Parma’s indissoluble bond with music: Teatro Farnese

by Rino Alessi

Parma has an indissoluble bond not only with world-renowned cuisine and natural landscapes, but also with music. The strong reputation that the beautiful city in Emilia has in the world of music today started in the 16th and 17th centuries, when it was the capital of a small state, governed by princes who welcomed the best Italian and foreign musicians in an effort to gain prestige and authority for themselves and their descent.

Music became an essential element in Parma’s identity with the Farnese family – and especially Duke Ottavio Farnese, who ruled the city from 1547. During his reign, the results of the ducal court’s support of the arts could be enjoyed by anyone in the cathedral, the Shrine of Santa Maria della Steccata.

Teatro Farnese was built later, by will of one of Ottavio’s descendants, Duke Ranuccio I Farnese, who wanted to celebrate the visit the Grand Duke of Tuscany with a theatrical performance; it was designed by a famous architect born in Argenta, Giovanni Battista Aleotti.


The theater was built inside a large hall – 87 by 32 meters (with ceilings 22 meters high!) – that was meant to house antiques, but was in fact used for weapons and tournaments, on the first floor of Palazzo della Pilotta. It has a U-shaped cavea with 14 steps that could accommodate an audience of approximately 3,000 people, with two tiers of Palladian arches around it; the stage is 40 by 12 meters.

Aleotti was inspired by Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza and by Teatro all’Antica di Sabbioneta in Mantua, designed by architect Vincenzo Scamozzi. The whole structure was made with spruce fir from Friuli, and entirely covered in stucco painted to appear like marble: Teatro Farnese, in fact, was not meant to last.

The theater was completed in the fall of 1618, and remained unused for almost a decade; it did however have a grand inauguration on December 21, 1628, to celebrate the wedding of the son of Ranuccio I, Odoardo, and the daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici.

To make the ceremony unforgettable, there was an incredible mise en scène of “Mercurio e Marte” by Achillini (music by Claudio Monteverdi); the seating area was widened and a naval battle (‘naumachia’) was performed.

After concerts by various authors, and in particular Claudio Monteverdi, in the 17th century the great Teatro Farnese became a favorite venue for wonderful on-stage performances. Between 1628 and 1690 it often hosted dramatic and choreographic shows, but its size and grandeur meant most popular shows had to be held elsewhere, such as in Teatro Ducale (built in 1688 and later torn down, where the Teatro Regio currently is).

After performances stopped in 1732, Teatre Farsene began a relentless decline and was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War. It was rebuilt between 1956 and 1960, following the original designs and using recovered material when possible; turned into the entrance to Parma’s prestigious Galleria Nazionale, today it is considered once again an icon of Italy’s musical excellence.

Now – also thanks to the involvement of Claudio Abbado –, after almost three centuries of silence Teatro Farnese has began to offer new concerts and shows: on June 12, 2011 the Milanese maestro and “his” Orchestra Mozart inaugurated this wooden gem once again, at the presence of 1,500 spectators. In the year of this new debut, Teatro Farnese was included among the locations of Festival Verdi: “Messa da Requiem” on October 6, and “Falstaff” on October 10. All by Verdi, of course.

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Parma’s indissoluble bond with music: Teatro Farnese

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