"Within his own magic circle Correggio reigns supreme, no other artist having blended the witcheries of coloring, chiaroscuro, and faunlike loveliness of form into a harmony so perfect in its sensuous charm….Both chiaroscuro and coloring have this supreme purpose in art, to effect the sense like music, and like music to create a mood in the soul of the spectator."
"Correggio was the first painter who warred against all flatness of surface; the play of his light and shade and the position of his figures equally assist the appearance of depth in space."
"Correggio's happiest gift lay in his power of rendering grace and sweetness without over-passing the exact point where such grace and sweetness degenerate into an insipid elegance. The robust and healthy structure of his figures saved him from this pitfall….The innumerable cherubs, genii, and children scattered throughout his works are the result of his delight in the pictorial expression of grace and happiness. No other painter has succeeded in rendering these little creatures with such truth of form and expression, with such a knowledge of their naive simplicity and pretty grotesqueness of pose."
All our histories dwell at length upon the wonderful period known as the Renaissance. After those centuries of depression and ignorance, the Dark Ages, the learning of ancient Greece and Rome sprang anew from its buried condition—it was born again, or had its new birth, which is the literal meaning of the term Renaissance. Italy was so much the home of this re-awakening that the period is frequently spoken of as the Italian Renaissance. This was only natural, for Italy had seen the rise and fall of Rome's proud civilization, grand in itself and embellished with all that was beautiful and valuable in Grecian culture. In the Renaissance men and women read the literature of old Greece and Rome with a fervor that amounted almost to fury.
To give reality to this civilization, long buried from men's sight, wonderful classical statues were unearthed where proud buildings or beautiful gardens had stood. Statues like the Apollo Belvidere and the Laocöon, besides hundreds of others less famous, made the ruins of Rome so fascinating that thoughtful men could not keep away from them. We know how Michael Angelo often assisted in restoring broken and lost fragments of these exhumed statues, and how our dearly beloved Raphael contracted the fever of which he died, while digging in the ruins of ancient Rome.
We realize what a powerful force this revival was in intellectual things when we recall that it is accounted one of the most potent causes of the great Elizabethan period in English literature, when Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton gladdened the world.
Sculpture and architecture felt the all pervasive impulse, and statues and buildings arose to match the lofty ideals floating in men's minds. The impetus given to Italian painting was beyond that given to any of the other arts. Names like Raphael, Angelo, and Correggio are ample proof of this assertion. Symonds, the supreme writer on this period, speaks of Raphael as its melodist, Correggio as its Ariel, and Michael Angelo as its prophet. In other numbers of this series we have studied Raphael and Angelo. It is now our pleasant task to analyze Correggio, the mystic and yet joyous creature of this golden time of art.
Like the Ariel of Shakespeare's creation, for whom Symonds names him, we shall find him at times quite as difficult to follow, for biographical matter is scarce on Correggio, and so long has his name gathered about it interesting legends that it is well nigh impossible to separate the true from the false. Of the artist's works, however, we have a large number at once beautiful and well known, which are indisputable evidence of his greatness.
If we could have the originals before us we should undoubtedly, first of all, be charmed by the master's superb coloring and the marvellous way his colors melt into each other. As we shall, however, be obliged to study from black and white reproductions of his paintings, we must be satisfied with other qualities quite as great if not so pleasing. Among these I shall name three, two of which refer to the technique, or manner of mechanical execution, and the other of only general application.
He has left us hardly a picture in which the foreshortening and the chiaroscuro are not marked and that adds the superhuman and bewitching element to very correct features. By foreshortening we mean the representing of objects in slant position, one further back than another, on a plane surface. An extended arm or leg represented in this perspective often occupies very short space in proportion to that used by other parts of they body.
Correggio's joyous, kicking angels, an almost invariable feature of his pictures, afford fine opportunity to show this matter of foreshortening. The babe in the famous "Holy Night" is a fine illustration of this principle of drawing. Examine it carefully, and one at once notices the exceedingly short space occupied by the upper portion of its body and yet a perfectly formed child is represented to our eyes.
