Pleasing Piacenza

The Weekender would like to pay tribute to one of our highly-esteemed regular contributors, Penny Skyrme, who passed away on March 19. It is with great sadness that we publish this story about her visit to Piacenza in the Emilia-Romagna region, the final in Penny’s series about her travels in Italy where she was attending classes to learn Italian. We have so enjoyed her lively and eloquent writing style. — Justine Tyerman

The Weekender would like to pay tribute to one of our highly-esteemed regular contributors, Penny Skyrme, who passed away on March 19. It is with great sadness that we publish this story about her visit to Piacenza in the Emilia-Romagna region, the final in Penny’s series about her travels in Italy where she was attending classes to learn Italian. We have so enjoyed her lively and eloquent writing style. — Justine Tyerman

The Palazzo Farnese houses the famous “Liver of Piacenza” and Botticelli’s “Tondo”.
Piacenza
Piacenza
Piacenza
Piacenza
Penny on her recent Alps to Ocean bike ride, published on March 18.

I DON'T know whether the name Piacenza has anything to do with the verb “piacere” (“to be pleasing”), but it’s certainly very apt. When I told the teachers at the language school I was attending that we were going to Piacenza, they were astonished.

“What on earth are you going there for? What is there to see in Piacenza?” they asked.

Even when I told them we were only going for the Liver of Piacenza (an Etruscan artifact dated to the late 2nd century BC) and Botticelli’s “Tondo”, they couldn’t understand it. I wondered whether I’d made the wrong choice, but it was too late to change, so off we went.

As we walked into town from the station, we were struck by the contrast with Verona. No crowds of tourists, no tightly-packed, higgledy-piggledy buildings, no little alleyways lined with balconies and bicycles. The buildings were attractive, the streets were quiet and the squares had some ancient churches and interesting buildings.

But there was no time to linger: we were there for the liver (and the Botticelli). Having checked in at our hotel (rooms in a traditional old building with balconies overlooking tiled roofs and church spires), we set out for the Palazzo Farnese, where we would find them both.

It was a palazzo that really deserved to be called a palace. It was quite mind-boggling. Standing alone at the edge of town, it was a vast, majestic building, with turrets, staircases and courtyards, looking serene and self-confident. And the museum took up nearly the whole building.

When we went in, the staff were very apologetic because we had missed the guided tour (as this was in Italian, it wouldn’t have been much help to my companions anyway). When they heard we were New Zealanders, they were so anxious to show us everything that they kept following us around and giving information in very limited English. They were trying so hard that after a while I gave up trying to explain that I could understand Italian.

First of all, we went to the armoury section. I’ve seen other armoury museums, but this was really beautiful — an array of elegant swords, exquisitely decorated armour, horrifying spears and daggers, and various other implements of war, but so beautifully arranged that you forgot what their purpose was and just admired the workmanship.

We went through stateroom after stateroom, some displaying just the paintings on the walls and ceiling, one with a huge model of the Palazzo, painstakingly constructed a couple of centuries ago, some with artwork glorifying the Farnese family.

One particular duke had the Putin-like knack of always managing to be at the forefront of all great events and astonishing victories, bringing peace and quelling rebellions. I think in one picture he was being admired by angels, but perhaps they were just adoring serfs.

Eventually we came to the art gallery, and went through admiring the exhibits. Then two of the staff, with suppressed excitement, indicated we should go into a little room off the main gallery. And there it was, the Botticelli: “Madonna with the Young St.John”. It was exquisitely beautiful. The Madonna was graceful and delicate, looking lovingly at the child, who was gazing back at her with that solemn, enquiring look that babies have when they’re trying to understand the world.

Carriage collection

We went downstairs to the collection of carriages. Anywhere else, this would have been a huge museum in itself — there were 70 of them! Here, however, they were just a part of the collection. There were elegant carriages, stagecoaches, workaday wagons, a London hansom cab, children’s carriages, various types of pram, a sleigh, a carriage with an extendable ladder, all in perfect order. Our friendly assistant even opened a couple for us to have a look inside.

