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The Genius of Parma

Correggio

by David Ekserdjian
Yale University Press, 334 pp., $65.00

The cover of David Ekserdjian’s new monograph on the Italian painter Antonio Allegri da Correggio (?1489- 1534) shows a young woman being ravished by a cloud. Against the shimmer of her pale flesh, the slate-gray nimbus takes distinct form at only a few points, in a caressing hand, in enough of forehead, eyes, nose, and hinted lips to form the plausible kiss of a shadowy swain. Ostensibly we see that divine philanderer, Jupiter, seducing a Greek girl named Io, but with Correggio there is always a great deal more to the story; he was one of those artists who, like Bernini after him, could disclose sublime ideas in portrayals of physical ecstasy.

In many respects—scale, date, place of origin, subject matter—Jupiter and Io (circa 1532) invites comparison with Titian’s monumental Europa (circa 1560; see illustration on page 5) in Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and yet the differences between the two are still more revealing. Like Io, Europa was a mortal maiden, whose fate it was to catch the roving eye of Jove as she gamboled with her handmaidens along a beach in Asia Minor. Ever imaginative, the great god transformed himself into a friendly bull and drew near the circle of playful girls. So tame was he, and so beautiful, that Europa decided to climb up on his back and ride him. Then, however, the divine creature plunged boldly out onto the high seas, paddling with a god’s endurance until he reached the shores of another continent, one that has ever since borne Europa’s name in memory of their seaside tryst.

In a strictly juridical sense, the rape of Europa was probably less a rape than a marriage by capture, but such a distinction clearly carries no weight with the frightened girl in Titian’s painting. Clinging to Jupiter’s horn with one hand, flailing wildly with the other, she masks her upturned face behind a muddle of arm and fluttering drapery, while the painting’s composition homes in with relentless focus on the exposure of a wayward breast and the parting of her heavy thighs. In effect, our eyes proceed to advance the process of violation that Titian’s painted bull has only begun to work. When he acquired this provocative Venetian masterpiece for Mrs. Gardner, Bernard Berenson called it “the most beautiful painting in the world,” not least, presumably, for the luminescent sea and a stupendous pink-shot sunrise behind bull and rider that signals the dawn of Europe.

Still, for all its surface bravura, Titian’s Europa lacks a core of feeling, except, perhaps, as Philipp Fehl has pointed out, in the faces of the bewildered cows along the seashore who watch their fine new friend splash away with the struggling woman on his back. Titian is so consummate a craftsman that his skill can almost obstruct his expressiveness; here, as so consistently in his work, the flights of painterly rhetoric fly under uncannily perfect control.

Correggio’s painting of the Io myth makes an altogether different story of similar material, at once more deeply philosophical and more frankly sexy. He might, like Titian, have taken up the theme of bovine metamorphosis, for Jupiter eventually transformed Io into a cow in a futile play to hide her from his wife. But Correggio, remarkably, avoids the temptation to prove his virtuosity by showing an animal in love. Instead, he pushes the story back to the moment where Jove and Io began their unstable union, and in his portrayal of that initial ecstatic touch he shows why in his own day he was held to be nearly Titian’s equal as a painter. Their techniques are very different: Titian lays on paint in thick swipes, whereas Correggio can apply layers of pigment that are thin to the point of translucency, as in Jupiter’s cloud and Io’s skin. More crucially, though, Correggio’s beguiling way with paint never quite disguises a profound underpinning of thought (just as Io, her plump flesh laid over palpable muscle, reveals her body’s strength as well as its voluptuous padding). In the case of Jove and Io, Correggio starts by conceiving of their union not as a rape, or a capture, but as a triumph of mutual consent.

Hence the mist that shrouds Correggio’s amorous god is, yes, the mist of Io’s own passion, a rapture of touch translated into an eros of pure vision. At the same time, the vapor’s dusky color suggests something more: that his nebulous margin also marks the boundary line where death leaves off and divinity begins. Like so many of Jupiter’s conquests, Io was a mortal, not a goddess, and her paramour has seduced her with the primal allure of life itself.

As the ancients well knew, gods are not like the rest of us; they have the power to vanquish pain, old age, and death. Feeble human beings have mixed with those fortunate beings at their own peril. Even the heroes, half human and half divine, were destined always to play out their human side in suffering and death. Correggio, for his part, respects mortality’s terrible dividing line by giving us a Jupiter who, ineffable, inaccessible, palpable only in details, carefully reveals only as much of himself to Io as the young woman is able to take; as it is, the encounter still carries her (and us as well) to the very limits of pleasure. A more arrogant mortal lover, the Theban princess Semele, would demand that Jupiter come to her as he came to his wife, only to learn, as he blasted her with a thunderbolt, how hotly the gods love on Olympus.