Chiaroscuro means literally light-dark, and has particular reference to an artist's use of light and shade. Defined more specifically, it is that quality which gives to the things represented in shadow the distinctness of objects seen in the light, and to the things represented in the light the softness and mellowness of objects seen in the shade. It is a mysterious quality to obtain and could hardly be reached by following any set rules, so we have a right to consider Correggio's unrivaled skill in this matter an intimate part of his individual and inimitable genius. It is this quality of his more than any other which characterizes his pictures.
As to the third quality so evident in his work, if we could imagine all the joy of that jubilant period epitomized in the work of one man that work would be Correggio's; joy for the old learning and art, long thought lost, but now recovered; supreme joy in the added blessing of a Redeemer in the form of a comely child; joy in life itself, real as it is here on earth, or imaginary as it is in Heaven.
He has given us angels of all ages and degrees but never a contemplative one—some that serve about the throne, others who wait on men or attend unconscious children, and cupids who make havoc with men's hearts, sharpening their arrows for new conquests on unsuspecting victims. Every being he touches smiles and for the once, at least, is happy. Even John the Baptist, contrary to all traditions, loses his haggard looks and smiles out at us, a well-fed and thoroughly contented saint (see "Madonna with St. George"). Even Magdalen, in the solitude of her penitential cave, surrounded by the symbols of penitence, gazes at us perfectly contented and not too mindful of the book before her.
Sometimes this levity in representing personages we have always thought on with solemnity jars upon us, but in the main we are captured by the joyousness in all his works. He was indeed well named the Ariel or Faun of the Renaissance, so much does he abound in elemental light and brightness. Like Ariel he abridges space and puts us into instant communication with the smiling hosts of Heaven.
Of Rembrandt and Murillo we remember that they never wandered far from home, and so we studied Holland and Seville to understand them better. What was true of those men in this regard was even more true of Correggio, whose whole career, short in years but long in art, was spent, we might almost say, in three cities of Emilia not more than forty miles apart. These were Correggio, where he was born, Modena, where he painted some of his renowned altar-pieces, and Parma, whose convents and churches were so wonderfully frescoed by his masterful hand.
In other sections of Italy all the glory of the Renaissance had gathered about single cities as at Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice, but here in Emilia it was different. Emilia is the upper part of central Italy, having the Po for its northern boundary. It includes the most picturesque part of the Appenines and reaches to the Adriatic on the east. Within its borders are not only the three cities already mentioned as associated with Correggio's life but others of even greater importance in art and history.
The largest of them are Bologna, the seat of one of the greatest universities of Europe; Mantua, where Isabella d'Este held one of the most brilliant courts of the time; Rimini, forever associated with the unfortunate Francesca da Rimini and lastly Ravenna, which, in spite of its incrustation of wonderful mosaics put there by loving hands in Mediæval times, stands forsaken even by the sea which used so kindly to lave its feet, the abiding place of rats and owls, the breeding place of malaria.
Throughout this district the Renaissance glowed with all its splendor, confining its light to no one point. Here poets sang and cultivated women encouraged art in all its forms. If war and siege wrought their devastation here and towns passed from one lord to another, there was an intellectual side to life that mitigated these evils. To the town of Correggio there was unusual compensation, for here Antonio Allegri was born in 1494.
The family name Allegri means the very thing this artist seemed born to illustrate—light and joyousness. The name by which we know him, Correggio, is merely that of his native town as is so often true of the names of Italian artists.
As has been before stated biographical matter relative to the artist is very scarce. In the absence of authentic data a great net of legend has grown up about his name. Some otherwise reliable authorities assert that he was extremely poor, a great miser, and his death most miserable, precipitated by his own greed. Indeed, such a strong hold had these legends taken that a northern dramatist has painted the life and death of Correggio in a thrilling tragedy in German.
