The Italian painter Correggio (ca. 1494-1534) is famous for the grace and refinement of his art. He rendered nature with clarity and gentleness, as if it were all music, and he also was a pioneer in executing daringly foreshortened ceiling paintings.
The real name of Correggio was Antonio Allegri, but he is known by the name of his birthplace, Correggio, near Reggio Emilia. He received his early training from fairly indifferent painters in his home town, but his earliest documented works, such as the Madonna of St. Francis (1515; Dresden), show him as a master who, much impressed with the monumentality of the works of Andrea Mantegna, knew how to join it to the traditions of the luminous and colorful art of Emilia. An early-17th-century source reports that Correggio worked for a time in Mantua, and several units of the decoration of Mantegna's funerary chapel in S. Andrea have been attributed to his hand.
As was true of most north Italian painters of the time, the art of the great Venetian and Florentine painters was reflected in Correggio's work. Many of his early pictures, such as the Madonna and Child with the Infant St. John (ca. 1515; Madrid) and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (ca. 1516; Florence), show that he responded with particular happiness to the inventions and discoveries of Giorgione, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael. Another formative influence on his work was the engravings of Albrecht Dürer.
It is established with reasonable certainty that Correggio spent the better part of 1518 or 1519 in Rome. His later work shows that he received immense benefit from studying the works of Raphael and Michelangelo. Correggio was selective in what he adapted from their work, and he succeeded, in his most ambitious paintings, in reconciling and putting to splendid use the often conflicting lessons in the greatness of art that may be drawn from Raphael's Stanza della Segnatura and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Correggio executed three elaborate fresco commissions in Parma. The first was the decoration of the abbess's drawing room in the Benedictine convent of S. Paolo (ca. 1518-1520). Over the fireplace is a painting of Diana in her chariot. The painted ceiling transforms the chamber into an artful green bower with garlands of fruit hanging down into the room. In the ceiling are simulated niches painted in grisaille with representations of divinities and allegories which look as if they are works of sculpture come to life. Above these niches is a cycle of lunettes in which cupids, painted in flesh color, display various attributes of the hunt.
Correggio's second commission was the decoration of the cupola, apse, and frieze of the church of S. Giovanni Evangelista (1520-1524). Especially in the cupola painting he put to the test the lessons in figure drawing and architectural perspective which only the Roman art of Michelangelo and Raphael can have taught him. Correggio filled the lower rim of the cupola with a majestic array of saints joined by angels. Some of them look down on the viewer; others look up raptly at the figure of Christ, who rises toward a myriad of angels all shining with golden light. Christ not only dominates the figures represented on the cupola but with a great, exhortative, and yet fleeting gesture calls toward himself the worshipers in every part of the church.
Even more ambitious are the frescoes Correggio painted in the Cathedral of Parma (ca. 1524-1530). He transformed the interior of the immense octagonal, funnelshaped Romanesque cupola into a vision of the heavens opened for the assumption of Mary. A host of music-making and dancing angels, portrayed in the most daring foreshortening, joyfully move about the clouds and, together with a number of saintly figures, surround a core of heavenly light, toward the source of which Mary, her arms opened in a gesture of bliss and grateful response, is being lifted. The archangel Gabriel, painted very large and almost in the center of the composition, has come to greet Mary and to fly on before her.
Religious Panel Paintings
Correggio, in the period of his maturity, painted five great altarpieces: the Madonna of St. Sebastian (ca. 1525), the Adoration of the Shepherds (ca. 1530), the Madonna of St. George (ca. 1532; all in Dresden), the Madonna of St. Jerome (1528), and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1530; both in Parma). These works, though the presentation of their affecting subject matter is extraordinarily tender and moving, are painted, as befits their size, with a certain splendor of majesty.
In his smaller religious paintings, however, Correggio gave free rein to his lyrical imagination, as can be seen in his Christ on the Mount of Olives (ca. 1525; London). The great pathos of the kneeling Christ submitting himself with an open, giving gesture of the arms to the will of his Father is enhanced by the soft darkness of the night surrounding him and the singular gentleness and tearful beauty of his face lit up by a heavenly splendor.
