Antonio Da Correggio – His Works


THE art of Correggio is less divided into epochs of style than that of any other painter. His easel pictures throughout show much the same characteristics, and some of his greatest masterpieces were painted quite early in his career ; among these are the Pietà at Parma and The Adoration at Dresden (La Notte), both painted in 1522, and the Ecce Homo, Noli me Tangere, and the Zingarella Madonna about 1519 – 20. All his earlier pictures were religious subjects ; it was only in later years, when, instead of abbesses and devotees who wanted altar-pieces, princes with humanist tastes became his patrons, that he shone as a painter of mythological subjects. The first of these was the Diana of the Abbess’s room; the famous Danae, Leda, and Education of Cupid date much later, not being painted till about 1530-33. His frescoes, though few, are very important, and are entirely local, being all contained in churches and convents of Parma, and dating between 1520 and 1529. We shall therefore make our classification of his art almost chronological by taking first the sacred pictures, next the frescoes, and lastly classical subjects.

We are told that Correggio’s first painting was a little panel, now lost, illustrating the scene in Gethsemane : ” And there followed Him a certain young man having a linen cloth cast about his naked body ; and the young men laid hold on him : and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked ” (Mark xiv. 51, 52). The figure of the young man was well defined and painted, the colouring and chiaroscuro very good, but the expression and feeling less definite. The soldier who would arrest him seemed only to be amiably inviting him not to flee. In the background Judas was seen betraying Christ to the Jews, and Peter cutting off Malchus’s ear. Mengs finds in the nude figure of the young man a curious similarity to that of the elder son in the marble group of the Laoceon. If this were painted while he was still a student, he might well have copied it from an academy study of that antique masterpiece. The picture was once in the Barberini Gallery at Rome.

The first of Correggio’s well-known pictures was The Madonna of St. Francis, now in the Dresden Gallery. Its history is interesting, especially as it was Antonio’s first important commission. In July, 1514, Quirino Zuccardi, of Correggio, left a house to the Franciscan Minorites, with the condition that an altar-piece should be painted for their church. The young Antonio Allegri, of whose talent his fellow-citizens were proud, was chosen as artist. The contract was made on August 30, 1514, and, Antonio being under age, his father signed in his name. He was to be paid too ducats, half down, and the rest on the completion of the picture. The monks were too poor to pay the money, so they ceded the house to the testator’s relatives for the price of the picture. Correggio took six months to paint it, and was paid the second moiety on April 15, 1515. This first picture was unlike any of his later ones, being entirely a conventional composition. The background is architectural ; in the centre of an arch is raised an elaborately-carved throne, on which is seated the Virgin with the Babe in her lap, her figure thrown out against a clear sky peopled with cherubs.

The decorations on the throne are allegorical ; in the base are three stories of the Fall ; in the pedestal Moses is seen seated with the Book of the Law in his hands. On one side of the throne stand St. Catherine and St. John Baptist, on the other St. Anthony of Padua and St. Francis. Critics have formed various theories as to his teachers from this picture, some finding in it the influence of Bianchi, others of Mantegna, etc. Mengs considers it a composition of great force, although of sharp outlines, but well painted and soft in the roundness of the figures. The colouring is truthful and sweet, of a style between that of Perugino and Leonardo da Vinci. The head of the Madonna recalls the latter, especially in the mouth and eyelids. The draperies have a touch of Mantegna’s style in the way they bind the limbs, but are less stiff. ” Even if he had never changed his style,” adds Mengs, “he would have equalled Ghirlandajo, Bellini, and Mantegna.” Conventional as is the- form, the painting has all the germs of his future excellence in the life-like flesh-painting and tendency to grace of attitude and foreshortening. He appears never to have painted another conventional Madonna, but passed suddenly into naturalism, with gracefulness as its chief aim.

