The moment you walk into the piazza del Duomo, you’re in for a wallop of delightful visual storytelling. To one side rises the elegant baptistery, primarily the work of Italy’s great Romanesque master Benedetto Antelami and begun in 1196. It’s octagonal shape, four open loggias, and tiers of 16 slender columns all play off the number eight, the sign of the Resurrection; the alternating bands of white and pink marble represent purity and the blood of Christ; carvings above the entrance are scripture in stone in which one particularly engaging sequence depicts King Herod pulling his beard in rage, Salome dancing, and St. John losing his head next to the baptistery itself. Inside, 13th-century frescoes depict the zodiac, the months and seasons, and the life of Christ with an overwhelming explosion of color, complex medieval iconography, and some remarkably tender scenes, including one in which the Virgin Mary shields children huddled below her with her robe.
Two stone lions guard the entrance to the adjacent Duomo, one crushing a serpent, the devil, the other a lamb, symbol of sacrifice, under their paws, and inside are two of Parma’s greatest treasures. Correggio, the master of light and color, spent 8 years painting the octagonal cupola. He finished in 1530, took his payment in a sack full of small change, and went home and died of fever at the age of 40. He presents the “Assumption of the Virgin” as a sea of free-floating angels, swirling limbs, and billowing clouds. A leggy Christ tumbles in a free fall out of the celestial light to meet his ascending mother, whose arms are outstretched toward her son. A contemporary compared the effect to a "hash of frogs' legs" and Charles Dickens commented that this was a scene that "no operative surgeon gone mad could imagine in his wildest delirium." Church authorities supposedly approached Titian to redo the dome in more conventional fashion, and the artist told them that the work is so masterful they should have filled the structure with gold and presented it to Correggio. In the transept to the right is a somber bas-relief of “The Deposition from the Cross,” by Antelami, creator of the baptistery next door. Christ, his face bathed in sadness, stretches his elongated arms over two groups, Mary and pious converts to one side, the unenlightened on the other—including a group of Roman soldiers playing cards.