What we are going to discover today is one of thejewels hidden in the historic center of Parma. One of those places for us now familiar Parmesans, which we pass every day.
From our main square, Piazza Garibaldi, you walk along Via Cavour and, at the end, if you turn left on Via Melloni, the temptation is to proceed quickly to the green expanse of Piazzale della Pace, above which stands the monumental complex of Pilotta.
But we should stop in the middle of Via Melloni and take a look at the wrought iron gate that invites us to enter. If we accept the invitation, we will have the opportunity to discover the little quiet corner of the Gardens of St. Paul.
The tall and massive walls that surround it are those of the former convent of St. Paul, while the current garden occupies the areas that were once occupied by the kitchen, now demolished, and the vegetable garden where medicinal herbs were grown.
In the 19th century, the old wing of the complex was reused as a school building, so the green area was transformed into a real garden where the students of the boarding school could play, and for this purpose decorative elements were added such as a fountain, a cave still visible today, a gazebo, and also the path for a train that no longer exists..
Today, the same interior garden overlooks the Guanda library and the Ferrari puppet theatre, which together with the adjacent Pinacoteca Stuard have found their home in the spaces of the large complex that was once the monastery. The Pinacoteca is a rich exhibition that gathers works of various artistic and pictorial cultures from the 14th and 15th centuries to the 20th century, and occupies the eastern part of the structure, which also represents the original and oldest nucleus.
The monastery dates back to the year 1000, ordered by Sigifredo II, Bishop of Parma, and was built first the “old medieval tower”, then the church named after the apostle Paul, followed by all the other buildings needed to house the dormitories and the work of the convent.
The former church of San Paolo annexed to the monastery (later church of San Ludovico) overlooks the corner between Melloni Street and Gran del Parmigianino. Now it is deconsecrated and used as a public art gallery, managed by the Municipality of Parma.
Even the basements of the monumental complex are home to another, more recent piece of history: the space that was used as an anti-aircraft shelter during the Second World War still exists, one of the twenty-four in the entire city.
It could accommodate up to a thousand people, and initially it was designed to offer shelter to the students who attended the boarding school, but later the shelter was also opened to other citizens, who were alerted in case of danger by the prolonged sound of three sirens which were located right on the tower of the Church of St. Paul. In the event of a power failure, it would have been the bells rang out to sound the alarm. On the wall to the left of the entrance gate to the Gardens you can still see a black “R” enclosed in a white arrow indicating the refuge.
The Monastery had its greatest splendor between the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was run first by the Abbess Cecilia Bergonzi and then by Giovanna da Piacenza: they were the ones who made it one of the most important cultural centres of the city. The convent being the main in the urban area, among the sisters housed in the structure stood out many girls representing aristocratic families, and the role of abbess was always assigned to nuns who could boast noble origins.
In particular, Giovanna da Piacenza was a woman of culture who, strong in her role as abbess from the year 1507, decided to open her apartments to artists and writers following the custom of the ladies of the Renaissance, striving herself to make the rules of the cloister less restrictive. A cloister that at least for a short time became a mere formality, since the prestige of the abbess allowed her to establish relations with religious authorities, with circles of the nobility, with other monasteries and with important personalities. In his private apartments there were rooms for both study and formal receptions.
She took great care of the decoration and the economic stability of the monastery, and it was she who commissioned the decoration of the rooms of her apartments to artists such as Alessandro Araldi and Antonio Allegri, or the famous Correggio.
La Camera della Badessa: Correggio e l’affresco dedicato a una Dea
At the abbess’s suggestion, a general architectural and pictorial arrangement of the entire monastery was undertaken, culminating in the decoration of one of the rooms of the private apartment by Araldi.
The apartment of Giovanna da Piacenza is currently a museum itinerary entirely open to visitors, of particular interest especially because of the rooms with vaults decorated with very particular frescoes.
The room decorated by Araldi is in the 15th century style, dating back to 1514, and features a dark blue vault decorated with candlesticks and grotesques, while the lunettes contain representations between the sacred and the profane, including initiatory scenes of young girls defeating mythological creatures.
Correggio was called around 1519 to fresco another room in a style that was more related to the “modern way.”
The decoration made by Correggio for the Room of the Badessa includes the vault and the hood of the fireplace. The room might have previously served as a study, or perhaps a reception room or a dining room.
The fresco is what is called a masterpiece of illusion: the vault of the ceiling creates the vision of a pergola open on a serene sky, as if you were in a garden, with groups of playful putts peeking out from the festoons in the company of hunting dogs.
Under the festoons, painted lunettes simulate statues set in niches, made with a magnificent trompe l’oeiltechnique that makes them three-dimensional, almost palpable.
The decoration of the bezels denotes careful attention to the philosophical and literary content of the work: it is a series of Olympic deities and symbolic figures, such as the Three Graces, the Parches, or Juno hanging from the sky with gold weights tied to the ankles, all portrayed with a great delicacy that makes them extremely human and innocent..
On the hood of the chimney instead stands the Goddess Diana, depicted triumphantly on a chariot pulled by deer. It is an extremely proud and indomitable figure for the decoration of a monastic place!
However, the figures of the goddess and that of the abbess seem to have many points in common, both for the origin of the name (John is a name that comes from the ancient root of “Diana”) and for the virtues that the goddess represents: Fortuna, la Castità e la Hunting, which celebrate the qualities of the same client. In addition, the crescent is a symbol that appears in the heraldic coat of arms of Joan of Piacenza, and the same symbol is depicted on the head of the goddess.
Finally, on the lintel of the fireplace stands out a phrase: “IGNEM GLADIO NE FODIAS”, or “Do not defy the flame with the sword.” This phrase seems to restate in an extremely energetic way a claim for strength and independence, which could refer to the past quarrels between the abbess and ecclesiastical authorities.
Unfortunately, with the closing of the Chamber to the public from the sixteenth century onwards, for a long time the memory was lost even though it wasthe first real masterpiece by Correggio, who launched his career and gained him a few years after commissioning the fresco on the dome of the Cathedral.
After all, Parma is that too. Magnificent monuments placed before the eyes of all such as the Duomo and the Battistero, and then more hidden places, less obvious, full of charm and stories, which can only be found by passing through a gate or a hidden door, with the curiosity to discover the uniqueness of what lies beyond.