The latest and best authority, Corrado Ricci, in his elaborate life of the artist discards these absurd legends and interprets bits of authoritative matter in a broad and scholarly way, so that he makes Correggio, aside from his genius, a man of ordinary experience who lived in a small house, who never traveled far from home and who was sufficiently imbued with the spirit of his own individual art to pour it out in rich profusion for our edification; a glory so dazzling that we need no other matter with which to interest ourselves in considering him.
If, then, in the following pages more attention is bestowed on the master's works than on his life the reasons will be obvious—to avoid disputed ground and to emphasize the better part of the man.
It is possible to trace the family of Allegri back for several generations. In earlier times they were cultivators of the soil and it is quite certain that the branch to which Antonio belongs took refuge in Correggio in 1371, when their town of Castellazzo was destroyed.
Correggio's father was well-to-do, and instead of following the arduous occupation of his ancestors he became a "victualler," that is, one who supplies the necessities of subsistence in clothing as well as food. Of the painter's mother we know nothing except her name, Bernardino, and that she brought her husband a small dowry. His early years, too, must go without comment. At the age of thirteen he seemed versed in the things which a boy of that age usually knows.
Besides this he had developed an unusual talent for drawing and painting. It is supposed that he acquired this last in the studio of his uncle Lorenzo. He was a painter of the time whose work was so poor that it hardly justifies us in calling him Correggio's master. Still we know that often poor workmen are able to tell others how the very work they fail in should be done.
Whatever may have been the definite art training which Correggio received, the air in which he lived was full of the aroma of great painters, one of whom, at least, had a strong influence over our young artist. Andrea Mantegna, so much a master of foreshortening, hard line drawing and perspective that his work marks an era in the history of Italian painting, was living during Correggio's early years. It is barely possible that Correggio studied in the famous school he founded at Padua, where the son of the great master of line continued his work after him. Mantegna delighted so much in solving the problems of drawing that his pictures always resemble statuary in hardness of outline. This very thing seemed to be the foundation on which Correggio built his magnificent and illusory art.
There seems to be no end of supposing in Correggio's case. In our search for an art antecedent for him we are led in many ways. Some, noticing the likeness in some of his smiling heads to those of Da Vinci, declare that he must have visited Milan not far away and the home of that master's works. Others, feeling the Renaissance glow especially in his mythological subjects, feel quite as sure that he must have visited Rome. The records, however, give no authority for such visits, interesting as they would undoubtedly be in analyzing his art.
He was but nineteen and living in the small old house where his grandfather had lived before him when he received his first commission to paint an important picture, "The Madonna San Francisco." Previous to this he had evidently attained some celebrity in his art for the two greatest women of his section, Isabella d'Este and Veronica Gambara, in their correspondence speak familiarly of him and his work.
Several pictures of the Holy Family and of St. Catherine dating from this early time are extant. These are interesting not so much for their own intrinsic worth as for the fact that they show us how early he was thinking about those subjects which, in the heyday of his genius, he was to glorify almost more than any other artist.
"The Madonna San Francisco" was painted for a monastery in Correggio built to the honor of St. Francis. The contract was made in the artist's bedroom on the ground floor of his simple home. On account of his age his father had to act for him, and his mother too must have been living at the time. We can imagine the pride and delight of the parents when their youthful son was given so important a commission. How large the hundred gold ducats which he was to receive for the work must have looked to the young man not yet twenty and a minor before the law.
The picture, although such an early one and constructed on the conventional plan of the time, is pleasing and quite worthy to be the forerunner of his later works. The Madonna sits on a high throne in the center holding the Child, who seems diminutive, in her arms. On one side is St. Francis in an inquiring attitude, and St. Anthony with his lilies and his book. On the other side are St. Catherine with her foot on the wheel which was used in her martyrdom, and John the Baptist with his usual camel's hair robe, reed, cross, and general unkempt appearance.
The pedestal on which the Virgin is seated is elaborately painted, the medallion representing Moses with the supernatural light about his head and the tablets of stone in his hands. In the upper part of the picture immediately under the arch is an exquisite glory of angels flanked by two adoring cherubs, who, it seems, would come nearer to Mary.
