AT the time when Vasari wrote his biography of Correggio very little was known of that artist’s personal life ; and his biographer, while fairly chronicling some of his best-known pictures, leaves but a hazy, and in some ways a false idea of the man. Later biographers and archivists have elicited a clearer view of him. The name of Correggio, so familiar to us all, is but that of the place in which he was born, a little city in the province of Modena, which, like many other small cities, had its ruling lord. In Antonio’s time Manfredo was Lord of Correggio.
Antonio da Correggio’s pedigree goes back to a certain Allegro, who lived in 1329 ; the painter himself was the son of Pellegrino Allegri, and his wife Bernardina Piazzoli of the family of the Aromani. Antonio is generally supposed to have been born in 1494, but documentary evidence to prove this is wanting. He seems to have attached great importance to the meaning of his name Allegri (joyful), which in signing his pictures he latinized into Antonius Laetus. Vasari speaks of him as oppressed with care and poverty, but this could not have been the case, for his father was a merchant possessing landed property, and he gave the boy a good education. His literary tutors were Giovanni Berni of Piacenza, and Marastoni of Modena, who were probably professors or schoolmasters at Correggio. His master in philosophy was G. B. Lombardi, a famous doctor of Correggio, who had been professor at Bologna and Ferrara. This education sufficiently proves the social standing of the Allegri family.
Antonio was evidently born with a genius for art, which, like a flower, expanded naturally, and bloomed in its native soil. He is supposed never to have seen the great art centresRome and Florenceand it is difficult to specify who his masters were in the little town of Correggio. This being the case, biographers, judging chiefly from internal evidence which (at a time when the general bias of art was similar in all the Italian schools) may be misleading, have between them given him a score of different masters. Mengs asserts that he had two masters in ModenaFrancesco Bianchi (died 1510), who was known by his sopranym as Frari, or Ferrari, and Pellegrino Munari. An ancient chronicle by Lancelotti, a contemporary fellow-citizen, also mentions Frari as Antonio’s master, and certainly, on comparing Frari’s Madonna and Two Saints in the Louvre with the Dresden Madonna and St. Francis by Correggio, signs of affinity may be found, especially in the style of the features, general composition, and the bas-reliefs which decorate the throne. Frari’s style was similar to that of Francia, so Correggio may have learned his softness and sweetness of expression. Francia’s influence on Correggio’s style was possibly further strengthened by his pupil, Lorenzo Costa, who was invited to Mantua in 1507 by Marchese Francesco Gonzaga, and was probably personally known to our artist.
Dr. Meyer tries to prove that he learned from both Mantegna and Leonardo da Vinci ; but Mantegna died when Correggio was only twelve years old, so the influence, if any, could only have been through a later study of his works. However, as Correggio’s style and feeling are diametrically opposed to Mantegna’s, we need not discuss this. As to Leonardo da Vinci, it is unlikely that the two painters ever met, as Correggio never went either to Milan or Florence. He might, however, have seen Leonardo’s portrait of Isabella d’Este, which was in Mantua in 1500. It is supposed to be the Belle Ferronière of the Louvre.
I think we shall have to look nearer home, at least, for his early art instruction. His uncle Lorenzo was a painter, and is reasonably supposed to have been his first master. If the chronicler Bernardo Corso, writing in 1542, be trustworthy, he could have taught him little, for he says that Master Lorenzo, intending to paint a lion, represented a goat, and wrote ” Lion ” underneath it. Nevertheless, Uncle Lorenzo painted a creditable picture for the Convent of San Francesco in 1503, and in 1498 he did the frieze of a salon in the palace of Count Ghiberti at Correggio, the subject of which is from Ovid’s ” Metamorphoses,” and possibly the confusion between the lion and the goat is in this work. In spite of its being signed clearly ” Laurentius P.,” Mrs. Heatonnot allowing, after Costa’s remark, that Lorenzo could paint anything at all–suggests that the frieze was the work of Baldassare Lusenti, who painted for the Counts of Novellara. Why he should sign himself Laurentius she does not explain, so we will give Uncle Lorenzo the benefit of his signature, and believe he might at least have taught his nephew drawing.
