Credits cover ph. Giovanni Hänninen


Construction during the Farnese period

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.

The Farnese Theatre from 1732 to the present day

The dynastic and intellectual politics of the Bourbon family rooted in the enlightenment led to substantial neglect of the grandiose Baroque machine of the Farnese“Great Theatre”.  It slowly gathered dust and the plasterwork disintegrated while the decorations fell to pieces: the Theatre was definitively abandoned when Maria Luigia charged Nicola Bettoli with building the new Ducal Theatre which was inaugurated in 1829.

However, the Theatre did not stay empty and silent as throughout the XVI and XVII centuries there was an  incessant pilgrimage of princes, artists, men  of  letters and artists, from Montesquieu to de Brosses and Dickens,who came to Parma to admire it. Their diaries bear ample witness to their observations about the degradation of the once grandiose space: the broken and rotting wood, the torn painted curtains and drapes, the fading colours, dirt and disorder. Dickens was outraged to find that rats were now masters of the space.

Dating back to this time are the numerous graphic studies, plans, drawings and  engravings which offer a complete picture as to the original structure of the Theatre: such documents become even more important given the scarcity, paucity and incomplete nature of the original XVI century plans.  In terms of quality and importance, first place amongst those who studied the Theatre goes undoubtedly to the  French architect L. A. Feneulle (1733-1799) whose water coloured tables are still preserved in the Parma State Archives.  Paolo Toschi’s engravings from these tables made them accessible to all.

It was not until 1953 that work began on restoration of the Theatre in philological terms  as supported by the then Superintendant of Fine Arts, Armando Ottaviano Quintavalle.  After the first urgent work to restore the ceiling destroyed in the bombing raid of 1944, the project to rebuild the architectural structure got under way.  This was concluded in 1962 thanks to the expertise of the local carpenters who were able to re-utilise much of the original Farnese wood.

Unfortunately the numerous  plaster sculptures stuffed with rags and straw constructed by the Reti family which had decorated the Theatre had  disintegrated to piles of dust, the columns and painted Serlian arches had crumbled, but the essential structure was faithfully re-built and, almost miraculously, the underlying fresco decorations which had seemed lost forever came to light from below the patina of dust, dirt and re-touches.  The restoration  was designed to underline the original elements and bring back the grandiosity of the architectural structure by eliminating arbitrary decoration and ornamentation in the missing parts.

By 1965 the intervention was concluded and the Farnese Theatre finally took its place once more as an integral part of the cultural heritage of the city, not only as a space for the representation of music , art and of “marvels”, both for special occasions using only the ‘cavea’  auditorium and stage excluding the side tiers of seating, but also as an extraordinarily privileged entrance hall to the historical and artistic collection of the National Gallery of Parma.


The Structure

The Farnese is  one of the largest Baroque theatres in Europe: conceived for the opera-tournament  where melodrama melds with the play of weaponry, minimising warlike aspects, this was a sumptuous theatrical genre destined for only the greatest princely families.

Of the original architecture of the Theatre, we can still today admire the ancient structure inspired by models of Greek and Roman theatre, by Vitruvius and Serlio but also the reconstruction of the Roman theatre built by Vignola in the courtyard of Palazzo Farnese in Piacenza, Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza (1580), Scamozzi’s in Sabbioneta (1589-90) and the Buontalenti  theatre in Vasari’s Uffizi Palace in Florence.  In the planning phase Aleotti might also have looked to the Teatro delle Saline in Piacenza built in 1592 as one of the first stable theatres for travelling companies, which, by half way through the XVI century, were beginning to abandon public squares in order to perform in enclosed spaces. This theatre was organised in the “U” shape which can also be found in the Farnese Theatre in Parma where the latest technical and spectacular  developments  evolved in Ferrara and Emilia from 1550 on were reflected in its structure.

Entrance to the Theatre auditorium is through an entrance portal framed  by two pairs of columns surmounted by a Ducal crown; this space could either be reserved for the public or become an arena used as part of the spectacle. Fourteen steep tiers of seating  for over 3,000 spectators constructed in a horse shoe shape topped by a double arched loggia surround the vast auditorium.  Above the auditorium are placed 2 orders of Serlian logge, partly accessible, in the Palladian style.  The elongated  “U” shaped plan was functional in terms of the room’s capacity, allowing for better visibility from the sides and for accoustic excellence.  In the middle of the cavea/auditorium, above the corridor which leads into the vast area was sited a ‘box’ of honour for the Dukes delimited by a balcony.  This box anticipated the much later adoption of what would be called the “Royal Box” in theatres throughout Europe.

The monumental classical style proscenium with niches originally decorated with plaster statues separated the stage from the cavea/auditorium.  The extraordinary depth of the stage, 40 metres, with an opening of 12 metres allowed for the first mobile scenery used within the contemporary  theatrical culture; flat scenes organized for three layers of fabric scenery  sliding on tracks, upper  galleries for movement and an equipped below stage area.  The space around and below the stage hid the complex machinery which was necessary to achieve the “marvels” of Baroque theatre invented specifically by Aleotti for the Farnese Theatre.