Like many of the other treasures of Italian art this picture has not remained where it was first placed. It is now in the Dresden gallery, the home of so many other gems of the painter's art.
Among his other early pictures we can hardly pass the "Gipsy Madonna," known as "La Zingarella," from the strange turban she wears upon her head, or as the "Madonna of the Rabbit" from the little creature who shows himself in one corner of the picture. The mother, apparently Mary, bends lovingly over the child whose chubby foot she holds caressingly in one hand. Indistinct angels in the foliage above apparently enjoy the sight of the weary and loving mother bending over her little one.
Beautiful as are these early pictures of the master his real glory truly begins with his arrival in Parma in 1518. Parma was, next to Bologna, the largest city on that great highway between the north and south along which there had always been such a strong current of life. This beautiful city, girdled by hills from which numerous small streams of Italy flow, looking out on productive plains at its feet, situated in the very heart of Emilia and consequently in the center of Renaissance thought outside the great cities, with its convents and churches, offered to our painter quite as great scope for his art as did Rome to Angelo or Venice to Titian. Indeed, it is quite as impossible to study Correggio's art outside of Parma as to study Raphael's and Angelo's outside of Rome.
We can appreciate the playfulness of his genius and occasionally the loftiness of his thought through the great altar pieces and easel pictures scattered about Europe, but to see him in all the plenitude of his powers we must see his frescoes in San Paolo, in San Giovanni and in the Cathedral of Parma. In some of these he rises almost to the grandeur of Angelo, transcending his own peculiar powers that were wont to produce only forms of light and joyousness.
When Correggio arrived in Parma, while there was no regular school of art maintained among her painters, yet there were many artists and deep enthusiasm for art among the people. Correggio came to them almost like the fulfillment of their ideal vision of art perfection. Whether the monks of St. John the Evangelist or the abbess of the convent of St. Paul first extended the invitation to Correggio we know not, but from a study of the work it seems that San Paolo was decorated first.
We are accustomed to think of a convent as a most solemn place, with small cell-like rooms bare of ornament, where perpetual silence reigns and no thought of the world enters. This is true of such institutions in our time but when Correggio went to Parma no such restrictions had been imposed by the church on her religious houses.
The convent or school of San Paolo was, in fact, a pleasant place. The inmates talked together, their rooms teemed with objects of Renaissance art, the sound of musical instruments broke the silence. It is necessary that we should understand the manner of life in the Italian convents of the time to account logically for the subjects selected by the abbess and painted by Correggio on the walls and ceiling of her convent.
If subjects for such a place were to be selected now they would be of the most solemn and religious sort such as would promote spiritual life and thought. Quite contrary to this was the selection for San Paolo. The camera, or chief room, of the convent was the apartment decorated. The ceiling was painted to represent an arbor whose leafage was supported by trellises, the sixteen main lines of which came to a point in the center where the arms of the abbess were emblazoned. Rich ornamental pendants of fruit filled in the narrow spaces of the triangles.
In the wide portions were sixteen oval openings through which smiling cupids engaged in various antics look out at the spectator. In each of these openings there are two and sometimes three cupids. Some reach for fruit, others wrestle with each other or caress a dog or play with a stag's head, while still others blow lusty strains from a conch shell in imitation of the large satyr over which they play.
Throughout the whole series there is the childish glee and frolicsomeness of nature itself. This ceiling might almost stand as the artist's album of smiling, playful children.
Below these sixteen triangular compartments of the ceiling are as many lunettes, semi-circular spaces over windows and doors, in which the artist represented figures from mythology such as Minerva, Ceres, Juno, Bacchus, the Graces, the Earth and enough others to fill the spaces.
We love to gaze up at the brilliant ceiling with its smiling Cupids but the figures of the lunettes are more wonderful. The "Diana" over the fireplace is a fine example of Correggio's treatment of these subjects. Surrounded by airy attendants and partially enveloped in a gauzy veil, she gazes at us from the edge of her chariot. On her brow, the same type which we see in many of the artist's sacred pictures, is the crescent moon, at once her symbol and the central figure in the abbess' coat of arms in the ceiling above. Altogether it is one of the loveliest figures in mythologic art.