Another master who is credited with having instructed Antonio was Antonio Bartolotti, known as Tognino. Dr. Meyer calls him a ” mediocre artist,” but Bulbarini in his Memoriae Patrice ” says he was esteemed for the perfection of his design, delicate impasto and harmony of tints. There is a fine altar-piece by him at Correggio. It is signed and dated 1511, the year of the plague, and represents St. Francis and St. Quirino, the patron saint, offering the city to the protection of the Virgin.
It is said that Correggio also studied sculpture, and that he was the assistant of Begarelli, for whose Descent from the Cross in St. Domenico at Modena he modelled several of the figures. This is probable, as the letters A. A. were found on the figure of St. Jerome. In his own special art Correggio made use of figures, which he modelled in clay and hung in the required light to get his foreshortening correct.
He was also a qualified architect, for a document at Parma dated August 26, 1525, shows him as presiding at a council of seventeen celebrated artists and architects to deliberate how to remedy the danger caused by some cracks in the wall of the new Church of the Madonna. At the same time Correggio and two other sculptors were commissioned to design the beautiful ornamentation for the altar of the Madonna. This points to the fact that he was trained in some schools similar to those of the Opera ” at Florence, and received the comprehensive grounding in all branches of art which in those days was necessary to all qualified masters, and that though a competent architect and sculptor, he principally kept in practice to his favourite art of painting. This would equally account for the multiplicity of masters assigned to him, for in those art schools there were many classes and many masters.
In any case, his progress in art was so rapid that while he was still a minor he, with his father’s consent, signed a contract on August 30, 1514, to paint an altar-piece for the convent of the minor brethren of St. Francis in Correggio, at the price of Too ducats, a legacy having been left to the monks for this purpose by Quirino Zuccardi. This picture, the Madonna di San Francesco, is now in Dresden, and will be described among his works. The 100 ducats were paid him on April 4, 1515. After this first triumph commissions poured in on the young artist. As soon as the Madonna was finished he painted for Cavalier Francesco Munari a small panel of The Repose in Egypt, for the Munari Chapel of the Conception. In this St. Francis is kneeling before the child Jesus. In 1516 he executed a triptych for the brethren of the Hospital of Sta. Maria della Misericordia in Correggio. It was sold to Don Siro of Austria in 1612 for 300 ducats. In the next year he painted a picture of four saints, now thought to be that in the Ashburton Gallery. It represents St. Martha with St. Peter, Mary Magdalene, and St. Anthony of Padua. In 1517 we may date, too, his first painting of The Marriage of St. Catherine, of which there are three replicas ; the original one is in the Louvre ; there is one at Naples, which slightly differs from it, and another at St. Petersburg. Up to this time the young man seems to have remained in his native city, probably in his father’s house, but in 1518 he was called to Parma.
And now events began to march faster in Antonio’s life. He became a householder and landed proprietor, for on February 1, 1519, his uncle Francesco Aromanni made a deed of gift (witnessed by Manfredo, Lord of Correggio), whereby he made over to his excellent nephew Antonio, in consideration of some important services he had rendered him, a house in the Borgo Vecchio and several acres of land. On the death of his uncle a few months later, his cousin Romanello Aromanni disputed this deed. A long lawsuit ensued, till in 1528 the Lord Manfredo took the settlement of the affair into his own hands and decided it by arbitration.
Romanello was then dead, but to his sister Elisabetta Mainardi was adjudged the house and fields in Borgo Vecchio, and Antonio Allegri took the estates belonging to a manor near Correggio. He afterwards bought the house in Borgo Vecchio from Elisabetta Mainardi for 50 gold ducats, his father Pellegrino Allegri acting as his agent, he being absent at Parma at the time.
