A Duchess and her city

A day in the streets of Parma in the company of Duchess Maria Luigia of Habsburg-Lorraine

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As you walk through the historic city centre of Parma, you will notice the elegant atmosphere of a small European capital: artistic masterpieces, lush green parks, large and small treasures from different eras welcome tourists and citizens alike with a friendly and jovial air.

The history of the city has been marked by many people through the ages: from the Celts and Romans to the aristocratic lords of the Farnese, the Habsburgs and the Bourbons. Parma has had a very eventful past, but one that is, above all, peppered with important characters. Perhaps one of the most famous of the city’s former residents is Maria Luigia of Habsburg.

More than two hundred years have now passed since the day (it was April, 1816) when Maria Luigia, second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte and daughter of the Emperor of Austria Francis the First, moved to live in the Duchy of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla, entrusted to her to govern by the Congress of Vienna. From that moment onwards, the history of Parma changed forever.

First and foremost a woman, and secondly a culturally enlightened sovereign, the Duchess immediately won the hearts of the inhabitants of Parma, by implementing an intense programme of civic works aimed at transforming the town into a centre of culture and civilisation.

The palace where she resided – now destroyed – was in the heart of the city, in front of the imposing Palazzo della Pilotta Complex. It was surrounded by a series of buildings, many of which were plastered in yellow, the colour the Duchess chose to cover many of the palazzos in the city centre, which enriched the centre of Parma with a new beauty.

Inside the Palazzo della Riserva, now the site of the Glauco Lombardi Museum, memorabilia from that time are exhibited, related to the Duchess and her beloved-detested husband, Napoleon Bonaparte. Almost directly opposite the museum looms the imposing façade of the Regio Theatre, inaugurated on 13 May 1829 with a production of Bellini’s Zaira, the premiere of which was attended by Maria Luigia in all her splendour.

At the edge of the city, in Borgo Lalatta, stands the College of Nobles, founded by Ranuccio the First Farnese in 1601, closed temporarily during the period of French domination and reopened by the Duchess as the Convitto Maria Luigia [Maria Luigia National College]. Added to this list are the bridges over the River Taro and the Monumental Cemetery of Villetta, where Niccolò Paganini, among others of note, is buried.

In the years that the Duchess lived in Parma, she also enjoyed the serenity of rural life in the countryside. She chose the Reggia di Colorno [Ducal Palace of Colorno] as her holiday residence, located just 16 km from the historic city centre. Known as the small Versailles of Italy for its extreme richness of decoration and opulence, Maria Luigia had it equipped with a large French-style garden where she could spend her days in complete tranquillity among her much-loved pansies.

Last update 11/02/2020