We can imagine the interest of the gentle pupils and their abbess in the progress of the work and in the young painter who knew so well how to use the implements of his art. Nothing could show more emphatically the control that the re-vivified ancient learning held over men's minds at this time than these very decorations in San Paolo.
Correggio must have completed his great work in short time for, in 1520, we have record of him receiving part payment for work done in San Giovanni Evangelista, the church and monastery erected in honor of St. John the Evangelist.
Between these two great pieces of work Correggio returned to his native city, where he was married to Giralamo Merlini, a young woman of seventeen years, the daughter of a wealthy country family. One son and three daughters came of this marriage. The son became an artist and followed, weakly it must be said, in his father's footsteps.
We have no details of the home life of the artist but if we have a right to infer anything from his works it is this, that his domestic life was happy and his wife beautiful and lovable, else how could he have given us his fine Holy Families and his sweet-faced smiling Madonnas? It is said that Correggio's wife was always in delicate health and that on this account she early made her will. She died five years before her gifted husband.
To the traveller who visits San Giovanni Evangelista to-day it is difficult to imagine its internal beauty in Correggio's time. The monastery has been turned into a headquarters for soldiers. Wind and weather have done their utmost to destroy every trace of painter and sculptor. The church is fortunately in better condition, but even here time has not dealt over kindly with its treasures.
For years previous to Correggio's going to Parma the Benedictines, whose church and monastery this was, had done their utmost to enrich them with high class ornament. They had been successful in their efforts and Correggio was now to add the last touch to the superb incrustation of fresco and bas-relief.
His work on this church was varied. On the ceiling of the cupola he painted the ascension of Christ. He put a frieze around the body of the church painted in chiaroscuro, and he gilded much of the ornament already in place. For it all he received 262 gold ducats (about $600 of our money) paid in regular installments.
The most wonderful part of his work here is the ceiling of the cupola. The ascending Lord rises steadily from the circle of his eleven apostles. The background of the ascending figure is a glory of innumerable angel heads shading from deep shadow to transparent light. The apostles are accompanied by angels and all together they float upon the clouds. In simplicity and grandeur of effect this work exceeds any other that Correggio did. It is, to my notion, the one work in which he exceeds himself and approaches very near to Michael Angelo in strength. The apostle just at the feet of the rising Christ would grace the strongest and most beautiful thing Angelo has left us in fresco.
In the triangular spaces between the windows just under the cupola are the four Evangelists. Each is accompanied by his appropriate symbol and by some saint who shares in the action. St. Luke resting upon his traditional ox dictates earnestly to St. Ambrose. St. Mark with his lion talks to St. Gregory. St. John with his eagle is evidently laying down some propositions to St. Augustine who as carefully rehearses them, while Matthew speaks the words which the aged St. Jerome writes earnestly in his book. In all are the usual cherubs and supporting clouds.
Two other paintings in San Giovanni are worthy of our study before passing to Correggio's decorations in the Cathedral. "The Coronation of the Virgin" was painted in the apse, or extreme end of the church. A more beautiful Madonna never came from our artist than this, with her delicate hands crossed high on her breast as she inclines her heavenly head to receive the circle of diadems with which the Christ would crown his earthly Mother. A dove breaks through the clouds and approaches, while all the air above and the clouds below them teem with exquisite Cupid forms and faces. Unfortunately the original has been destroyed and only a copy remains.
In the other painting, "St. John the Evangelist" sits with that far-away look as if communicating with Heaven itself, while he writes, supposably, his wondrous book. The symbolic eagle is here but not the mere conventional creature so often seen. He is a real eagle pluming himself, indeed drawing from his strong wing the very quill with which to endite the epistle of St. John.
