FIFTY miles south of Verona one comes to the old Via Emilia, or Emilian Way, which ran 175 miles from Piacenza through Parma, Reggio, Modena, Bologna, Imola, Forlì, and Cesena to Rimini. * We pass over Piacenza and (for the moment) Parma, to note a little commune eight miles northeast of Reggio, and sharing its name. Correggio is one of several towns in Italy that are remembered only through some genius to whom they gave a cognomen. Its ruling family also was called Correggio; one member was the Niccolò da Correggio who wrote genteel verses for Beatrice and Isabella d’Este. It was a place where you might expect genius to be born and to die, but not to stay, for it had no significant art, or clear tradition, to give to ability instruction and form. But in the first decades of the sixteenth century the house of Correggio was headed by Count Gilbert X, and his wife, Veronica Gambara, was one of the great ladies of the Renaissance. She could speak Latin, knew Scholastic philosophy, wrote a commentary on patristic theology, composed delicate Petrarchian verses, was called “the tenth Muse.” She made her little court a salon for artists and poets, and helped to spread that romantic worship of woman which was now replacing, among the upper classes of Italy, the medieval worship of Mary, and was molding Italian art toward the representation of feminine charms. On September 3, 1528, she wrote to Isabella d’Este that “our Messer Antonio Allegri has just finished a masterpiece picturing Magdalen in the desert, and expressing in full the sublime art of which he is a great master.”1
It was this Antonio Allegri who unwittingly stole the name and made the fame of his town, though his family name might have well expressed the joyous nature of his art. His father was a small landed proprietor, prosperous enough to win for his son a bride with a dowry of 257 ducats ($6425?). When Antonio showed a flair for drawing and painting he was apprenticed to his uncle Lorenzo Allegri. Who taught him further we do not know; some say that he went to Ferrara to study with Francesco de’ Bianchi-Ferrari, then to the studios of Francia and Costa at Bologna, then with Costa to Mantua, where he felt the influence of the massive frescoes of Mantegna. In any case he spent most of his life in Correggio in comparative obscurity, and presumably he was the only one in the town who suspected that he would be ranked among the “immortals.” He seems to have studied the engravings that Marcantonio Raimondi had made from Raphael, and probably saw, if only in copy, the chief works of Leonardo. All these influences entered into his completely individual style.
The sequence of his subjects corresponds to the decline of religion among the literate classes of Italy in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, and the rise of secular patronage and themes. His early works, even when painted for private purchasers, told again, and mostly for churches, the Christian story: The Adoration of the Magi, where the Virgin has the pretty, girlish face that Correggio later confined to subordinate characters; The Holy Family; The Madonna of St. Francis, still traditional in all its features; The Repose on the Return from Egypt, freshly original in composition, coloring, and characterization; La Zingarella, where the Virgin, leaning fondly over her babe, is drawn with full Correggian grace; and The Madonna Adoring Her Child, which makes the infant the radiant source of the scene’s illumination.
His pagan turn came through an odd commission. In 1518 Giovanna da Piacenza, abbess of the convent of San Paolo in Parma, engaged him to decorate her apartment. She was a lady of more pedigree than piety; she chose as theme of the frescoes chaste Diana, goddess of the hunt. Over the fireplace Correggio portrayed Diana in a splendid chariot; above her, in sixteen radial sections converging in the cupola, he painted scenes from classical mythology; in one a dog, too passionately hugged by a child, expresses with a remarkably pictured eye his fear of being choked with love, and shames by his alert beauty all the human and divine figures scattered about. From this time forward the human body, mostly nude, became for Correggio the chief element in pictorial decoration, and pagan motives entered into even his Christian themes. The abbess had converted him from Christianity.
His success made a stir in Parma, and brought him lucrative assignments. About 1519 he painted The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (Naples); the Virgin and the saint were here unspeakably beautiful; and yet, four years later, Correggio surpassed them when he used the same subject for the picture that is one of the treasures of the Louvre—lovely faces, an alluring landscape, the magic play of light and shade upon flowing raiment and waving hair.
In 1520 Correggio accepted an arduous commission from Parma—to paint frescoes in the cupola and over the tribune and side chapels of a new Benedictine abbey church, San Giovanni Evangelista. He toiled on this task for four years, and in 1523 he moved with his wife and children to Parma to be nearer his work. In the dome he represented the Apostles, seated comfortably in a circle on soft clouds, and fixing their gaze upon a Christ whose foreshortened figure, seen from below, gives an astonishing illusion of distance. The splendor of this dome is in the superbly modeled figures of the Apostles, some of them quite nude, rivaling the gods of Pheidias, and perhaps echoing in their muscular splendor the figures that Michelangelo had painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling twelve years before. In a spandrel between two arches a powerful St. Ambrose discusses theology with an Apostle John who is as handsome as any Parthenon ephebus. Luscious youthful forms, theoretically angels, fill the interstices with angelic faces, buttocks, legs, and thighs. The Greek revival, already old in humanism and Manutius, is here in full swing in Christian art.
