A tour along the ideal paths of Emilia can also be imagined as a safari in search of imaginary animals hidden in a heterogenous jungle of art and history, which takes shape among the stones of castles, the canvasses of painters and the marble of churches. The Castelli del Ducato circuit particularly offers an authentic overview of a fantasy story, populated by dragons and winged griffins, sea horses, two-toned anthropomorphic dogs and mythical animals such as mermaids, fauns and veiled sphinxes. In the details of the fortresses of the provinces of Parma and Piacenza, there is a hidden world to be discovered with guided tours or themed workshops. What follows is just one of the possible itineraries dedicated to the explorers of the imaginary.
Who remembers the mythological tales of the Wels Catfish reported in “Radio Freccia” by Luciano Ligabue will have realized that even in Reggio Emilia, imaginary or legendary animals are a die-hard tradition.
For a start, the Lazzaro Spallanzani Collection – in the Palazzo dei Musei – includes many specimens of the animal kingdom linked to the research of the scientist. Electric torpedo rays, fish, insects and worms are just some of the guests of this small circus of immobile marvels, which also houses the Cophanus Concatenatus, a member of an impossible species created playfully through combining animal and artificial parts.
And, with all due respect to the rocker director, the Ligabue best known for his connection with tame and wild animals of a kingdom halfway between art and madness is Antonio, a painter specifically active in Gualtieri between the first and second halves of the 1900s. If the Antonio Ligabue House Museum, in the Reggio Emilian town, proposes possible itineraries on the artist's life through objects, reproductions of works, audio-visual materials and authentic paintings inside Palazzo Bentivoglio, the Antonio Ligabue Foundation holds a permanent archive of documents about the life of the artist and has promoted an exhibition with approximately 40 works - including oils, drawings, engravings and sculptures - which can be visited until 18 November 2018.
Upon entering the Baptistery of Parma, the animals are protagonists, where at the Zooforo of 75 white and pink marble panels from the works of Benedetto Antelami, the symbolic representation of the eternal struggle between Good and Evil has been entrusted. Proud eagles, turreted elephants, floating coots but above all imaginative creatures such as the seven-headed hydra, the sea dog and the basilisk contribute to the plastic evocation of the victory of order over chaos, in a mystical and mysterious frieze that still leaves many spaces to ambiguity.
In the keep of the Castle of Scipione of the Marquises Pallavicino, the Devil’s Room hosts large frescoes that surprise two fauns - protective creatures of nature, woods, fields and flocks - in the act of stealing pears from a tree that symbolizes the wealth of the castle. Another Jupiter under animal guises – this time the eagle, which returns even in a bicephalous version in the Pallavicino coat of arms – to tarnish itself of the kidnapping of Ganymede in the seventeenth-century Blue Room.
Ercole Procaccini and Cesare Baglioni are the minds of the fantastic procession that animates the rooms of the Rocca di Sala Baganza. Active in the mid-sixteenth century, the two artists shared the task of transforming the castle into an authentic allegorical summary where the grotesques and marine creatures of Neptune’s chariot of the Aeneid Room, fire-breathing dragons and green and pink anthropomorphic dogs, harpies and dolphins ridden by female figures. Instead the Hydra in the Hercules Room during the fight of the second toil of the hero is a work by Orazio Samacchini. The circus is completed with sphinxes, zoomorphic monsters and deer with long extended horns.
Born as a symbol of Pier Maria Rossi’s love for Bianca Pellegrini, the Castle of Torrechiara has become over time an element of universal wonder, thanks to a triumph of art that today still fills the eyes and heart with imaginary creatures from the animal and mythological kingdom depicted by the masters over a long period of time, between the fifteenth century and the High Renaissance.
Finally, the imaginary animals invade the fabulous frescoes of the Halls of Bellerophon, Momus, Wolf and Aesop’s Gallery in the Rocca dei Rossi di San Secondo and are insinuated in the ‘L’Ebbrezza di Bacco’, in the Hall of the Grotesque of the Reggia di Colorno, which also houses an elegant console in gilded wood with four ram heads.
The Parish Church of San Giorgio di Vigoleno can be imaginatively thought of as a seabed without the sea, being crossed by the Two-Tailed Fish-Siren, allegory of lust and fertility of ancient origins which, sometimes drawn to falsehood and duplicity, here it occupies most of the capital of the third pillar from the right, while Jupiter takes on the shape of an ox driven by criminal instincts towards beautiful Europe in the sixteenth-century monumental fireplace of the Hall of the Castle of Gropparello named after Marcantonio Anguissola.
Exiting the realm of fantasy to enter into the one of science, the Museum of Natural History of Piacenza houses a rich collection of birds based on the research of the ornithologist Edoardo Imparati, a great expert of birdlife and beetles.
At the Art Gallery, in the premises of Palazzo Farnese, mythology mixes with portrait art. In both cases, animals remain the protagonists: those that have always been them and those that are about to become them. In his ‘Ulysses escapes Circe’s charm with the help of Mercury’, Gaetano Gandolfi depicts one of the most famous episodes of the Odyssey, choosing to place the companions of the king of Argos in the foreground at the time of transformation into pigs. Instead Gaspare Landi is the author of the “Portrait of Count Giacomo Rota with his dog”, where the true subject seems to be the feeling of love the faithful companion shows towards his noble master.