Vasari speaks of Correggio as gloomy and oppressed with care. Events do not prove this ; indeed, reading between the lines we find he was an especially social man. On January 12, 1511, before he was twenty years old, he became godfather to a child of the Vigarini family, who was named after him. He was afterwards sponsor to several other children born in Correggio ; on July 14, 1514, he was present at the reading of the will of Giovanna di Montecorvino ; and in January, 1518, and twice in September, 1519, he witnessed legal deeds for his friend F. A. Bottoni. On May 15, 1521, he was inscribed in the spiritual brother-hood of the Congregazione Cassinese. Several times he is witness in public deeds, and at last, in 1534, he signs as witness the deed of Madonna Clara da Correggio’s dowry of 20,000 gold scudi on her marriage with Ippolito Gambara. All this goes to prove that Correggio was of a social disposition, much liked by his fellow-townsmen, and not only patronized, but admitted to friendship by the lord of the city. It proves that painting did not by any means absorb his whole mind, and that he was always ready to oblige a friend or do a kindness to anyone. His whole life, passed in the seclusion of little Correggio, with occasional journeyings to the neighbouring towns of Modena and Parma, speaks of a simple nature entirely without ambition, a man who enjoyed life in his own circle and did not seek fame beyond.
In 1519 Correggio fell in love with a beautiful young girl of sixteen years of age at Mantua. Girolama Francesca was the daughter of Bartolommeo Merlini de Braghetis, one of the armigeri (i.e., cavaliers bearing arms) of the Marquis of Mantua, as his forefathers for several generations had been before him. This honourable office gave his daughter the title of Signora,” an unusual one in those days. She is said to have been very beautiful, and if, as Pungileone says, the Madonna dressed as a Zingara, now at Naples, is a portrait of her, she was lovely in the deepest sense of the word, for that picture shows a most graceful figure, and an expressive face full of sentiment.
Girolama was heiress of landed property to the value of 251 ducats. Before her marriage she appears to have been a dreamy, melancholy child with morbid ideas. Believing herself doomed to early death, she made a will (at sixteen years of age !), leaving her estate to her uncles. However, love and life, and not death, was her destiny. She met the young Antonio of Correggio, and after that meeting, as Pungileone expresses it, ” she loosened the myrtle-leaves from her tresses and wove them with roses.” In most artists’ lives marriage seems to be merely an event not affecting their art or career (except, perhaps, in Andrea del Sarto’s case), but in Correggio’s it was a ruling influence. He was so fond of his wife and so happy in his home, in spite of the annoyances of law-suits outside of it, that any little ambition to shine in the great world of art was quenched. He never went to Rome, where Michelangelo, his senior by twenty years, was making the world ring with the terribilitâ of his genius ; or to Florence where Raphael was painting his beautiful Madonnas; or even to Milan where Leonardo da Vinci had his famous school. Just as his home-life sufficed to him, so his own especial art satisfied him. He did not want or care for the grandeur of Michaelangelo, nor the soul of Raphael, but was con-tent to put his classic little fancies into colour in its most pleasing aspect. The style was a spontaneous expression of his own nature, and probably no outer influence would have changed it.
His early married life, happy as it was, had its trials. In the first place, it was very difficult for Girolama to get her large dowry out of the hands of her uncle Giovanni Merlini, and she was obliged, on account of a lawsuit, to remain in Correggio when her husband was recalled to Parma in 1522. Her son Pomponio was then a year old. The dowry was at length paid over on January 26, 1523, and consisted of 60 ducats, half a tenement, and land to the value of 263 ducats. Her husband returned from Parma on this occasion. From 1520 to 1531 he lived mostly in Parma, first employed on the frescoes of the cupola and tribune of the Church of S. Giovanni, and afterwards on the more famous ones of the cathedral dome. The first commission, for which he was paid 472 gold sequins, occupied five years, during the early part of which he lived in a convent, where rooms were assigned to him. After Girolama’s lawsuit was settled, however, she came to join him at Parma, and they took a house there. Here their second child Parina Francesca Letizia was born on December 6, 1524 ; the physician to the Convent of San Giovanni being her godfather. Two other children were also born in Parma. It must not be understood that Correggio gave his whole time to the frescoes of S. Giovanni during those five years. He painted several easel pictures, besides those larger works. In 1522 the Benedictine Don Placido del Bono ordered two altar-pieces for his chapel. These are now in the Parma Gallery. One is a Pietà, the other The Martyrdom of Saints Placidus and Flavia. To this period belong also The Adoring Madonna, in the Uffizi at Florence, the Madonna della Cesta, or basket, the Naples Zingarella Madonna, the Ecce Homo, the two celebrated pictures La Notte and Il Giorno, The Madonna of the Scodella (bowl), the frescoes of The Annunciation, and the Madonna della Scala over the city gate, and several small pictures, evidently done as ” pot-boilers.”
