The complex of San Paolo is a former Benedictine nunnery in the centre of Parma. The nunnery was founded at the end of the tenth century by the then bishop of the city, Sigefredo II, and was considered very prestigious. Its prestige was based on the fact that it was intended for aristocratic girls for whom no suitable husband could be found. The abbess of San Paolo was usually from an influential family. Moreover, Margherita Farnese (1567-1643), daughter of the famous general Alessandro Farnese, became a nun here after her failed marriage.
A nunnery full of culture
At the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century the complex was not just a place of contemplation and seclusion, but also an important cultural centre in Parma. It owed this position mainly to two abbesses, Cecilia Bergonzi and her successor and relative Giovanna Piacenza (1479-1524). Giovanna’s private quarters and the former refectory can nowadays be visited by the public. Together these rooms are known as the Camera di San Paolo or Camera della Badessa (room of the abbess). Another wing of the complex houses the Pinacoteca Stuard, which is also a museum.
In 1507 Giovanna Piacenza was appointed as abbess. In 1514 she commissioned the Parmesan painter Alessandro Araldi (ca. 1460-1528) to decorate one of her rooms with beautiful ceiling frescoes. Araldi embellished the ceiling with grotesques and scenes from the Old and New Testament. The frescoes are perhaps not of exceptional quality, but they are certainly colourful and very detailed.
For the next room Giovanni made use of the services of another, much younger painter. Antonio Allegri, more commonly known as Correggio (1489-1534), was still relatively unknown at the time. In 1518-1519 he painted the umbrella-shaped vault of the room with mythological scenes, putti, vegetation and the coat-of-arms of Giovanna’s family. The results are very impressive. Correggio’s reputation surged and he was subsequently hired for projects in the church of San Giovanni Evangelista (part of a Benedictine abbey) and the Duomo of Parma. After Giovanna’s death in 1524, the nuns decided to focus on seclusion again, and as a consequence men were no longer welcome. This also meant that the frescoes in the Camera della Badessa were largely forgotten. It was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that they were rediscovered, partly thanks to the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779).
Camera del Correggio
The room decorated by Correggio is definitely the highlight of the Camera di San Paolo. Rather curiously, the exact function of the room is not known. It could have been the study of the abbess, but another good guess is that it was a private dining room. The walls of the room have not been decorated; it is possible that they were once covered with tapestries. Correggio’s frescoes start at the bottom with ram’s heads. Between the heads are large straps containing dishes and jugs, which is the reason why some experts believe the room was a dining room. Above the heads Correggio painted sixteen lunettes with mythological figures, four on each side of the room. The painter did not use any colour, so the frescoes look a lot like a marble composition. The figures in the lunettes do not have captions, so in most cases it is hard to tell who they are. Figures that are clearly recognisable are the three Graces painted above the chimney (see the first image of this post). They closely resemble the three Graces frescoed in the Villa Farnesina in Rome. The Roman fresco was painted by Raphael and his studio, and was made in 1517-1518. Raphael had previously painted another work featuring the Graces. It is not inconceivable that Correggio knew these works.
Above the mythological figures we see sixteen tondi with putti, naked little boys. In some of the tondi animals have been painted as well. The largest part of the vault is covered with frescoed green vegetation, with bundles of fruit above the tondi. The images we see are no doubt all part of a single concept, but much of the symbolism is impossible to understand for modern visitors. On the chimney the Roman goddess of hunting and chastity Diana has been depicted. Armed with a bow and arrows, she is standing in a chariot drawn by stags. The fresco refers to Giovanna Piacenza, who as abbess was obviously the epitome of chastity.