It was a strange day, ten minutes with a warm sun reminding us that spring is just around the corner, and then ten minutes with a cloudy and grey sky, just for the winter to tell us he isn’t going anywhere soon….Nevertheless we had a great time together with some friends, discovering new places not far from home………..or old ones long forgotten…
In the morning we drove to the little village of Le Roncole (today known as Roncole Verdi,) a subdivision of the municipality of Busseto. It is best known as the birthplace on 9 or 10 October 1813 of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. He remained in the area almost his entire life, and wrote to Count Opprandino Arrivabene in 1863 from Paris where it had been rumoured that he was intending to live in France: “I was, am and always will be a peasant from Roncole.” The house has been a national monument since 1901.
The countryside and surrounding area were the center of activities throughout most of Verdi’s life. The composer’s birthplace, the “Casa Natale del Maestro”, can be visited, as can the organ used by the young Verdi in the church a few kilometers away.
A few miles from Le Roncole (about 5 minutes drive) just across the Ongina stream is Villa Verdi, the Maestro’s home in his old age. Despite not belonging to the province of Parma geographically, it is intimately linked to all the other Verdi places in Busseto. Its furnishings are intact and it is filled with Verdi relics.
In May of 1848 the Maestro purchased a farm in this village located in the province of Piacenza and, in a certain sense, closed the circle opened up many years before. His ancestors were in fact natives of this small village, where they had been small landowners, tenants and innkeepers since 1596. Construction of the villa began just after 1848 and continued up until around 1880 with various stops and starts. Verdi’s parents lived in the villa until the spring of 1851; Verdi and wife Giuseppina Strepponi moved in immediately after. The Maestro spent the rest of his life in the villa, with the exception of his Parisian sojourns and the winters spent in Genoa, looking after the management of the farm directly. The central body preserves the original structure of the farmhouse. Two wings with terraces were added on the front of the villa and greenhouses, a chapel and garages were added behind the villa.
The villa is surrounded by a vast, romantic park filled with trees, including some of exotic origin. Of the villa, at present inhabited by the heirs Carrara-Verdi (descendants of Verdi’s little cousin, Maria Filomena Verdi, whom Verdi and his wife brought up as a daughter) one may visit the rooms located on the south side with the original “Luigi Filippo” (Louis Philippe) style furniture and other more antique furniture purchased by the Verdi couple. Among the most important relics are the pianos, the stucco portrait of Giuseppina as a young woman by Tenerani, Manzoni autographs, period photos, Verdi’s musical library, and many other profoundly evocative memories. A masterpiece of XIX century Italian sculpture stands out from the rest: a bust modeled out of terracotta in 1872 by Vincenzo Gemito portraying a pensive Giuseppe Verdi. The sculpture renders his pride, his indomitable will, his spirit of introspection and reflection to perfection in clay form. The bed from the Gran Hotel et de Milan where Verdi died on 27th January 1901 is now in the room next to the changing room.
The villa has its own little chapel
and in the park there’s the grave of the beloved dog Loulou (the inscription says “In memory of a dear friend”)
It was an interesting visit, the villa is so beautiful, I can only imagine how the park looks in summer….
We drove back to Busseto where we had lunch and a short walk through town, admiring the Municipality Palace, once Rocca Pallavicino, with a statue of Verdi in the square.
The Rocca, former residence of the Pallavicino nobles, ruling over Busseto, was built in the 13th century and transformed several times in the 15th and 16th centuries; in 1586 it was purchased by the Municipality and between 1857 and 1868 it was modified by the architect Pier Luigi Montecchini, who rebuilt it almost entirely in neo-medieval style.
Of the original buildings, the main tower or keep is still standing, with crenellated swallow-tail walls, double lancet windows with trefoil arches and single-lancet windows framed by terracotta tiles manufactured in the workshop in Cremona by Rinaldo De Stavolis (1479-86 ca), which masterfully entwine late-Gothic and Renaissance elements.
The inner courtyard contains the stone Imperial eagle of the Pallavicino family, which used to be found on the southern gate of the towns walled fortifications.
In the same Rocca is housed also the Verdi Theatre.