On November 3, 1522, Antonio signed the commission to fresco the dome of the cathedral, which states that ” Antonio de Coregia is to adorn with paintings the cupola, arches, pillars, vaults, and niches, according to the nature of the architecture.” One hundred ducats were to be paid him for the decorative portions, and 1,000 golden ducats for the painting, the Chapter to provide scaffolding and plaster. He stipulated for the use of a large room in which to prepare his drawings and cartoons. In November, 1522, he engaged as his assistants three young artistspossibly former pupils. These were Parmigiano, Francesco Maria Rondani, and Michael Angelo Anselmi. In December he took on Alessandro Araldi, an older and qualified master. With these assistants he worked for eight or nine years at those wonderful frescoes, which will be fully described when we speak of his works. Marvellous as it is, the work did not suit the conventional tastes of the canons, and the whole of that great masterpiece ran a great risk of, being destroyed; but Titian arrived just at the right moment to save it. Some biographers tell a foolish story of the canons reducing the stipulated payment to half, and then paying it in copper money, ” to carry which home to his indigent family,” says Pilkington (” Dictionary of Painters “), ” poor Correggio had to travel seven or eight miles ; and the weight of his burden, and the depression of his spirits, threw him into a pleuritic fever, which in three days put an end to his life in 1534.” Now, all this is sheer invention. In the first place, both Correggio and his wife owned money, houses, and lands, and were certainly not indigent. Secondly, could any man have carried the weight of 1,000 ducats in copper on his back for eight miles ? He at least might have put it on the mule which the monks of San Giovanni gave him on April 28, 1521, as part of his payment, reckoning it at the value of 8 ducats. But documents prove that the canons, or, rather, the Fabbricieri (administrators of the building funds like the Operai at Florence), paid Correggio the stipulated sum in rates at different times. On September 29, 1526, he received 76 ducats, which completed the first 275 out of the 1,000 ducats. On November 17, 1530, 175 ducats finished the second rate ; and so far was he from being indigent that, on November 29, he purchased a vineyard from Lucrezia Pusterla, of Mantua, for 195 scudi 10 soldi.
And now Death began to be busy in the family of Correggio. His little baby, Caterina, died in 1526, and his uncle and first master on Christmas Day, 1527. Then came the supreme grief of his life. His beloved wife died in Parma in 1528. After this he took no pleasure in Parma, nor in his work there. He was lonely and sad, and further discouraged by the want of appreciation of his work by the authorities of the cathedral ; so, in 1530, he returned to his old home at Correggio, only going back to Parma once, in February, 1531, on business connected with the cupola. It is said that he went to Mantua soon after his wife’s death, but there is no documentary proof of this, nor of the work he did there. He certainly painted three mythological pictures the Leda, the Danae, and the lofor Duke Federigo II. of Mantua to present to the Emperor Charles V. on his coronation in 1530, but whether these were done at Mantua or in his own home is uncertain.
The Duke of Mantua was one of his warmest admirers and patrons, so it is probable he sometimes invited him to his palace.
In Correggio he occupied his own house in Borgo Vecchio, and still continued his painting. To this time we may refer The Madonna of San Giorgio, now at Dresden. On January 15, 1534, he had a commission from Alberto Panciroli, son of the historian Girolamo Panciroli, to paint a large picture for his altar in S. Agostino, but it was never finished, for Correggio died on March 5, and his father returned the 25 scudi of caution money to Panciroli on account of the uncompleted work. Correggio’s death was sudden, but no account of the cause is given. He was buried the following day in the Chapel of San Francesco, leaving two little girls and his son Pomponio, then twelve years old.
Pomponio afterwards became a painter, but his talent was only mediocre. There could be only one Correggio, and his genius only became known to the world in later years, when critics awoke to the knowledge that a great light had shone out in little Correggio, though its source was now extinguished. Although his fellow-citizens loved him as a kind friend, they seem to have been blind to his genius, for when in 1642 it was proposed to erect a monument to him, only forty-four scudi were subscribed out of the hundred required. In 1647 the priest Girolamo Conti placed a monument to Antonio’s memory at his own expense.