When representing cheerful subjects, such as the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (ca. 1525; Paris), Correggio bestowed an infinite tenderness upon the scene. The picture shows us not only the happiness of a wonderful moment in the life of the saint but also brings us closer to an understanding of the simplicity and exquisite fineness of the complete and loving surrender of a noble soul to its maker. Among Correggio's other great works in this genre the Madonna of the Basket (ca. 1523; London) and the Madonna Adoring the Christ Child (ca. 1525; Florence) are especially noted for their lyrical charm.
Mythological and Allegorical Paintings
Correggio brought as much love and gentle understanding to his mythological subjects as to his Christian topics. There are six mythological paintings by Correggio, all commissioned by the Duke of Mantua but not necessarily part of the same decorative project.
The Education of Cupid (ca. 1525; London) is a humanistic allegory ostensibly in praise of the love of learning, but the beauty of Venus's fully revealed body, her enigmatic smile, and the splendidly erotic glance of her wide-open and curiously musing eyes directed straight at the beholder triumphantly keep us from paying much attention to the allegorical significance of the story.
The other five paintings represent famous love affairs of Jupiter. In these works Correggio portrayed scenes of sometimes quite absurd encounters, such as that of Leda and the Swan (ca. 1532; Berlin), with a literal accuracy and gentle delight which is, at once, tenderly amused and erotically compassionate. The most artful and affecting among these pictures is surely Io Approached by Jupiter in the Form of a Cloud (ca. 1532; Vienna), in which the cloud that softly envelops the enraptured nymph hides and yet reveals a very real physical likeness of the god in the fullness of the beauty of youth.
Correggio also painted two complex and not readily decipherable allegorical compositions for the studiolo of Isabella d'Este in Mantua (ca. 1533). One represents the exquisite tortures suffered by the man ruled by passions and vice; the other, the triumph of virtue and statecraft over vice. Characteristically the most impressive and engaging figure in this group is the cupid in the extreme foreground of the picture showing the triumph of the passions. He invitingly holds up a bunch of grapes and looks at us with an irresistibly knowing, sovereign, and vaguely malicious smile.
Influence and Reputation
When Correggio died in 1534 in his native town, he was at the height of his creative life. He left behind no students worthy of his name, and in his immediate neighborhood only Parmigianino profited greatly from the example of his work. Correggio was famous in his lifetime, but since his works, especially the great frescoes in Parma, were in out-of-the-way places, he was at first more readily praised than seriously studied.
At the beginning of the 17th century the Carracci, touched by the facility and grace of Correggio's art, made him one of their greatest heroes. As their influence rose, so did his. Correggio's art of opening up ceilings illusionistically was adapted and, to a considerable extent, vulgarized during the 17th century.
Correggio's influence on 18th-century painting was all-pervasive. When the reputation of 18th-century art declined, the appreciation of Correggio's oeuvre declined with it. And it did not rise again significantly when 18th-century art was restored to critical favor, perhaps because the exquisite grace of Correggio's style demands a greater commitment of gentleness and refinement than does the charming playfulness generally associated with the rococo.
The painter Anton Raphael Mengs was one of the most perceptive and articulate students of the master's work. In his Memorie sopra il Correggio (Opere, 1783) he wrote that Correggio arrived at a perfection of painting because "he added to the representation of grandness and the imitation of nature a certain lightness which now a days we are in the habit of calling 'good taste'; but in fact this good taste is simply the ability to delineate the true nature of things and to exclude all extraneous elements as insipid and useless."
Further Reading on Correggio
There is no modern appreciation in English of the complete work of Correggio. Arthur E. Popham's magisterial Correggio's Drawings (1957) transcends the limited scope indicated by its title and probably will remain one of the best introductions to Correggio's art. It also contains a concise critical review of the most important earlier publications on Correggio. Erwin Panofsky, The Iconography of Correggio's 'Camera di San Paolo' (1961), is concerned with the meaning of the allegories in the abbess's drawing room, and it also serves as an introduction to the social and political environment of the time. Works in Italian include A. C. Quintavalle, L'opera completa del Correggio (1970), which contains reproductions of all works generally attributed to Correggio, and Roberto Tassi, Il duomo di Parma (1966), a splendidly illustrated book on Correggio's ceiling paintings in the the Cathedral.