And still we pressed on — we must come to the liver eventually, surely. We passed through the ceramics and came to the archaeological department, with a timeline of the development of man and of civilisation, and a display of Roman and Etruscan remains and skeletons (the Etruscans were there before the Romans, but not much is known about them nowadays).

And then at last, we finally made it to the room with the liver. It’s made of bronze, and was dug up near Piacenza. On one side, it looks just like a sheep’s liver. On the other, it’s flat, as though they’ve sliced the liver in half, but with a few lobes left. The flat surface is covered with strange scratches and symbols and inscriptions, which give information about the Etruscan system of beliefs, their gods and their observations of the moon and stars. Some of the meanings are still a mystery.

Quite an extraordinary thing at first sight — but then if you had a lot of sheep but no paper, what else would you think of to write on? A real liver would only be a temporary measure, so if it was really important, you’d have to reproduce the liver in bronze, I suppose. Anyway, the staff were gratified to see that we were suitably impressed, but I couldn’t help wondering, as a New Zealander, if our early settlers had run out of paper, would they have thought of writing on a sheep’s liver?

We couldn’t imagine that anything would better that experience, so we wandered through Piacenza fairly aimlessly after that. There were two special markets on — one was “Vegan Joy”, featuring vegan cheese, fruit juice, yoga classes and other delights, and the other a mixture of second-hand Maigret books and speeches about liberation.

We really enjoyed Piacenza, largely because there were hardly any tourists. We only saw two other visitors in the museum (though there could have been hundreds, of course, as it was so vast), and in the streets and squares we only heard Italian spoken. There were lots of churches (it’s on an ancient pilgrim’s route from Canterbury to Rome), some of which have been deconsecrated and are used as theatres or meeting-places.

There are bikes to hire, a river to look at, streets to wander down, public buildings and statues to admire (including yet more depictions of the duke’s prowess, this time winning a battle on horseback) and plenty of bars and restaurants where you can just sit, eat regional dishes and watch the Italians go about their normal lives, without having to sell themselves (or their postcards) to foreign visitors. We thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, not just the liver . . . and the Botticelli.

I DON'T know whether the name Piacenza has anything to do with the verb “piacere” (“to be pleasing”), but it’s certainly very apt. When I told the teachers at the language school I was attending that we were going to Piacenza, they were astonished.

“What on earth are you going there for? What is there to see in Piacenza?” they asked.

Even when I told them we were only going for the Liver of Piacenza (an Etruscan artifact dated to the late 2nd century BC) and Botticelli’s “Tondo”, they couldn’t understand it. I wondered whether I’d made the wrong choice, but it was too late to change, so off we went.

As we walked into town from the station, we were struck by the contrast with Verona. No crowds of tourists, no tightly-packed, higgledy-piggledy buildings, no little alleyways lined with balconies and bicycles. The buildings were attractive, the streets were quiet and the squares had some ancient churches and interesting buildings.

But there was no time to linger: we were there for the liver (and the Botticelli). Having checked in at our hotel (rooms in a traditional old building with balconies overlooking tiled roofs and church spires), we set out for the Palazzo Farnese, where we would find them both.

It was a palazzo that really deserved to be called a palace. It was quite mind-boggling. Standing alone at the edge of town, it was a vast, majestic building, with turrets, staircases and courtyards, looking serene and self-confident. And the museum took up nearly the whole building.

When we went in, the staff were very apologetic because we had missed the guided tour (as this was in Italian, it wouldn’t have been much help to my companions anyway). When they heard we were New Zealanders, they were so anxious to show us everything that they kept following us around and giving information in very limited English. They were trying so hard that after a while I gave up trying to explain that I could understand Italian.

First of all, we went to the armoury section. I’ve seen other armoury museums, but this was really beautiful — an array of elegant swords, exquisitely decorated armour, horrifying spears and daggers, and various other implements of war, but so beautifully arranged that you forgot what their purpose was and just admired the workmanship.

We went through stateroom after stateroom, some displaying just the paintings on the walls and ceiling, one with a huge model of the Palazzo, painstakingly constructed a couple of centuries ago, some with artwork glorifying the Farnese family.

