Not Just Ham and Cheese

Nestled in Italy’s broad Po valley is the handsome city of Parma, the world’s ham-and-cheese capital, which offers travelers far more than just outstanding gustatory pleasures … there’s far more to Parma than phenomenal ham and cheese!!!


Parma is a city rich with art, culture and a past that reads like a fairy tale. It has beauty, pride and, yes, glorious food!


I fell in love with Parma strolling through its narrow flagstone streets last October. The old part of town is a maze of buildings colored in soft yellows and deep ochres. The Piazza Duomo and the Baptistery are fine examples of 11th- and 12th-Century architecture. Two major artists contributed their talents to this remarkable center of religious life: Benedetto Antelami, to the Baptistery pictured below, and Antonio Allegro, better known as Correggio, to the city’s spectacular Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral.


Soaring above the Duomo’s apse is Correggio’s masterpiece, the Assumption of the Virgin (1526-1530). It would become the catalyst for the dramatically-illusionistic, di sotto in su (from the bottom up) ceiling paintings of the 17th-century Baroque period. The cupola is portrayed as the vault of heaven; the figures appear to protrude into the viewer’s space, an audacious and astounding effect at the time.


In the Benedictine church of San Giovanni Evangelista, directly behind the Duomo, you can view the cupola fresco and pendentives Correggio painted prior to the Assumption; (1520-1522); these led to his now historical Santa Maria Assunta commission.


Correggio was born not far from Parma — in the town of, you guessed it, Correggio. His first major commission (completed in 1519) was for a woman, the Abbess Giovanna Piacenza, to decorate the domed ceiling of her private apartment’s sitting room, now called the Camera di San Paolo. Here Correggio painted between the ribs to simulate a pergola with small pierced windows featuring smiling putti and scenes of the hunt. The fireplace is frescoed with a depiction of the goddess Diana. Photos cannot begin capture the impact and intimacy of this truly enchanting room. Trust me, it is jaw-dropping, plus it has the advantage of being off the radar of most tourists.

The frescoes have spurred a debate as to the significance of the iconography of pagan and hunting scenes in a nunnery! The convent was known for the laxity of its rules and had been embroiled, along with its abbess, in various local land disputes.


A symbol of “Made in Italy” gastronomy renowned all over the world is Parmigiano Reggiano: a cooked, hard parmesan cheese made from partially skimmed cow’s milk and classified under the protected designation of origin (PDO) category. About 3 million whole cheeses are produced every year; you can take a tour and watch it being made (as well as visit a museum dedicated to this Italian culinary icon).


Aged between 12 – 24 months before being sold, whole cheeses are inspected one by one and tested using a special hammer-diapason. The vibrations generated indicate whether or not the cheese is perfectly intact. (A wheel of parmesan weighs about 70 lbs.)


Prosciutto di Parma originated in ancient Roman times when Cato first mentioned the extraordinary flavor of the air-cured ham made around the town of Parma. Prosciutto di Parma can only be produced from pigs born and bred around Parma.The rear haunches of Parma pigs are carefully cured with moist salt so that the ham absorbs only enough to preserve it. The meat becomes tender and the distinctive aroma and flavor of Parma ham emerge.


The Galleria Nazionale di Parma has vast collections paintings and antiquities and was established in Renaissance times by the powerful ruling Farnese family. Here you will find marvelous paintings featuring Northern Italian painters and other Renaissance masters including the breathtaking Leonardo da Vinci is known as La Scapigliata meaning “The Lady with Dishevelled Hair.” The museum complex also includes Teatro Farnese built in 1618 and one of the largest Baroque theatres in Europe. It was conceived for the opera-tournament, in honor of the Medici, which never took place.


And for those of you who want a break from high culture, there is the quirky Il Castello dei Burattini Museo Giordano Ferrari (The Castle of the Puppets, Museum Giordano Ferrari). All the typical characters from Italian puppet theater are represented — princes and princesses, villains, devils, ghosts, monsters, servants, merchants, workers, society folk, priests and policemen. The faces are amazingly expressive and the elaborate costumes are fascinating.


Guiseppe Verdi grew up in the Duchy of Parma and today Parma is also a great city of music.  Its annual Verdi Festival was conceived in 2001, the centennial of his death. Each October thousands make the pilgrimage for a multi-week immersion in Verdi’s music and legacy.


Parma’s Teatro Regio di Parma is renowned among the world’s most famous opera houses for the elegance of its neoclassical style and its near perfect acoustics.


In his career-making opera, Nabucco, about Hebrews in Babylonian exile, Verdi gave voice to the sentiment of longing for a land once known and now lost. Its signature aria “Va, pensiero” (“Go, My Thoughts” … on golden wings) would become the unofficial anthem of the Risorgimento, and even Verdi’s name became a rallying cry for unification.


I hope these Postcards have peaked your interest in discovering the many sensory allures this truly captivating city.

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