“L’Opera pel Mondo, a Modena il Teschio, a noi che resta? L’Onor, le copie, il Cenere, la nostra Gloria è questa.”
In 1835, with these rhetorical words of veiled bitterness, Antonio Guzzini pronounced his feelings and those of his fellow citizens of Correggio regarding the lack of success that Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio, had had in his hometown.
All presence of Allegri had been annihilated from the city, first by the dispersal of the collections of the Princes of Correggio and then by the pillaging of the Dukes of Modena between the 1600s and 1700s. All that remained were memories of the artist. However, they were conditioned and limited by the mysteries that surrounded (and often still surround) the life of Correggio. Beginning with the artist’s long debated birth date - which has only recently been unanimously agreed upon to be in 1489 (based on indirect documentation) or even earlier according to Monducci - and ending with his final burial place. Allegri was interred on 6 March 1534 in the 15th-century Church of St. Francis in Correggio and his body was later moved to an inner cloister in 1641. However, all traces of his remains have been lost for the last two centuries, despite the various searches that were carried out in the 1900s. Throughout those years, there were long periods of silence interspersed with a few and sporadic facts. This situation had convinced the likes of Emil Ludwig, a prolific and imaginative author, to abstain from writing a biography of Correggio, even in a fictionalised version.
So, what had remained of Antonio Allegri in Correggio in 1835? "Very little", according to Guzzini, not his paintings (which were dispersed worldwide), not his skull (which was moved to Modena in 1786 and was in fact that of an old woman), only the glory of having been the artist's birthplace, his ashes (which were lost by then) and a collection of recently purchased academic copies of his paintings (or works deemed so), which caused a vicious uproar due to their poor artistic quality.
Not even Correggio’s birth house was immune to adversity. From sources of that period, we know that Allegri’s family owned the house in which he was supposedly born before the mid 15th century. Located in the area known as “Borgovecchio” (the city's oldest), very close to the city walls, the house was enlarged by Pellegrino Allegri in 1529 through the purchase of a smaller adjacent building. The result was, most probably, a house with an arcade (customary for both that time and local traditions) and a few rooms but without an inner courtyard. The ground floor was converted into a studio and bathrooms and the first floor into the living space. All of which was in keeping with the other houses along the eastern wall that were based on a structural style still conserved in some of the houses on the present day street, Via Borgovecchio.
Sold by Pomponio Allegri to the Paris Family in 1550, the house then changed hands several times. It went first to the St. Mary of Mercy Hospital, then to the Sogari-Bresciani family and then to the Pironi family in the 1600s. In 1752 the ducal overseer Francesco Contarelli (from an old noble Correggese Family) purchased it as well as five other small adjacent houses directly from their owners. The crumbling, degraded state of the Allegri house and the other buildings was a clear reason why the entire complex was referred to as Ca’ Rotte Pironi. Seeing those precarious conditions, Contarelli immediately demolished the entire block and constructed, between 1754 and 1755, the building that is now known as “Correggio's birth house”.
Having a south-facing front side with a small but airy garden, the house was immediately converted into a stable and a shelter for carriages. This improper use led to a quick decline of the building, which threatened the very survival of Antonio Allegri's place of birth. In 1811, in an attempt to salvage the situation, a small stone plaque (which is still there) was mounted on the façade bearing an inscription written by Setti, a Correggese historiographer, which declared: “Hac in aede natus est Antonius Allegri anno 1494”.
As the years past, the level of degradation worsened to the point of causing disdain amongst the citizens. This explains the resolute position taken by a group of influential townspeople (including Luigi, Ferdinando and Raffaele Asioli), who sent a letter of protest - dated August 1852 - to the Podestà of that time, in which they criticised the behaviour of Caterina Contarelli - last of her family - and compared her disinterestedness to the "irreverence of barbarians", who had "made a vile stable" of the only reminder of the "Master"still present in his hometown. A "shame which, by the fault of Contarelli, weighs on this city and is talked about around the world". The situation did not improve after her death, when her estate was left to the Opere Pie and the house, which had become a tottering heap of stones, was put up for sale.
A bitter fight, which was urged on by malevolent anonymous slandering, then ensued until 1854, when the house was "redeemed from the dishonour of fate through the expense of twenty-one citizens devoted to the divine painter and their city". Restorations were initiated in the late 1800s and immortalised with an inscription, written by the literary and patriotic Prospero Viani, on a block erected in the centre of the courtyard in 1880.
Fifty years later, in 1931, the city's nursery school was moved into the house in an effort to restore dignity to the building. This initiative was taken by Riccardo Finzi, historiographer and local librarian, through the mandate of Cottafavi, the Podestà of that time. The nursery school was housed there for 30 years, until 1964, albeit with great concern due to the precarious conditions of the building. During the following ten years, the building hosted public offices and then cultural associations, one of which was the Fondazione Il Correggio.
After being radically restored in 2006 and 2007, Antonio Allegri’s birth house is now home to the offices of the Fondazione Il Correggio and the Correggio Art Home, a Documentation centre dedicated to the artist and his oeuvre.