Founded by the Romans on the banks of the River Po at the end of the great Via Emilia, Piacenza is, perhaps, arguably not as internationally famous as some of the other cities in Emilia, but, along with nearby Cremona, it is actually the oldest Latin colony in northern Italy.
A border town where the monuments and museums narrate a long history of pilgrims, merchants, epic battles and Renaissance splendour, as well as the story of a dynasty, the Farnese family, who dominated most of Italy from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century.
It was not until after Pope Paul III Farnese created the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza (1545) that the illustrious family took possession of the city. Here they remained until 1731, leaving to posterity works of great prestige that can still be admired today.
In order to maintain control over their territory, they forced the nobility of the surrounding countryside to take up residence in the city, thus transforming the urban fabric. In a little less than a century, as many as 120 new palazzos were built.
Porticoed courtyards, gardens hidden from view, balconies, gates and theatrical stairways: visiting Piacenza today means coming face to face with an important historical heritage that can be seen in the streets and the monuments of the city centre.
The best place to start your exploration is Piazza Cavalli, where the equestrian monuments in bronze stand proud, depicting the Dukes Alessandro and Ranuccio the First Farnese, considered masterpieces of Baroque sculpture. At the base of each, a plinth of white Carrara marble contains dedicatory inscriptions and bas-reliefs describing the political life of the Farnese.
Not far away is the Farnese Palace, built in the second half of the sixteenth century under the direction of the architect Jacopo Barozzi, known as “il Vignola”. After various ups and downs, this imposing building – which, among other things, housed many homeless people during the Second World War – is now the site of the Civic Museums of Piacenza.
The interior of the palace contains a number of noteworthy things to see: the Virgin adoring the Child with the Young Saint John (known as Botticelli’s Tondo) in the Art Gallery; the Sala dei Fasti Farnesiani (Room of Farnese Deeds), the space that more than any other exalts the House of Farnese through pictorial representations; the curious Carriage Museum, one of the most prestigious in Italy on the subject; and the Archaeological Museum of the city and region, whose collections include the famous Liver of Piacenza, an Etruscan artefact linked to the practices of the haruspex-priests.
As you walk through the streets of the city centre, you will see a parade of aristocratic palazzos one after the other. Most important of all is Palazzo Landi, the most fascinating example of the Renaissance aristocratic residence in Piacenza, chosen by the Farnese as the seat of the Council of Justice. This is followed by the Palazzo Somaglia, Palazzo Malvicini Fontana di Nibbiano, Palazzo Scotti di Sarmato and many other prestigious aristocratic mansions.
However, the great Farnese era in Piacenza also included the construction of many ecclesiastical buildings. On Via Scalabrini, you will find the magnificently frescoed former Church of San Vincenzo (known as the Sala dei Teatini, the Theatine Hall), which is now used as an auditorium and rehearsal room by the “Luigi Cherubini” Youth Orchestra, directed by Maestro Riccardo Muti.
On the Stradone Farnese, there is the ex Church of Sant'Agostino with its neoclassical façade – its interior is considered one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture, now home to an art gallery and exhibition space.
On Via San Siro, there is the Amateur Dramatics Theatre; on Via Campagna the Church of San Sepolcro; a little further on is the Basilica of Santa Maria di Campagna and the Church of San Sisto.
Finally, the picturesque cycle of frescoes painted by Guercino in the first half of the seventeenth century that decorates the dome of the Cathedral of Piacenza, which today can be visited close up by climbing to a height of 27 meters above the floor of the cathedral.
An incredible spectacle to see in an up-close-and-personal setting, and just as incredible is the city of Piacenza itself, rich in art and history, but above all in artifacts that are well-preserved, like treasure chests, behind the walls of its noble residences.