The Boardroom of the Chamber of Commerce of Parma

Author: Marzio Dall'Acqua

Summarized from La Sala del Consiglio della Cassa di Risparmio, in Daniele de Strobel e la Sala Conferenze della Cassa di Risparmio edited by U. Delsante and G. Gonizzi, in “Almanacco Parmigiano” 1996-97, Parma, PPS, 1996

In what was once the Boardroom of the Chamber of Commerce and is now part of the headquarters of Cassa di Risparmio di Parma e di Piacenza (today Cariparma – Crédit Agricole), we find the room painted by Daniele de Strobel[1] (1873-1942) between 1924 and 1925. The large oil murals tell the story of how milk is made, showing dairy cattle, women transporting the white nectar and, finally, a typical dairy for the production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. The opposite wall depicts tomato harvesting and a factory where the precious tomatoes are processed into paste and preserves.

The new headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce[2] – in what was then called Strada alla Corte d’Appello, now Via Cavestro – housing De Strobel’s work, was inaugurated on the occasion of the anniversary of Festa della Vittoria (Victory Day) on 4 November 1925, in the presence of numerous government officials. The local newspaper, Gazzetta di Parma, reported the speech by Gibellini, government commissioner of the Chamber of Commerce: “The building that I have the honour of inaugurating today owes its architectural part to engineer Provinciali and architect Mora, its very fine artistic details to the professors and painters de Strobel and Carmignani, its magnificent frescoes to professor Baratta…” In the same speech he gave an interesting description of the local economic fabric: “consider that at present the dairy industry produces annually 17,000 tons of cheese and two thousand tonnes of butter; that the food preserves industry has produced over 20,000 tonnes of tomato preserves, and that many other major industries, mills, pasta factories, fertilizer factories, furnaces, perfume factories, power plants, shoe factories, etc, have been set up, and are always being set up, continually increasing and consolidating the high production and wealth of our province.”

It is useful to recall briefly that with the formation of rural labour, the emergence of class conflict, and the birth of political organizations and unions to represent the rural proletariat, the balance of 19th-century rural society had been irretrievably broken. However, in the same century the foundations for an agricultural renaissance were laid through the creation of a new rural entrepreneurship, the technical conversion of various sectors of older landowners, including aristocratic ones, the increasingly important role of agricultural technicians, greater opportunities for credit, and openness to technical-cultural innovation. Parma and its province were an ideal laboratory for this original way of overcoming the agricultural crisis, based on the convergence of agriculture and industry. Wheat production decreased with the introduction of new rotation crops (beets and tomatoes), specialization in milk production and the growth of the milk, tomato, and cured meat processing industries. “This new context saw the emergence of local farmers who invested in the processing industry (cured meats, dairy, preserves) and in construction, and consequently became themselves industrialists and merchants, acquiring technical and entrepreneurial skills that until then were unknown to the agrarian class. Firstly, there was a new inclination to diversify risk, moving capital from agriculture to industry and from declining industrial sectors to growing ones. Secondly, they became, so to speak, an outpost of the countryside in the city, of agricultural interests among industrial and commercial ones.”|[3] This was the dense economic and social fabric that Daniele de Strobel’s frescoes in the Boardroom had to sum up and summarize iconographically and symbolically.

In the room, located on the first floor of the building, the decoration is provided by panels painted on canvas with lean oil paints and then glued to the wall, which demonstrate Daniele de Strobel’s mastery in painting large-scale works rapidly and with great effect. There are two panels on the western wall. The larger one (7.95m wide x 3.40m high) depicts the transportation of milk and shows cows being led home from the market by a farmer who holds one of them by its horn and wields the goad with his other hand, while three women cross the bridge, carrying pails of milk by hand and hanging from shoulder poles. In the foreground, three squawking geese are fleeing. The cows bear decorations on their horns and backs that recall sacred usages. The smaller panel (1.71m wide x 3.40m high) depicts a farmhouse with a dovecote, and next to it the typical round building that served as a dairy. In the foreground there is a drinking trough and a couple of pigeons are seen alighting on a tree branch. The time is sunset and the season, as shown by the large bunches of grapes still on the vine and the red and yellow leaves, is autumn. «Nihil est agricoltura melius» (nothing is better than agriculture) reads the motto in the frieze above the scene.

The wall opposite, to the east, depicts tomato harvesting in a single sequence divided into four segments by three high windows. Overall it measures 13.11m wide by 3.40m high. The first panel (0.82m. wide) depicts, starting from the right as you look at it, a maize plant with ripe ears of corn emerging from tomato plants bearing red and green fruit. Next is the image (2.12m in width) of two countrywomen, one kneeling and one standing, busy picking tomatoes; the third panel (2.10m) shows a group of three figures: a countrywoman carrying a basket on her head and a young man and woman both carrying a pole on their shoulders from which another basket hangs. Having harvested the tomatoes they walk towards a village in the foothills that is seen in the background. The last scene depicts two harnessed draft horses; one, tired, rests its head on the other’s back. In the foreground tomatoes spill out of a tipped basket and in the background is the smoking chimney of a tomato processing plant. «Non omnis fert omnia tellus» (not every land bears everything) is the motto written above the images of this sequence. The season is late summer, at that clear and luminously rosy time of the morning that warms up the air. The walls to the south and to the north have two doors on each side, so that only the central part is decorated. The wall to the south has an oval (maximum diameter 2.35m, minimum diameter 1.90m) depicting King Vittorio Emanuele III on horseback, surrounded by a laurel crown. It is the image of the soldier king consecrated by the rhetoric of the First World War, as shown by the helmet with emblems of the House of Savoy placed on the saddle, and by the fluttering blue cape. The Latin motto reads: «Amor patriae – fides et labor»(Love of country – faith and work). The corresponding wall to the north depicts the marble statue of leaping Mercury – with obvious iconographic reference to the famous sculpture by Giambologna – balanced on an Ionic capital, representing commerce. Behind him are boat sails and between the rigging one can see seagulls gliding with open wings. The Latin motto taken from Cicero’s “De Officiis” reads: «Mercatura multa undique apportans» (Bringing much merchandise everywhere)

All the panels are framed by extraordinarily imaginative festoons, each quite different, painted by Giuseppe Carmignani. Above, festoons of oak leaves are tied together by rosy purple ribbons and held by golden baskets. At the sides, festoons of fruit and leaves hang down from the horns of ox skulls; at the bottom edge of the panel is a row of magnolia leaves. Above each door, inside elliptical niches, Giuseppe Carmignani painted in tempera, and in chiaroscuro, ancient vases and copper amphorae (1.20m x 1.50m), which convey the indefinable colour of ancient stuccos. Carmignani also painted the frescoes on the ceiling.

[1] He was commissioned to undertake this project on August 9, 1924, together with Giuseppe Carmignati, who painted frescoes in the same room.

[2] It remained here until 1965, then moved to new headquarters in Via Verdi.

[3] Salvatore Adorno, Parmigiano e conserva di pomodoro: l’Associazione agraria di Parma tra produttori e trasformatori (1900-1915), Turin, Rosemberg & Sellier, 1987.