The Boardroom of Cassa di Risparmio di Parma

Author: Maurizia Bonatti Bacchini

Summarized from Amedeo Bocchi e la Sala del Consiglio della Cassa di Risparmio 1916-1976, edited by U. Delsante and G. Gonizzi, in “Almanacco Parmigiano” 1994-95, Parma, PPS, 1994

The headquarters of the local bank Cassa di Risparmio (today Cariparma – Crédit Agricole) are located in Piazza Garibaldi. Inside, two fascinating places bring the food theme into the 20th-century world of art.

The first is the bank’s Boardroom, where the Parmesan painter Amedeo Bocchi (1883-1976) created a pictorial and decorative cycle between 1915 and 1917 that is an examplar of Liberty movement in Italy, a masterpiece of modernist poetics meant as a unitary conception of an environment, a perfect fusion of art and craftsmanship, of decorations and furnishings; and therefore a harmonious and balanced whole of greatly elegant shapes, spaces and colours.

The story of symbolical and allegorical meanings, with elements that evoke the theme of food such as the representation of work in the fields and golden honeycombs, unfolds along the walls of the room, which is accessed from the south-west corner. This invaluable work is an expression of the Secession art movement and prefigures the development of the Déco language of the 1920s.

In 1913 the headquarters of Cassa di Risparmio were restructured and expanded according to the design of the engineer Cesare Nava and of the architect Luigi Broggi, from Milan, who also designed, among other works, the great financial buildings that house the Stock Exchange and the Banca d’Italia in Milan.

It was the Honourable Cornelio Guerci, Chairman of the bank, who invited Amedeo Bocchi to prepare some sketches for the decoration of the new Boardroom. Guerci ratified the assignment on January 15, 1915 and only suggested the symbolic themes to be developed, giving the artist full creative freedom.

“You see, he said, there are three walls to decorate. The fourth one is completely taken up by windows: on one I would like to see a representation of the bank as a golden river, with people bringing their savings to make the river bigger. On the second one “Protection”, on the third one “Wealth.” He didn’t say how, but only: do what you like and let me see something soon.”[1]

This is how the painter recalled Guerci’s words in a written record dated 14 October 1973, in which he reconstructed the history of the room with that methodical precision that characterized him as a man as an artist.

“I immediately started scribbling on sheets of paper, trying to give concrete shape to his idea. It wasn’t easy, at the end in order to get a better sense of the proportions I decided to build the room on a scale of 1 to 10, a kind of box that was open on the side of the windows. I decorated it as if it was the real room. I made the architectural structure with the pilaster strips, as they can be seen now, supporting the ceiling, which is not high, so that I needed to find a way of making less oppressive. This is why I had the idea of three levels on the ceiling, each 1.5 centimetres higher than the other and chamfered together, thus creating the prospective illusion of the central plane being considerably higher. I then did a separate sketch of the “Savings” wall, with the bees’ motif in gold and black between the pilaster strips, the central piece of furniture with the two sculptures in gilt bronze, and the two vases in bucchero ceramics. This was the sketch that I presented and that was approved by the Board.”[2]

In these recollections, written in the mid-1970s, when he busy returning the room to its original appearance and restoring the frescos that had been covered over during the Fascist period, the artist himself explains the iconography of his work and the techniques employed in realizing it. He used all his artistic experience to be architect and sculptor, painter and frescoist for that unitary, celebratory work through which he was determined to leave a “not unworthy” mark in his city.

Amedeo Bocchi was born in Parma in 1883 and was trained at Cecrope Barilli’s school.[3] He moved to Rome in 1902, attended nude model drawing courses at the Academy and came into contact with Roman painters interested in social themes, while at the same time maintaining his close friendship and collaboration with Parmesan artists such as Latino Barilli[4] and, particularly, Renato Brozzi.[5] He shared a studio at Villa Strohl Fern with the latter during his years in Rome. He was invited to that “Parnassus” overlooking Villa Borghese in 1915 and he settled there permanently from 1919 to his death in 1976. In Rome he had undertaken his first large-scale decorative work: in 1911, together with a group of Parmesan artists, he participated in the realization of the Emilia Romagna pavilion for the Ethnographic Exhibition held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Unification of Italy.[6]

At that exhibition, Bocchi encountered Klimt’s work[7]­ and was enthralled with it. Klimt, after his success at the Venice Biennale the year before, was showing other paintings destined to become a source of inspiration and imitation for painters – from Vittorio Zecchin[8] to Galileo Chini[9] – whose work has many elements in common with Bocchi’s.

Bocchi drew on this artistic language for his Boardroom frescoes. The abundance panel and the five bees and honeycombs panels delight with their elegant details and triumphant Byzantine brilliance, while the walls dedicated to savings and work impress with their solemn and ritual dimension.

Gilded surfaces – here and there engraved, grooved and chiselled – provide the background to the figures, few in number and idealized as icons of wealth: the dazzling Muse effect and the golden background evoke the work of Klimt, as does the rain of flowers, a metaphor for the divine gifts bestowed on humanity. There are echoes here of the Austrian master’s Bruxelles mosaics and of Chini’s work.

Bocchi depicted the themes of “Savings“, Wealth” and “Protection” on the walls of the room.

