Postcard from Parma, Italy: Reclaiming the stage from ancient ghosts

There is the Farnese Palace, too, and in it one of the dreariest spectacles of decay that ever was seen – a grand, old, gloomy theatre, mouldering away…. Such desolation as has fallen on this theatre, enhanced in the spectator’s fancy by its gay intention and design, now but worms can be familiar with. A hundred and ten years have passed, since any play was acted there…. If ever Ghosts act plays, they act them on this ghostly stage.

Pictures from Italy by Charles Dickens, 1846

Cosimo II de Medici (1590-1621) was going to be passing through town, and Ranuccio I Farnese (1569-1622), the duke of Parma and Piacenza, was eager to make a major impression. Ranuccio’s eagerness was enhanced by his desire to arrange a marriage between his son and one of Cosimo II’s daughters to fortify relations between the two families.

The huge Farnese Theatre was commissioned in 1618 in honor of the visit that actually failed to occur. But, never mind, the marriage did happen within a year or two anyway.

The massive theatre was made of wood with faux-marble plaster ornamentation. The theatre was used less than 10 times, only for lavish, expensive weddings and productions, including one during which the ground floor was flooded with water to make depiction of a naval battle more convincing. Following a grand finale in 1732, the stage indeed was abandoned for more than a century before the visit of Charles Dickens.

Allied bombing destroyed much of the Farnese Theatre in the spring of 1944. Even though it had not been in use for years, the decision was made in the 1950s to rebuild the theatre on the same grand scale as before.

Classical music resounds from concerts presented on the stage several times a month, much higher usage than the theatre ever experienced during its first three centuries.

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