THE meagre records of Correggio’s life do not tell us much of the man who spent his years peacefully at work at Parma, far from the great centres of Italian art, and never, apparently, even visited Rome. The exaggerated tales of his poverty and avarice have been proved unworthy of belief, and we may now feel sure that Correggio knew neither want nor wealth. But the cause of his seemingly sudden death at the early age of forty is till a mystery, nor have we any authentic portrait of the painter of the ” Holy Night.”
A continuous chorus of praise has been for over three centuries bestowed on Correggio from Vasari, who awarded him ” the great praise of having attained the highest point of perfection in coloring,” to Ruskin, who said, speaking of the National Gallery, “The two pictures which I would last part with, out of it, would be Titian’s ‘Bacchus ‘ and Correggio’s ‘ Venus.’ ”
Sweetser says : “In the seventeenth century, Correggio’s pictures fascinated all be-holders, and the tide of his fame rose higher and higher, especially after the Caracci had aroused an interest by their letters and researches. Said Annibale Caracci : ‘Correggio’s thoughts are his own thoughts, emanating from his own imagination. One sees that they are the offspring of his brain, and that he took nature alone into his councils. Others have ever leaned upon some foreign support, some on models, others on statues and engravings.’ Scanelli calls Correggio, Raphael, and Titian the three greatest painters, saying : ‘ He has in reality reached the zenith of faithful portraiture of nature.’ Tassoni enters rhapsody thus : ‘ Pliny praises the paintings of Apelles, with which those ‘of our master may in some respects be compared, chiefly for their grace, beauty of finish, and charm of color ; but no one can quite equal Antonio, who has attained the highest point of perfection in artistic coloring, expression of beauty, and grace.’ Still later the ecstatic Scaramuccia says : ‘ This is the very quintessence of good style. You need not seek further, for here are hidden the costly jewels and all the imaginable essentials of our highly difficult art. You do not need to seek further. Oh, thou spirit of my Antonio of Correggio, what master didst thou have from whom thou couldst have acquired such divine powers
“The next century magnified his power still more, if possible, and his fame was spread more widely by travellers returning from Italy to their distant homes in the North and West, bearing amazing stories of the great paintings at Parma and Modena. Most of these were Frenchmen, with all the vivacious enthusiasm of the Latin race ; and even Raphael himself fared hard when compared with the new-found Apelles. A deep interest arose in the course and events of his life, and investigations were made by the highly suspected Pater Resta of Milan ; by the Swiss painter, David ; by Gherardo Brunorio ; by Raphael Mengs, who wrote ‘On the Life and Works of Antonio Allegri;’ by the Genoese painter, Carlo Giuseppe Ratti, author of a voluminous biography ; by Michele Antonioli, who made several fresh discoveries ; by Tiraboschi, the learned and accurate librarian of Modena ; by Pater Irenea Affo, who found the frescoes in the convent of San Paolo, at Parma ; and by Pater Luigi Pungileoni, who published three volumes on Correggio, full of the evidences of careful study and analysis.
“The complex criticism of the nineteenth century has been more discriminating and less adulatory. The connoisseurs of the North, of England and Germany, have, in some cases, applied moral rules to his works, and find in them the beginning of the great decadence. With all his undeniable gifts and genius acknowledged, he is charged with having demoralized art by introducing new and less sanctified motives, and thus preparing the way for the degradation which ensued in the next period. The three preceding centuries found fault with his drawing, some-times, or with his groupings, but had not discovered his loss of spiritual insight.
” Of late years, and especially since Ruskin’s influence has become such a power in art-criticism, there has been much reprehension of the so-called inherent sensuality of Correggio’s pictures. But there is a charming naivete, an idyllic purity, in his works, which bear evidence that his glorification of the flesh was only a reproduction, original, and not communicated from any study, of the old Greek naturalism, wherein the human body, perfectly developed throughout and full of all life, is still the crown of all beauty, the worthiest theme of art. This is not religion, but it is truth. The tranquillity and purity of Correggio’s life bear witness that his works were wrought out- from no base mind, but were rather the best efforts of a frank and childlike soul. The tide of pietism, rising in the catacombs and the caves of the Nitrian desert, and everywhere present in Umbrian and Tuscan art and life, had passed its flood, and throughout Europe, from the Baltic to the Adriatic, men were looking at the old problems in a new light, the light of nature and of reason. Insulated as he was amid the dull peasantry of rural Lombardy, Allegri felt the thrill of the rising Renaissance, and ignored asceticism as a dead issue, painting, in all naturalness and grace, the joyousness of human life and human instincts.”
A legend relates that Titian said of Correggio’s frescoes in the Duomo of Parma, “Turn it upside down and fill it with gold ; even so, you will not have paid its just price,” and Raphael Mengs called it “the most beautiful of all cupolas painted either before or since.” Brinton, the latest biographer of Correggio, writes of “that wonderful cathedral cupola, which, with all its faults, is yet the expression of his sincerest utterance : no dream of beauty that poet has conceived can equal that radiant world of angel forms which there surrounds us, those genii who light their torches or scatter incense on the sacrifice, those children who float upward through the golden vaporous clouds : from the grave saints tended by the child angels, from the apostles above and their glad genii, to the uprushing wave of angel forms who soar into the golden haze of the cupola, it is a cry of ‘Sursum corda!’ ‘Lift up your hearts ! ‘ that the old painter of heavenly joy has sent us.”
Annibale Caracci wrote, “The children of Correggio breathe and smile with such a grace and truth that one cannot refrain from smiling and enjoying one’s self with them,” and Guido Reni is asserted to have asked a citizen of Modena “if Correggio’s putti at S. Pietro Martire had grown up and left their places where he had seen them, for so vivid and life-like were they that it was impossible to believe they could remain.”
Corrado Ricci, director of the gallery at Parma, says, in his authoritative life of the artist, when speaking of Correggio’s children :
” The innumerable cherubs, genii, and children scattered throughout his works are the result of his delight in the pictorial expression of grace and happiness. No other painter has succeeded in rendering these little creatures with such truth of form and expression, with such a knowledge of their naive simplicity and pretty grotesqueness of pose, although, after his time, the palaces and churches of half Europe were invaded by laughing infant hordes. John Addington Symonds writes as follows of the putti in the cupola of San Giovanni Evangelista : ‘Correggio has sprinkled them lavishly like living flowers about his cloudland, because he could not sustain a grave and solemn strain of music, but was forced by his temperament to overlay the melody with roulades. Gazing at these frescoes, the thought came to me that Correggio was like a man listening to sweetest flute playing, and translating phrase after phrase, as they passed through his fancy, into laughing faces, breezy tresses, and rolling mists. Sometimes a grander cadence reached his ear, and then St. Peter with the keys, or St. Augustine of the mighty brow, or the inspired eyes of St. John, took form beneath his pencil. But the light airs returned, and rose and lily bloomed again for him among the clouds.’ ”
Henri Guillaume Schlesinger, whose picture imagines Correggio making sketches of some lovely children, was an artist of German birth who became a naturalized citizen of France. A pupil of the Academy of Vienna, he made his bow at the Paris Salon in 184o, and exhibited many portraits and subject-pictures there during the course of a life which reached to eighty years. His ” Five Senses,” shown at the Paris Exposition of 1867, was bought by Napoleon III. Schlesinger died in 1893.