next to impossible to discuss the entire collection in just a single post. Readers will therefore have to content themselves with a discussion of some of the top pieces and a couple of my personal favourites. During my visit in 2021 the whole north wing of the Galleria was still closed, and that also contributes to the fact that this discussion of the museum is far from comprehensive.

Visitors usually enter the Galleria Nazionale through the Teatro Farnese, the Baroque theatre built in 1617-1618 that I have discussed previously. A side exit of the theatre leads to a corridor where two beautiful busts of Ranuccio II Farnese have been set up. He was the man who ruled the duchy between 1646 and 1694. Ranuccio ordered a large part of the Farnese family’s extensive art collection to be moved from Rome to Parma. The two busts first show the duke aged forty and then aged fifty. They are attributed to associates of the great sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).

The aforementioned corridor gives access to the rooms where we find works of two of the greatest painters ever to have lived in Parma. They are Antonio Allegri, more commonly known as Correggio (1489-1534), and Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, or Parmigianino (1503-1540). Parmigianino’s ‘Turkish slave’ (Schiava Turca) has been given a place of honour in this part of the museum. The work came to the Galleria Nazionale in 1928 in exchange for other works that went to the Uffizi in Florence. The name ‘Turkish slave’ is demonstrably incorrect, but it has never been changed. The lady portrayed by Parmigianino is in fact a noblewoman wearing an Italian headdress. She has no connection with the Ottoman Empire whatsoever. Understandably, the painting is protected by glass, which makes it difficult to take good pictures of it. Interested readers will find Wikipedia pages in dozens of languages dedicated to the work.

Coronation of the Virgin – Correggio.

Among the works by Correggio we may admire part of a fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin (see above). The fresco once adorned the conch of the apse of the church of San Giovanni Evangelista elsewhere in Parma. When in 1587 the choir of this church was extended, much of the fresco was regretfully lost. The central scene featuring the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, the crown and the dove of the Holy Spirit have fortunately been preserved. Elsewhere in the museum complex the large altarpieces have been set up that were painted by Correggio for various churches in Parma. Very impressive is his Deposition from the Cross dating from ca. 1524. This work was also once in the aforementioned church of San Giovanni.

Deposition from the Cross – Correggio.

Before continuing our tour of the Galleria Nazionale, let us first take a look at the Healing of a blind man, a work painted by the Cretan master El Greco. The painting dates from 1573 and it is assumed that among the people to the left of Christ and the blind man are two Farnese family members. They are said to be Alessandro Farnese (1545-1592), the man who in 1585 captured the city of Antwerp, and Ranuccio Farnese (1530-1565), a cardinal. As was already mentioned above, the El Greco painting remained in Parma in 1734. The reason may very well have been that it depicted members of the Farnese family.

Christ healing a blind man – El Greco.

The next large room in the museum is the Sala del Trionfo. Much of the space here is occupied by a curious work of the Spanish sculptor Damià Campeny (1771-1855), who was employed by the Vatican for many years. The work, called Trionfo da tavola, is composed of different statues, some of gilded bronze. The central figures are Apollo and Diana. Other elements of the artwork are made of marble and other types of precious stone. The Trionfo da tavola was made in 1803 for the Spanish embassy to the Holy See. At some point the work ended up here in Parma, but it is not known how this came about. I personally consider Campeny’s creation a typical example of Neoclassicist extravagance, but I will admit that tastes differ. In any case, the large room has far more interesting works of art. A very special work is a Deposition from the Cross from the sixteenth century by an anonymous Flemish artist: it was made of hippopotamus tooth. The Sala del Trionfo furthermore has beautifully carved late medieval choir stalls.

Trionfo da tavola (detail).

Deposition from the Cross made of hippopotamus tooth / Late Medieval choir stalls.

Medieval painting

Much to my delight the long corridor dedicated to medieval painting had been reopened by the summer of 2021. The paintings we may admire here were made in 1200-1500 by masters from Tuscany, the Veneto and the Emilia-Romagna. At the end of the corridor there are more works of art – mainly sculptures – from Lombardy, made in 1400-1500. The room with works by Flemish masters was unfortunately closed, and so was the north wing, which has about a dozen extra rooms. Tough luck, but there was enough to be seen in the corridor dedicated to the Late Middle Ages. First of all, we have a splendid altarpiece by Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1350-1396). Apart from the Madonna and Child it features three Dominicans, clearly recognisable by their black and white habits. They are Saint Dominicus himself, Saint Peter Martyr and Saint Thomas Aquinas. The other saints are John the Baptist, Paul and Lawrence. Behind Saint Peter Martyr we can spot a small kneeling nun, a conspicuous element. The altarpiece was painted in 1375 and comes from the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, which – rather unsurprisingly – happens to be the church of the Dominicans in that city.

