ANTONIO da CORREGGIO: The Chiaroscuro Virtuoso

Leda and the Swan by Correggio, 1532 - photo by Wikipedia

Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio, was born in about August 1489 in the town of Correggio, near Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy. He adopted the name of his birthplace as his own.

Correggio Self Portrait, 1510 – photo by Wikimedia Commons

Little is known about his early life, other than that his father, Pellegrino, was a merchant trader in the town. He and Girolama Francesca di Braghetis married in 1519; she died in 1529. Their son, Pomponio Allegri, also took up as an artist but was regarded as unexceptional. Correggio was known as an introvert with a dark and despondent disposition.

Correggio probably received his first art instruction from his uncle, Lorenzo Allegri. However, Allegri was not regarded as a great artist, reinforced by a comment attributed to the Bishop of Strongoli, Rinaldo Corso, that “wishing to depict a lion, [Lorenzo] drew a goat, and wrote the title above it.”

Correggio was best known for his composition, perspective and foreshortening skills, as well as being regarded as a master of chiaroscuro.

From 1503-1505, Correggio was apprenticed to Francesco Bianchi Ferrara (1447-1510) who lived in Modena. Here, he would have been exposed to the work of Lorenzo Costa and Francesco Francia, who were close friends. Despite his limited formal instruction, Correggio had knowledge of optics, perspective, architecture, sculpture, and anatomy, much of which he probably imbibed by studying the works of da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. He was also influenced by the engravings of Albrecht Dürer.

The Entombment of Christ by Correggio – photo by Christie’s

In 1506, he undertook a trip to Mantua, Lombardy. The city was ruled by the Gonzaga family who saw the city became a notable centre of the arts. The Marchioness of Mantua, Isabella d’Este, was married to Francesco II Gonzaga. She was a renowned patron of the arts and commissioned a total of five works from artists Andrea Mantegna, Pietro Perugino and Lorenzo Costa for her studio in Castello di San Giorgio. When she relocated the studio to Corte Vecchia, she commissioned two more pieces from Correggio. The same year, Correggio returned to his namesake town, where he remained until 1510.

In 1514, he painted two tondi, Madonna and Child with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist (oil on panel, 61 x48 cm), now housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA. The other was the Entombment of Christ (oil on canvas, 74 x 52.9 cm), auctioned by Christies in September 2006 for €2160. It is now housed in the Museo Diocesano, Mantua. These two works, plus a probable third tondo, were painted at the entrance to the church of Sant’Andrea, Mantegna’s family chapel, after the artist’s death.

Madonna di San Francesco (Madonna with St. Francis) by Correggio, 1514 – photo by Wikimedia Commons

A jurist named Francesco Munari bequeathed money to the Convent of San Francesco, on the understanding that this would be used for the decoration of the Immaculate Conception Chapel, where he wished to be interred. When Correggio returned home in 1514, he was commissioned to paint the altarpiece, Madonna di San Francesco (1514-1515). He painted a second work, Rest on the Flight to Egypt with St Francis (1520).

The 14-century convent suffered severe damage during an earthquake on 15th October 1996, including to the structure and the bell tower. Much of the artwork was badly damaged or destroyed.

Duke Francesco I d’Este had removed the Madonna painting from its original location in 1663, now housed in the Dresden Gemäldegalerie. He also removed the Flight to Egypt in 1638, when he relocated his collection to Modena. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de’ Medici (1610-1670), procured the latter work in 1649 for the Uffizi Gallery, when he exchanged it for Andrea del Sarto’s Sacrifice of Isaac.

