Parma's Teatro Farnese

By Thomas A. Kligerman

My recent trip to Italy led me to the city of Parma, as I retraced portions of Sir John Soane’s Grand Tour (1778-80)... He had two years to do it- I barely had two months! 

While I was in Parma, I came upon a massive and looming building at the edge of the Parma River. Nothing on its exterior prepared me for what lay within; the Teatro Farnese, built into the Palazzo della Pilotta for the Farnese family in 1618. 

Courtyard of Palazzo della Pilotta

Palazzo della Pilotta

View of stage as you enter the theater.

It is hard to describe the vast scale of the room. 

Model showing the theater.

The theater's inauguration ceremony featured Monteverdi’s Mercurio e Marte. Among other spectacles, the ceremony included the naumachia, a staged naval battle in which a portion of the stage was flooded via pumps located below.

Another model showing a reconstruction of the theater.

The Teatro Farnese was built entirely out of wood and plaster, painted to appear like marble.

The curved seating reminded me of Palladio's Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza. But this room is six times as big.

Notice the loggias above.

It was the first theater with moveable scenery and it could accommodate nine to ten rows of flat, sliding scenes. It had fourteen rows of seats that could hold three thousand spectators. It also had a balcony for Dukes, which was likely the inspiration for the Royal Booth in subsequent theaters.

Detailed frescoes and intricate mill work on the wall contrast with the rough timber structure on the roof above.

Equestrian statue of the Duke's father, Alessandro Farnese.

Due to the great expense of putting on such extravagant shows, the theater was used only eight or nine times from the time of its inauguration in 1628 until its last show in 1732. After 1732 it was left to ruin and was bombed during an Allied air raid in 1944.

The Farnese Theater post WWII bombing.

In between, many notable people came to marvel at the theater’s magnificence and innovative design, including Baron de Montesquieu, Charles de Brosses, and Charles Dickens. Although I am uncertain if Sir John Soane saw this theater, my guess is that he did, as he was interested in theaters and visited others during his Grand Tour, like the Opera House in Naples and La Scala in Milan.

In Dickens' Pictures from Italy (1846), he remarked upon the theater's state of disrepair, describing it as “one of the dreariest spectacles of decay that ever was seen--a grand, old, gloomy theatre, mouldering away.”

A cross section of the Teatro Farnese

Floor Plan

In 1966 the Teatro Farnese was completely rebuilt using the design of its original architect, Giovan Battista Aleotti.

Timber supporting the seating.

Strange things on display beneath the seating.

In addition to this incredible theater, Parma is known for prosciutto di parma, like I found in this shop.

This theater is well worth your time if you are lucky enough to be near Parma.