A day in the city of Maria Luigia
A surprise English piece was one of the treasures lurking among Italian paintings, Austrian ceramics, Russian icons and Chinese porcelain at this year’s Gotha fair
TWO weeks ago, I mentioned that I was about to pay my first visit to Parma, the former duchy approximately 100 miles to the south of Milan. A mere 36 hours was nothing like enough to do the city justice, especially as several of those hours were spent at the Gotha fair, which ran from November 11 to 20 at the Fiere di Parma. However, what I saw made me want to return for more.
Although it was originally ruled by the Farnese family, there is a French tinge to the iculture of the city, stemming from a succession of French (or Franco-spanish) rulers in the 18th and 19th centuries: BourbonParmas, Napoleon, his second wife Marie-louise (here Maria Luigia), Bourbons again. From this point of view, I was particularly lucky to be embedded in a French press party. None of this prevented us from appreciating such indigenous glories as Parma ham, cheese and wines.
All were abundantly on offer at the preview of the fair in one of seven exhibition halls that have been extensively modernised over the past decade or so. At present, the surroundings of the Fiere might remind veterans of the MECC complex at Maastricht a few years ago, when it too stood almost alone beyond the bounds of the town, but soon to be engulfed by a whole new quarter.
Inside the hall, the layout was simple but effective: a winding snake of stands, so that rather than darting to and fro, one could proceed from one end to the other along one side, and back on the other, missing nothing (unless one wished to) and pausing for ham on the bends.
This is a binennial fair, established in 1994 and now regarded as probably the best in Italy. The 60 or so dealers were Italian or Swiss-based Italian and their greatest strengths were probably in furniture, works of art and design. Given the quality of Italian 18th- and 19th-century silver, I did not expect to find interesting English pieces, but there was one at least. This was an 18½in-high centrepiece of three scantily clad dancing girls bearing a fruit basket (Fig 4). It was marked 1861 by R. & S. Garrard, Queen Victoria’s Crown Jewellers since 1843 and, at Gotha, Maurizio Vetri of Florence was asking about €120,000 for it.
It is possible that this was part of the ‘extensive exhibit of silver and jewellery’ that the firm showed at the 1862 International Exhibition. That, now rather overlooked, exhibition took place on the site of the future South Kensington museums and it had a connection with Italy, and indeed Parma, as Verdi, born in the Duchy, composed one of his two secular cantatas for it.
Due to a falling out between the composer and the commissioners, the Inno delle Nazioni, or Hymn of the Nations, incorporating British, French and Italian anthems, was not performed at the fair, but made its debut three weeks later at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket. Perhaps it would be fun to give it an airing at the next Gotha in two years’ time.
A piece with a connection to another of the great 19th-century International Exhibitions
Fig 1 above: Fig 2 left:
A tender Holy Family by Guercino. With Moroni Renzo. An Austrian ceramic stove. With Lauro Defrancesco