The figure of Hope introduces to the theme of “Savings“, spreading her wide green tunic; she is depicted in a highly stylized manner that contrasts with the realistic representation of the people grouped on both sides of her. In this procession one sees people determined to contribute their small individual treasures to the great river of collective savings. The ritual is performed by real people whose function is that of representing the community of Parma. On the left we can see the painter’s self portrait, with his signature embossed in the lapel of his jacket; portraits of his friend Brozzi, of the painter Pietro Gaudenzi, and of the director of Cassa di Risparmio, Licurgo Petrella, are also included in the group.­ Among the priestesses bringing their treasures are Professor Petrella’s daughter and Gaudenzi’s wife, who posed together with an employee of the bank and another model.

Hope herself has the features of Tilde Cavalli, mother-in-law of the Chiarista painter Renato Vernizzi.[10]

The golden river, flowing musically and reappearing in every panel, is the main theme of each sequence. One perceives its subterranean meandering even in the small honeycomb panels.

On the second wall, to the south, Bocchi addressed the theme of Ricchezza, reaching the pinnacle of sophistication and elegance in the three reclining female nudes, enveloped by large, flowing wings.

Here the subject is represented “with a field of golden wheat, worked in relief in order to make the gold stand out: from this field of gold three winged female nudes emerge, dropping flowers; they symbolize the goodness of God, who always gives everything, every good.”

The strongest symbolism is to be found on the wall dedicated to the theme of “Protection“, a mirror image to the previous panel as far as pictorial composition is concerned. Here “the Bank is represented by a great stylized wing that protects all human activities, women and children.” At the centre of the painting there is a male figure – a reinterpretation of an ancient sculpture – holding the guiding lights of “Thought”, while in the background a procession of workers and farm labourers represents work as a tool of human and social improvement.

On the left, all the meanings of maternal protection are contained in the group of women bent over a child, in a sequence where the circularity of embrace is communicated in the flowing together of the lines, the touching arms, the bending backs and the hands brushing against each other.

The paintings and furnishings were designed in 1914 and mostly completed by 1916. When the artist had to leave the work to wear the military uniform, in 1917, he had already frescoed the walls and designed the furniture and the fixtures, the floor and the ceiling canopy, the vases and the sculptures. The floor, the doors and the central table with eighteen chairs in maple with mahogany inlays had been completed, and the light fittings had been installed; among the pieces still missing were the two chiselled silver urns that Renato Brozzi had been commissioned to create.

During the Fascist period the room was transformed: the frescoes were covered over and the furnishings were dispersed. Cassa di Risparmio commissioned the elderly artist to restore the original features of this extraordinary environment, and Amedeo Bocchi completed the work a few months before his long industrious life came to an end.

[1] BOCCHI A., Storia del lavoro per la decorazione della Sala del Consiglio della cassa di Risparmio di Parma, Rome, 14 October 1973. Manuscript (Cariparma Archives).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cecrope Barilli (1839-1911), painter and teacher, a student of Francesco Scaramuzza, painted some of the rooms in the Quirinal Palace, the Senate Hall, and the Ministry of Finance. He was an Academician in Parma, and in 1872 became director of the local Art Institute.

[4] Latino Barilli (1883-1961) Painter and teacher, Cecrope’s son. In 1911 he reproduced with Brozzi and de Strobel the Golden Chamber of the Castle of Torrechiara for the Ethnographic Exhibition in Rome. He painted numerous churches in Parma and its province, the apse of the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, and the Aula Magna of the University of Parma. He taught figure drawing at the Art Institute of Parma from 1939 to 1956.

[5] Renato Brozzi (1885-1963) Sculptor, draughtsman and engraver from Traversetolo (Parma). He became the “animalier” of the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and made many ornaments for the Vittoriale and several monuments to the Fallen of the First World War. His native Traversetolo has a museum dedicated to him which includes a reconstruction of his studio and all his plaster casts.

[6] Latino Barilli, Renato Brozzi, and Daniele de Strobel were, together with the architect Lamberto Cusani, the most important exponents of the Liberty movement in Parma.

[7] Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) Austrian painter, one of the greatest exponents of the Viennese Secession, author of works characterized by a profusion of gold and inspired by the Ravenna and Byzantine mosaics, his work is marked by a striking bi-dimensionality, the use of heavy symbolism and the prevalence of feminine figures.

[8] Vittorio Zecchin (1878-1947) Painter, frescoist, son of a Murano glassmaker, graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts of Venice. Critical of the late 19th-century Realist movement, he was attracted by the stimulation offered by the Venice Biennales that he attended, coming into contact with symbolist explorations and the environment of the Viennese Secession.

[9] Galileo Chini (1873-1956) Painter, frescoist, ceramist, poster designer, set designer, was born and died in Florence. He founded, together with his brother, the “Arte della ceramica” factory in Borgo San Lorenzo, which produced extraordinary objects and achieved great success. He represents the Italian Modernism period and was an important artistic figure in the town of Salsomaggiore (Parma) because of his significant artistic contribution to the spa town. From 1920 to 1929 he frescoed rooms at Terme Berzieri, the Grand Hotel des Thermes, Villa Fonio and Poggio Diana.

[10] Renato Vernizzi (1904-1972) Painter and teacher, was born in Parma and died in Milan. He attended the Academy of Fine Arts of his town, moved to Milan in 1930 and joined the “Chiaristi” painters. He taught figure drawing at the Art Institute of Parma for many years.