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.

To the eyes of his first biographer, Giorgio Vasari, Correggio never quite managed to achieve a fully cosmopolitan version of Rome’s grand artistic synthesis. Later ages have disagreed. The eighteenth-century painter Anton Raphael Mengs was the first to suggest that Correggio, in order to create what he eventually created, would have to have arrived on Giovanna da Piacenza’s doorstep fresh from a tour of Rome, and the trip to Rome has ever since been enshrined in the artist’s biography (as it is by Ekserdjian) despite the fact that not a shred of documentary evidence has yet emerged to prove it.3

Yet Vasari no less than Mengs made his judgments by responding, artist to artist, to the qualities he recognized in Correggio’s work, and Vasari’s comment is trenchant:

If Antonio’s talent had ever left Lombardy and gone to Rome, he would have wrought miracles, and put pressure on many who in his day were considered great. Thus when his works are of such quality without his having seen either ancient things or good modern ones, it necessarily follows that if he had seen them, he would have infinitely improved his work, and growing from good to better, would have arrived at the top.4

In the first place, the young painter did not require Raphael or Michelangelo—or the ruins of Rome, for that matter—to give him a feeling for majestic interior space: the Romanesque churches at home could have given him that, and a considerable residual element of classical stateliness besides. More recent artists like Leonardo, Alberti, Mantegna, and Bramante had themselves produced monumental interiors within a short journey of Parma. In many respects, Correggio’s large-scale frescoes develop a radically different compositional logic from that of Raphael’s Stanze Vaticane or the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a logic born of his northern Italian visual experience.

In Rome, not surprisingly, architecture served as the basic connective tissue of design; immense structures like the Imperial baths observed a thoroughgoing proportional harmony from their vertiginous brick vaults and colossal columns down to the tiniest ornamental details. Not only were Raphael and Michelangelo surrounded by these Roman ruins, but also, more importantly, they had begun to read the ruins according to their most subtle interpreter, Leonardo’s close friend Donato Bramante, who had left Milan in about 1500. Without Bramante’s mature understanding of classical architecture, its carefully calibrated gradations of scale and its conscious contrast of light and shadow, neither Michelangelo nor Raphael could have developed into the architects they eventually became. Correggio may have aspired to an Imperial Roman sense of magnificent scale, but he achieved it by different means, by placement of figures rather than by conceiving large structures.

The only real exception to Correggio’s general emphasis on figures is the architectural setting he devised for the frescoed chamber of Abbess Giovanna da Piacenza, what is now called the “Camera di San Paolo.” Correggio’s frescoes cover Giovanna da Piacenza’s ceiling with a lovely, convincingly leafy bower of forest green, pierced by portholes through which we can see gamboling cupids playing with hunters’ gear. Three of them carry evidence of the prey itself: a stag’s head borne in triumph. Beneath the bower’s wickerwork, a series of fictive white marble lunettes are “carved” with images of ancient gods and buildings, and beneath the lunettes Correggio has painted a marble cornice adorned with rams’ heads, cloth swags, and sacrificial implements. Gold highlights enliven the grays and whites of the painted stone, which is nonetheless so jarringly real that it takes an effort of mind over sense to see the true flatness of the wall. In calling this lively assemblage “a pagan romp,” Ekserdjian is simply saying what has long been said, that these cupids and statues and grinning bodiless rams seem to make an unusual choice of themes to explore in a nun’s chambers.

Ekserdjian does not answer the questions raised by this striking assemblage of subjects: his aim (and his achievement) is to put the painter’s output in order, to account for an artistic career as a succession of visual objects, and this he has done with a sure eye and real expertise. In hesitating to tell us what it all means, he points up the stiff challenge that this deceptively charming provincial artist has posed for art history as a discipline, for Correggio’s undeniable sweetness, his apparent paganism, and his sensuality have discomfited both our brash modernist aesthetic sensibility and the careful strictures that govern modern writing about art, and do so in a way that the upfront violence of Titian’s Europa has never done.