With these two fine specimens of Correggio's art let us turn to the Cathedral of Parma where we can conjecture that Correggio, his brain filled with Renaissance and Mediæval forms, thought to paint his masterpiece. Here a vast dome was at his disposal and it was but natural that he should plan a work elaborate and appropriate to fill the space.
On the centre of the ceiling is a dense circle of angels bursting from the clouds surrounding the Virgin who rises upward to meet her God. In the centre of the circle of cloud forms, an angel descends to welcome the ecstatic Mary whose face glows with all the joy of one about to enter Heaven. It is indeed a beautiful legend that does not allow the Mother of Christ to know the darkness of the grave. That vacant tomb occupied only by lilies of miraculous growth and the ecstatic face of the disappearing Mary are a fitting close for this story of divine motherhood.
Just outside the circle described is a wider one lower down made up of the wondering disciples and their angel attendants as they gaze upward, watching this latest glory in their experience. Below still further, in the space between the windows, are saints with clouds and cherubs. Throughout there is wonderful foreshortening. The very thought of representing hundreds of beings all in action makes one dizzy.
Much as we may admire Correggio, however, we cannot but feel that in this work there is too much material just as in Angelo's "Last Judgment" and Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Confusion is the inevitable result. We may shrink from the coarseness of the remark but we are somewhat in sympathy with the canon of the Cathedral who, after gazing intently at the elaborate fresco, remarked that it looked like "A hash of frog's legs." Such overloaded works come to us from superior minds to show us, perhaps, our own narrow range.
It is said that Titian dissuaded the canons from having the work altogether erased. After studying the dome some time he exclaimed, "Turn it upside down and fill it with gold; even so you will not have paid its just price!"
In the intervals of these gigantic works in fresco our magic painter, we cannot count him otherwise, so fertile was he in invention, so rapid in execution, made some of his finest easel pictures.
Of these perhaps the "Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine" is the greatest. We have seen how when little more than a boy he tried to work out this beautiful story in a picture. The legend is so charming and so popular in art that it will bear repeating. Even from her birth St. Catherine was a remarkable child. The halo that encircled her head then was with her all through life. She was a devoted and expert student, even in childhood delighting in the study of Plato's philosophy. For this reason she is looked upon as the patroness of schools and learning.
At the age of fourteen she was left queen of her father's kingdom, but her retiring and studious habits did not please the people and they begged her to find a husband. She acceded to their wishes but required four things of him who should rule with her—that he should be king in his own right, so noble that all would wish to worship him, so beautiful that angels would desire to see him and so benign as to forgive all offences. To find such a mortal man seemed impossible, but a holy hermit showed her the picture of the Christ Child and his mother, and she loved the child, believing him to be the one she sought.
In a strange dream one night she thought she was led to the Christ Child but he put her aside saying she was not yet beautiful enough. Then she went away sorrowful and she and her mother were baptized and lo! the following night, in another but more beautiful dream, she was again brought to the Divine Child and he betrothed her with a jeweled ring which remained upon her finger when rosy morning dispelled the dream.
Such in brief is the story that many artists have essayed to paint. Among all the attempts it is quite safe to say that Correggio's is the most beautiful. Let us study it as it occupies precious space in the gem-room of the Louvre.
Against a beautiful landscape background, in the light distance of which are hills and cities and an indistinct martyrdom of St. Catherine, and in the dark shades of which the death of St. Sebastian is represented, sits the beautiful Christ mother holding upon her lap the Child in the act of placing the ring of betrothal upon the finger of the seraphic St. Catherine. The center of the picture is marked by a fine group of hands—the Virgin's, holding St. Catherine's while the baby hand of the Child singles out the finger to receive the ring. The saints' other hand rests on the wheel which prefigures her martyrdom.
If we were to imagine the picture painted in the elemental colors of the rising and setting sun we could hardly then guess of its splendor. None but Correggio's hand could have given us the beautifully modelled head of St. Catherine, with its glorious hair bedecked with jewels, or that of Mary so young and yet so filled with motherly love as she assists in the mystic rite.
