by Roderick Conway Morris

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Duomo, Parma
A detail from 'The Assumption of the Virgin,' a Correggio fresco from around 1530.

Correggio and the sensuality of the saints

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 24 July 2008


Correggio had the least documented life of any of the important Italian High Renaissance artists. This has contributed to, but does not entirely explain, his rather uncertain position in the pantheon of the greats. The inescapable sensuality of much of his work for long made him slightly suspect, as did the feeling that so readily appealing a style must somehow be lacking in underlying seriousness.

Ripe for reassessment, the artist is now the subject of 'Correggio and the Antique,' an unprecedented gathering of 25 paintings and more than 30 drawings at the Galleria Borghese. The exhibition continues here until Sept. 14, then travels on to Parma, where it will run from Sept. 20 until Jan. 25. During this latter period, visitors will be able to see the artist's dramatic frescoes in the Duomo's hexagonal central cupola at close hand from a specially constructed platform.

Antonio Allegri was born in Correggio near Parma around 1489 and died there in 1534. Vasari's brief entry on him in his 'Lives of the Artists' is far from reliable. The oval space for a portrait in the frontispiece was left blank because Correggio was one of a handful of artists of whom the Florentine art historian could not find any kind of likeness.

Vasari also launched the persistent canard that the artist would have achieved more if he had visited Rome. While no written document has ever surfaced proving that Correggio went there, his work is replete with evidence that he must have done so. The German artist Anton Raphael Mengs, whose father had named him after the Italian artist, persuasively argued over 200 years ago that Correggio not only must have seen the works of Raphael and Michelangelo in Rome but that he had deeply imbibed the lessons of antique sculpture there. He had also absorbed much from Mantegna and Leonardo but never became the slavish follower of any other painter.

It is possible that the enlightened humanist Giovanna da Piacenza, abbess of the Benedictine San Paolo convent in Parma, facilitated the artist's journey to Rome to gain more experience before embarking on a major decorative cycle that she entrusted to him in her private apartments. (We know that she was already in contact with Raphael and his circle.) Correggio's trompe l'oeil frescoes for the abbess transformed an elegant umbrella-vaulted chamber there into an ever-verdant, leafy bower, pierced with lunettes in which naked putti frolic against a summer sky. Around the walls he added grisaille classical vignettes, including satyrs and images of Juno and the Three Graces, forerunners of his enchanting female nudes on canvas.

Sacred elements are wholly absent from what is now called the Camera di San Paolo. The rigidities of the Counter-Reformation forced the order to become an enclosed one, and the frescoes were unseen by outsiders until Mengs 'rediscovered' them in 1774.

The Camera's frescoes were probably executed in the summer of 1519. The dazzling debut of this homegrown prodigy rapidly led to further, grander commissions: the 'Vision of St. John the Evangelist in Patmos' in the dome of the eponymous Benedictine monastery's church and the tumultuous 'Assumption of the Virgin' in the Duomo nearby.

In the 'Vision' fresco, Correggio depicted St. John and the other disciples nude but for some classical drapery. The arrangement is also curious in that St. John is visible only from the choir of the church, thus only the monks would have been able to see their titular saint. These frescoes show the influence of Raphael and Michelangelo.

'The Assumption of the Virgin' in the Duomo is even more daring, a mass of flying figures amid a billowing spiral of clouds, opening to reveal a blinding burst of sunlight. One of the canons of the cathedral is said to have described the fresco as 'a stew of frogs legs,' but viewers who surrender themselves to this swirling vortex can experience the sensation of being carried skyward along with the Virgin and her cohort of angels, saints and putti.

Amid the multitude, a semi-nude Eve holds out a golden apple toward Adam. This sensual blonde creature comes close to suggesting a subversive paradox: that the Fall of Man was made inevitable by the God-given beauty and irresistible charms of Eve. (A preparatory drawing for this figure at the Louvre is a lovely work of art in itself.

Naturalness, as the show's curator Anna Coliva points out in the catalogue, was the single virtue most consistently praised by Correggio's admirers down the centuries. No painter ever depicted humanity with more freshness and sympathy. Even Vasari, who did not understand Correggio deeply, showed that he sensed this when he wrote of a picture with 'a laughing child, like a little angel, holding a book in his hand, who seems to laugh so naturally that he makes whoever sees him smile, so that not even a person of a melancholy disposition could fail to be cheered.' (This painting at the National Gallery in Parma is one of Correggio's few moveable works still in the city's possession.)

The artist's love of feminine beauty and the sensuality often present even in his sacred paintings received their fullest expression in his later mythological canvases. Yet these are so subtle and delicately poised as to be both erotic and almost innocent at the same time.

The 'Loves of Jove,' inspired by Ovid's 'Metamorphoses,' were commissioned by Federico Gonzaga of Mantua as a gift for Emperor Charles V, who initially took them to Spain. They are brought together here again, 'Jove and Io' and 'The Rape of Ganymede' from Vienna, being reunited with 'Danäe,' which has been in the Borghese collection since the 19th century. 'Leda,' the fourth in this series, is represented by a 17th-century copy from Madrid.

The original 'Leda' was in France in the 1720s when the Duc d'Orléans, unbalanced by the death of his wife, attacked the canvas with a knife. Interestingly, the duke destroyed not the naked bodies of Leda and her companions, but the face of Leda, finding her look of ecstasy unbearable.

For a painter who spent his entire known career in a narrow provincial orbit on Italy's northern plains, Correggio achieved early on a remarkably wide audience thanks to the appreciation of his works at some of the great courts of Europe. .

It has long been recognized that Correggio both anticipated (by nearly a century) and inspired the Baroque. Nearly 20 years ago Francis Haskell argued that Correggio had changed the entire course of the history of art. This timely show vividly highlights both the painter's particular, delightful genius, and the depth and breadth of his long-term influence.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023