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Solving the Correggio Problem

Henri Zerner, translated by Peter France

The Paintings of Correggio

by Cecil Gould
Cornell University Press, 307, 370 illustrations pp., $85.00

In 1880 Giovanni Morelli, the founder of modern connoisseurship, who aimed to establish the attribution of works of art on a more systematic or “scientific” basis, made a sensation in the art world by announcing that Correggio’s Reclining Magdalen was a mere pastiche by a late seventeenth-century Dutch painter. The Magdalen was then considered one of the Dresden Museum’s greatest jewels. With brilliant invective, Morelli ridiculed the blind reverence museum visitors showed in front of this painting—the very same visitors who were unmoved by Giorgione’s great Sleeping Venus, then hanging in the same museum and labeled as a copy of a Titian, painted by Sassoferrato. This double coup by Morelli, the discovery of the Giorgione and the killing of the Correggio, was the most spectacular demonstration of his method. His authority has been such that, since then, the Reclining Magdalen was defended in print only in 1882 by Adolfo Venturi (not himself a particularly fine connoisseur), and then abandoned to almost complete obscurity.

In his recent book on Correggio Cecil Gould proposes to go back to the traditional attribution of the Magdalen to Correggio. Unfortunately, the picture disappeared during World War II so that it is hard to form an opinion, but on the basis of photographs, and in view of the long-lasting fame of the picture from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, Gould’s reattribution has much merit.1 But there is more to be said. Forgeries and pastiches are often accepted because they correspond to the idea that a particular period has of an artist. With time and changing taste, the forgery usually becomes obvious. In the case of Morelli and the Magdalen, the reverse may have happened. To nineteenth-century eyes, this voluptuous depiction of the famous repentant sinner, devoid of any hint of asceticism, was the very essence of Correggio. The idyllic vision of Jean Jacques Henner, a once famous nineteenth-century salon painter, is largely indebted to it. Morelli’s dislike of this kind of sentimental nineteenth-century art may have caused him to condemn an authentic Correggio. And it is typical that the attribution of the Magdalen to Correggio is being reconsidered just at the time when Henner and his nymphs are benefiting from the general revival of nineteenth-century art.

In his life of Correggio, Vasari gave us the picture of an anxious and miserly man, a sort of provincial genius who was confined mainly to Parma, where one must still go to see much of his most important work. “If this accomplished painter had left Lombardy for Rome, he would certainly have worked miracles.” The great historian has been accused of Tuscan chauvinism. We should bear in mind that his judgment is that of a court painter who thought that genius could not achieve its full potential in the absence of a great patron. But above all, I think that Vasari, as the theorist who founded the Accademia del Disegno, was disconcerted by an art which, admirable though it was, fitted badly into his system.

In Vasari’s account, Correggio makes his appearance as if by spontaneous generation. Most unusually for him, Vasari says nothing of the painter’s training or his masters, a frustrating silence that historians have since amply made up for. Gould’s chapter on “The Art of Correggio” is almost entirely devoted to the influences on his work. It is generally agreed today that after beginning his artistic education in his native town of Correggio, Antonio came into the orbit of Mantegna at Mantua, but that the direct or indirect influence of Leonardo made itself felt almost immediately. Venetian influences have also been detected, notably that of Lorenzo Lotto. But most important, it is regarded as certain that Correggio was strongly influenced by works of Raphael and then by those of Michelangelo. Most experts believe that he did in fact go to Rome, shortly before he painted the decorations for the Camera di San Paolo in Parma, that is in 1518-1519. The painter of this exquisite room, where wit combines with a considerable knowledge of classical art, does not seem unaware of Raphael’s great Roman decorations. Gould too admits the possibility that he visited Rome, but would place the date much earlier, around 1514. I doubt that this will be generally accepted because it would mean that Correggio’s knowledge of Rome remained without drastic impact on his work for several years.

The real question, of course, is not whether Correggio traveled here or there. His long debated visit to Rome is like a parable, a biographical projection of Correggio’s greater or lesser knowledge of and dependence on Raphael and Michelangelo, who were his elders. The critical question concerns his artistic culture, his knowledge of other artists, the nature of his art, and his place in the Renaissance. Earlier writers, being critics rather than historians, simply regarded Correggio as one of the “great” painters, alongside Leonardo, Titian, Michelangelo, and Raphael. The eighteenth century and the romantic movement devoted an immense amount of attention to him. But with the development of a more historical approach in our century, he seems to have lost some of his importance. He may be much admired, but he no longer occupies the same place in that exalted company.

This is because it is hard to fit him into the accepted historical classification. Whether we like it or not, the basic opposition, established by Wölfflin, between the “classical” art of the Renaissance and the baroque art of the seventeenth century determines in large measure our understanding of these periods. Correggio, however, seems to disprove this great historical construction, and it is not altogether surprising to find in his famous Principles of Art History that Wölfflin does not reproduce a single work by Correggio and hardly mentions his name. He avoids a painter who might upset his scheme. Since Wölfflin, the great paintings of Correggio’s mature years have been somehow fitted under the label “proto-baroque,” while the works of his youth, which are still struggling to emerge from the quattrocento, are said to be influenced by a Ferraran or Bolognese art which is described as pseudo- or proto-mannerist. One way or another, for most art historians Correggio refuses to fit into his period.