Other great pictures of this time on which we cannot dwell at length are "Christ in Gethsemane," a work strong in light and shade, approaching Rembrandt in its lonely sublimity. "The Adoring Madonna" who kneels on some steps in a grand old ruin and with extended hands worships the Child who lies before her. This picture is much admired and often reproduced but it savors a little of affected sweetness to which Correggio at times comes dangerously near.
"The Noli me Tangere" (Touch me not) where the Magdalen throws herself at the Master's feet to implore forgiveness, we must place high among Correggio's works for its marvellous facial expression and for the dramatic action of both figures. We can guess His benign words and her shrinking as she exclaims: "I am unwilling that Thou shouldst touch me."
Another famous and popular picture, "The Reading Magdalen," has in recent criticism been denied to Correggio. It has so long been attributed to him, however, that it seems necessary to make some mention of it in this sketch. It is of small dimensions, hardly one and a half feet long, and painted with all the smoothness of the Flemish masters. It is so small and gem-like that the temptation to steal it has been so great that it has been found necessary to chain it to its place in the gallery and secure it with a lock. It is likely that it was painted by Adrian Van der Werff.
"The Madonna della Scala," (Madonna of the Staircase) also belongs to this period. It is the simplest of all Correggio's pictures of this subject, there being no cherubs and no accompanying saints, only the two figures engross our attention. Vasari tells us that it was painted over one of the gates to the city of Parma. Later, when it was threatened with destruction from its exposed condition it was removed to an oratory within the city. Its name came from the steps near it leading up into the apartment over the city gate for which it was painted.
Between 1524 and 1530, Correggio did the great altar-pieces by which we know him best, "The Madonna Scodella," "The Madonna with St. Jerome" and the far-famed "Holy Night." In his devotion to his work Correggio often escaped the perils of his time. This was not so, however, when the hordes of Constable de Bourbon swept every thing before them as they cut their way down from the north to the memorable sack of Rome in 1527.
Parma lay directly in their path and she suffered accordingly. Her churches were desecrated, her peasants robbed and murdered. Correggio at his work in the Cathedral must often have beheld the smoking, reeking landscape devastated by these marauders. Still he worked on in his own seraphic way, angelic forms dropping from his brush as if Italy were peopled with ministering angels instead of avenging fiends.
"The Madonna with St. Jerome," or "Holy Day," as it is sometimes called, is still in Parma. Its history is an interesting one. It was ordered by a noble lady of the house of Bergonzi who was so well pleased that she sent the artist a present over and above the price agreed upon. This was a strange present, for it consisted of "two loads of wood, several bushels of wheat and a hog," but it must have suited Correggio as he selected it himself at the lady's request.
The fame of the picture spread, and it was difficult to keep from selling it so great was the demand for the precious work. At one time it was walled up, again it was chained to its place and secured by four locks. With diligent care the citizens held it to grace their town until Napoleon, the universal despoiler, carried it off to Paris amid the lamentations of the people. Happily, however, it was restored to Parma by the treaty of 1815.
There it may be seen to-day, little changed by the nearly four hundred years which have passed since it came from the painter's hand. All the great points in Correggio's art are emphasized in the composition. The Madonna, lovely as his Madonnas always are, holds the somewhat elfish Child who is the center of interest as usual. In the foreground is a grand St. Jerome, with his partially unrolled scroll in his hand and his faithful lion at his side. Between him and the Madonna is what seems to me the most wonderful angel of Correggio's creation. He has an ineffable smile on his face and points out to the Christ Child a passage in the open book he holds.
On the other side of the picture, a balance, as it were, to the St. Jerome, is a beautiful Magdalen, who leans her head against the body of the Child and caresses his wee foot, while his baby hand strays among her loosened tresses. At her back a mischievous Cupid peers curiously into her alabaster vase. A carelessly lifted curtain reveals a background of exquisite beauty, where blue hills rise beyond classic ruins.
A great authority says of this picture, "It is justly celebrated as one of the finest productions, not only of Correggio, but of Italian art. The whole composition is radiant, palpitating, living; the conception is marked by the most perfect originality and independence."