Above the stage can be found the coat of arms of the Farnese family with a motto dedicated to the Muses as protectors of the arts:

BELLONAE AC MVSICAE THEATRVM RAINVTIVS FARNESIVS PARMAE ET PLACENTIAE DVX IV CASTRI AVGVSTA MAGNIFICENTIA APERVIT ANNO MDCVIII[Ranuccio Farnese duke of Parma and Piacenza and fourth Duke of Castro inaugurated with august magnificence  in 1618 the theatre dedicated to Bellona and music]

In reality, as we know,  the Theatre was only inaugurated in public 10 years later in 1628.

The Decoration

The current appearance of the Farnese Theatre cannot convey the splendor and magnificence of its former decoration. Architecture, sculpture and scenery converged to create a total spectacle in an utterly artificial space: within the niches of the proscenium arch and on the balcony were placed a multitude of statues of mythological Gods. The plaster statues were modelled around iron and straw and created by craftsmen under the guidance of Luca Reti.

The essential structure, which is now of untreated wood, was totally painted to look like white marble and red porphyry, with gilded architectural reliefs, capitals and cornices.

On the cornices to the sides of the inscription was painted an allegorical programme based on the theme of war and peace: to the left Bellona was painted leaning on a pile of weapons, surrounded by battle scenes, while to the right was Ceres holding an olive branch and scenes of hunting and fishing which allude to the merits of peaceful government. Grotesque decoration covered the columns culminating at the top with figures holding cornucopia. The decoration of the proscenium arch is still partly visible on the wall facing the theatre and was almost a mirror to what took place. The backdrop showing the classical buildings prescribed by Vitruvius for tragic scenes, simulated the opening onto an ideal city.

The position of the two equestrian statues of Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese was by no means casual. Still today they are placed within a triumphal arch which links the tiered seating to the auditorium respectively on the side of Bellona and of Ceres. Alessandro, father of Ranuccio and hero of Flanders was accompanied by Victory and Military Strategy whereas Ottavio, Ranuccio’s grandfather, was flanked by the allegorical figures of Liberality and Intrepidity.

The ceiling was made of wooden beams and the fresco decoration was supervised by Lionello Spada, creator of the pictorial composition and director of works. He was assisted by Malosso with a team of artists from Bologna, Cremona and Piacenza.

The entire ceiling decoration has been lost except for two fragments: the ceiling was already in a poor state of conservation at the beginning of the XIX century and was demolished in 1867. The decoration of the ceiling had the function of raising the height of the Theatre with perspective paintings of two arcaded balconies with a multitude of spectators looking down. Facing the princely box of honour were musicians and singers. The illusion given to the auditorium was an opening to the sky where different divine beings surrounded Jove who, riding his eagle, looked down benignly on the theatrical activities below.

The decoration of the balconies was completed with triglyphs and coats of arms of those princely families connected to the Farnese, medallions with portraits in relief of 12 Kings, the same number of Emperors, ten consuls, and garlands of fruit alternated with weapon trophies alongside warriors dressed in classical antique garb. In this way the theatrical space was transformed into a monumental Imperial plaza alluding to the Farnese dynasty centre of civic and military power.

An idea of the visual effect of this great theatrical machine can be gleaned from the model made in 1800 by Fanti and Rousseau, two craftsmen about whom there is little detailed information. The model was made with paper, wood, cardboard and wax and was gilded and decorated as the theatre would have been.

A further small model in plaster from the end of the XVIII or beginning of the XIX century shows the Prince’s box of honour.


The great Farnese machine designed to provoke wonder and awe, was built in record time using cheap, easily available and simple raw materials: painted wood, plaster and straw which would imitate nobler materials such as white or red marble and gold.  Though the Theatre was completed in 1619, the great spectacle planned  for the inaugural event,  In difesa della bellezza”/”In defense of beauty”, which included a naval battle or naumachia with flooding of the auditorium, never took place because the journey of Cosimo de’Medici  was cancelled.  The inauguration of the Theatre had to wait until 1628 and the wedding between the young Duke Odoardo Farnese and Margherita de’Medici.

The inaugural spectacle was an allegorical-mythological drama entitled “Mercury and Mars” with text by Claudio Achillini and music by Claudio Monteverdi, the most famous composer of his time.  Part of the spectacle was a knightly tournament and a naumachia with sea monsters and a naval battle planned to utilize the extraordinary and grandiose apparatus prepared by Argenta 10 years earlier.  The waterproofed auditorium was flooded using water from the Farnese acqueduct collected in tanks under the stage and, thanks to the ingenious hydraulic system created by Aleotti,  made to flow into the arena space.

