The Importance of Correggio
Inspired by the culture of the 15th-century and its great masters - such as Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Mantenga - Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio after his hometown, began to conceive painting in a new way and develop his own original artistic approach, which eventually placed him amongst the 16th-century masters. Through the expressive tenderness of his figures and his ample use of perspective, in both his sacred and profane works, Allegri became the most modern and daring harbinger of Renaissance ideals to the Padana Plain. In fact, he juxtaposed his fluid, luminous and strongly emotional style with explosive Venetian colour and Roman Mannerism. In his attempt to obtain the maximum expression of lightness and grace, Correggio was also a forerunner of illusionist painting. He introduced light and colour as counterweights to form, developed new effects of chiaroscuro and created the illusion of plasticity through innovative foreshortening and audacious overlapping. With his use of light and diagonal composition, he obtained great spatial depth in his paintings, which became a notable characteristic of his style. His majestic altarpieces of the 1520s were spectacularly conceived with intertwining gestures, smiling expressions, intriguing characters and persuasive colours.
Life and Oeuvre
Antonio Allegri, known as “Correggio”, was born in the City of Correggio in the province of Reggio Emilia to Pellegrino Allegri and Bernardina Piazzoli degli Ormani in the late 15th century. The exact year, according to art historians and critics, is presumably 1489. This fundamental uncertainty highlights the fact that Correggio was the least documented of all the great artists of his time. Moreover, numerous legends regarding his life have abounded throughout the centuries. Giorgio Vasari, the painter’s first biographer, is an important source in reference to the artist’s death, which supposedly occurred after an exhausting journey on foot from Parma carrying on his shoulders an enormous sack of small coins worth a total of 60 scudi. Although this tale cannot be validated by facts and sources, it does serve to illustrate the uncertainties and difficulties inherent in trying to build a complete and accurate picture of the artist’s life.
There also exists very little information on Allegri’s artistic training. He appears to have been a student of several local painters: his uncle Lorenzo, his cousin Quirino Allegri and the Correggese artist Antonio Bartolotti. In 1512 he had a business relationship with Francesco Mantegna, son of the famous Andrea who was active in Mantua until 1506 and whose works were an important inspiration to Allegri. In fact, Correggio assimilated many painting characteristics from Andrea Mantegna, as can be seen in several of his youthful works. He also took from Raphael and contributed to the dissemination of that artist’s softer style, to which he had added Leonardo’s use of sfumato in images with deliberately undefined and shaded contours. His open-mindedness led him to the influences of the Venetian and Ferrarese artists Cima da Conegliano, Costa and Dossi and to the northern artists Durer and Altdorfer.
His two greatest youthful paintings, both commissioned in 1514, are the “Nativity” in the Brera and the “Madonna of St. Francis”, which once hung in the church of the same name in Correggio and is now in Dresden. Moreover, academics agree that Allegri went to Rome in circa 1510, which would have given him direct exposure to the classical models and the extraordinary styles of Raphael and the young Michelangelo. Until the 1520s, Correggio painted small works primarily for private devotion, with the exceptions of the “Madonna of Albinea” altarpiece, now lost, and the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt with St. Francis”, which concluded the first period of his carrier. And that time, Allegri was still living in his native town, which was rich with the cultural life of that period and where the court of Veronica Gambara - friend to the poets Aretino, Ariosto, Dolce and Bembo and a fine poet in her own right - had assured the small county a high level of prestige that went well beyond its borders.
The second period of Correggio’s career began in 1520 with the execution of a highly refined but enigmatic work with a sophisticated and elitist background entitled “Portrait of a Gentlewoman” (which may be either Veronica Gambara or Ginevra Rangone), which he signed with the Latinised version of his name: Anton(ius) Laet(us). In that same year, he executed one of his most magnificent and complex works. Allegri had been called to Parma by Giovanna Piacenza, abbess of the Benedictine nunnery of St. Paul, to decorate the ceiling of a small room, which is now known as the “Camera di San Paolo”.
The classical influence in the fresco, which can only be explained by the artist having been to Rome, is quite evident here, as is the refined cultural environment from which the commission itself issued. Despite its many interpretations, the true meaning of the fresco remains hidden and unresolved to this day. It is one of the most fascinating iconographic mysteries of the early 1500s.
Allegri married Giovanna Merlini and had four children with her (Pomponio, Francesca Letizia, Caterina Lucrezia and Anna Geria) between 1521 and 1527. He moved to Parma in 1524, where he executed his first large, challenging public commission, the fresco decoration of the Church of St. John the Evangelist, which was based on a very innovative perspective. This work brought great fame to Correggio, who from then onward received many other important commissions, such as: “Nativity” (better known as “Holy Night” in 1522); “Madonna of St. Sebastian” (c. 1524), “Madonna del Latte” (c. 1524); “Lamentation over the Dead Christ” and “Martyrdom of Four Saints” for the Bono Chapel in the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Parma (both in 1524-25); “Oration in the Garden” (1524-25); “Ecce Homo” (1526-27); “Madonna of St. Jerome” (known as “The Day” 1526-28); “Madonna of the Bowl” (1528-30); and “Madonna of St. George”, painted by 1530 and his last altarpiece.
From 1522 to 1530, Allegri executed his most monumental and revolutionary work, the fresco decoration of the dome of the Parma Cathedral, considered to be his masterpiece and the forerunner of the Italian Baroque.
With this work, Correggio became a recognised master painter of his time and was well appreciated by the various Courts of the Padana Plain. It comes as no surprise to find his “Venus with Mercury and Cupid” and “Venus and Cupid with a Satyr” (both 1527-28) first in the Gonzaga collection and later bought by Charles I of England in 1628. Moreover, Isabella d’Este, Marquise of Mantua, commissioned two pieces from Allegri to complete the decoration of her studio, her most intimate room, in the Mantuan Ducal Palace. In circa 1531, he executed “Allegory of Vice” and “Allegory of Virtue” for her, which represented one of the highest points of his career and foreshadowed the four masterpieces that would conclude it. In the 1530s, Duke Federico II Gonzaga commissioned a series of four canvases entitled the “Loves of Jupiter”, which included “Danae”, “Leda and the Swan”, “Rape of Ganymede” and “Jupiter and Io”.
After having returned to his hometown, Allegri died suddenly on 5 March 1534. The next day, he was buried in the Church of St. Francis in Correggio, in which his very first altarpiece was still hanging.