In 1522 the great cathedral of Parma opened its doors to the young artist, and contracted to pay him a thousand ducats ($12,500) to paint the chapels, apse, choir, and dome. On this assignment he worked at intervals through eight years, from 1526 till his death. For the dome he chose the Assumption of the Virgin, and shocked many of the cathedral canons by making this culminating picture a whirling panorama of human flesh. In the center the Virgin, reclining on the air, floats up to heaven with arms outstretched to meet her Son; around and beneath her a heavenly host of Apostles, disciples, and saints—magnificent figures worthy of Raphael at his best—seems to puff her upward with the breath of adoration; and supporting her is a choir of angels looking remarkably like healthy boys and girls in all the splendor of youthful nudity; these are the loveliest adolescent nudes in Italian art. One of the canons, confused by so many arms and legs, denounced the painting as “a fricassee of frogs”; apparently other members of the chapter were dubious about this melee of human flesh celebrating a virgin; and Correggio’s work on the cathedral seems to have been interrupted for a time.
He was now (1530) advancing in middle age, and longed for the peace of a settled life. He bought some acres outside Correggio, became, like his father, a landed proprietor, and strove to support his family and his farm with his brush. During and after his major enterprises he produced a series of religious pictures, almost every one of them masterly: Magdalen Reading; The Virgin of St. Sebastian— the fairest Virgin in Correggio; The Madonna della Scodella— “with a bowl” and an incomparable Bambino; The Madonna di San Girolamo, sometimes called Il Giorno or Day, in which the Jerome is worthy of Michelangelo, and the angel holding a book before the Child is a vision of girlish beauty, and the Magdalen laying her cheek upon the Child’s thigh is the purest and tenderest of sinners, and the warm rich reds and yellows make a canvas worthy of Titian at his best; and finally a companion picture, The Adoration of the Shepherds, which fancy has called La Notte, Night. What interested Correggio in these pictures was not the religious sentiment but the esthetic values—the adoring devotion of the young mother, herself so comely with oval face, glossy hair, dropped eyelids, slender nose, thin lips, full bosom; or the masculine muscles of athletic saints; or the demure loveliness of Magdalen, or the rosy flesh of a child. Correggio, coming down from cathedral scaffolds, refreshed himself with composite visions of beauties that might be.
About 1523 a series of commissions from Federigo II Gonzaga invited the full expression of the pagan element in his art. Wishing to court the favor of Charles V, the Marquis ordered picture after picture, sent them as gifts to the Emperor, and received his coveted bauble, the title of duke. For him, schooled in the paganism of Rome, Correggio painted a succession of mythological subjects, commemorating Olympian triumphs of love or desire. In The Education of Eros Venus blindfolds Cupid (lest the human race should die); in Jupiter and Antiope the god, disguised as a satyr, advances upon the lady as she lies in naked slumber on the grass; in Danaë a winged herald prepares for Jupiter’s coming by undraping the fair maid, while beside her bed two putti play in happy indifference to the morality of the gods; in 10 Jupiter descends from his boredom in a concealing cloud and clasps with omnipotent hand a plump lady who hesitates gracefully and ends by yielding to the compliment of desire. In The Rape of Ganymede a pretty boy is flown to heaven by an eagle in haste to meet the needs of the ambidextrous god of gods. In Leda and the Swan the lover is a swan, but the motive is the same. Even in The Virgin and St. George two naked Cupids romp before the Virgin, and St. George, in his flashing mail, is the physical ideal of Renaissance youth.
We must not conclude that Correggio was merely a sensualist with a flair for painting flesh. He loved beauty perhaps immoderately, and in these mythologies he stressed the surface of it too exclusively; but in his Madonnas he had done justice to a profounder beauty. He himself, while his brush romped through Olympus, lived like an orderly bourgeois, devoted to his family, and seldom leaving home except to work. “He was content with little,” Vasari tells us, “and lived as a good Christian should.” He is reported to have been timid and melancholy; who would not be melancholy coming every day into a world of deformed adults from a haunting dream of loveliness?
