If I told you the most surprising thing I found in Parma, Italy, was France, would you think I’d lost my mind? I’m not speaking in concrete terms, of course; I know my European geography. I’m referring to a remnant of the French aristocracy tucked into the Riserva Palace on Strada Melloni, one of Parma’s quaint Porphyry-paved lanes. The building, which dates back to the rule of the House of Bourbon, hosted important guests of the court and served as a casino for nobles and courtiers during its heyday.
Rococo Style in Italy
It now holds the central post office and a number of cultural organizations, including the Parma Literary Society, and the Glauco Lombardi Museum, which is devoted to the relationship between Emperor Napoleon I and his second wife Marie-Louise of Austria. The nobles are honored there because Napoleon saw to it that his wife was given the duchies of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla when he abdicated the throne in the Treaty of Fontainebleau, making their son her heir as a part of the bargain. She took physical possession of her title in March of 1816, but the peculiarity I allude to in the title relates as much to design and another historic French figure as it does to her presence in Parma.
The first curiosity was the dissonance between the ornate interiors of the Palace and the quintessentially Italian exterior architecture. If you compare the two images above—the top one an historical view of the building and the bottom one a shot of the Rococo style Grand Ballroom as it is today, I think you’ll see what I mean. The room’s original plasterwork, designed by French architect Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot and painstakingly realized by Benigno Bossi—a renowned Italian engraver, painter, and plaster and stucco artist—dates back to 1764.
Marie-Louise of Austria in Parma
For the record, I see French and Italian styles as equally stunning on their own but they felt antithetical when juxtaposed so closely. I made my way around the high-ceilinged room, still feeling a bit off balance, when I came upon the second anomaly. I felt a sizzle of electricity course through my body as my eyes met the rather coquettish gaze of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal. What the heck is Madame de Sévigné, one of France’s most famous courtiers during the reign of Louis XIV, doing confidently posed within a museum celebrating Napoleon’s queen? I wondered.
It was my first in-person portrait sighting of France’s first lady of letters, especially unexpected given I was into my 16th year of my obsession with her era and I had yet to come face-to-face with her, so to speak. I’d come to know her quite well during my long investigation of her world through biographies and the missives she wrote to her coterie of friends that included some of the most powerful people in the French court during her time.
I stood in front of the portrait for quite a while, puzzling it out, but I couldn’t connect the dots between the two women because Sévigné had been dead for over a century before Marie-Louise became the Empress of France. I wasn’t able to adequately translate my question to the museum’s staff so I left there unclear as to why Glauco Lombardi, who collected the memorabilia housed within the museum, included the painting in his homage to the Duchess of Parma. In fact, I’ve yet to unravel the mystery so if anyone reading this knows, I’d truly appreciate it if you’d leave me a comment.
Spotting Madame de Sévigné in Parma
Even though the experience of seeing her there was uncanny, this remains one of my favorite happy accidents because I was able to physically experience the sophisticated Frenchness of Sévigné’s world in a way I hadn’t felt when I visited her former chateau in Paris. This lack of je ne sais quoi in her residence in Le Marais was due to the fact the French have turned it into the Musée Carnavalet, a diorama-filled string of rooms celebrating the history of the arrondissement. This arrangement robs the part of the home I saw of the intimate feel that authentic period interiors would have provided.
Her essence wasn’t there because the home no longer reflected the opulence or held the symbolism she experienced during her lifetime. Though it post-dates Sévigné’s era by about a century, there was enough commonality between the two periods that the mise en scène preserving Marie-Louise’s place in Parma’s history did. There is also something about the care with which the museum is being treated that made the authenticity feel so strong.
Intricate symbols celebrating developments in music, theater, the arts and higher education floated upon the museum’s whispery pale aqua walls in bisque bas-relief. Cherubs were ubiquitous, as were oak boughs and ornamental shields festooned with Mercury’s helmet—all of these emblems of royal power perfectly maintained. A large portrait of the Empress painted by Robert Lefèvre in 1812 stood at one end of the room, depicting a young Marie-Louise posed in accordance with the strict canons of official portraiture.