Soon after this (about 1514) he painted another altar-piece for the Franciscan Church, The Repose in Egypt, but it is of a style entirely different to the first. It is said to have been ordered by Cavalier Francesco Munari, and is one of Correggio’s most charming paintings. It is sometimes known as the Madonna della Scodella, from a bowl which the Virgin holds, and is now in the Pinacoteca at Parma. The scene is inspired by a legend in the ancient codex De Infantia Salvatoris, which says that when the holy travellers were weary in the land of Egypt, a date-palm which sheltered them bowed itself down and gave them fruit, while a fountain sprang up at their feet. The whole picture is bathed in clear sunshine, with soft shadows in gentle transition. Mary, a graceful and loving young mother of brunette complexion, wears a blue robe which harmonizes beautifully with the dim, neutral green and brown of the landscape in the distance, while Joseph, on the right, with a happy, even joyous face, and yellow and orange garments, forms a brilliant contrast, the yellows being carried off by the tone of the sunshine. He is one of the chief actors, and not, as usual, a mere spectator. He reaches up to pluck the dates, which he gives to the child, and the Madonna is just lifting the bowl to have it filled. The usual frolicsome boy-angels are having a wild game of play with the palm-branches amidst the clouds, swinging on them to bring the fruit within reach of Joseph.

There is another Repose in Egypt in the Uffizi at Florence, which is certainly not a replica of the other, although similar to it. In this Joseph is on the left of the picture, pulling down the palm branches ; St. Francis is kneeling on the right. There is a group of accessories at the foot of the Virgin—a plate, vase, and the staff of Joseph, which is putting forth leaves. Joseph is in a short, purplish tunic, with a white sash folded round his waist, and a red mantle over his shoulder. The Madonna is in white, with blue mantle ; St. Francis, of- course, in gray. Dr. Meyer thinks the figures heavy and the colouring too crude to be Correggio’s, but that may be accounted for by its being a very early work of his transitional style. Its authenticity has never before been questioned.

The Ashburton Gallery contains a picture said to have been painted by Correggio in 1517, representing ” St. Martha with St. Peter, Mary Magdalene, and St. Anthony of Padua,” which was brought from the Ercolani collection in Bologna. Lanzi, however, describes the original of 1517 as representing St. Martha, Mary Magdalene, St. Peter and St. Leonard. Except for the identity of the latter saint, the grouping is the same, so either the English one is a replica slightly altered, or Lanzi has erred in describing it.

This year also marks the first of the three famous replicas of The Marriage of St. Catherine, which we have fully described among our illustrations. The well-known Adoring Madonna, now in the Tribune of the Uffizi, was painted about this time. It is not one of his most masterly works, though a very pleasing one. Critics find fault with the drapery and a certain weakness in the face, but the colouring and technical execution are so fine that other faults sink out of sight. The Madonna is kneeling before the child, who lies on the ground in a fold of her veil. Her beautifully drawn hands are clasped in adoration. Her brilliant red robe stands out in strong relief against a fine landscape in neutral green and soft blues. It may be noted that, in giving attention to the folds of the Madonna’s mantle and robe, the artist has forgotten to indicate the existence of the lower limbs from the knees downwards ; the robe falls sheer on the ground, with no sign of feet beneath it.

The first copy of The Madonna and Child with St. John Baptist offering Fruit, of which Correggio painted several replicas, is generally supposed to be one of his early works (1519-20). One of these is in Prince Torlonia’s collection at Rome, one at the Hermitage at St. Petersburg, and another in Buda Pesth. This last differs slightly from the others, as it has an angel flying down to bring cherries and pears to the holy child instead of St. John. Critics, beginning from Vasari, greatly admire the painting of the hair in this picture.

The Noli me Tangere at Madrid also belongs to this period, and shows the gradual tendency of Correggio’s art towards naturalism. The treatment of the first touching meeting of Christ and the Magdalen in the garden after His resurrection is entirely mundane. Mary, richly attired in flowing garments, which are but scanty covering, is kneeling on the ground in a pleasing wooded landscape. The Saviour, radiant with florid health, advances lightly towards her. The meeting might be any human scene were it not that the angel and the empty sepulchre mark it as a Divine mystery. One of its former possessors had the Magdalen painted over, for he thought her dress not modest enough. This coating has now been removed, but much to the detriment of the picture.

