Dresden and Parma divide the honours of possessing Correggio’s two masterpieces. The celebrated St. Jerome, popularly known as Il Giorno (The Day), is at Parma, and Dresden, among six other works of the same master, prizes The Epiphany or La Notte (The Night) as the gem of them all. The two works are typical of the artist in different waysthe one of his exquisite expression through the medium of harmony and colour, the other of his sentiment through the medium of chiaroscuro. Both pictures have passed through so many vicissitudes that their story is quite a romance.
The Day was painted at the happiest time of the artist’s life, when, in the early days of a happy marriage, all was touched by the rosy light of love. At this happy time, when his fame was daily rising, the young artist received in 1523 a commission from a rich lady of Parma named Donna Briseide Colla, widow of Orazio Bergonzi, to paint an altar-piece for her family chapel in the church of St. Antonio. She promised him a payment of 400 lire imperiali, and some authors assert that she kept him in her own house during the six months he was working at it ; but this is not proved, nor is it probable, as he possessed a house of his own in the town, and his wife was with him. Wherever he worked it must have been with a light heart, and in the brilliant light and colour, the rich, sunny atmosphere and divine joy in the faces of his picture we read the outpouring of his most happy feelings.
The picture represents a charming group under a red tent-cover stretched across from tree to tree; a rich landscape forms the back-ground. The central figure is the Madonna with the Infant Christ on her knees, and a rock for her footstool. The Child is a lively human Babe stretching out its hand eagerly to a book which St. Jerome holds, while an angel turns the leaves. The St. Jerome, with his book and scroll, fills almost the whole height of the picture on the left, his lion being beside him ; the red tent-cover hanging behind him heightens wonderfully the warm flesh tints. He has a strong manly figure, but the attitude is not happily chosen. He is well contrasted by the most graceful possible figure of the Magdalen, who leans her head lovingly against the Babe whose left hand plays with her golden hair, which Ruskin admired, saying it was ” the only colour possible to harmonize with the light golden clouds.”
Mengs remarks that the colouring of St. Jerome is so softly painted (cosi morbida sua pastositâ) that the flesh is more like that of a Venus. Baldinucci writes, comparing this picture with one of Raphael’s : ” Correggio surprises you less at first, but the surprise goes on increasing till, when you have seen it the tenth time, it seems unsurpassable, and under this picture Horace’s line ought to be written, ‘ Haec decies repetita placebit.’ ”
Donna Briseide was so delighted with it that, besides the stipulated 400 lire, she sent the artist a useful present of some sacks of corn and two cars of flour from her podere, with a ” pig so well fattened that it could scarcely walk.” She must have kept the picture in her own house to enjoy it for a few years, for it was not till 1528 that she placed it in her chapel in the Church of St. Antonio.
The painting remained there for 200 years and then its adventures began. Don John V. of Portugal saw and coveted it, and wanted to buy it secretly of the Abate Count Anguiscola for 460,000 francs, promising him 1,000 for himself. Duke Filippo, hearing of this, forbad the expropriation of a national treasure, sent a regiment of soldiers to carry away the picture from the cathedral, purchased it from the canons for 1,500 sequins, besides giving another picture to replace it, and then, presenting it to the nation, placed it in the Parma Gallery. Then came Napoleon, and again soldiers (French ones this time) carried off the painting to Paris, till Canova’s diplomacy regained it in 1815. There is a small sketch in oils of this picture at Mantua, which is supposed to be Correggio’s rough sketch. It is signed and dated December, 1524, and is valued almost as greatly as the larger work.
In the large picture St. Jerome has a very long beard, and his scarf is purplish ; in the small sketch his beard is short, and the scarf ultramarine, with yellow in the folds. The angel’s hair has quite a different glow in the picture, and you can distinguish all five fingers of the Babe, whose head is turned towards the saint, while in the sketch some of the little fingers of the hand, which here point to the angel, are hidden.
There is a good copy of Il Giorno in Florence, which was made by Baroccio, one of his earliest imitators.