At the time it was painted, she was about midway through her brief four-year reign as the wife of France’s doomed leader. His portrait, painted by François Gérard, and a Pierre-Paul Prud’hon painting of the couple’s sleeping son, Napoleon François Charles Joseph, were also displayed there. In the center of the room, flanked by the painting of the Empress and one of her evening gowns encased in glass, stood the Corbeille de Mariage, which Napoleon had given his fiancé as a symbol of his devotion when they became engaged.
The grand object d’art was made by Pierre-Philippe Thomire and Jean-Baptiste Claude Odiot to hold what would amount to a treasure trove of jewelry and personal accoutrements. Arrayed in the glass-topped shadow-box tables flanking the space were examples of the spoils it would have contained, the jewelry and regalia glinting gold and silver in the light streaming from the elegant chandeliers.
The ball gown was from Marie-Louise’s reign in Parma, its long mantle embroidered in delicate platinum. I could see her slowly making her way across the stone floor, the waves of beautiful blue fabric, shot through with silver, flowing behind her as she greeted visiting lords and ladies, and foreign heads of state.
The Letters of Madame de Sévigné
Imagining her sweeping across the room led me back to where Madame de Sévigné held sway. Many of the marquise’s letters I’ve read were written to her daughter, Françoise Marguerite. The lavish lives the courtiers led are evident in her descriptions, such as this excerpt from a letter she penned to her grown, married daughter from the family’s country estates in Brittany.
This particular snippet exemplifies the type of celebration that could have taken place in the room I stood within two and a half centuries earlier: “After dinner Messieurs de Locmaria and de Coëtlogon, with two Breton ladies, danced wonderful passepieds and minuets with an air that our good dancers do not have by a long way; they do gypsy and Low Breton steps with a delicacy and precision that are delightful…I am sure that you would have been delighted to see Locmaria dance. The violins and passepieds at Court make you sick in comparison…”
I exited the museum and walked through the soft autumn light thinking about how vast history is and how important it is to be able to experience the dynamic physicality of it because this lends the past a forcefulness that is harder to grasp when reading books. I took a seat on a bench beside the towering façade of the Palazzo della Pilotta near the museum so I could record my impressions of the mementos I’d seen.
What will I find when I plunge into the story of Maria Luigia Duchessa di Parma, as the locals referred to her upon her arrival? I wrote just before closing my writer’s notebook that day.
When I was finally able to delve into her history recently, I learned hers was a typical marionette-like tale of the female aristocrat of her time. Her father betrothed her to Napoleon when she was 18 years old to entice him away from marrying a Russian duchess he had set his sights on after he had kicked Josephine to the curb for failing to give him a son.
The match was made because Marie-Louise’s father feared an alliance between Napoleon and Russia would be dangerous to his throne. When Napoleon lost power, this same father prevented his daughter from taking her son to Italy, and had his cronies in Vienna decree that the reign in Parma ended with her death because he couldn’t stomach a relative of Bonaparte’s holding power, even if it was his own grandson. So much for familial loyalty!
The arranged marriage with Napoleon was kept from the young woman until it was a done deal, a situation I see as cruel considering Marie-Louise had been especially fond of her cousin Marie Antoinette, and had expressed derision for France and Bonaparte over the imprisonment and murder of her relative. How ironic that she is now forever linked to the country and its most famous renegade! I thought.
From Marie-Louise’s autobiographical material I’ve read, it appears she was a genuinely kind woman, if a bit misguided by her desire to “reinstate the splendor of the Empire” within such beautiful Italianate surroundings.
To further along her plan, she brought a team of cooks and trunks of Limoges porcelain with her when she began her reign in Parma. She evidently had some success given I found a recipe for a dish exemplifying her gastronomic influence in the town to this day—Sweet Green Tortelli—as I was searching for information about her.
The subject of food ends this essay perfectly because it brings me a fitting metaphor for the tour of the museum: I enjoyed the diversion for the hour I spent within its interiors but there was just something about it that felt like biting into a chocolate éclair when my taste buds had been prepared for tiramisu!
*As a footnote, if you’d like to see a sampling of unassuming design elements I experienced in Parma, take a look at my Pinterest board with images of the town’s artful door hardware I photographed while bopping around. My trip to Parma was made possible by Mercanteinfiera and The Antiques Diva & Co. I also created a Pinterest board titled That Enchanting Face: Visages from Mercanteinfiera.
The Modern Salonière and Rococo Style in Italy © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by