One particular duke had the Putin-like knack of always managing to be at the forefront of all great events and astonishing victories, bringing peace and quelling rebellions. I think in one picture he was being admired by angels, but perhaps they were just adoring serfs.

Eventually we came to the art gallery, and went through admiring the exhibits. Then two of the staff, with suppressed excitement, indicated we should go into a little room off the main gallery. And there it was, the Botticelli: “Madonna with the Young St.John”. It was exquisitely beautiful. The Madonna was graceful and delicate, looking lovingly at the child, who was gazing back at her with that solemn, enquiring look that babies have when they’re trying to understand the world.

Carriage collection

We went downstairs to the collection of carriages. Anywhere else, this would have been a huge museum in itself — there were 70 of them! Here, however, they were just a part of the collection. There were elegant carriages, stagecoaches, workaday wagons, a London hansom cab, children’s carriages, various types of pram, a sleigh, a carriage with an extendable ladder, all in perfect order. Our friendly assistant even opened a couple for us to have a look inside.

And still we pressed on — we must come to the liver eventually, surely. We passed through the ceramics and came to the archaeological department, with a timeline of the development of man and of civilisation, and a display of Roman and Etruscan remains and skeletons (the Etruscans were there before the Romans, but not much is known about them nowadays).

And then at last, we finally made it to the room with the liver. It’s made of bronze, and was dug up near Piacenza. On one side, it looks just like a sheep’s liver. On the other, it’s flat, as though they’ve sliced the liver in half, but with a few lobes left. The flat surface is covered with strange scratches and symbols and inscriptions, which give information about the Etruscan system of beliefs, their gods and their observations of the moon and stars. Some of the meanings are still a mystery.

Quite an extraordinary thing at first sight — but then if you had a lot of sheep but no paper, what else would you think of to write on? A real liver would only be a temporary measure, so if it was really important, you’d have to reproduce the liver in bronze, I suppose. Anyway, the staff were gratified to see that we were suitably impressed, but I couldn’t help wondering, as a New Zealander, if our early settlers had run out of paper, would they have thought of writing on a sheep’s liver?

We couldn’t imagine that anything would better that experience, so we wandered through Piacenza fairly aimlessly after that. There were two special markets on — one was “Vegan Joy”, featuring vegan cheese, fruit juice, yoga classes and other delights, and the other a mixture of second-hand Maigret books and speeches about liberation.

We really enjoyed Piacenza, largely because there were hardly any tourists. We only saw two other visitors in the museum (though there could have been hundreds, of course, as it was so vast), and in the streets and squares we only heard Italian spoken. There were lots of churches (it’s on an ancient pilgrim’s route from Canterbury to Rome), some of which have been deconsecrated and are used as theatres or meeting-places.

There are bikes to hire, a river to look at, streets to wander down, public buildings and statues to admire (including yet more depictions of the duke’s prowess, this time winning a battle on horseback) and plenty of bars and restaurants where you can just sit, eat regional dishes and watch the Italians go about their normal lives, without having to sell themselves (or their postcards) to foreign visitors. We thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, not just the liver . . . and the Botticelli.

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winston moreton - 7 months ago
A great piece on Piacenza. Hope I can get there some day. Sad to learn that Penny is no longer with us.

Micaela Soressi - 7 months ago
Just a few words to say thank you so much for this brilliant piece about my hometown, Piacenza. Sorry to read that Penny is no longer with us. Had I known of her visit to Piacenza, I would have been delighted to show her around! I must say she perfectly captured the essence of Piacenza in this article. It was a pleasure reading it. Grazie, Penny, wherever you are.

Ennio Soresi - 7 months ago
I, like Micaela, feel I must thank Penny, wherever she is, how she described my city. Thank you

Fabrizio Pasella - 7 months ago
I'm very sorry that Penny is passed away but I must thank her for the beautiful description of Piacenza. I hope it was an interesting travel in our little city and a good experience for all the traveller that come here with Penny.
Thank you all for visit Piacenza.