Of Santuari, Basiliche, Duomi and Cattedrali in Parma

A sanctuary is a place of safety. Traditionally, one can seek sanctuary from an enemy by sheltering in the sacred precincts of a religious building. Today, unfortunately as world events have shown, such places are no guarantee of safety at all.

A sanctuary is also a place associated with a saint. Italy is a country of saints and sanctuaries proliferate. Lucca, for example, has its sanctuary dedicated to Saint Gemma (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/saint-gemma-galgani-mystic-saint-or-mental-patient/  ). Often sanctuaries are larger and more imposing buildings than cathedrals. In Padua  the extraordinary sanctuary dedicated to Saint Anthony (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/the-saint-of-lost-causes/) dominates the town in a way that the Duomo does not.

Parma’s magnificent cathedral (the Correggio frescoes in its cupola are the precursor of the ascending-heavenly-angelic 3-D effects which characterize counter-reformation churches), which we visited on a previous trip to this city, still retains its primacy among religious edifices:


but coming a close second is the beautiful sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata (literally Saint Mary of the stockade) which I had missed out on the previous visit but was now able to see last week-end.

The sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata is also a basilica. At this stage one might rightly be confused about the terms duomo, cattedrale and basilica as applied in Italy. Let’s try to explain their difference:

A basilica is, literally, ‘the house of the king’ and, thus, of the Lord. Its name derives from Greek ‘Basileus’ which signifies king and from ‘oikos’ which means house. Every church could thus be defined as a basilica but the Roman Catholic Church only gives to some the title of basilica (which could be a minor or major one) depending on their importance and artistic value. A basilica, furthermore must be able maintain the correct decorum in the practise of its religious rites.

A Duomo, from Latin ‘Domus’ meaning house, still remains the house of God and is the most important church in a town or city. It’s usually originally built in gothic style with a firm emphasis on the vertical – aspirations going heavenwards.

A cattedrale (cathedral) is a Duomo located in a town or city which is also the seat of a bishop. In fact, the name cattedrale comes from Latin ‘cathedra’ meaning a throne – for that’s where the bishop has his seat.

The Basilica of Santa Maria della Steccata, from 1718 the seat of the Constantinian Order of St. George (which is supposed to date back to its founding by the Roman Emperor Constantine) was constructed between 1521 and 1539 and in 2008 elevated to the rank of minor basilica. So it’s both a sanctuary and a basilica but not a duomo or cattedrale. I hope that explains it now!

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On the site of the present church a religious building existed since 1392 and an oratory was built to house a venerated image of St. John the Baptist painted in fresco on the outer wall of a house. The building became home to a brotherhood dedicated to the Virgin of the Annunciation and engaged in the distribution of dowries for poor girls and unmarried women who lacked paternal protection.

Towards the end of the fourteenth century a picture of the Madonna nursing the baby Jesus on the facade of the oratory was painted. This image soon became the object of special devotion on the part of the people of Parma Since the area of ​​the building was protected by a fence, erected perhaps to control the flow of pilgrims, the Virgin began to be invoked under the title of ‘Our Lady of the Steccata’ (stockade).

In order to conserve the precious image, the congregants, in 1521, decided to build a large sanctuary. On April 4, 1521 the Bishop of Lodi, Nicola Urbani, laid the foundation stone of the present building. The work was entrusted to the architects Bernardino and Giovan Francesco Zaccagni from Torrechiara, who had already directed the construction of the town’s abbey church of St. John.  From 1525 work continued under Gian Francesco d’Agrate. The dome was raised, however, between 1526 and 1527 by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, who was sent to Parma from Pope Clement VII where he had been involved in the construction of the new Saint Peter’s basilica…

The church was consecrated on February 24, 1539 by Cardinal Ciocchi Gian Maria del Monte, papal legate of the duchies of Parma and Piacenza.

The building’s plan is a Greek cross, with transepts placed on the cardinal axes. Between the cross’s arms there are four quadrangular chapels. The church is, indeed, very similar to the original plan for Saint Peter’s in Rome before Maderna changed that building’s Michaelangeloesque plan into the more generally accepted Latin cross, with a long nave better suited to liturgical purposes.

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The interior is decorated with seventeenth century frescoes of the Parma school.  The entire pictorial decoration was initially entrusted to Parmigianino, but only he managed to paint a few frescoes depicting the three wise


and the three foolish virgins.


The decoration was continued by Michelangelo Anselmi, who painted the frescoes of the Coronation of the Virgin in the eastern apse (designed by Giulio Romano),

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and Bernardino Gatti, who painted the Assumption of Mary in the dome.

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The interior is permeated with a rich and mystic atmosphere intensified by the arrival of many pilgrims while I was there. It’s pure frozen music and would, in fact, make a wonderful ambience for such works as Palestrina’s polyphonic masses.

I was also able to visit the sacristy which I would rate as one of the most beautiful of any visited in Italy. The wood carving of the cupboards containing the priest’s vestments is supreme and their contents, richly embroidered by an enclosed order of nuns, is quite heavenly. Photography is not encouraged so you’ll have to imagine much of it. However, here are some shots I took of this opulent room:

Equally interesting is the crypt. In 1823, at the behest of Marie Luigia of Austria, a crypt was built to preserve the tombs of the dukes and princes of the houses of Farnese and Bourbon-Parma (the ashes were transferred from the church of Santa Maria Del Tempio). Here there’s a connection with the crypt of the Hapsburgs we saw in Vienna quite a few years back,


for Maria Luigia was herself a member of this great Austrian dynasty of the Hapsburgs.

