Antonio Da Correggio – Mythological Paintings

Correggio had other patrons besides the monks and ecclesiastic devotees for whom he painted his beautiful Madonnas and exquisite, though sensuous, Magdalens. Towards the middle of his life he began to be much sought after as a decorator of lordly palaces. Veronica Gambara, wife of the Lord of Correggio, brought him to the notice of the Duke of Mantua, Federigo Gonzaga II., who gave him many and important commissions. The Duke was, like all his contemporaries, a humanist, and wanted everything about him to be classic, so Correggio had perforce to draw his inspiration from pagan mythology. The luxury-loving Abbess of San Paolo appears to have first set his feet on this line ; there may, it is true, have been classic subjects in the fresco decorations of Veronica Gambara’s palace in Correggio, executed by him between 1516 and 1518, but as palace and frescoes have long since disappeared this cannot be proved.

The Duke of Mantua was after this time his most constant patron. He gave Correggio several commissions ; one of the first of these was for the so-called Jupiter and Antiope, which was in Mantua till 1627, and is now in the Louvre. It is supposed to date about 1521, and was formerly known as The Sleeping Venus. It is really a wood nymph, with bow in hand, asleep in a wood, the genius of love sleeping behind her. The graceful repose of the recumbent figure, with its grand outlines and delicate finish, renders this one of Correggio’s finest works. The flesh gleams almost luminous against the blue robe which a satyr holds aside. The background is a woodland scene, with sunny distance ; the foliage of the oak which shades the nymph is so well rendered as to arouse even Ruskin’s enthusiasm.

Perhaps Correggio’s most famous mythological pictures are the triad of masterpieces which the Duke of Mantua caused him to paint as a present to the Emperor Charles V., when he made his royal progress through Italy in 1530, even staying a few days with Veronica Gambara at Correggio.

These priceless paintings are the Leda, now at Madrid ; the Dana, in the Borghese Gallery, Rome ; and the Io, in the Belvedere at Vienna. Leda and Danae are travelled pictures. Charles V. took them to Prague, and at the sack of that city Gustavus Adolphus carried them off to Sweden. Queen Christina brought them back to Rome, where, after her death, Don Livio Odescalchi became possessor of her art treasures, and sold them, some to the Duke of Orleans, and others to Philip V. of Spain.

The first shows Leda and her playmates surprised by swans while bathing in a beautiful lake. One of the swans has swum up to Leda, and nestles into her bosom as she sits on the bank dipping her feet in the water. A nymph, half immersed in the water, beats off another swan, while a third, with satisfied face, wistfully watches a cygnet flying away. Three boy genii behind Leda play the lyre and other instruments. There is a would – be classic meaning, supposed to be the symbol of three aspects of profane love, but in execution the scene is entirely naturalistic. It is said that the Duke of Orleans mutilated the face of Leda because it was too voluptuous.

The same criticism might be passed on Danaë, in which, notwithstanding its sensuousness, there is some extremely fine painting. She is half reclining on a rich couch, a white cloth thrown across her, of which Hymen, or Love, in a full light holds up one side to receive the shower of gold ; two beautiful little Loves are sharpening their arrows at the foot of the couch. The head of Danaë is distinctly imitated from the Venus de Medici, except in expression, which is very voluptuous. A hind drinks in a stream behind her. The execution is, as usual, faultless, but the feeling wanting in refinement. The chiaroscuro is marvellous. The body of Danaë is in the shade, but yet is so lucid in a reflected gleam that one does not realize how deep the shadow is. This also belonged at one time to the Duke of Orleans, but is now in the Borghese Gallery at Rome.

Io is equally symbolic and equally sensuous. The picture gives almost a back view of the nymph sitting on a hill quite nude. A luminous cloud overshadows her, out of which Jupiter leans to kiss her. It was once in the possession of Philip II., who sold it to the Emperor Rudolf II., and it is now in Vienna.

Correggio sometimes used other processes besides oil-painting. There is a pair of allegorical pictures painted in tempera on cloth, now in the Louvre. The subjects are Heroic Virtue and Vice Enslaved by the Passions. Virtue, her lance broken in warfare, stands armed in the centre with her feet on a dragon, while Victory crowns her. A figure, with complex symbolism, stands on one side representing in one person Justice, Fortitude, Prudence, and Temperance, her many attributes being the sword, lion’s skin, the bit and bridle, and serpent head-dress. On the other side a figure of Wisdom, with compasses in hand, is measuring a globe with one hand and with the other points to the sky, thus indicating Science, or a knowledge of things terrestrial and celestial. A boy angel leans against Wisdom. Above this group are the Victory who crowns Virtue, and Fame who celebrates her. There is a replica of this picture in the Doria Gallery, which is also painted in distemper. It is unfinished, and very valuable as showing Correggio’s technical methods. Vice Enslaved by the Passions is figured by a nude man, being bound to a tree by a woman sup-posed to symbolize Habit. Sensuality,- a coarse female figure with a flute, plays enticing (music in his ear, and prevents his listening to the voice of Conscience, or seeing the vipers coiling from her hand to sting him. The ubiquitous boy genius here takes the form of an infantine satyr holding a bunch of grapes. These pictures were painted for Isabella Gonzaga of Mantua after the three paintings for Charles V. were finished. They passed, with the Jupiter and Antiope, into the possession of Charles I., and thence into France.

Correggio painted two representations of Ganymede ; one is a fresco, done in about 1530 for a room of Palazzo Rocca, the seat of Count Gonzaga of Novellara, whose mother was Costanza, daughter of Gilberto, Lord of Correggio. It is a medallion, and represents Ganymede asleep on the eagle’s back. Jupiter and two young goddesses, their figures foreshortened from below, await him in the clouds. It is now in the Gallery of Modena, but much dilapidated. The other is an oil-painting, once in the Odescalchi collection, now in the Imperial Gallery at Vienna. It is full of grace, and has a lovely mountain landscape below the boy and eagle. Here Correggio has put in a pretty touch of nature in Ganymede’s dog, who seems in his distress to try to rise from the ground and follow his vanishing master.

There are countless other pictures attributed to Correggio, but not proved to be his. The ones we have mentioned are truly authentic, as their history is known, and documental evidence exists to prove their date.