Trip Start Aug 01, 2007
24Trip End Jul 05, 2008
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Parma happens to be one of my favorite places. History, architecture, art (including a stunning sketch by Leonardo), landscape, theater, literature, archeology, and cuisine.
The Food. Parmesan cheese in varieties that are as subtle as fine wines, made from the milk of local cows, regulated to be made from two different milkings
Parma ham, Prosciutto di Parma, cut as thin as paper with flavors so fulfilling that the memory lingers. The pigs are fed the whey discarded from the cheese making process. As early as the 5th century BC, pork legs were valued trade between the Po River valley and the rest of Italy and with Greece. Cato the Elder, one of Rome's legends and something of an agricultural authority in his time around 100 BC noted the extraordinary flavor of the Parma air cured ham, and associated the flavor with the particular weather and the local curing processes.
Then there's olives, wine, bread, and pasta.
The winters and summers in Parma are mild, 200 days of growing season in a river valley maybe 30 kilometers wide, a lot like the Willamette Valley but about twice as long, with rain during the growing season instead of all winter long.
Parma offers a vivid contrast with Dalian where I take my American palate into a food store and get no response. Part of that vacancy is the fact I can't recognize much of what is eaten in China, but even the limited items that are intelligible have no attraction. In Parma, and Italy in general, even the stuff that is not recognizable looks like it would taste good
Humans settled in Parma as early as the 17th century BC. Romans liked the place, established the town on the Via Emilia in 183 BC, with a population of about 2000. Sheep, pigs, wool and produce supported a growing population. Parma flourished during Roman times with a theatre, amphitheatre, thermal spa, basilica, and forum, traces of which are still apparent.
Like Reggio Emilia 30 kilometers East, Parma suffered through the Dark Ages with invasions and devastation inflicted by the Huns, the Erulis and then the Longobards. From the 5th through the 13th century, when Parma was not fighting foreign invaders, or neighboring city-states, it managed to keep the entertainment going by squabbling with the Pope and creating its own inter-city family gang wars.
Then Parma recognized the advantages of feudal politics. The ruling class were buttwads for the most part, but they were better than whatever was in second place, which, during the 13th century, was pretty much survival interrupted by invasions.
The Spanish Barbarossa family was one of the first dukedoms in Parma. They defended the city and started a tradition of culture that continues 800 years later, a legacy that includes such talent as painters Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio, and Francesco Mazzola, called Parmigianino. Composer Giuseppe Verdi was born nearby and Arturo Toascanini, the famous director was a native of Parma
The Farnese family, one of Italy's most powerful, moved in at the beginning of the 16th century. Alessandro Farnese built the Parma empire, managed to get appointed as "Bishop of Parma" from 1509 to 1534, expanded the territory to include Piacenza, about 60 km northwest. He then got himself elected Pope Paul III, or more accurately, purchased his way into the Vatican. His son Pier Luigi (celibacy is for sissies) continued his tradition and developed Parma into a world class center for art, theater, civic improvements, and peaceful existence in an chaotic world. His reign included construction of the Ducale Gardens and Palace and the administrative center, the Pilotta Palace (a warehouse for arms, food and the duke's employees) that today houses the Galleria Nazionale, the Farnese Theater, Parma's Archaeological Museum and the Institute of Art. The Farnese period also saw completion of many of the projects started by the Barbarossa's including the city's Cathedral and its most impressive churches which are masterpieces of the Italian Baroque.
In 1718, the dukedom passed to the French Bourbons, (Barbone in Italy) who continued many of the Farnese traditions and expanded on scholarship, literature and music. Napoleon followed the Bourbons in 1802, making his second wife, Maria Luisa, duchess of Parma. Her reign was interrupted with Napoleon's fortunes, but she returned to Parma as duchess in 1814 and maintained the title until her death in 1847.
Napoleon was born on the island of Corsica 3 years after France took over from Italy
Maria Luisa's rule in Parma was popular and peaceful, still fondly regarded today, although her contemporaries thought she was mean. On her death, according to the Congress of Vienna, the City reverted to the Bourbons until 1859 when Garibaldi and Mazzini began the Italian push for unity and independence. Parma became part of Piedmont and eventually a city of Reggio Emilia province as Italy gained it's sovereignty in 1865.
Parma was heavily bombed during World War II. As Germany was pushed back up the boot, the Po Valley became an area of contention
Parma is today a city of about 200,000 people, with an economy still locked into cheese, ham, theater and tourism. One of the largest annual events is the Fiera de Parma, a gathering of more than 100,000 visitors from some 70 countries who bite their way through a long weekend. Following WW2, Prosciutto and Parmesan cheese were regulated by the Italian government so that the terms can only be used for products from the area, processed according to federal standards. The specification for prosciutto is 83 pages long, prescribes in detail every aspect of the production and labeling, The ham is proudly stamped with the City's coat of arms, the same insignia worn by the sewer crew. Likewise for Parmesan cheese. You won't find anything to sprinkle on your pizza that comes out of a green can with holes on top.
Art is the central theme of tourism in Parma. The Galleria Nazionale is part of Italy's national museum collection, and includes masterworks by Holbein, Canaletto, Bellotti, Canova, a section for locals Correggio and Parmigianino, and a simple but arresting sketch attributed to Leonardo. Other museums in Parma include the Stuard Collection, Archaeology Museum, Catholic Diocese Museum, Ham Museum, Chinese Museum, Conservatory of Music, Museum of Natural History, Chees Musuem, Birthplace of Arturo Toscanini, and the Palazzo Ducale
Opera is a big production in Parma with Teatro Regio as the main venue. Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" is playing here - sung in English with Italian subtitles. The Opera House is a 5 tier affair, one of Italy's finest performance settings, with standing room only crowds and a highbrow culture equal to Milan's. If anyone might overlook the fact that Verdi was born next door, the larger than life bronze sculpture with several dozen supporting characters on a marble monument 20 feet high and 100 feet long, complete with fountain, in the middle of Piazza del Pace will help focus their attention.