Emilia-Romagna Europe Italy Modena Parma

Ham, Cars and Balsamic: Our Trip Through the Emilia-Romagna Region of Italy

As we turned northeast, we left Liguria and Tuscany behind and ventured into Emilia-Romagna, first stop: Parma.

A Weekend in Parma. You may have heard of Parma for its prosciutto or perhaps for its cheese. Parma is metropolitan. Its old city encroached upon and surrounded by the new. Wide pedestrian shopping streets surround old city buildings with their contemporary clothing stores.

We began our Saturday in the footsteps of the Farneses. We began at the Palazzo della Pilotta and the National Gallery of Parma, partly due to convenience and partly due to the morning rain. The Gallery is massive and is housed in an austere fortress-looking building, formerly of the Farneses, one of the richest and most influential Italian families in the 16th century. The collection inside is also huge and a bit overwhelming. It began with an exhibit about the building of the buildings and the Farnese family and then you move upstairs to view artworks. Starting in the library, you progress from there through rooms and rooms and rooms of artwork collected by the Farneses. Perhaps due to COVID closures (there were signs everywhere welcoming people back, though I’m not sure if they’ve been around for a bit), the staff were a shade overzealous in their insistence in following the highlighted tour route. Someone must have really emphasized in training that all rooms must be visited and in order. Despite that, the highlight is the Farnese theater, a wooden structure inside the museum which is huge and intricate and was inaugurated in 1628.

Some of the most interesting (to us) artworks amidst the large collection were:

Feast of Herod and beheading of the Baptist

Collection of “gold background paintings” acquired by Alfonso Canacci to make up for the loss of the Farnese sculptures to Naples.

Christ and cross-bearing Saints

Collection from Jan Soens. Series of Adam and Eve from their creation through their temptation and expulsion to residing outside of the Garden of Eden. Also, Jans Soens “Creation of the World”.

Unfinished Leonardo da Vinci “Head of a Woman called La Scapiliata”. This is in an unassuming niche with no fanfare to it. Easy to walk by and completely miss it.

It seems that the Farneses, or at least the curators of the museum, were trying to make up for the loss of the Farnese sculptures to the Naples Archaeological Museum as there were artworks galore and from periods beyond just those of the Farnese reign in Parma.

The skies cleared in time for our museum visit to end so we visited the Parco Ducale across the Parma River. This is the former gardens of the Farnese folks.

It was time for lunch, so off we went to eat some ham. Our restaurant served it on everything: between slices of fresh baked bread, aged and served on a platter of its own, hidden in the soup and in the salad. I guess that’s one way to keep the woman in the corner who only cut shaved prosciutto all day busy for an entire lunch shift.

Following lunch, we went to see some churches. We visited the Duomo, the Bapistry and St. John the Evangelist’s Monastery. The Duomo is unassuming on the outside and remarkable inside. Lions guard its doors and when you enter you are greeted with a myriad of frescoes. One of the Assumption of Mary by local artist, Correggio, rests way up in its cupola. The frescos along the nave walls depict Old Testament stories and the Passion of Christ. We’ve seen a church or two in the past seven weeks and this one is spectacular.

The interior and exterior of the Bapistry are decorated with unique sculptures of, also local, Benedetto Antelami.

The monastery has gardens to visit, a library (which was closed) and a pharmacy where monks used to mix potions with herbs from the monastery gardens dating back to the 11th century AD (also closed).

Modena Charm. All hammed up and ready to go, we continued our slow roll east into Modena. We chose Modena over Bologna as we felt Bologna would be another larger city, and though we do like a good bolognese, a friend who lived in Florence for a few months suggested it. It was a good tip. Our apartment was named “Modena charme” and that’s how we felt about Modena: it’s charming.

After a delicious lunch of some non-ham items, including a salad drizzled with hometown produced balsamic vinegar, we set off to explore the parks of Modena while our apartment was being cleaned. Like Parma, Modena’s old town feels the influence of the new city but in a less overtaken kind of way. Its piazzas almost interconnect and are filled with cafes, restaurants and shops. Its main east-west street, the Via Emilia, has high end shopping outlets and boutique stores. Parks and tree lined streets surround Modena (though a spruce up and a mow would make them even that much more enticing) and we wandered its perimeter ending at the Estense Gallery for their Renaissance art exhibit. We’ve seen a few in our travels and this one is quite good. Lots of requisite Annunciations, Adorations and Ascensions but some were very unique and different and there was a good mix of other artworks both of the biblical variety and not.

Clockwise from top right: The Martyrdom of St. Catherine, The Fortune Teller, The Original Sin, The Legend of St. John Boccadoro, The Lamentation over Dead Christ.

Modena is not just home to balsamic vinegar (we looked into touring it’s production process but all were out of town and having no car and only one full day we opted out) but to a little car you may have heard of: the Ferrari.

A car guy, I’m not. I used to listen to the NPR Car Talk guys to pick up some tips but mostly because they were entertaining, and not just for their Boston accents. I’ve jumped them, changed wiper blades, head and tail lights, fuses and oil but, to me, a car is more of a utilitarian object. If it doesn’t start upon turn of key, I’m pretty much lost and on the phone to AAA or my mechanic. The Ferrari museum is expensive and I think you’d have to be an aficionado to really love it. It is situated near the train station, has several Ferrari models from over the years on display (see if you can pick out the one from the 80s. It isn’t hard) and you can (for more money) drive a simulated Ferrari for seven minutes. I was hoping there’d be more history and less advertising, but alas, other than the word HISTORY painted on the wall in big block letters, there was almost none provided. Underneath was mostly a description of the authenticity and maintenance of Ferraris and their parts. If you love cars, go. If not, it’s overpriced without a whole lot to it.

Despite the let-down of our Ferrari experience, we really enjoyed Modena and wandering its piazzas, parks and old town. If I had to choose between it and Parma, I’d choose Modena. Now, on to our last stop in Emilia-Romagna: Ravenna.

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