The original little circular dining-room of the Abbess of the Convent of San Paolo is, although not one of his highest works, a very important point in his life and his art development. The commission from the Abbess Giovanna was his first step in fresco painting ; it brought him out of the obscurity of Correggio into a larger sphere, leading up to his master-piece. It was also his first plunge into classic mythology, which afterwards inspired some of his most famous works, and, further, it brought him his domestic happiness, for at Parma he first met his beloved wife. The Abbess’s Room presents the anomaly of pagan decorations in a Christian convent, but the nuns of San Paolo were privileged, and were not under the rule of any Bishop. The Abbess, Donna Giovanna, elected April 5, 1507, was an autocrat, a wilful, commanding lady, who, having obtained the convent by force from the Ghiberti family (one of whom was murdered by her brother), made it over to her own relatives.
She loved pomp and was evidently influenced by the humanist movement of the time. Thus, having a taste for classic subjects, she decided to have a suite of rooms decorated especially for her. Giorgio da Erbe was her architect, Francesco da Grate her sculptor. Alessandro Araldi, a clever decorative artist, painted the reception – room in wonderful Raffaelesque arabesques and scrolls, while Correggiothe fame of whose figure painting had reached her was called to Parma to paint her dining-room. Delighted with the freedom of subject after having been confined for years to religious paintings, Correggio gave the reins to his fancy, and made the Abbess’s room a bower of the loves, but with chaste Diana and not Venus as its ruling spirit. The room has a high, vaulted roof with sixteen compartments divided by gilded ribs, the Abbess’s arms carved in the key-stone. Correggio made the whole room into a trellised bower of roses. Each compartment has an oval opening in it, through which the blue sky appears, peopled in every space with boy genii at play. They are all exquisite child figures, full of life and action as they toy with the various attributes of Diana, masks, stags’ heads, wreaths, horns, arrows, dogs, etc. At the base of the dome are sixteen semicircular lunettes supported on sixteen brackets with rams’ heads carved on them. These lunettes contain classic figures in monochrome, gray, on a gray ground, giving the effect of bas-reliefs in a soft light. There are fourteen single figures, and the two triads of the Graces and the Fates. These two groups and the Juno and Minerva are the best. The subject of the design is extremely classic, but the rendering is not wholly so. The figures have too much human action and character. There is complete mastery of chiaroscuro ; the shadows of the background are brightened by light shining through them, so that though the figures are fully thrown out there are no strong contrasts. On the whole it is a room more suited to a Beatrice d’Este or a Marie de Medici than a cloistered Abbess.