Built rapidly using lightweight material like wood and painted plaster, the Theatre was created to fulfill the desire of Ranuccio I, fourth Duke of Parma and Piacenza (1593-1622) to celebrate in great style the visit to Parma by Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, while on his way to Milan to visit the tomb of San Carlo Borromeo.
This was a hugely significant political matter for Ranuccio who was able to strengthen the ties with the Medici family after the agreement reached in 1615 to unite the two families through a dynastic marriage by showing Cosimo, and thus, implicitly, the entire Italian aristocracy, the splendour and greatness of the Farnese house.
Thus, in 1617, in great haste, the Ferrarese architect Giovan Battista Aleotti, known as “L’Argenta” after his home town (1546-1636), was invited to Parma. He had already worked with the Farnese in Parma during the 1616 Carnival period to put on an ‘opera tournament’ in the courtyard of the Bishop’s Palace. Aleotti was an architect as well as an hydraulic engineer, a man of wisdom, encyclopedic knowledge and spirit with interests ranging from mathematics to architecture, from scenographic techniques to philosophy: in his written works he cites, amongst others Plato, Diogynes, Saint Augustine, Ptolemy, Avicenna, Herodotus, Cicero, Ariosto and Torquato Tasso.
This type of theatrical experience was not new to the Argenta as already in 1605 he had constructed the Theatre of the Intrepidi in Ferrara on the initiative of Enzo Bentivoglio, Signore of Gualtieri, leading expert and organizer of spectacles who would take over as director of the Parma enterprise once Aleotti left the project for personal reasons before the work was finished.
Under the direction of the architect from Ferrara and his collaborators, Giovan Battista Magnani and Pier Francesco Battistelli, many specialized groups of craftsmen worked: Luca Reti, the stucco artist from Ferrara, the Cremonese painter Giovan Battista Trotti known as il Malosso, the Bolognese artist Lionello Spada, and the local artists from Parma Sisto Badalocchio, Antonio Bertoja and Pierluigi Bernabei.
When the planned journey of Cosimo did not take place due to his untimely death the inauguration of the Theatre, already finished in 1619, was put back. It finally took place in 1628 on the occasion of the marriage between Margherita de’ Medici and Duke Odoardo Farnese with an allegorical-mythological spectacle entitled “Mercury and Mars” with a libretto by Claudio Achillini and a score by Claudio Monteverdi. The spectacle culminated in a tournament and ‘naumachea’ which involved flooding the area of the platea with great quantities of water pumped from a series of tanks placed under the stage.
Given the complexity of the setting up and functioning of the pieces of equipment required to change the scenery, not to mention the very high cost of the actual spectacles, the Theatre was only used a further 8 times between 1652 and 1732 on special occasions such as important State visits or Farnese Court marriage alliances. In fact, in 1689 Ranuccio II commissioned from the Bolognese architect Stefano Lolli a smaller court Theatre to be constructed in the spaces next to the great Theatre.