The basilica has two magnificent organs.

The Antegnati organ dates back to 1574. The Antegnati were a Brescian family of organ builders who were active between the end of the fifteenth and the start of the eighteenth century.  The organ was restored in 1778 by Antonio Negri Poncini and again by the now defunct Tamburini firm of organ builders in 1970.

The second organ was built by Carlo Vegezzi-Bossi in 1892 and restored in 1940, again by Tamburini.

It would be fantastic to hear these organs. Next visit perhaps?

The One with Wind-Swept Hair

The door opened and I found myself in an immense white gallery vaulted high and stretching into the distance.

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Upon the gallery walls were hung pictures of noble lords and ladies, several in the company of their favourite pets.

Among a family group there was a cat,with a hogarthian stare at a caged bird.

At the end of the gallery was a statue to the lady who had ordered this huge room: Maria Luigia, Napoleon’s ex-wife who (sensibly) had preferred divorce to spending the rest of her life on a barren island in the south Atlantic.

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The gallery now led to a darker passage, again hung with paintings, this time dating back to older times.

There were some exquisite examples of marquetry:

And some tiles from a nuns’ convent. Perhaps, due to the enclosed nature of their order, these were probably the closest contact the sisters would make with the hurly-burly of Parma.

At the end of the dark passage there she was, all in her luscious unkempt beauty ‘la scapigliata’ (the uncombed one) painted in earth colours by that greatest and most mysterious of polymathic artists, Leonardo da Vinci. There she was, all mine in an intimate togetherness, with no-one around as no-one had been around in the white gallery I’d left.

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We stayed together for a good quarter of an hour. This truly was bliss, to have this exquisite picture all to myself to gaze on. How could I ever tolerate gazing on La Gioconda (Mona Lisa to English speakers) or Leonardo’s paintings in the Uffizi with all those milling crowds around? A painting like this could only be appreciated and loved in solitude and silence.

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But who was la scapigliata, she with the wind-swept hair? Clearly, she was a relative, a sister even, of the Virgin of the Rocks…

The small picture is painted in umber and white lead on a wooden panel measuring (24.7 x 21 cm) is dated around 1508. It was perhaps the same work that Ippolito Calandra in 1531 suggested could be hung in the bedroom of Frederico Gonzaga’s wife (and Isabella d’Este daughter) Margherita Paleologa. In 1501 Margaret had asked a Madonna for her study from Leonardo. Is this the one? Maybe.

Anyway, with difficulty I had to tear myself away from her. La scapigliata had truly enchanted me!


Demi-closed eyelids,

artfully dishevelled hair:

lightly, soft lips smile.


Pleasant Parma

Parma, famous for its ham and its violets, is, above all a city of music. Verdi and Toscanini hailed from these parts and it boasts three museums dedicated to this art. It was, therefore, with the greatest pleasure that I had the chance to revisit this beautifully elegant city to attend a performance of ‘Otello’, the ‘swan of Busseto’s’ powerful setting of Shakespeare’s tragic tale in the renowned Teatro Regio.

It’s so easy to get to Parma: just take the 9 am train from Bagni Di Lucca, change at Aulla and, by lunchtime, you’re walking the picturesque streets of a city, once governed by Napoleon’s second wife, Maria Luigia.

The afternoon gave me plenty of time to explore the delights of Parma: the gorgeous angel frescoes of its greatest artist, Correggio,

the ecstatic architecture of the Marian sanctuary of La Stecca,

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the Napoleonic museum with Maria Luigia’s elegant ballroom gown,

the stylish shops and, of course, the supreme display of gastronomy this city offers. These places would merit a cornucopia of posts!

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My hotel, was just fifty paces from the opera house and very decently priced too. I would recommend the Hotel Torino for anyone who wants to take in a melodrama in Parma.

The Teatro Regio dates back to 1828. It was originally commanded to be built by Napoleon’s ex herself to replace a smaller venue and opened with one of Bellini’s lesser works. Its cool neoclassical decoration of blue and whites was upped in mid century into a neo baroque business of rich reds and golds. This is the regal venue we see today, a veritable shrine to Italy opera, no less exalted than La Scala or La Fenice and, unlike, those two, never burnt down!

Accoustics are everything in a theatre and I was totally stunned when the opening storm scene chords crashed onto the auditorium. I have never heard music sound so distinctly, so intimately and this fabulous sound was kept up in all the opera’s multifarious scenes, from the rowdy drinking song to the stoking up of the Moor’s insane jealousy to the heart tearing exquisiteness of Desdemona’s willow song and Ave Maria.


Parma audiences are notoriously demanding: vociferous booings are de rigeur if singers and production fall below the required standards. I’m glad to say that that evening the cast was treated to genuine appreciation and loud applause. It was, indeed, a performance to treasure!

Here is the complete cast list taken from the programme:


Casa Ricordi, Milano

Personaggi Interpreti
Maestro concertatore e direttore

Regia, scene, costumi


Maestro del coro

Movimenti coreografici a cura di

Regista collaboratore



Maestro del coro di voci bianche

Nuovo allestimento del Teatro Regio di Parma

Spettacolo con sopratitoli in italiano e inglese


That someone, approaching his eightieth birthday and in retirement for over ten years could have within himself the passion to create this absolutely riveting work is a wonderful tribute to Verdi’s genius.

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To be able to immerse oneself fully in this miraculous music in the composer’s home town is surely yet another of the great joys of living in Italy!