Piazza Duomo – the Dome Square – of Parma is a small hidden treasure in the city. As any tourist before and after my arrival, when I saw it the first time I was shocked by the incredible beauty of it!
This square lays in a part of the city near the cardo of the ancient Roman one, today called via Cavour. This place, where since the Early Cristian age rose a big complex that included the church, a baptismal font and the residence of the bishop, was called platea ecclesiae maioris, meaning “major church square”. It used to be a border side of the city, away from the political-financial centre (platea communis) located on the intersection of the cardo with the decumano, the actual Garibaldi Square. A fire destroyed the entire complex in the 9th century, and they built another church in the same place while they preferred to buils the bishop’s palace in the zone of Borgo San Lorenzo and Borri Square.
In 1037, it began a plan of urbanization of the city that included a relocation of the episcopal headquarters in the zone in between the monasteries of Saint John Evangelist and Saint Paul, means right in front of the new church, which, same as the earlier one burned down in flames at some time between the 1055 and the 1057. During the 11th century, they were built from the foundation the three big architecture that still surrounding this square and make it unique today: the Bishop’s Palace, the Dome (cathedral) and the Baptistery.
The first construction started was the Bishop’s Palace: between 1046 and 1072 it was developed a first nucleus, then completely renewed between 1172 and 1175 and eventually completed between 1232 and 1234. However, just a little part remains of this first original structure: in Vicolo del Vescovado you can still see the doorway of the original façade of the palace. On the top, there still some traces of mullioned windows and a tower. The inner chess yard is dating back to the Renaissance: the surrounding double gallery was restructured in the 50s of the 1900s with the removal of a cladding of the 1700s. Today’s main façade, wanted by the Bishop Grazia between the 1232 and the 1234, is located on the east side. The actual image, however, is the result of many modifications made during time, and a big restoration of the 1930. You can see at the bottom level, a big medieval porch made of big stones, probably cladded during the Renaissance age. At the first floor, there are three-mullioned windows with archivolt and small column in red marble of Verona, dating back to the Romanic age: bricks and some ceramic tiles cover the wall. At the second and top levels, the façade is divided in two parts: on the left, there are other three- and two-mullioned windows of smaller dimensions, while on the right a brick wall closes the one that was once a big terrace. The crown of the palace is a Renaissance ledge that incorporate all the battlements of the original structure.
However, the protagonist of the square is surely the Dome. The constructions of the original structure began around the 1060. It was finished in 1074 and consecrated many years later, in 1106. Eventually, the “cabin” façade and the entire building were completed only in 1178, with some modification made by the architect Benedetto Antelami. The bell-tower is dating back to the last years of the 1200s. The style of the façade is Romanic, made of big squared stone blocks with three doorways and three open galleries at the top levels. The two lateral doorways have a round arch on top, with lunettes closed by glass windows and lightly splayed. The middle doorway is bigger and has a prothyrum with round arch supported by two Ionic columns that lie on two column-bearing lions, probably made by the Antelami. The prothyrum reach the second level, where is an open gallery, covered by a barrel vault with a sloping roof. The top part of the façade has three open galleries. The bottom one is made of four three-mullioned windows with small Corinthian columns. The middle one looks like the bottom one, just a bit lower. In the middle, where is the prothyrum there is a massive single-lancet window with a round arch, that lights up the interior. The top gallery, otherwise, is continuous, it follows the double-sloping roof, and is made of small single-lancet windows supported by small columns. The structure of the church is a Latin cross, with one central nave and two lateral aisles, a transept and a semi-rounded apse. The nave and the aisle are covered by cross vaults: from the central nave, you can access the lateral aisle through round arches, supporting the women’s galleries that have four-mullioned windows supported by small columns. The transept and apse date back to the 1180: they are raised and accessible by a red marble staircase. On top of the cross, there is a massive dome laying on an octagonal tympanum with eight rose windows. The two arms of the transept are made of a unique aisle and end in two lateral apses. The central aisle ends in a choir with a semi-rounded apse, which is elevated and dedicated to the Bishop’s