One of the most lovely pictures of this date is the small panel of the Madonna, known as the Zingarella (little gipsy), from her curious Eastern headgear, or as the Madonna del Coniglio, from the little white rabbit which peeps at her from the side. It is of special interest in regard to the artist, and, though of small size, is the pride of the Naples Gallery. The Madonna is supposed to be a copy of Correggio’s much-loved wife Girolama, and was probably painted in about 1520, while she was still a bride. If, however, the child, as well as the mother, were from life in his own family, we must suppose it to have been executed in 1521 or 1522, as his son Pomponio was not born till September 3, 1521. The picture, even in its present time-worn state, is utterly lovely. A tranquil grace and Divine peace pervade the whole scene. The young Madonna is seated on the ground among the flowers, her slight girlish figure curves lovingly over the babe that sleeps in her lap, and a group of child-angels in the air above her are holding a palm-branch down to shade her. The silence of the scene is emphasized by a little white rabbit that has ventured quite near without fear. The Madonna is dressed in a loose white robe, while her blue mantle has fallen off, and lies across her knees with the child on its folds. Her headdress, which looks so gipsy-like, is after all only the head kerchief of the Italian peasants knotted round the head instead of tied beneath the chin, a fashion of wearing it, which may be seen in any Southern vineyard in warm weather. The flesh tints are extremely warm, almost Oriental in tone, but their shades, so beautifully fused, are soft and life-like. Indeed, the whole picture is warm, and seems to throb with living reality. There are conflicting accounts of the history of this work. There would seem to be two paintings, one being a replica of the other, or a slightly different version of the same subject. The Naples one was certainly at Parma when Scannelli wrote his Microcosmo della Pittura, describing it as a ” Blessed Virgin and child seated on the ground in a dress like that of a gipsy, but excessively fantastic and bizarre.” This is now in the Naples Gallery. There was another in the Jesuit Convent at Parma, which, when the order there was sup-pressed, was sold to Prince Chigi, of Rome. The picture, afterwards in the collection of Count Bruhl, Prime Minister to Frederic Augustus III. of Saxony, and King of Poland, was given to that King by Cardinal Alessandro Albani. Whether, as in the case of the marriage of St. Catherine, Correggio painted the same picture three times is a question difficult to answer. The Naples copy is undoubtedly original.

Another pleasing picture is the Madonna della Cesta (basket) in the National Gallery, London. It is one of Correggio’s most charming naturalistic compositions, and gives one the idea of a lovely sketch from the real life of a happy home. In style and feature there is sufficient likeness to the Zingarella Madonna, which was painted about the same time, to suggest that his beautiful young wife was the artist’s model also in this. The Zingarella gives her profile, this one three-quarter face. She wears the same knotted kerchief on her head, and the dress in both is similarly arranged at the neck. She is seated on a grassy bank outside the house dressing the infant, and is putting his little arm through the sleeve of His outer garment. A homely work-basket with scissors and work materials lies at her side, and flowers grow at her feet. In the background Joseph is at his bench planing wood with a very modern plane. The Madonna is as usual a master-piece of grace and inimitable flesh painting. The figures are relieved against the neutral background of tree-trunks and rustic buildings. A bit of gleaming sky in the right corner serves to carry off the mass of golden flesh tints.

While in Parma between 1520 and 1522, both the Ecce Homo and The Deposition, which are among our illustrations, were painted.

There is a clever half-length portrait in the Dresden Gallery which was once in Modena, where it was known as the Medico di Correggio (Correggio’s doctor), which Mengs attributes to Correggio and thinks was executed about the time of the frescoes in the Convent of San Giovanni. It is supposed to be the likeness of Correggio’s great friend Dr. Giambattista Lombardi, who was godfather to his son Pomponio. It shows another step in the artist’s development of style, and is marked as one of his early works, for though the colouring and impasto are good, the wonderful variety in the flesh tints which he acquired later is lacking in this.

While Correggio was at Parma he had a very important commission from the Benedictine Don Placido del Bono, father confessor to Pope Paul III., who wished two altar-pieces for a chapel which he had built. The subjects he chose were The Martyrdom of SS. Placidus and his Sister Flavia, and a Pietà. Correggio no doubt wished the good monk had chosen subjects less melancholy, but he submitted, and softened the tragedy as much as possible in both. The scene of martyrdom takes place in a beautiful landscape, the figures standing out against the blue of the horizon. Not a sign of pain or suffering is in the face of either martyr, though both have been already wounded and await the second blow, and two martyred brethren lie dead on the ground. Although pallid unto death, St. Placidus (who was a disciple of St. Benedict) stands firm and courageous, casting a look of love and encouragement on his sister, whose inspired features express only ecstatic glory in giving her life for Christ. She opens her arms as if to welcome the fatal stroke, and ” paradise is already reflected in her eyes.” The angel descending with the palm seems to feel the horror of such a death more than the martyrs themselves. The executioners in their artistic dress are alone entirely without feeling, and seem to delight in butchery. There is intense action in all the figures except in the sufferers themselves, and great feeling for the dramatic and the picturesque, but the only attempt at religious expression is in the face of St. Flavia. The harmony of colour is wonderful ; the figures seem to live in light.

