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 …