Three of Correggio’s earliest works comprise:

Nativity (The Holy Night) by Correggio, 1522-1530 – photo by Wikipedia
  • Christ Taking Leave of his Mother (pre-1514, oil on canvas, 86.7 x 76.5 cm). It was presented to the National Gallery, London by British art dealer, Lord Duveen in 1927.
  • The Adoration of the Magi (1515-1518, oil on canvas, 84 x 108 cm), is now held in the Pinacoteca di Brera (Art Gallery) of Milan. The gallery has held the work since 1895, when it had been attributed to Scarsellino, part of the collection belonging to Cardinal Cesare Monti. It was transferred from his hands to the Archdiocese of Milan in 1650. It was only in the 19th century that it was attributed to Correggio.
  • The Nativity, also known as the Holy Night, or Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1529-1530, oil on canvas, 256.5 cm × 188 cm) was commissioned by Alberto Pratoneri in an agreement signed on 10 October 1522. It was to be placed in his family chapel in the Basilica of San Prospero in Reggio, Emilia. In 1640, Duke Francesco I d’Este appropriated the work for his private collection in Modena, causing a local hue and cry. It was moved to Dresden in 1746 and is now held in the city’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.
Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist by Correggio, 1513-1514 – photo by Art Institute of Chicago | Wikipedia

Correggio painted two versions of the Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist; the first in 1513-1514. It was acquired for the Art Institute of Chicago in 1965, from where it was stolen, but recovered shortly thereafter, and still remains.

The other version painted in 1518, was registered as being owned by Isabella Farnese after her marriage to Philip V of Spain. In 1746, she had the artwork taken from Parma to their summer residence, the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso (known as La Granja). The piece is now held by the Prado Museum.

Correggio’s first major work was a commission to paint the ceiling and fireplace surround for the private Camera della Badessa (Abbess’ Chamber), or as it was also known, Camera di San Paolo (St Paul’s Chamber) for Giovanna Piacenza, the Mother Superior of the then Monastery of San Paolo in Parma.

Camera di San Paolo, The Room of the Abbess – photo by Italian Ways

The work is a metaphor of the Abbess’ clash with the authorities, who desired to quell the intellectual and social activities of convents and reduce their political influence. The vaulted ceiling (697 x 645 cm) comprises 16 sections, in each of which is a trompe-l’oeil featuring putti (putto: “a representation of a naked child, especially a cherub or a cupid in Renaissance art”) alongside dogs, hunting equipment and trophies. The centre of the dome features the Abbess’ heraldic bearing. The fireplace features Diana (the Roman goddess of the hunt, nature and the moon) on a chariot, preparing for a hunt.

On the Abbess Giovanna’s recommendation, Correggio was commissioned to paint the dome of the San Giovanni Evangelista church in Parma. It comprises five groups of frescoes, of which only the segment Coronation of the Virgin has endured.

Assumption of the Virgin by Correggio, 1524-30 – photo by Cathedral of Parma | CBS News

One of his most important works is the Assumption of the Virgin, a fresco (1093 cm × 1195 cm) created for the Cathedral of Parma. He signed the agreement on 3rd November 1522 and began work in 1526, completing it in 1530. It is notable for its di sotto in su (from below to above) perspective and foreshortening techniques, which would influence later Baroque painters. Different parts of the fresco can only be seen in their entirety from different viewpoints; St John the Baptist, St Hilary, St Thomas and St Bernard are only visible from the nave, where they are situated in niches which support the dome. The entire dome of the cathedral was used as a canvas, inferring its comparison to Heaven. Further into the church, angels and the Apostles are visible as they gesture towards the Virgin Mary who sits on a cloud in the dome, flanked by Adam and Eve, and the wily widow Judith, who decapitated her enemy Holofornes, thus saving Israel from the Assyrians. Only priests are able to see Mary rising, from where they receive the Eucharist (consecrated bread) at the bottom of the staircase which leads to the main altar. The figure of a young and beardless Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven are only visible further up the staircase, in the area reserved for the clergy. The work was not appreciated by all; Italian cleric and literary critic Girolamo Tiraboschi (1731-1794), was quoted as saying it resembled ‘frog leg stew’, due to the profusion of limbs as viewed from directly below.

Lamentation of Christ (also known as Deposition) by Correggio, 1522 – photo by Wikipedia

Two other works dating from approximately 1524 are the Lamentation of Christ (oil on canvas, 157 x 182 cm) and the Martyrdom of Four Saints (oil on canvas, 160 x 185 cm). Both were commissioned by Placido del Bono, a nobleman from Parma. Both were created for the city’s church of San Giovanni Evangelista, and today both can be found in the Galleria Nazionale in Parma.