In his Agony in the Garden, now at Apsley House, Correggio made a note of sadness ring more true. It is a small picture, most highly finished, and has a marvellous charm of chiaroscuro. Jesus, in a white robe, kneels in the foreground, a ray of heavenly light illumining His figure. This light does not emanate from Christ, as in La Notte, but falls on Him from heaven, and is reflected off to the other figures. The angel hovering over Him and pointing to heaven for His consolation, is etherially illumined by it, and the figures of the sleeping disciples near are softly defined in its diffused light ; while Pilate’s soldiers loom dark in the distance, their torches making spots of lurid light in the gloom. Jesus is more resigned than agonized ; His face and attitude show a pathetic calm, and, like a prophecy, the distant sky shows the first gleam of a new day. Every detail is worked up like a miniature, and yet in this minuteness of execution nothing is lost to the breadth of effect.

The Madonna of St. Sebastian, now in the Dresden Gallery, also dates from this year (1525), and is one of Correggio’s masterpieces. There was a company of archers in Modena who had taken St. Sebastian as their patron saint. When the city was freed from the plague this brotherhood vowed to place an altar-piece in the Cathedral at Modena as a thank-offering, and Correggio was commissioned to paint it. He has represented a Madonna and Child in glory above the clouds, surrounded with angels. On the ground are St. Geminianus, patron saint of Modena, St. Sebastian, and St. Roch. The latter sits on the rock half sleeping in the shadow on the right, his head buried in his arms. The darkness is mitigated by a reflection of light. St. Sebastian, bound to a tree, stands on the left in the act of intercession, with his eyes fixed in love and reverence on the celestial group above him. His figure is utterly beautiful, and a triumph of flesh-painting. In the centre St. Geminianus, in episcopal robes. points with one hand to the populace below, and with the other up to heaven, whence their help must come. His green and gold vestment and white alb make points of light in the general shadow on earth, yet without breaking up the effect. A girl in graceful attitude is in the left corner, holding a model of his church. Correggio’s mastery over light and shade is pre-eminent in this work. The yellow gleam of the heavenly glory is gradated to a deeper shade as it reaches earth. The Madonna and Babe show out in luminous darkness against this glorious glow. She is robed in red, and has a dark blue mantle, the flesh-tones being warm, but subdued, as against the light. The two angels at the sides, one of whom seems to speak to St. Roch and one to St. Sebastian, making a sign that Heaven accepts their offered lives—show less distinctly against the light, and are partly relieved against the darker background of the clouds. The boy-angels, frivolously playing horses in these clouds, are a discordant note in what would be a noble composition ; but Correggio’s idea of cherubs was always rather a pagan one.

Another of the famous Dresden Correggios is The Madonna of St. George. It was certainly painted before 1531, when it was placed in the Oratory of the Brotherhood of St. Peter Martyr, who gave the commission. It loses somewhat in its present position in the Dresden Gallery, as the foreshortening of the Madonna’s position is out of focus when placed at eye level. It was painted for a particular architectural situation, with which the lines of the composition harmonized, and must have been originally placed high up and leaning forward. The Madonna is enthroned on a species of pedestal sustained by two golden statues of angels. Four saints group around her—viz., St. George, St. John’ Baptist, St. Geminianus, and St. Peter Martyr, who is interceding for her protection to his brotherhood. The Modena Bishop presents a model of his cathedral, which is held by a beautiful boy, to the Holy Babe, whose hand is extended to receive it. St. John Baptist is drawn as a youth of seventeen ; his figure shows complete knowledge of anatomy and of the nude, and has the grace peculiar to Correggio. St. George, a truly heroic figure, contrasting well with this, has the dragon at his feet. Four little boy-angels are guarding his armour, and one is mischievously trying on the helmet. Here again we get Correggio’s innate sense of humour in children’s play that gives a discordant comic note to the serious picture.