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, 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.

Take for example the Milan Madonna, which seems to be a genuine Correggio. The right hand of the Virgin is too large in relation to those of the infant Jesus. The child’s right arm is awkwardly arranged. John the Baptist has a passionate expression which is justified by the symbol of the cross, a premonition of the Passion, but which does not go well with his rather slack body on which the head seems oddly placed. By contrast, the draperies, the decoration of the pilaster on the left, the Virgin’s Raphaelesque hands, and the groups of trees are all wonderfully executed. Such unevenness makes the viewer feel uneasy; it seems to show both a tremendous effort and a considerable degree of hesitancy.

Even the cupola of S. Giovanni Evangelista at Parma is not entirely satisfactory. Here the twelve Apostles sit on clouds around the rim of the cupola, in which Christ is shown ascending to heaven. The pendentives are now very much the worse for wear, but they were obviously works of unprecedented virtuosity. The figures of the Apostles seated on the clouds are magnificently done and show that Correggio had completely assimilated the Roman art of Raphael and Michelangelo, but they are on too large a scale in relation to the pendentives. Moreover, the Christ soaring in the center seems out of place; it was something of a gamble to paint a figure moving through space without any support. The technique does not quite match the intention. (What is more, this cupola, having no windows or lantern, was virtually invisible before the use of electric light.)

Indeed one might have supposed that Correggio was foolhardy in hoping to fill a cupola with a celestial vision and such extraordinary optical effects had he not triumphantly overcome all difficulties in his next project, the decoration of the Parma cathedral cupola, “without a doubt more beautiful than any work of its kind, either before or since” (Mengs). This cupola representing the Assumption has no lantern, but is lit by eight oculi. The spectator sees a vast host of figures swirling up into celestial glory. Everything is seen as from below, with a mass of extraordinary foreshortenings. The upward movement is irresistible. The painter has placed his figures in crown-shaped groups, following a traditional pattern, but they are treated in such a free and masterly way that there is no feeling of constraint. The color, the arrangement of the draperies to unify the composition, the control of light and the transparency of the shadows, all combine to make this vast work a miracle of painterly imagination.

One can understand why those who had commissioned it were disconcerted by such an unprecedented work—one of them baptized it a “hash of frogs” (un guazzetto di rane), and indeed the viewer is faced with a striking tangle of legs and thighs. The patrons apparently even considered destroying it and were only dissuaded by Titian, who is supposed to have said: “Turn it upside down, fill it with gold, and you will still be giving Correggio less than he deserves.” And even though painters have always admired it unreservedly, it took them a century to adopt it seriously as a model. Subsequently, however, it provided the inspiration for innumerable ceilings. So in certain ways Correggio was indeed at odds with the artistic tendencies of his age.

From the Carraccis onward the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries repeated Correggio’s formulas ad nauseam, both in decorative painting and in altar-pieces—so much so that it is hard to see his work otherwise than filtered through those who came after him. It takes a considerable effort to see him once again among the “classical” painters, alongside Raphael and Titian.

This makes it all the more significant that Correggio’s best, most sensitive, and most enthusiastic critic should have been Anton Raphael Mengs, a distinguished painter, friend of Winckelmann, and eminent theorist of an art which was more classical than neoclassical in tendency. If Mengs had so great an admiration for Correggio and saw in his work a sort of sensuous or even sensual parallel to the more spiritual and intellectual art of Raphael, does this not suggest that Correggio’s rightful place is alongside the master of Urbino?

If we look more closely we shall see that even the cathedral cupola is not a baroque work, and a fortiori the paintings. I mean by baroque more or less what was described by Alois Riegl: the development of a more subjective point of view, a more “optical” form of art, as compared to the more objective and “tactile” art of the classical Renaissance, an art of appearances as opposed to an art of essences. The Renaissance for Riegl is identified with the art of line and of the enclosed, palpable object, the baroque with the art of movement and open space. Correggio’s perspective effects, his way of breaking down the barriers between the space of the painting and that of the spectator (or the painter), not only in the cupola but in his easel paintings, his “illusionist” quality which won him such favor in the seventeenth century, all these are traits which relate him to what is called the baroque—not to speak of the emotional turbulence which fills his painting.

