NY Times, December 2009
From a practical point of view, “The Charterhouse of Parma” makes a lousy guidebook. An ardent fan of all things Italian, and a brilliant, impressionistic travel writer, Stendhal could have bequeathed to the ages an unforgettable prose portrait of Parma, the small, sleepy, provincial northern Italian city where most of the action of his great novel takes place. But instead he made it up; his Parma is imaginary. He never mentions the unmissable monument, the six-story octagonal Baptistery of pink-and-cream Verona marble, built at the beginning of the 13th century, one of the world’s most elegant medieval buildings. In its place, so to speak, he erects a huge, forbidding tower, 180 feet high, that looms over the city, a prison where our hero, Fabrice del Dongo, is eventually incarcerated, and from which he makes a daring escape.
When it comes to Parma’s other claims to fame — Parma ham and Parmesan cheese — Stendhal is equally perverse. His 500-page novel is almost entirely devoid of food; in a post-Napoleonic tale of political intrigue and passionate romance, there are no banquets, no tête-à-tête dinners — no meals at all, really. On the rare occasions when food figures, the question is whether or not it’s poisoned (Fabrice has a collection of murderous enemies). This is deeply unfair: the certainty that one will always eat well is one of the great comforts of Parma, which is in the rich Po Valley and can plausibly claim to be the gastronomic capital of Italy. (The residents of Bologna might disagree.)
Never mind — if there’s one book you should take with you to visit this city (which anyone who loves Italy, art and food will want to do), it’s “The Charterhouse of Parma,” Stendhal’s masterpiece, less well known than “The Red and the Black” but even more astounding. Without ever describing Parma — not the stately palazzi, not the spacious piazzas, not even the impeccable Duomo — the novel evokes the place exactly, offering the tourist a glimpse into its secret soul.
The fact that Stendhal (né Marie-Henri Beyle) contrives to give us a feel for Parma without pausing for a single descriptive passage is a literary feat that reveals a curious truth about realism and the power of suggestion. Show us the effect a place has on those who spend time there, and there’s no need to supply brick-by-brick visual detail. The same goes for characters in a book: Show us how others react to them, and we feel we know them, that we would recognize them on the street. Consider, for example, Stendhal’s hero, an idealistic youth who survives his impetuous decision to run off at age 16 to fight for Napoleon, and whose subsequent career becomes the business of nearly everyone else in the novel. Though you might not notice on first reading, Fabrice is never described physically; we learn only that he’s a “fine-looking boy,” wildly attractive to women. Our best clue to how Stendhal sees him is a minor character’s remark that Fabrice has a “Correggio countenance.”
As it happens, Correggio is both Parma’s most famous painter and Stendhal’s favorite artist. A Renaissance genius, a master of soft color, warm light and vivid motion, Correggio decorated the dome of the Parma Cathedral with his dizzying “Assumption” (the Virgin Mary in a whirl of figures, ascending to the buttery glow of heaven at the top of the cupola), a hugely influential illusionistic extravaganza. That fresco and two others (the charming, playfully pagan, putti-infested bower in the Camera di San Paolo, and the majestic “Vision of Saint John” in the cupola of San Giovanni Evangelista) are in themselves an excellent excuse for a visit to Parma. The artist’s most characteristic touch is a gentle blur, as though the image were ever so faintly out of focus. Stendhal, who wrote a history of Italian painting, argued that Correggio’s “art was to paint even the figures in the foreground as if they were at a distance.” That paradoxical description hints at Stendhal’s own method: he prefers contour to detail, favoring a kind of figurative indistinctness that invites the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks, to join in the creative endeavor.
If you’re wondering what this has to do with Parma, a tour of the Piazza del Duomo should help to explain. The first thing you notice, if you visit in the off-season (roughly October to May), is the nearly total absence of tourists in a square of rare beauty and antiquity, and a corresponding absence of commercial ventures associated with tourism. There are no cafes in sight, no souvenir kiosks, none of the clutter of signposts offering directions or dates or lessons in cultural significance. It’s a clean, broad public space, traversed on foot and bicycle (cars are banned from the historic center). The town’s prosperous-looking residents pay no more attention to the glorious monuments around them than you would to the post office on Main Street.
A visitor’s eye is naturally drawn to the Baptistery — especially when the sun is warming up the marble, spreading a salmon tint; to the red-brick bell tower shooting heavenward; and to the unadorned facade of the Duomo, so restrained and primly symmetrical that it verges on smug, basking in its own settled harmony. Bicycles lean unceremoniously next to the cathedral’s open door, propped up against the marble, a homey touch unthinkable in Florence, say, or Venice. Facing the Duomo and the campanile, cater-corner from the Baptistery, is the stern Palazzo Vescovile, the bishop’s palace, a muscular presence defined by ranks of sturdy Romanesque arches, which guards the more delicate structures across the way. The piazza is pleasant, calm, secure — but blank somehow, inscrutable, as though Parma politely but firmly declined to disclose anything more than its handsome surface.
The rest of the city is less gorgeous but equally standoffish, and pocked with ugly modern buildings (many of them the legacy of Allied bombing in World War II). Everywhere Parma flaunts its relaxed provincial pace and easy prosperity; though perfectly friendly, it seems indifferent to the notion of tourism. Piazza Garibaldi, the large square in the center, comes closest to buzzing, with a lively stream of pedestrians and cyclists and even the odd car. The square is well-stocked with cafes and restaurants, each with a generous umbrella-shaded terrace. Most of the cyclists seem to drain south out of the square into the funnel of the Strada Farini, an attractive street lined with bars and casual restaurants, some of them pumping Italian pop music into the mild evening air. Here the passeggiata mixes with the homeward commute of chic professionals on bicycles, and for an hour or so it seems possible, while you sit at a sidewalk table sipping prosecco, to take Parma’s pulse. But again, all you can tell is that the patient is healthy — self-satisfied, even — as it goes happily about its business.