There is no doubt that Antonio Allegri, called Correggio after his birthplace, is a painter that represents together with Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Titian the peak of the Renaissance movement in Italian and European collective imagery. In fact Correggio became famous despite never having worked in any of the big capitals of Renaissance art (Rome, Florence, Venice) but only in the area of Correggio, Parma and Mantua. This means his work is still a chance for genuine discovery. In particular the unearthing of an innovative and material naturalism, illusory to such a point that it transmits scents and vapours, the silk of ruffled female hair, the splendour of the time of day, the peach-like softness of a female cheek, the gentle thickness of his clouds, unique in their capacity to furnish and give movement to the skies.
Giorgio Vasari, putting the life of Correggio after those of Leonardo and Giorgione, addresses the critical examination about him as heir and confluence of the Tuscan-Roman and the Lombard-Venetian schools of the Renaissance. Heir of the naturalistic and expressive sensitivity of Leonardo and, at the same time, of the chromatic and tonal form of Giorgione.
“………I do not leave this country from which Mother Nature, (to escape the charge of partiality), has given to the world distinguished men of the stamp of those who have adorned Tuscany for so many years. Among them was Antonio da Correggio, a most remarkable painter, who adopted the modern style perfectly, and being endowed with a rare genius, a great natural ability and well trained in art, he became in a few years a sublime and marvellous artist. He was of a very timid disposition, and, at great personal inconvenience, worked continually for the family which depended upon him. Although naturally good, he allowed himself to be unreasonably afflicted in resisting those passions which usually affect men. In art he was very melancholy, enduring its labours, but most skilful in overcoming difficulties, as we see in the great tribune of the Duomo of Parma, which contains a multitude of well-finished figures in fresco, where he has marvellously foreshortened the view as seen from below. He was the first to introduce the modern style into Lombardy, so that it was thought he might have done marvels and endangered the laurels of many who were considered great in his time if he had left Lombardy and gone to Rome. But not having seen any antique or good modern works, he was obliged to follow what he had seen, and he would necessarily have done better, with greater advantages, to the infinite improvement of his works, raising him to the highest excellence. It is considered certain that there never was a better colourist, or any artist who imparted more loveliness or relief to his things, so great was the soft beauty of his flesh-tints and the grace of his finish”.
Even today the words of Vasari are evocative of a restless, modern man, a misunderstood artistic genius.
Born in Correggio around 1489, his first training probably took place in Modena, then he moved to Mantova, where teaching of Mantegna was still fresh and strong. Here he left some frescos, (today in part destroyed, in part very ruined), in a funeral chapel and in the lobby of the church of Sant’Andrea, designed by Leon Battista Alberti.
His initial patronage was with the Gonzaga family of Mantova, to whom he later returned and was for him an important centre of commissions in the latter part of his life, a sort of circular destiny. Recently we have seen the presence of Correggio at work in the Benedictine Monastery of Polirone in San Benedetto Po, a quite important event to stress the continuity of relationships and association of the artist with the Benedictine communities of central Italy. It is possible that during these years of study and training he went to Milan (not far from Mantova and Parma), where the celebrated Leonardo’s Last Supper attracted young artists like a beacon. He perhaps also visited Cremona, where Pordenone worked on the Passion of Christ in the cathedral, maybe even to Venice and Bologna. The works we must mention in these first years are: the Madonna Campori (Galleria Estense, Modena); the Madonna di San Francesco (Dresden); some representations of Madonna con il Bambino (in Milan, Castello Sforzesco; Florence, Uffizi; Vienna, Kunsthistorishes; Madrid, Prado); La Zingarella di Capodimonte (Naples); the Commiato di Cristo dalla Madre (London, National Gallery; the Adorazione dei Magi (Milan, Brera); and the Riposo durante la fuga in Egitto (The rest during the flight to Egypt) also in the Uffizi.
The revival and the pagination of these paintings is an intense and distressing gallery of motherly faces and sensitive effective interlacing, which immediately offers a moment of emotional and visual impact.
In 1518 and 1519, Correggio was to be found in Parma, where he undertook commissions for Giovanna da Piacenza, Abbess of the Benedictine Convent of San Paolo. Here he painted a chamber rich in classical quotations, dedicated to the Caccia di Diana (Diana departing for the hunt), one of the masterpieces of 16th century’s profane paintings.
Are these just stylistic and iconographic characteristics to show possible evidence of a previous journey of Correggio to Rome, which allowed him to discover the latest styles created by Raffaello in the Papal Apartments, and Michelangelo’s vault of the Sistine Chapel?
The change one perceives in his work is, in fact, strong and immediately visible, mostly in the Dome painted about 1520 in the church of St John the Evangelist, the Benedictine Monastery in Parma. At the same time, in the side chapels, he was painting the Vision of Saint John in Patmos. and perhaps working alongside him was Parmigianino. Only, for a short period in 1521, the din, the uproar and risks of war between the French army, the Commune of Parma, and the Papal army for the rule over the city, put him away from the scaffoldings. As well as the dome he painted the apse (of which remains the Incoronata , today in the Galleria Nazionale), the decorations of the nave and the two big canvases (also preserved in the parmesan pinacoteque) with the Martirio di Cristo and the Martirio di Quattro Santi. These last works, dense of a pathetic realism and lit by a “revealed” light, will be a fundamental example for Annibale Carracci and for the “poetica degli affetti” of the baroque season of Bernini, but also, obviously, for Caravaggio.
In these years the bishop of Parma is Alessandro Farnese, later pope Paolo III, since 1534, and founder, for the son Luigi, in 1545, of the Ducat of Parma e Piacenza, a figure of high profile who, for Correggio, remains in the background but is certainly important in order to understand the political and cultural climate of the city.
Since 1526 Allegri begins a great enterprise in the cathedral: a transformation, first architectural, through precise modifies required and obtained from the medieval environment; then pictorial, with the creation on the big dome of an illusory “Paradise” crossed by swollen ashy and purple clouds, populated by a crowd of saints, prophets, apostles, angels and androgen, sexually ambiguous ephebes that surround the Virgin. Choking images, once removed of the scaffolding, for the conservative vestrymen, maybe the reason for the dismissal of the painter from the Cathedral and his voluntary exile from the city and the return to his birthplace. To the compelling work on the dome goes together with, maybe in the winter months, less productive for reasons of light and climate to work “a fresco”, the painting of some very renowned altar-pieces. For the Modenese commissions, the Madonna di San Sebastiano, the Madonna di San Giorgio, the Adorazione dei Pastori, called La Notte (the Night) after the holy lamp that illuminates the Child and lightens the faces and the eve of the shepherds (once for the Church of San Prospero in Reggio Emilia), three absolute masterpieces, all in Dresden today after the selling of the Este collection in the 18th century. For Parma, the Madonna di San Girolamo called Il Giorno (the Day) and the Madonna della Scodella, today at the Galleria Nazionale.