Nevertheless, these surprising effects of perspective, these strong or even exaggerated foreshortenings which struck the young Berenson as offensive virtuoso tricks, all these optical effects do not interfere with the integrity of his figures. On the contrary, the eye is captivated even more by volume than by space; Correggio is a master of relief. He has a knowledge of the human body which is equaled only by that of Michelangelo. This means that even when he bends it at will, observing it from the most unexpected angles, the body that he knows so well always remains intact and its autonomy is all the more evident. Compared with this intransigence of Correggio, the baroque vision of the seventeenth century tends to dissolve bodies in a bath of color and light, whereas in the earlier period color adheres more closely to the individual forms—except sometimes in Titian, who is in this respect more “advanced” than Correggio. Alongside the Venus of Velasquez or the Bathsheba of Rembrandt, Correggio’s nudes have an almost marmoreal appearance.

The integrity of the figures and their freedom of movement are such that they dominate the whole composition. Correggio does not give the impression of arranging his figures in a pre-established setting, but of composing and grouping his figures and then filling in the space around them. One is hardly ever shown what they are resting on: indistinct patches of ground, mounds and hillocks as pliable as the clouds, occasional plants or tree-trunks, all appear conveniently where they are needed to plug the gaps; they make up a sort of connecting tissue between figures whose raison d’être is completely internal.

The intelligibility of the figures, their autonomy and the tangible plastic effect they produce, all these classical features are confirmed and reinforced by the use of color. Mengs’s analysis is worth quoting at length:

Another feature which adds greatly to the beauty of his works is that he gives to each of his local tones the same degree of color in the shadows as in the light areas. For instance, it is easy in a painting of Correggio to distinguish the shadow of a pink drapery from that of a red one, or that of a white skin from that of dark skin. In order to give force to white flesh he did not paint it without shadows, but with reflected shadows; and when he was obliged to give it the greatest possible degree of force, he contrived to set it against a darker color so as to show that it is a naturally lighter substance. Thus he always avoided affected contrasts and never painted a darker substance light in order to provide a light background for the shadow of a light substance; in a word, he preserved in each color its proper degree of force and dignity.

The “dignity” of color—it would be hard to imagine a more telling phrase. The dignity of color consists in preserving color’s connection with substance and not succumbing to appearance; the painter must prefer what he knows to be there to what he sees. This “integrity” of color, which is made possible by the beautiful transparency of Correggio’s shadows, goes hand in hand with the integrity of the figures. Here too Correggio is clearly the contemporary of Raphael.

Since the sixteenth century it has been normal to contrast the Roman and Tuscan style, based on linear organization, and the Venetian habit of constructing a painting on the basis of color. Under various guises (Florence-Venice, Poussin-Rubens, Ingres-Delacroix) this opposition between “draftsmen” and “colorists” has been a cornerstone of our theories of art since the days of Vasari. Correggio casts doubt on this scheme. Mengs succeeded in showing that Correggio is not a colorist since he paints the local tones of substances rather than color as it appears when contaminated by light and surrounding tones. The true colorists achieve unity in their paintings by bathing everything in colored light. Or, to put it another way, one might say that, for a colorist, color is as much an attribute of the painted surface as of the objects represented. In Titian’s works one is always conscious of the pictorial medium, whereas Correggio does not allow one to notice it. But this does not mean that he is one of the “draftsmen.” A glance at his drawings—which are very fine, incidentally, like those of Titian—shows immediately his refusal to rely on outline; line is not what determines the composition.

