Galleria Nazionale di Parma ★★

A 17C riverside fortress filled with Renaissance and baroque Old Maters—and a striking Palladian theater

The grim-looking massive fortress, which the Farnese put up near the banks of the river Parma in 1603, would be an empty shell if it weren't for Marie-Louise, the Hapsburg wife of Emperor Napoléon and niece of Marie Antoinette, who ruled the duchy in the early 19th century.

Marie-Louise shared her aunt's passion for art and, under her guidance, paintings from throughout her domain were brought here to fill the rooms the Farnese had left empty when Isabella Farnese assumed the throne of Spain in the 18th century and the clan left Parma for good.

Though Allied bombings came close to flattening the palace in May 1944, much of it has been rebuilt, and continue to house Parma's Galleria Nazionale.

(Other parts of the palazzo house other collections, included in the admsision: The Museo Archeologico Nazionale collection of antiquities; the pretty 17C Biblioteca Palatina; and the Museo Bodoniano dedicated to the hsitory of printing and typography.)

The Teatro Farnese

You enter the museum through the Teatro Farnese, a wooden jewel box of a theater that Giambattista Aleotti, a student of Palladio, built for the Farnese in 1618, modeling it after the master's Palladian theater in Vicenza.

This was the first theater in Europe to accommodate moving scenery. Its elegant proportions provide a warm, intimate atmosphere, and the stage floor slopes, er, dramatically up and away from the audience.

That's to help achieve the illusion of great depth, helping the set builders force a sense of long perspectives and the actors seem to bestride the distances like giants.

If it looks in too good a shape to be that old, it is. American bombs destroyed it utterly in 1944, and the current version is a faithful, painstaking reconstruction carried out in 1956-65.

The masterpieces

Though one of the prizes of the museum's outstanding collections is a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, La Scapigliata, the real stars are the works by Parma's great masters, including Correggio's Madonna of St. Jerome and Rest on the Flight from Egypt, and Il Parmigianino's pink-cheeked Schiava Turca, along with good stuff from lesser-known local talents Il Temperelli, Filippo Mazzola, Josaphat and Alessandro Araldi, Del Grano, and Michelangelo Anselmi, who moved to Parma from Siena and worked alongside Correggio and fellow Mannerist Parmigianino. 

Every room has little signs, translated into English, that do a great job explaining and contextualizing the works and artists, so we can just list some of the other great names you'll run into: Fra Angelico, Spinello Aretino, Sebastiano del Piombo, Tintoretto, Il Guercino, El Greco, Tiepolo, Canaletto, and several members of the Carracci clan (Agostino even contrived to die here in Parma).

Maria-Luisa's tastes were worldly, and she collected works from north of the Alps as well, including one of Hans Holbein the Younger's most famous portraits, Erasmus, along with a small collection of canvases by Jan and Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Paul Brill, and Van Dyck.

There's also a long hallway at the end that helps contextualize Parma itself, with 19th century street scenes and lots of reproductions of old maps and portraits of the Farnese Dukes.

The museum's no slouch at sculptures, either, beginning with a pair of AD 1st century 12-foot colossal statues of Heracles and Bacchus dug up under a Farnese palace in Rome, and including a Neoclassical Canova sculpture of Marie-Louise herself, dressed up as Concordia, in a niche at the end of the first long gallery (hung with boring, skippable 18th century paintings).

There's even a pair of Bernini busts showing Duke Ranuccio II Farnese at ages 40 and 50, an unintentional study in how a man who starts off merely fat can become downright obese.

Don't miss the racks of 15th-century Faenza majolica floor tiles from the monastery of San Paolo; they're hidden in a side hall off the room with the lovely early Renaissance works by Il Francia and Cima da Conegliano (if you hit the Leonardo, you've gone too far). 

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Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).