Ovid (43BC – 17AD) was the inspiration for Correggio’s Amori di Giove (Loves of Jupiter) series, based on the Roman poet’s Metamorphoses. The epic works comprise 15 books; a narration from the creation of the world until Julius Caesar’s deification, and inspired literary luminaries including Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare.

American classical literature expert Brooks Otis’ treatise on Ovid divided the work into four sections;

  • Book I–Book II: The Divine Comedy
  • Book III–Book VI: The Avenging Gods
  • Book VI, 401–Book XI: The Pathos of Love
  • Book XII–Book XV: Rome and the Deified Ruler
Danaë by Correggio, between 1531 and 1532 – photo by Web Gallery of Art

The artist’s paintings may have been created for the private collection of Duke Federico II Gonzaga, who then gifted them to King Charles V of Spain. The latter bribed his way into being crowned Holy Roman Emperor on 28 June 1519 by the Papal Electors, and again in Germany in 1520, with a third coronation by Pope Clement VII in February 1530. Gonzaga was the last emperor to receive a papal coronation. There is however speculation that the works may have been for Gonzaga’s lover, noblewoman Isabella Boschetti, known as ‘la bella Boschetta’.

Correggio’s Metamorphoses series comprised two series of two erotic works each, all oil on canvas; Danaë and Leda and the Swan; Jupiter and Io and Ganymede Abducted by the Eagle.

Danaë (161 x 193cm) is housed in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, Leda (156.2 x 217.5 cm) is in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Jupiter and Io (163 x 70.5 cm) and Ganymede (163 x 70.5 cm) are both in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The 1604 copy of Leda and the Swan by Eugenio Cajés before the painting left Spain, showing the original’s state before it was damaged and restored – photo by Museo del Prado, Madrid | Wikipedia

Leda has had a chequered history; in 1603 it was acquired by Rudolf II (1552-1612), who ruled variously as Holy Roman Emperor and King of Croatia and Hungary, King of Bohemia and Archduke of Austria. The painting was dispatched to Prague and later to Sweden, where Queen Christina gave it to Cardinal Decio Azzolino, who was possibly her lover. Azzolino inherited her art collection, including Danaë. His death mere weeks later saw the collection go to his nephew Pompeo, who promptly sold it; the 123 works formed the core of the Orleans Collection, which comprised over 500 works collected by Phillippe, the Duke of Orléans between 1700-1723. The Duke’s son Louis took exception to what he considered the lewdness of Leda and attacked the painting with a knife, causing permanent damage to Leda’s face. The King’s artist Charles-Antoine Coypel was then commissioned to recreate a new head and the painting was sold in pieces to a collector in 1753. A second painter, Jacques-François Delyen was commissioned to paint another version of the head and it was sold to Frederick the Great in 1755 for his summer palace. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) looted the piece amongst hundreds of others, but after being returned to Germany in1814, it was acquired by the Berlin Museum in 1830. German painter and restorer Jakob Schlesinger was commissioned to paint a third head, but this was a more virtuous version than the original, in which Leda’s expression depicted the sexual satisfaction she received from Jupiter, the King of the Gods, in the guise of a swan.

Correggio’s work can be found in major galleries around the world, including:

Noli Me Tangere by Correggio, 1525 – photo by Wikipedia
  • Judith and the Servant (c.1510) Musee des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg
  • Madonna (1512-14) Castello Sforzesco, Milan
  • The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (c.1517) Louvre Museum
  • Portrait of a Gentlewoman (1517-19) Hermitage, St. Petersburg
  • Noli me Tangere (c.1525), Prado Museum, Madrid
  • Ecce Homo (1525-30) National Gallery, London
  • Allegory of Virtue (c.1532-34) Louvre Museum

Correggio died on 5 March 1534 in his hometown and was buried, along with his family, in San Francesco in the town centre. It is not known today exactly where his tomb is located.