What allows Correggio to remain unattached to either camp is chiaroscuro. Superficially this is a particular way of making figures and objects stand out extremely vividly against a dark background. More importantly, however, it is the use of light to organize the painting. Light provides the main features of the composition and the transitions between them. This chiaroscuro, where everything is bathed in uncolored light, allows Correggio to avoid the linear, compartmented style which usually goes with the use of local tones. In this way he manages to give an impression of chromaticism without running one color into another. It should not be thought that this chiaroscuro involves the tenebrism, the emphatic chiaroscuro which was used and abused by Caravaggio and his school. I have never seen the Dresden Notte, showing the adoration of the shepherds, in which there are visual effects of great dramatic intensity, but I suspect that the shadows in this painting retain a certain transparency and give less an impression of darkness than of reduced light. This is certainly the case with the Louvre’s Jupiter and Antiope (in reality Venus Sleeping), where even the shadows vibrate with light. And the same principle is at work in the cathedral cupola, where the light-shade contrast is not particularly strong.

This art of chiaroscuro naturally reminds one of Leonardo, and his relationship to Correggio, emphasized by Schlegel, is worth dwelling on. There is no doubt that Correggio knew the art of Leonardo and his school. A glance at the Prado Madonna makes this quite apparent. On the other hand it is unlikely that Correggio had any prolonged contact with any of Leonardo’s important works, and his development is doubtless largely independent after this brief first stage of blatant but superficial imitation. But the affinity between the two painters goes much further than this; it is truly profound when Correggio is completely in possession of his technique and at his most original. This kinship is far more than a question of technique and borrowings. It is extremely hard, for example, to distinguish what the art of a late eighteenth-century painter like Prud’hon owes to Leonardo and what to Correggio. Not that Prud’hon’s aims were the same as those of his models, but he found what he was looking for equally in both of them: a way of reconciling by chiaroscuro a minute rendering of appearances with an extreme idealization of human types, in an emotional or even sentimental atmosphere.

Correggio, like Leonardo, invented his own version of humanity, which is superior not only in its physical perfection and the idealization of human types, but in its expressive potential. What we see in his painting is a particular way of understanding the antique, which is rooted in the practice of the fifteenth century, but expressed in a completely new language. The quattrocento had a “realistic” vision of the ancient world. Even Mantegna, for whom antiquity was such a powerful personal experience, at tempted to approach it as an archaeologist, patiently gathering together relics of the classical age. But during the same period one also finds a different, more romantic and emotion-laden view of the ancient world, a vision which is almost Senecan. Certain of Mantegna’s contemporaries were more attracted by the expressiveness and exoticism of Roman art. Thus Botticelli, thus too the Dream of Poliphilo, Francesco Colonna’s fantastic allegorical romance published with exquisite woodcuts in 1499.

The sixteenth century overcame this dichotomy, but whereas Raphael tended toward the archaeological, Leonardo and Correggio were attracted by the more passionate vision, while at the same time investing it with formal plenitude. In both painters the figures are continually and emphatically in motion, and it would be wrong to see this simply as a device for avoiding monotony; it reflects the “movements of the soul.” The sinuosity of Leonardo’s Leda (a painting which is lost, but which we know through copies and drawings) is reflected in such figures of Correggio as the Venus in the School of Love in the London National Gallery, but one cannot say whether this is a reminiscence or a meeting of two minds. Most likely a meeting, but not a chance meeting, between two artists possessed by the same kind of higher sensual energy.

The characters of myth and legend were for this generation a living force and not the convention they became in the following century. The idea of antiquity, the dream which haunted the Renaissance, was the vital atmosphere that these great artists needed. Raphael usually transforms it into a transparent, limpid, intelligible empyrean, whereas Leonardo and Correggio found in chiaroscuro the equivalent of an inner turbulence, an agitation which was at one and the same time sensual, emotional, and spiritual. The great mythological paintings of Correggio, particularly the Jupiter and Io and the Ganymede, which have been properly preserved and restored, are the ultimate achievement and the amazing culmination of an art which is profoundly classical rather than a reproduction of the classics. “His soul was formed to reinvent antiquity; but he rarely imitated it” (Stendhal).3

translated in part by Peter France

This Issue

November 23, 1978