Prior to 1856, a theatre existed in the same location, and while plans to build a new one were begun in 1845, nothing happened until the municipality took over. Designed by Pier Luigi Montecchini, the theatre is located on an upper level of the City Hall and is reached by a large staircase. The interior is traditionally horseshoe-shaped with three rows of boxes and an elegantly designed ceiling featuring four medallions representing comedy, tragedy, melodrama, and romantic drama. Although Verdi opposed its construction (it would be “too expensive and useless in the future”, he said) and is reputed never to have set foot in it, he did contribute with 10,000 lire towards the construction and maintained his own box. On opening night, operagoers dressed in green, the men all wearing green ties, the women wearing green dresses. Two Verdi operas were presented: Rigoletto and Un ballo in maschera. Verdi did not attend even though he lived only two miles away at his villa. In 1913, Arturo Toscanini conducted a performance of Falstaff in celebration of the centenary of Verdi’s birth and to raise funds for what is now a large monument of the seated composer located in the piazza. In 2001 the theatre re-painted the sets from 1913 for a revival; these were used again in October 2013 for a Verdi bi-centenary performance of Falstaff. The theatre has been extensively renovated in the 1990s. It presents a regular season of opera performances.
Through old streets, we arrived at a Church I already knew, Saint Mary of the Angels….
This Gothic church and the annexed Franciscan monastery sit in the south-western outskirts of the town, where they were built between 1470 and 1474 by Pallavicino and Gianludovico Pallavicino, children of Orlando il Magnifico. Inside the church, in a niche covered in rock concretions is a Mourning over the Dead Christ by Guido Mazzoni (1476-77), a masterpiece of 15th century Emilian sculpture. There are eight life-size polychrome terracotta figures. The faces on two of the statues bear a strong resemblance to the people who commissioned the Mourning and have been rendered with extraordinary psychological introspection and emotional intensity. Recent restoration work (financed by the Ministry of Culture) has further enhanced this feature. Giuseppe Verdi attended this church from when he was a child, and on 6th January 1836, in the tense atmosphere of the controversy surrounding the contest for Collegiate chapel-master, he gave a keenly-attended organ concert. We can therefore imagine how Verdi must have internalized the silent pain and restrained theatricality of the group of statues only to have them resurface in the musical production of his adulthood. The detached fresco of Christ Fallen under the Cross by Nicolò dell’Abate (ca. 1543-44) and the painting with the Madonna and Franciscan Saints (ca. 1580) by Antonio Campi also deserve mention.
We were then very close to our final destination, at last, Villa Pallavicino. Since 2009 the Museo Nazionale Giuseppe Verdi is housed in the Villa, located just outside the fortified wall of the small city of Busseto. This beautiful 16th century building, probably originally used as a summer house, encircled by a moat and surrounded by the countryside, is worth a visit in itself.
Villa Pallavicino, one of the most beautiful villas in Parma area, has a unique chessboard ground plan that recalls the coat-of-arms of the House of Pallavicino, the lords of Busseto. It features five sections linked by a main building towering over a large atrium. Construction on the villa, which was originally intended to be a summer residence, began in the 1510s; the villa was renovated and enlarged from the late 17th century to the end of the 18th. Its interior features frescos by Evangelista Draghi, Ilario Spolverini, and Pietro Rubini, with stucco decorations by Carlo Bossi. The Villa is surrounded by a large square fish farm, and is accessed through an entrance pavilion built in the 17th century by the architect Domenico Valmagini.
The exhibition spaces, distributed on two floor levels, are articulated in 21 rooms where the operas of the great composer are depicted. Instead of displaying authentic documents or mementos of Verdi, the museum’s exhibits are dedicated to Giuseppe Verdi’s 27 operas (from Oberto conte di San Bonifacio performed at La Scala in 1839, to Falstaff, which was composed and performed in 1893) revisited and “staged” for the occasion by the scenographer and director Pier Luigi Pizzi, with the collaboration of the art critic Philippe Daverio. Room after room, visitors can retrace the artistic career of the great composer through a sequence of his operas, which are depicted thanks to original stage costumes, replicas of historic stage sets and evocative new ones, and copies of period paintings. Verdi’s music serves as a peerless sonic backdrop.
Verdi Multimedia, the public-private partnership (including the Municipality of Busseto) that manages the museum, regularly stages events, competitions, concerts, plays, and exhibitions dedicated to opera and the theatre arts.
At the back of the Villa, opposte the garden, the now renovated old stables are home of the Museum dedicated to Renata Tebaldi, opened in june 2014. Too bad it was already closed for the day when we arrived there.
It was a long but exciting day, and mixing Verdi and Busseto with the familiar name of Pallavicino, reminded me of something else. Later I will explain what it is….