Correggio, unlike Semele, seems to have been one of those rare mortals who could embrace divinity and hold on to it. He painted transports of Christian piety with the same ravishing tactile sense and the same sly intellect with which he fashioned Io and her evanescent lover. One of art’s supreme masters of sensual appeal, he nonetheless drew his chief inspiration, as Ekserdjian shows, from two of the most rigorously cerebral painters of the Italian Renaissance, Andrea Mantegna and Leonardo da Vinci, combining Mantegna’s optical experimentation with Leonardo’s shadowy sfumato modeling to produce a soft touch that often feels more like Raphael than it does like the work of Correggio’s two mentors.

And despite some significant differences, the parallel between Raphael and Correggio, who were born within six years of each another, is a real one. Each in his own way made a cogent synthesis out of two approaches to painting: what their contemporaries called disegno, articulate composition, and colore, paint’s dazzling surface effects. These qualities, disegno and colore, were more than technical skills; they also carried with them a host of regional connotations in a fiercely localized Italy. During the fifteenth century, the optical experiments of Brunelleschi, Alberti, and Paolo Uccello in Florence, together with the tectonic splendor of Rome’s ancient ruins and the strict proportional systems of classical statues, conspired to lead the painters of central Italy to concentrate on lucid design, abetted by the hard-edged clarity that their brushwork assumed in their preferred media of tempera and fresco. The champions of disegno lived among rugged, mountainous landscapes that framed their visual world with an austere natural architecture of supreme, but unforgiving, beauty. Correggio’s teacher Mantegna, though a northerner himself, spent a good deal of time in Rome, and the experience shows in his structural sense of space and the dry, spare elegance of his figures (whose poise he sometimes exploited to mask, or perhaps to enhance, a rowdy sense of humor). Raphael was trained in a softer variant of this tradition by the Umbrian master Pietro Perugino.

At the same time, northern Italy, Venice especially, favored painting in oil for its glowing hues and the slow-drying malleable surfaces that could be worked up into textures of their own or thinned to the consistency of a veil. Colore reached its suggestive best in Venice, a city of exotic Eastern silks, worldly merchants, garish courtesans, and misty panoramas that took the edges off every angular contour. Correggio lived out his life not far from Venice, in the fat flatlands of the Po delta, a region whose visual monotony is best relieved by its bounteous fertility. Now as then, the easiest way to wring sublime beauty from his native landscape is to open your mouth and eat.

The city of Parma, where Correggio made his career, has always deserved a place of special distinction for its food still more than for its artistic glories (though the two really go hand in hand): not for nothing is the best Italian prosciutto also called “Parma ham.” The local Parmigiano cheese was already sufficiently famous in Correggio’s day for the city council to roll out huge wheels of it to greet an army of French invaders in 1517, hoping to stave off any French thoughts of a scorched-earth policy by showing just what that earth could produce if left alone. A local parmigiano cookbook entitled How to Cook Fantastic Animals may sound as if it purveys recipes for unicorn stew, but in fact the fantastic animals are nothing more than Parma’s own pigs and chickens, on which a plain-spoken man named Giulio Cerati works a kind of Platonic exaltation to create “transcendental manifestations of an Idea, the earthly, provincial, civic multiplicity of absolute Flavor.”1

In this same Parma, or something very like it, Antonio Allegri da Correggio set his own transcendental course in 1518 or so, summoned by a nun, the Benedictine abbess Giovanna da Piacenza, to decorate a room of her monastic apartments in an establishment dedicated to Saint Paul (San Paolo). In this region of fertile farms knit close by old Roman roads, the Benedictines controlled a network of huge and rich monasteries, renowned alike for their learned monks and nuns and for their lavish hospitality to pilgrims.2 On the same order’s behalf, the young Correggio had already frescoed the cavernous refectory of the nearby monastery at San Benedetto Po and painted an organ screen for the equally cavernous church, showing King David singing a psalm in a rapture of religious joy. For a young man, it was already a formidably accomplished body of work.

What Correggio achieved for Abbess Giovanna, however, was a fresco of sheer genius, genius on a different scale and in a different pictorial idiom from that of the very slightly earlier frescoes of Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling and of Raphael for the papal apartments in Rome, but again, as his contemporaries concurred, genius of a comparable order. Like these works of Raphael and Michelangelo, Correggio’s fresco tied together the disparate regional threads of disegno and colore, of painterly technique and compositional structure, statuesque classical form and close observation of nature, to create a much more comprehensive aesthetic system than the one in which he had been trained.

  1. 1

    Ivanna Rossi, in Come si cucinano gli animali fantastici, Invenzioni gastronomiche di Giulio Cerati raccontate di Ivanna Rossi, disegni di Corrado Costa (Reggio Emilia: Libreria del Teatro Editrice, 1995), p. 19.

  2. 2

    Barry Collett, Italian Benedictine Scholars and the Reformation: The Congregation of Santa Giustina of Padua (Oxford University Press, 1985).

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