Chair, made of elements of different ages. Right under the cross is a crypt of Romanic origin, renovated many times: is covered by cross vaults supported by marble columns with sculpted capitals. Anyway, entering the cathedral the thing that surprised me more was not the architecture, but the many and massive cycles of frescos! Actually, the entire church is covered by frescos! The first part to be painted was the dome, and is also the most famous part, because made by one of greatest artist of the history of art: Antonio Allegri, called the Correggio. The decoration happened between 1524 and 1530, and it represents the assumption of the Virgin. It was an innovative composition for the time because of its use of the perspective from the bottom and a strong visual illusion: there is a swirling twist of figures and clouds that take the Virgin to Heaven; in the middle of the divine light, Christ is in a disordered and plastic pose. The characters have an expressive sweetness and the style is fluid and luminous, attempting to reach the maximum expression of lightness and grace. The Correggio drew up his personalized stile that made him independent from the current that was settling down in Parma by that time: The Mannerism. Mannerist are the other decoration of the church made in the 40s and 70s of the 1500: the lunette of the apse, representing the Judgment Day, and the frescos of the vault, were made by Girolamo Bedoli-Mazzola, related with the big Mannerist artist Parmigianino, who with he was sharing also the style. The cycles of the central nave and the inside of the façade, with episodes of the Ancient and New Testament and the ascension of Christ to Heaven are works of Lattanzio Gambara, who was very influenced by Mannerism as well. Another artwork worthy of note is the Deposition of Benedetto Antelami, located on the right part of the transept. This is the only remaining part of the decoration of a demolished pulpit and it is a masterpiece of Gothic art, of which we know that Antelami was the Italian precursor.
Last but not least, was the constructions of the one that is considered the jewel of the city of Parma: the Baptistery. This definitely not ordinary building catches your eye immediately when coming to the Dome Square. It is actually an octagonal structure made of pink marble of Verona, developing on four orders of open galleries with architraves. It was commissioned to Benedetto Antelami and the constructions started in 1196: the building was completed only in 1270, and it was consecrate the same year. Doorways occupy three of the walls of the baptistery, while closed arches of the same dimensions of the doorways occupy the other five, and they have some alcoves with small columns and sculptures, some of which got lost. The doorways are splayed and similar to the ones of the big Gothic Cathedral. In the lunettes, the Antelami represented symbolic episodes of the human salvation through the baptism: on the east doorway is represented the “Legend of Barlaam”, on the North the virgin with baby and the Three Kings Magi in adoration and, on the west one, the Savior Christ. All around the perimeter of the building, a bit over the height of your eye is represented a cycle of low reliefs called Zooforo. It is made of 75 tiles of sculpted pink marble of Verona set in the wall, as it was a frieze. It represent human and animal, real or fantastic creatures of the medieval bestiary. Inside, the dome is divided as an umbrella with 16 tubular ribs in pick marble: they are arranged as spokes that, starting from the centre of the dome, reach the columns on the walls of the building and go to the bottom. The walls’ paintings, which are very damaged by time because realized with the fast technique of the tempera, are divided in six strips starting from the centre of the dome to the floor. Are represented the Apostles and Evangelists (third strip), Christ on the throne, the Virgin, Saint John Baptist and Prophets (fourth strip), Saint John Baptist and some episode of his life (fifth strip), some episodes of the life of Abraham, the four natural elements, the four season and the Virgins (sixth strip). The sixth strip is made of pointed arches. Under, there are two open galleries of three-mullioned windows all around the perimeter. On the bottom there are 13 big alcoves (except the walls occupied by the doorways) with function of unload the building. The sculptural complex, attributable to Benedetto Antelami and his studio, remained the most significant of this transition time between Romanic and Gothic, even if much of it got lost. Beyond the sculptures on the outside earlier mentioned, very important are the high-relief cycle of the months and seasons preserved inside. It is remarkable the attention to the details of the utensils, the plants and the fruits, represented in a very naturalistic way, and the elegant grace in the drapery and movements of the figures.
Therefore, the Dome Square of Parma is a definitely attractive zone of the city, able to show off elegance also in its apparent sobriety.