Antonio Da Correggio – Frescoes

An artist’s panel pictures prove his delicacy and finish of touch, and his ideality in composition, but his frescoes prove his power and grandeur of design. Up to the year 1518, Correggio had been refining his style- in oil painting, but now he was to have a wider field of art. His first works in fresco were those for the Abbess of the Convent of S. Paolo (see p. 53), which certainly made a great impression in Parma. The Benedictines of the Convent of San Giovanni were so pleased with them that in 1520 they gave Antonio Allegri the commission to paint the new cupola of their church then just finished. Milanesi says they agreed to pay him 472 ducats, and to give him board and lodging in the convent. The dome of the church had the peculiarity of presenting an entirely even surface, for there were neither ribs nor lantern, consequently the subject, The Ascension of Christ, could be represented entire. The Saviour is suspended in a golden sky in the centre of the dome, the Apostles reclining on clouds around him. St. John, old and gray-haired, beholds the vision from beneath. The clouds on which Christ floats are bordered with countless cherubs, whose heads are shining in the light from above. Angels like pagan genii play merrily amidst the clouds surrounding the six pairs of Apostles, while the four Evangelists and four Fathers of the Church fill the corners below the cupola. The forms hovering in space seem to be real, and are so foreshortened that they appear literally to fly upwards. This foreshortening is carried to excess in the Christ, whose drawn-up legs detract greatly from His dignity. The Apostles are nearly nude—a great artist’s license, Altogether there is little divinity, but much humanity in the composition ; slight solemnity, but infinite joy and playfulness. One might, if the action were less violent, almost define it as a pagan rendering of a Christian scene. A brilliant and all-pervading light floods everything : the nude flesh glows in it, the genii bathe in it. The frieze surrounding the cupola, though a charming decorative arabesque is equally pagan. True, the emblems of the Evangelists are there, but they are lost in festoons and ribbons, amidst which a crowd of putti play hide and seek. The frieze round the nave of the church is even more classic in feeling ; genii two and two stand at sacrificial altars. It is worked out in gray upon gray, like the classic frieze of the goddesses in the Abbess’s room, and is said to have been painted from Correggio’s design by his pupils Francesco Maria Rondani and Maestro Fiorelli. Antonio received 66 ducats for it on All Saints’ Day, 1522.

The frescoes are now nearly invisible except in a strong light. Centuries of neglect and constant clouds of incense and candle-fumes have so blackened them that all the glory of colour has departed. In the lunette above the door of the cloister of this convent is a beautiful fresco of St. John Evangelist reclining and writing his Gospel in a book resting on his knee. The eagle is curled up in sleep at his feet. St. John’s inspired face is slightly fore-shortened, and the figure is exquisitely painted. Mengs sees the influence of Raphael in this figure, as well as in those of the Fathers of the Church in the dome, which he compares in style to those in Raphael’s School of Athens.

Correggio also painted a Coronation of the Virgin in the apse of the tribune in the same church, but this had a very short life, being destroyed in 1587 when the church was enlarged. Fortunately, the Caracci brothers had copied. it, and Cesare Aretusi and his pupils repainted the design in the new chancel. The original central group of the Madonna and the Christ crowning her with a diadem of stars was saved from the wreck, and is now in the hall of the Library at Parma.

This great work led to a still more important one—the painting of the great dome of Parma Cathedral—for which the contract was signed before the works at San Giovanni were finished.

The terms agreed on were i,000 ducats for the dome and 100 extra for other decorations, the Chapter paying all expenses of scaffolding, plaster, etc. These frescoes are now much injured by damp and neglect. The subject is The Assumption. The Virgin is being received by Christ in heaven, and in the four corners beneath are the four patron saints of Parma seated on clouds and surrounded by angels. As we have before remarked, Correggio’s idea of celestial beings differed fundamentally from that of Fra Angelico and his school. Here we have no graceful figures in reposeful attitudes, no flowing garments that hide the form, by which Fra Angelico expressed the heavenly garb of humility. The human form divine is Correggio’s ideal, and he gives it in the most free and unrestrained action, so much so that his angels, instead of floating in ether, are stampeding through space. All the lower limbs are nude and foreshortened from beneath, and are in such violent attitudes that the mason’s little boy had some reason, from his limited point of view, in comparing it to his favourite dish, ” a hash of frogs,” a speech which has become proverbial.

In the light clouds below this ascending crowd floats a circle of boy angels with incense and candelabra, and between the arched windows at the base of the cupola are depicted the Apostles, either single figures or in groups of two. Although the upper part of these figures reaches the curve of the dome, the foreshortening is so clever that they appear to stand upright. In the angles are the four patron saints of Parma, St. John Baptist, St. Hilary, St. Thomas, and St. Bernard, seated on clouds, with lively boy angels playing among them. Seen from beneath the whole dome appears full of an ascending crowd, visibly flying up to the golden sky.

As we have before remarked, the canons were, unfortunately, not sufficiently emancipated to appreciate this masterly drawing of the nude. They thought it unworthy of a Christian church, and wanted to efface the whole thing and stop the payments for it. Titian is said to have saved it, for when he was passing through Parma one of the canons, while doing the honours of the church, told him not to trouble to look at the frescoes on the dome, which they intended’ to deface. But to his amazement Titian became enthusiastic, and told him that if he covered the whole with gold it would not represent the value of such art, adding : If I were not Titian I would wish to be Correggio.” After this the cupola was tolerated, if not admired, by the Bishop and Chapter.

These were all Correggio’s grand works in fresco, but there are a few smaller ones. He painted a Madonna, known as the Madonna della Scala, over the gate of the city leading to Rome, near the Church of San Michele dell’ Arco. Vasari saw it here, and said the beautiful colouring was ” a stupendous thing to behold, and that it had been infinitely praised by travellers and strangers.” It certainly is very charming. The Madonna is seated beneath a kind of tent ; the Child curled up in her arms is lovingly embracing her neck. In course of time this Madonna became miraculous, and a church was, in 1555, built against the wall as a shrine for it. Votive offerings were made to it, and the Madonna was crowned with silver. In 1812 the church was pulled down and the fresco removed to the Parma Gallery, where it now is.

Tiraboschi speaks of another fresco in a niche of the church of the SS. Annunziata. Its date is not known, though it is supposed to be about 1520. The subject is The Annunciation. Mary kneels at her prie-dieu, her face half hidden, but yet gazing in adoration at the angel who, with bright and speaking countenance, floats down from a cloud with four airy genii on it. One holds the lily ; the others are daringly peeping out from the archangel’s wings. It is much injured, partly by time and partly on account of being removed from the old church to a vestibule of the new one.

Correggio also painted some allegorical frescoes, which we will mention among his mythological pictures.