Altarpiece by Agnolo Gaddi.

Compared to Gaddi’s lavish work, the triptych painted by Bernardo Daddi (ca. 1280/90-1348) is a lot simpler. The triptych is also much older, having been made in about 1320-1330. The Madonna and Child are flanked by Saints Peter and Paul, both clearly recognisable by their attributes, the keys and the sword. Originally Saints John the Baptist and Franciscus of Assisi were also part of the painting, but John currently resides in La Spezia, while Franciscus has vanished without a trace.

Madonna and Child – Bernardo Daddi.

In the introduction to this post I already mentioned a panel painting by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini (died ca. 1415). His Dormitio Virginis – Dormition of the Virgin – is a fine painting, of which sadly the tip of the cusp has been lost. The painting comprises two parts. The upper part features the Virgin handing over her belt to the ever doubting Saint Thomas the Apostle. The belt is now supposedly in the cathedral of Prato in Tuscany. On the lower part we see the apostles around the deathbed of the Virgin, who has already passed away. Behind the deathbed is Jesus Christ, carrying his mother (depicted as a small child) in his arms. Niccolò di Pietro Gerini was clearly inspired by the great Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1266-1337), and in the nineteenth century the work was often erroneously attributed to the latter.

Dormitio Virginis – Niccolò di Pietro Gerini.

Many of the Tuscan paintings in the Galleria were once in the private collection of marquess Alfonso Tacoli Canacci. Ferdinand of Bourbon-Parma, the son of the aforementioned Philip of Bourbon, purchased a large number of works from this collection in 1786 and 1787. And that is how works by masters such as Spinello Aretino (ca. 1350-1410), Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452) and his son Neri di Bicci (ca. 1419-1491) ended up in Parma. Of exceptional beauty is a small panel attributed to Fra Angelico (ca. 1395-1455). The central figures are the Madonna and Child. This is a good example of a Madonna dell’Umiltà, i.e. a Madonna sitting very humbly on the ground with the Christ child. Below them we see four more saints: John the Baptist, Dominicus, Franciscus of Assisi and Paul. Dominicus and Franciscus are embracing, which might be a reference to the (fictional) meeting between the two men in Rome (see this post). Of the painters of the Venetian school I would like to mention a work by Cima da Conegliano (ca. 1460-1518). It once hung in the Duomo of Parma. A remarkable element of the painting is the mock apse mosaic above the scene of the Madonna and Child with six saints.

Madonna dell’Umiltà – Fra Angelico / Madonna enthroned – Cima da Conegliano.

Among the most famous artworks in the Galleria is a small wooden panel with the face of a girl. It is called La Scapigliata, ‘the girl with dishevelled hair’. The fame of the work rests on the identity of its maker: the great Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Like so many other works by Leonardo, La Scapigliata too has never been completed, and even the attribution of the work to the great master himself is not entirely uncontroversial. It is difficult to make any sense of the painting. We do not know who is depicted, whether she ever existed at all, why she was painted, with what purpose and when (the museum mentions the period of 1492-1501, but other sources have 1506-1508). Another unsolved puzzle is why the work was never completed. Nevertheless, we have every reason to conclude that the painting is beautiful and mysterious.

La Scapigliata – Leonardo da Vinci.

Other rooms

Apelles paints Campaspe – Sebastiano Ricci.

From the medieval gallery we continue to a number of rooms that mostly have mythological works and works referring to Antiquity on display. The Galleria Nazionale possesses several works by the painter Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734). He had close ties with the Farnese family, making 19 paintings about the life of Pope Paulus III (born Alessandro Farnese) for the Palazzo Farnese in Piacenza. Together with Giovanni Evangelista Draghi he subsequently also painted a number of panels about the deeds of the other Alessandro Farnese, i.e. the general who conquered Antwerp (see above). On the walls of the Galleria Nazionale are paintings by Ricci with classical themes. We see the Magnanimity of the Roman general Scipio, the painter Apelles immortalising Campaspe (mistress of Alexander the Great) and the meeting between Alexander and Diogenes the Cynic, the man who lived in a barrel.

Lastly, I would like to mention the two colossal statues in the oval room close to the exit. They are also known as the ‘Palatine Colossi’ and were found on the eponymous hill in the centre of Rome. The Farnese family owned a garden complex on this hill and had excavations conducted there in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. The statues originally adorned the palace of the Roman emperor (Domus Flavia), just south of these gardens. They were made of grey basanite at the end of the first or beginning of the second century CE. The first statue represents Dionysus with a satyr by his side, the other Hercules. Both men are sons of Zeus. Sadly the statues are missing a few limbs, but that does not make them any less impressive.

The Palatine Colossi, Hercules (left) and Dionysus (right).

Further reading: website of the Palazzo della Pilotta.

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