Furthermore, a vague sense of impropriety has led most art historians to ignore fairly explicit architectural evidence that the Camera di San Paolo was Giovanna da Piacenza’s bedroom and postulate that the chamber must have been a dining room instead. To a certain extent, the point is moot, because grand people of the sixteenth century often entertained in their bedrooms. Giovanna, moreover, was bedridden for the last years of her life. In sickness and in health, she surely must have dined many times under Correggio’s frescoed vault. The essential point, however, is that this room was her sanctum; here she charged the young painter with expressing just what it meant to be abbess of the most powerful nunnery in Parma, to be, as she was in 1518, an uncloistered reformer who answered by canon law directly to the Pope. 5

To Abbess Giovanna da Piacenza and her contemporaries, the Christian significance of classical figures like those in the Camera di San Paolo lay just beneath their dazzling surface. They would have recognized the hunted stag on Correggio’s ceiling as a chivalric image of Christ: royal prey symbolizing the most kingly of paschal victims. They knew that the very act of hunting was an ancient Christian metaphor; in the fourth century, Saint Augustine described a faithful believer questing after God as a hunter who tracks down the traces of divine presence amid the bewildering complexity of the phenomenal world. In the early sixteenth century, an influential prelate like Cardinal Giles of Viterbo could popularize the image in his religious poem, La Caccia Bellissima d’Amore (“The Beautiful Hunt of Love”). Still more importantly for understanding Correggio’s paintings, he recast the imagery of the hunt for reform-minded Christians in a long, influential theological treatise, the Sentences According to the Mind of Plato, a new-style catechism that aimed to reconcile standard Scholastic theology of the Church with the philosophy expounded by his contemporaries’ new idol, Plato.

Cardinal Giles represented the human soul as the Greco-Roman goddess Diana, the immortal huntress whose dedication to tracking down God’s footprints in the forest symbolized the devoted Christian soul’s search for divine traces in the material world. Diana figures as well on Correggio’s Camera di San Paolo, appearing above the fireplace in the room’s only wall fresco, an apt classical equivalent for the abbess as the chaste, vigorous leader of a band of contemplative women.

In his Caccia Bellissima and his Sentences, Giles of Viterbo asserted that the headlong rush of Diana’s chase would change to supernal calm when she obtained her prize; once caught up with Jesus, the awestruck soul would begin to apprehend the mystery of the Holy Trinity and drink in its first draught of pure divinity. To describe this sudden inbreaking of enlightenment, Giles, like Saint Augustine before him, looked to Plato’s accounts of divine rapture from dialogues like the Phaedrus, the Symposium, and the Republic. Both the fourth-century saint and sixteenth-century cardinal agreed that Plato had seen more of God’s nature than most people on earth. In 1518, no careful reader of either theologian was likely to doubt that the joy infusing Correggio’s frescoed romp of cupids was a profoundly Christian joy.

This joy extends to the smiling sacrificial rams arrayed around the Camera di San Paolo’s fictive cornice. Like the slaughtered stag on the ceiling, they work as symbols of the dead and resurrected Christ, who is explicitly described in the language of the Communion liturgy as a sacrificial victim (hostia)—a victim who ultimately vanquishes death not only for himself, but for all his faithful flock. The rams are, in effect, grown-up versions of the Lamb of God, smiling because they are knowingly immortal. More specifically, the room’s emphasis on Christ as a sacrifice directs every informed viewer’s attention to one of the moments in Christian life when God and man are actually thought to touch: the instant in which the bread and wine of the Communion banquet are mystically transformed into the real body and blood of Christ. To the extent that it invokes memories of Communion, the Camera di San Paolo is indeed outfitted as a dining room, but the meal is one of particular holiness. Giles of Viterbo was bold enough to compare this experience of Communion with Socrates’ revelatory banquet in Plato’s Symposium, and in the second decade of the sixteenth century he was also authoritative enough to get away with it.

As for the room’s enigmatic lunettes, the cardinal from Viterbo provides a suggestive parallel: when he included classical allusions in his own sermons and writings, he called them spiritual snacks, delectable bits of enlightenment to be taken in and digested intellectually as circumstances permitted. “Prepare a table for the soul,” he urged. Correggio seems to have done just that for Abbess Giovanna da Piacenza. His frescoes for her bedroom afforded her deep layers of symbolism through which she could drive a frantic intellectual chase or sit in quiet contemplation, resolutely on the track, like Giles of Viterbo’s metaphorical Diana, of a godly prize.