Perhaps some quarrel arose about payment for the work in the cathedral. When Titian visited Parma he heard echoes of the dispute, and gave his opinion that if the dome could be inverted and filled with ducats they would not adequately pay for what Correggio had painted there. In any case the payments were curiously involved in the artist’s premature death. In 1534 he received an installment of sixty crowns ($750?), all in coppers. Carrying this weight of metal, he set out from Parma on foot; he became overheated, drank too much water, took a fever, and died on his farm March 5, 1534, in the fortieth (some say forty-fifth) year of his age.
For so short a life his achievement was stupendous, far greater than all that Leonardo, or Titian, or Michelangelo, or anyone but Raphael could show in their first forty years. Correggio equals them all in grace of line, the soft modeling of contours, in portraying the living texture of human flesh. His coloring has a liquid and radiant quality, alive with reflections and transparencies, softer—with its violet, orange, rose, blue, and silver hues —than the glaring brilliance of the later Venetians. He was a master of chiaroscuro, of light and shade in their endless combinations and revelations; in some of his Madonnas matter becomes almost a form and function of light. He experimented bravely with schemes of composition—pyramidal, diagonal, circular; but in his cupola frescoes he let unity slip through a superabundance of Apostolic and angelic legs. He played too fondly with foreshortenings, so that the figures in his cupolas, though drawn as science might require, seem huddled and cramped and ungainly, like the ascending Christ of San Giovanni Evangelista. On the other hand he cared nothing for mechanics, so that many of his characters, like Micawber, lack all visible means of support. He painted some religious subjects with exquisite tenderness, but his prevailing interest was in the body—its beauty, movements, attitudes, joys; and his later pictures symbolized the triumph of Venus over the Virgin in sixteenth-century Italian art.
His influence in Italy and France was rivaled only by Michelangelo’s. In the later sixteenth century the Bolognese school of painting, led by the Carracci, took him as their model; and their followers, Guido Reni and Domenichino, founded upon Correggio an art of physical excellence and sensual sentiment. Charles Le Brun and Pierre Mignaud imported into France, and deployed in Versailles, a rosy voluptuous style of decoration through pagan figures, darting Cupids, and chubby cherubim. Correggio, rather than Raphael, conquered France, and left upon its art an influence that lasted till Watteau.
In Parma itself his work was continued, and then transformed, by Francesco Mazzuoli, called by Italian whim il Parmigianino—the Parmesan. Born an orphan (1504), he was reared by two uncles who were painters, so that his talent ripened rapidly. At seventeen he was commissioned to decorate a chapel of that same church—San Giovanni Evangelista—in which Correggio was painting the dome; in these frescoes his style achieved an almost Correggian grace, to which he added his own peculiar love of fine raiment. About this time he painted a remarkable portrait of himself as seen in a mirror; this is one of the most engaging autorittrati in art, revealing a lad of refinement, sensitivity, and pride. When Parma was besieged by papal troops his uncles packed up this and others of his pictures, and sent Francesco with them to Rome (1523) to study the works of Raphael and Michelangelo, and seek the favor of Pope Clement VII. He was on the way to full success when the sack of Rome forced him to flee to Bologna (1527). There a fellow artist robbed him of all his engravings and designs. Presumably by this time his protective uncles had died. He earned his bread by painting for Pietro Aretino the queenly Madonna della Rosa, formerly in Dresden, and for some nuns the Santa Margherita, which still survives in Bologna. When Charles V came there to reorganize a devastated Italy, Francesco made a portrait of him in oils; the Emperor liked it, and might have made the artist’s fortune, but Parmigianino took the portrait back to his studio to give it a few finishing touches, and never saw Charles again.
He returned to Parma (1531), and received a commission to paint a vault in the church of the Madonna della Steccata. He was now at the top of his powers, and his incidental products were of a high order: a Turkish Slave who looks more like a princess; aMarriage of St. Catherine matching Correggio’s handling of this theme, with children of unearthly beauty; and an anonymous portrait allegedly of his mistress Antea, described as one of the most famous courtesans of the time, but here angelically demure, with robes too gorgeous for anyone less than a queen.
But now Parmigianino, perhaps goaded on by his misfortunes and poverty, became ardently interested in alchemy, and neglected his painting to set up furnaces for the improvisation of gold. The ecclesiastics of San Giovanni, unable to recall him to his work there, ordered his arrest for violation of contract. The painter fled to Casalmaggiore, lost himself in alembics and crucibles, let his beard grow, neglected his person and his health, caught a chill and fever, and died as suddenly as Correggio (1540).