A great Theatrical celebration which commemorated the tradition of Knightly tournaments held in the open air, transferring the necessary structures inside a sumptuous theatre space to be accompanied by musical intermezzi composed especially for the occasion. For the representation of the musical tournament Francesco Guitti, who had taken part in the planning stage, introduced an important innovation: the orchestra and musicians in front of the stage in the position which would become standard in Italian theatre.  It was a semi oval space delimitated by  a parapet which had the function of both hiding the musicians and protecting them and their instruments from the flooding which concluded the tournament. The apparatus set up for the inaugural event, the machinery in place for scenery and the extraordinary inventions used for the tournament, the intermezzi and the final naumachia underline the beginning of Baroque Grand Theatre and the debut of  the season of celebrations and spectacular happenings for European monarchies.

In Parma instead, given the complexity and high cost of putting on events, very few representations animated the great auditorium of the Farnese Theatre and it was  used only  9 times on the occasions of Ducal weddings or to receive illustrious guests.

In 1652 on the occasion of the visit of the Archdukes of Tuscany to Parma the Theatre was used for Le Vicende del tempo by Bernardo Morando from Genoa.  In 1660, 1664 and 1668 three spectacles of little artistic merit were created to celebrate the successive, and unfortunate, marriages of Ranuccio II to Margherita Violante from Savoy, Isabella and then Maria d’Este.

In 1690 to celebrate another wedding between the heir to the throne, Odoardo,  and Dorothea Sofia of Neoburgo the spectacle “Il favore degli dei” (The favour of the Gods) was created with a text by Aurelio Aureli, music by Bernardo Sabatini and scenery by the Bibiena brothers. In 1714 to celebrate the marriage by proxy between Elisabetta Farnese and Filippo V of Spain a grand tournament was created.

Again in 1728 on the occasion of another ducal marriage between Antonio, last heir to the dynasty, and Enrichetta d’Este, the Theatre saw a musical-chivalrous carosel  Le Nozze di Nettuno l’Equestre con Anfitrite with a text by Carlo Innocenzo Frugoni.  Finally, with La venuta d’Ascanio in Italia to celebrate the arrival in the city of Carlo di Borbone in 1732, the theatrical cycle of the Farnese came to an end and the theatre was consigned to a lengthy but inexorable decline.

A list of spectacles from 1628 to 1732

  • 1628  On the occasion of the marriage between Ottavio Farnese and Margherita de’ Medici the Theatre was inaugurated  with “Mercurio e Marte” by Claudio Achillini with music by Claudio Monteverdi.
  • 1652  Representation of the fantastical  drama “Le vicende del Tempo” by Bernardo Morando with music by Francesco Manelli on the occasion of the visit by Archdukes  Carlo, Sigismundo, Francesco and Anna of Tuscany.
  • 1660  On the occasion of the marriage between Ranuccio II Farnese to Margherita Violante di Savoia the three act drama “La Filo” or “Giunone rappacificata con Ercole” by Francesco Berni was performed with scenes by Carlo Pasetti and music by Francesco Manelli.
  • 1664 For Ranuccio’s second marriage to Isabella d’Este a spectacle with music by Maestro Oliva was performed.
  • 1668 For Ranuccio’s third marriage to Isabella’s sister, Maria d’Este a representation of the drama “La Parma” written by Alessandro Guitti.
  • 1690 A grandiose spectacle entitled ”Il Favore degli Dei” with text by Aurelio Aureli and music by Bernardo Sabadini on the occasion of the marriage of Odoardo Farnese and Dorotea Sofia di Neoburgo.
  • 1714 A concert to celebrate the marriage of Elisabetta Farnese and Filippo V of Spain
  • 1728 To celebrate the marriage of Antonio Farnese and Enrichetta d’Este an equestrian carosel was performed  entitled “Le nozze di Nettuno con Anfitrite”   with a libretto by Carlo Innocenzo Frugoni, a score by Leonardo Vinci and scenes by Sebastiano Galeotti.
  • 1732 On the occasion of the arrival in Parma of Don Carlo di Borbone, eldest son of Elisabetta Farnese and Infanta of Spain there was a representation of the drama “La venuta di Ascanio in Italia” with a libretto by Carlo Innocenzo Frugoni and scenes by Pietro Righini.



Venue Hire

The Pilotta Monumental Complex provides its own spaces for hire. Open for public-private initiatives and projects in order to promote its cultural heritage by granting temporary use of them for the most varied initiatives, always guaranteeing respect for the safety of the property and its cultural purpose.

Located in a strategic position in the heart of the city, it is particularly accessible thanks to a municipal parking area in the area below.

The spaces that can be granted/hire/ rented are the Farnese Theater, the Marie Louise Hall of the National Gallery, the halls of the north wing of the Gallery, the Sala di Veleia of the Archaeological Museum, the Salone Maria Luigia of the Palatine Library, the Dante Room, the rooms and the attached auditorium of the Voltoni del Guazzatoio, the monumental staircase, as well as the open spaces such as the Cortile della Pillotta, the Cortile del Guazzatoio and the Cortile della Cavallerizza.

On the occasion of the various initiatives, an exclusive tour can be organized – even beyond the ordinary opening hours – within the Complex to allow the promotion of the inestimable cultural heritage preserved within it.