As the Camera di San Paolo neared completion in 1520, Giovanna da Piacenza’s Benedictine brethren at the monastery of San Giovanni Evangelista engaged Correggio to fresco the dome of their imposing church, which he had done by 1524. This development alone should suffice to suggest that the painting Correggio had created for Abbess Giovanna was acceptably Christian, for San Paolo and San Giovanni Evangelista stood at the forefront of contemporary reform movements within the Church. However, in a commission that addressed the churchgoing public as well as the learned monks of San Giovanni, the painter would strip away the Camera di San Paolo’s layers of classical allusion to their Christian core, and address, for the first time, the theme he would develop to such a voluptuous pitch in his Jupiter and Io: the face-to-face contact between God and man.

As in the Camera di San Paolo, the focal point of Correggio’s dome is Christ, but no longer a figurative Christ swathed in layers of classical or chivalric imagery. For a less sophisticated but no less faithful congregation, the painter presents the resurrected Jesus straight on, seen from below in a startlingly foreshortened pose. Fresh from the tomb, still wrapped in his winding sheet, he rockets up into the vault of Heaven as it splits open to receive him. From a passage in the Book of Ezekiel, Correggio and his contemporaries believed that Heaven’s color resembled that of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver; when the sky is riven for divine epiphanies in sixteenth-century painting it is almost always to admit a glimpse of such silver-yellow clouds as muster here around the risen Christ, some just discernible as cherub heads.

Saint John the Evangelist, the author of Revelation and the patron saint of this Benedictine church, had seen Christ enthroned between a new heaven and a new earth, so Correggio in his turn constructs a firmament of clouds piled high on one another. Whereas Michelangelo perched the prophets, Sibyls, ancestors, and heroic nudes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling on a huge structure of painted architecture, Correggio’s immense Apostles stand on nothing more than a cornice against a backdrop of cloud cover. Likewise, the great papal frescoes of Rome, painted in the first moments of the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica, seem to draw their force from the rhetoric of Christ as cornerstone and the New Testament’s pervasive building metaphors; but the vision of the Church portrayed on the dome of San Giovanni Evangelista seems to take its cue instead from Saint Paul’s letter to the Church of Ephesus: Christianity itself is a human architecture “built in love.”

Appropriately, then, the human figures that comprise Correggio’s version of this metaphorical Church, although they move on a far grander scale than the playful babies of the Camera di San Paolo, retain a kindred aura of soft-edged gentility, not only a velvet surface that seems to bespeak real skin, but an emotional tenderness that seems to have impressed the people of Parma as a powerful portrayal of Christian love.

For the dome of San Giovanni Evangelista, in turn, won Correggio the commission to fresco the whole interior of Parma’s Romanesque cathedral, but not before he had also produced a remarkable pair of oil panels for one of San Giovanni’s side chapels. In each of these canvases, a Pietà and a Martyrdom of Four Saints executed for the Del Bono family, Correggio united his sensuous style and his theology around a difficult concept indeed: the Christian idea that death, no matter how gruesome, marks the joyous threshold to real life. In Correggio’s hands that death becomes downright voluptuous, in a formulation whose power over subsequent developments in Baroque religious art can be seen in works as disparate as Annibale Carracci’s shimmering, sexy Pietà, now in Naples, and Bernini’s gasping marble Ecstasy of Saint Theresa.

If the Christ who flies heavenward in the dome of San Giovanni Evangelista is a mature man, slightly thickset, whose business has gone far beyond the plane of earthly existence, in the intimate, down-to-earth devotional setting of the Del Bono chapel, Correggio produced a Christ with the build of a much younger man, and a man of singular physical beauty, despite his wounds and bruises and the deathly pallor of his lips. This is the suffering Christ whose whole passion is summarized in the Communion wafer, transubstantiated at the high point of the Mass, but also, with daring insight, a Messiah good enough to eat.

Clearly, neither the artist nor his neighbors flinched from such frank adoration of a desirable body; it mirrored the desirability of God Himself, and it makes the sorrow that contorts the faces of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene all the more awful to behold. Michelangelo’s sublime sculpture in Rome of 1501 confronts the same moment with ethereal resignation, but for Correggio it is still all enmeshed in love and pain.