Another of the gems of the Parma gallery is the work known as "The Madonna della Scodella" from the cup with which Mary reaches for water poured by an angel in the shade. The scene is taken from the return of the Holy Family from Egypt. The Child held by the Madonna is no longer a babe, but a happy, smiling boy of four or five. Joseph, one of the principal figures of the composition, is gathering fruit from the palm tree in whose shade they are resting. That this fruit may be more easily obtainable numerous angels sport among the branches, incidentally bearing them down to Joseph's reach. Perhaps no idea is more striking in this picture than the way in which the angels make themselves useful. One fills the Virgin's cup; another tethers the ass just within the shadow, while those above make the picking of the fruit less laborious.
It is generally conceded that "The Nativity," or "Holy Night," of the Dresden gallery is Correggio's masterpiece. Let us examine it in detail and see what are the qualities which entitle it to this high place. The stable represented seems to have been built among ancient ruins. All about are blocks of stone and one column still stands erect. In the center kneels the Virgin with her arms about the Divine Infant and her face irradiated by the light from his refulgent body as he lies on a pallet of straw or husks. The light is so intense that the shepherds who have come to see the wondrous Child shield their eyes and the others stand out in bold relief against the shades of night.
The shepherdess carries a basket from which goslings peer at the light-producing Child. The young shepherd converses with the old man who draws off his cap while his dog gazes at the heavenly vision, his head strongly illuminated by the supernatural light. In the immediate background is Joseph, pulling the ass away to where other shepherds manage the oxen of the stable. In the further distance the dawn, just beginning to show, lights up gently a long line of hills. In the upper left-hand corner a group of angels, some in attitudes of adoration and some simply kicking for joy, show their appreciation of the marvellous sight, for truly this is "the light that never was on land or sea."
The most wonderful thing in the picture is the way the light is managed, coming from the Child and illuminating the bystanders. Next to the Sistine Madonna this is the greatest picture of the noted gallery where it hangs.
May we not add to this statement that it is the world's greatest Christmas picture?
In the late years of Correggio's life he devoted much time to the composition of mythological pictures. The same qualities which made him excel in his sacred pictures enabled him to picture the mythological world in so satisfying a way—divine coloring, lightness of touch and vivacity of action. Of this we need no other evidence than any one of the following pictures, "Io and Jupiter," "Anthiope," and the "Danae," or "Rain of Gold." "The Rain of Gold" has long been a favorite among these pictures because of the very beautiful Cupid who sits on the foot of the couch of Danae and the two little loves who sharpen their arrows near its head.
Whatever had been Correggio's skill either in sacred or mythological subjects, in 1534 his work was finished, for in March of that year he died when he was hardly forty years old, with the increasing glory of his fame fresh upon him. Like Raphael and Masaccio he left the world at the very height of his powers. Like some magic creature of the upper air he slipped away from the world while it was yet dazzled with the glorious vision he brought with him.
For a hundred years the tomb of the artist in the church of St. Francis remained undisturbed. At the end of that time it was destroyed to make room for improvement.
There are no genuine portraits of Correggio. It is expressly stated that he never had one painted, so that we are dependent wholly upon those which are purely imaginary.
As to Correggio's character, we have only Vasari's words; "He was of very timid disposition, and exerted himself to excess in the practice of his art for the sake of his family, who were a great care to him; and although by nature good and well-disposed, he, nevertheless, grieved more than was reasonable under the burden of those passions which are common to all men. He was very melancholic in the exercise of his art and felt its fatigues greatly…. Oppressed by family cares, Antonio was so bent on saving that he became miserly to a degree."
This passage has been misinterpreted until our painter has been set down as a miserly, melancholy man. When the fact seems only to be that, never receiving large sums for his pictures, he became economical as he advanced in years, a very natural change as most men of middle age will confess. From this controversy regarding biographical detail we may most profitably turn away to consider anew the loveliness of his almost divine work. There, at all events, is joy unbounded.