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

Correggio; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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