For the martyred saints Placidus and Flavia who dominate the Pietà’s companion piece, death retains no less physical a punch. At the moment of their violent death martyrs were rewarded with a vision of heaven, their pain transmuted in a flash to the ultimate delight. Robed in a shapeless cassock and tonsured in monastic style, Placidus conveys the full weight of his bodily rapture in his extremities, a pair of crossed hands whose gracefully yielding gesture is intensified by the wondrous curved idiosyncrasy of his fingers; it is a carefully crafted young man whose head already totters on his half-severed neck. His sister Flavia, caught in the clutches of a Roman centurion, flings wide her arms in an exultant embrace as the thug plunges a sword into her side.

Here again, as in the Pietà in the side chapel opposite, Correggio has heated up the sexual overtones of pose and expression in order to anchor the utter strangeness of knowing God in the better-known world of physical transport. In so doing, he reflected, and probably helped significantly to shape, the changing temper of devotional art. To the minds of mid-sixteenth-century reformers, such appeals to sensuality posed a far lesser risk to faith than the free play of classical allusion; emotions were easier to steer than intellects, although a spate of emblem books helped in the same period to bring classical imagery under more careful control.

At Parma Cathedral, the most ambitious commission of his career, Correggio’s powers of execution finally fell short of his racing religious imagination: a canon of the Church called the dome frescoes a “stew of frogs’ legs,” and the canon had a point: Heaven, seen from below, obscures angelic faces in a sea of writhing limbs. Typically, however, Correggio confronted a theological issue that posed if anything a still more rigorous challenge than the logistics of painting Heaven. Once again, he opens the firmament wide in electrum-clouded glory, this time to receive the Virgin Mary, whose Assumption into Heaven forms the theme of the fresco. She hovers in mid-flight among Adam, Eve, and the Hebrew ancestors, who gather in close-packed ranks about the base of the cupola. Hardworking young angels hover to lift Heaven’s dignitaries onto their cumulus thrones. Meanwhile, just off the dome’s center, Christ plummets feet first from the highest heaven down toward the heavenly throng, younger than ever, a beardless Adonis descending to escort the Virgin, not as mother, but as bride—for Mary’s symbolic litany included personifying the Church, which ancient Christian metaphor portrayed as the bride of Christ.

In this conflation of mother and bride, Correggio and his contemporaries sought to capture the unbounded intensity of the love that built Saint Paul’s human Church. They recognized the same potent bond in the erotic lyrics of the biblical Song of Songs, reading the ancient Hebrew love poems as allegories of celestial passion. For the poet-theologian Giles of Viterbo, the same voluptuary longing, and the same canticle, served equally well to describe the passionate joy of the individual soul in the presence of Christ. In God’s supernal realm, somehow, it was all the same: the fact that Giles’s soul desired God with a feminine desire; that the lover of the Song calls his beloved “my sister, my spouse”; that Christ and his mother, on some level, are also husband and wife. These terrestrial complications were all no more than imperfect ways of expressing ultimate love.

Even the four erotic panel paintings that Correggio later made for Emperor Charles V can evoke, like the Camera di San Paolo, the strange sparks set off when God embraces humanity. On one level, of course, these four Loves of Jove, despite their kingly patron and godly protagonist, are just what they seem: pictures of exotic sex: Io and her nebulous lover, Leda and an improbably forward swan, Ganymede snatched by the eagle, and Danae with her lap soaked in liquid gold. But Jupiter is also legible as the God of Abraham in another guise, and these four paintings as foretastes of heavenly rapture.

To the end of his life, Correggio remained a strikingly uneven artist; like his contemporary Lorenzo Lotto, he could produce passages of exquisite craftsmanship alongside stretches of paint that are clumsy, distorted, or just plain ugly. Vasari blamed the painter’s grasping family, which kept him constantly on the search for commissions, and his provincial training—Lotto’s experience was similar in this regard. Despite the depth to which he and Abbess Giovanna da Piacenza carried classical literary allusions in the Camera di San Paolo, his lack of experience with ancient statues shows in his superficial approach to disegno. He never really learned how to make laps, or to underpin a body with a convincing framework of bone. On the other hand, a painted statue has never breathed so vibrantly of life as the little hanging Juno in a lunette of the Camera di San Paolo, and who but Correggio has ever looked back to find the mischievous girl who was seen by the world as the queen of Olympus? Correggio was not a classical artist in the way that Michelangelo and Raphael were classical artists, but as a painter who tried to convey the ways of Heaven to earth, he ranks among the best.

This Issue

June 11, 1998