Gould is no exception, and he is as baffled as other critics. But he goes much further than his predecessors. For him, Correggio’s last and greatest pictures, the four sublimely voluptuous Loves of Jupiter, go beyond the protobaroque into an anticipation of “style Louis seize.” Speaking of Io in Vienna, an amazing feat of painting where the god disguised as a gray cloud makes love in an enveloping way to a swooning Io, the author writes: “In this case, possibly more strongly than in the others, it is almost impossible to believe that the picture dates from the 1530s, so completely is its exotic, hothouse atmosphere akin to the later eighteenth century.” And in a flight of imagination he even speculates that, had Correggio lived longer, he would have developed into a super-proto-Eugène Carrière, the late nineteenth-century painter of evocative monochrome misty shapes.

But the new elegance of [Correggio’s] painting, and perhaps a relative loss of vigor, lasted into the final period of the mythologies—Danaë (Rome), Io (Vienna), Leda (Berlin), Ganymede (Vienna) [i.e., the Loves of Jupiter referred to above]. And here, if anywhere—in increasing refinement of technique, though without being proto-impressionist like the later Titian, or at least not in the same way, is a clue to what Correggio might have done, given the time. Already at a previous stage he had, on one memorable occasion, seemed to anticipate a nineteenth-century painter. This was in the background of the Louvre Marriage of St. Catherine, where the summary brilliance of the handling recalls Delacroix. Now, in the late mythologies, whose spiritual climate is that of the style Louis seize, the mode of vision seems to adumbrate another nineteenth-century Frenchman. In my mind’s eye I see Correggio painting more and more thinly, with greater and greater restriction of local colors, and steering his time-machine deeper and deeper into the future, till, by about the year 1550, his work might have looked something like a Eugène Carrière of greater genius.

The traditional view of Correggio as a chronological misfit here seems brought to its ultimate absurdity.

What are we to think? Was Correggio really at odds with his century? Or is that another way of saying that Vasari was right to see in him a painter of genius, but still a provincial? Expressed in a different way, is this Corrado Ricci’s conclusion when, alone among modern writers, he attributes Correggio’s extreme “originality” to his isolation? Does this mean that residence in Rome and acquaintance with high artistic culture would have been incompatible, in Correggio’s case, with individuality? This is Vasari’s view, but turned on its head—the defense of regional art against a dominant culture.

It is true that Correggio shows striking signs of belonging to the quattrocento while at the same time anticipating the seventeenth century. His fascination with perspective and his preoccupation with its “difficulties,” as Vasari would have said, are more characteristic of Mantegna and his time than of the sixteenth century, when perspective was taken for granted. Nor have historians been wrong, in my view, to mention the fifteenth-century painter Melozzo da Forlì in connection with the great celestial visions he painted in the cupolas of the cathedral and the church of S. Giovanni Evangelista in Parma. Even if Correggio was not necessarily influenced by this great artist from the Marches (who has been somewhat forgotten because of the destruction of his major works), we can at least speak of intentions which have a great deal in common in spite of the difference in their style of painting.

If the Assumption of the Virgin in the cupola of Parma cathedral looks at first glance more like a work of the seventeenth century than of the sixteenth, this is because it reveals either thirty years “too late” or one hundred years “too soon” certain preoccupations of fifteenth-century art, a fascination with the evocative power of painting, which may even intrude upon the space of the spectator. Would not the “realists” of the previous century have been enchanted by the way he represents the saints on the pendentives as if they were actually soaring on clouds inside the cathedral?

With Raphael one can sense that perspective is no longer a dominant concern, and that he is more interested in striking a balance between “illusion,” which was made easy for him by his complete technical mastery, and the integrity of the work of art as a decorative surface. But the mature Correggio’s technical mastery was in no way inferior to that of the great painters of Rome. His interest in the old problem of illusion cannot have come from a lack of skill.

Naturally his skill did not come all at once, and his development is all the easier to trace in that he took some time to find his way, unlike Michelangelo for instance, whose manner may have changed but who is remarkable from the outset for his powerful personality and impressive command of technique.2 In certain of Correggio’s works one feels a disproportion between an immense artistic ambition and a developing but still incomplete technique. Vasari’s image of Correggio as a Saturnian “melancholic” character, eternally dissatisfied and forever imposing on himself new and more difficult tasks, is perhaps not wide of the mark.

  1. 1

    Gould is to a large extent concerned with problems of attribution, and his catalogue raisonné of Correggio’s painting will surely be considered the most valuable part of his book. The Dresden Magdalen, however, is the only major mature work where Gould disagrees with most modern scholars. It is characteristic that this reattribution rests on the history of the picture rather than on its examination. It is in the field of provenance that Gould is most original. He also has new proposals for the chronology of the mature works, but they cannot always be accepted. He has already been rightly challenged in his attempt to date the apse of San Giovanni before the cupola. Gould, for another example, believes that the Louvre Marriage of St. Catherine “can be reliably dated between about six months and a year after [the Giorno in Parma], for the simple reason that the Christ child in both is clearly a particular infant, clearly the same in both, and clearly that much older in the St. Catherine.” It may not seem quite so simple and clear to other scholars, who will point out that these children are highly idealized types. The dating may be correct, but the argument is unsound, and one must envisage a much larger leeway than Gould would allow.

  2. 2

    This does not mean that there is complete agreement about his development. Gould here has his own view, as does each Correggio scholar, while most agree on the corpus of mature works. Gould rejects, for example, the attribution to Correggio of the frescoes in Mantegna’s funeral chapel in Mantua, thus playing down the Mantegnesque element in his work.

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