di Michele FRAZZI
Presentiamo con piacere questo testo relativo al “genio” – Correggio, di Michele Frazzi, versione in lingua inglese di un saggio pubblicato in Italiano sulla rivista Finestre sull’Arte (che ringraziamo sentitamente per la gentile concessione) alcune settimane fa (Cfr. https://www.finestresullarte.info/opere-e-artisti/correggio-pittore-della-naturalezza)
Correggio painter of naturalness
It is not easy to talk about Correggio in this era, we are used to strong emotions, exciting actions, sharp contrasts, we only appreciate what excites us violently.
Our own nature coupled with the fact that Allegri did not work in a major center of Italian art, is perhaps the reason why Correggio’s work does not find such a great fame among the big audience. His delicate feelings, his unconditional joy, the atmosphere of serene calmness that invariably permeates his creations, has difficulty to find the way to enter in our soul, accustomed to very different energies, accelerations, impressions, and from these perhaps, ultimately a little hardened.
But Correggio was one of the greatest artistic geniuses of all time, as Federico Zeri defined him (1). His career began quietly, in province, at the workshop of a modest painter, Francesco Bianchi Ferrari (Fig.1), whose influence is felt only in the expressiveness of the first Correggio’s known drawing (Fig. 2).
In any case, his beginnings are far away from to the great artistic schools of his time, but inside him the desire to learn, even independently, grew up, he wanted to know the pictorial conquests and advances that flourished all around him, in the fulness of the Renaissance. In his early paintings the influences, and consequently the study, of the works of the greatest contemporary artists is clear, first of all he studied those that were located nearby, Mantegna, the Ferrara painters, Leonardo, and then later Michelangelo and Raphael, whose knowledge must be arrived through the inevitable journey to Rome. A “Studioso corso” of updating on the pictorial innovations of his period, which unites him to many other artists of his time. But then later something inexplicable happened, starting from the time of his staying in Parma Correggio develops a totally new model of art, which can no longer be defined as the son of any of the previous masters, it is no longer possible to trace the influence of one or the other, this new paradigm was totally his own and personal, created only by his pictorial genius: “A miracle of art without example”.
The inventions of the great masters that nourished his exercises in his timid early youth are absorbed, assimilated and then annihilated, by the explosion of the bursting personality of his pictorial innovation, in the dome of the Cathedral of Parma he made an almost zero point from what was previously developed in the field of art, this painting makes a clean sweep to start again through something radically different from before. After this fundamental turning point, none of the canonical elements of the pictorial composition will remain the same: light, movement and action, forms and linear development of the drawing, way of expressing feelings, conception of perspective, will be completely transformed. But if the phenomenon was limited only to this fact, we could define Correggio as one of those individual and extraordinary geniuses who led an isolated career and who in many cases have studded the Italian painting. Instead, all of Correggio’s innovations were destined to change the course of art for the following three centuries, at least until to Tiepolo, although the influences of his models are felt even in Courbet.
His inventions fed all the Baroque art, Annibale Carracci, Bernini, Lanfranco, Rubens, all of them they drank from him, and from these fundamental ganglia the lymph of Correggio passed into the art of all the others, all the eighteenth century, even internationally, will be indebted to his pictorial conquests (2). There was no painter who later, will not take an example from his painting “without example“, that in its development had no other reference models than his individual genius. Given that moreover he worked in the context of a small provincial town, disconnected from the trends and researches of large metropolis, and this fact in a certain sense was also a good thing, his condition protected him from the danger of homologation, in an extreme corner, on the edge of Italy that matters, without any light to illuminate the way, by himself he pushes the accelerator in a direction that was only known by him, and doing so Correggio will illuminate the path of the artists that will come after him.
A new idea of perspective
Why Correggio was so loved by other painters? First of all we can think that is due to the radical novelty of his idea of perspective, Correggio is the first painter who has completely transformed the “two-dimensional” and terrestrial perspective invented by Florentines painters into a “three-dimensional” and celestial perspective. Add to this, we can think how it is difficult to rationally arrange the figures on the flat space of a wall, avoiding distortion for the viewer from below, we can also imagine how much more complex was the calculation of the dimensions of the various parts, to obtain the desired effect in the curved space of a dome.
Furthermore, considering that the domes that Correggio had at his disposal were not hemispheres as one might think, but in reality, one (Saint John) had unequal sides, so it’s basin shaped, and the other (The Cathedral) was octagonal, and because of that made in wedges. In these works, as well as in his paintings, Correggio refuses to appealing to linear-perspective expedients in order to give the appearance of space, one thing that characterized the tests of his predecessors. If we think about Michelangelo, in the Last Judgment we see an orderly and balanced arrangement of the masses and a logical subdivision of humanity from bottom to the top. When he paints the vault of the Sistine chapel, he organizes the available space in an orderly and geometric way, following a thread that marks the events according to a chronological succession, the scenes are painted as if they were panels shown on the ceiling, and that makes clear that the perspective of his manner of representation is always terrestrial, and his figures are always placed on a plane parallel to the intuitive line of painted horizon, towards which their lines inexorably converge.
The same perspective principle is applied by Raphael on the Vatican walls, where the figures are arranged in a very pure, perfectly calculable space, which most often hinges on the classic central vanishing point, and this fact should not surprise at all, taking into account that Raphael comes from from the capital of the rational renaissance, namely Urbino. The most complex scene of the cycle is that of the Dispute, which once again is organized according to the principle of the terrestrial perspective, which however in this case is divided into several levels, placed in front of the observer, an idea that will have a certain following and that we can find again in the dome of the Duomo of Florence, in Tintoretto’s Paradise and in the Gloria dell’Escorial, where Luca Cambiaso reaches his maximum level of abstraction, only pure color, surfaces and volumes. In the ceilings of Farnesina Raffaello experiences the real tromp l’oeil, as if they were painted canvases.
In any case, for both of these masters the figures are always firmly anchored on the ground or something that have the appearance of that, precisely in accordance with the principle of gravity from which the mind of their creators cannot escape, even if the figures are painted on the ceiling. The observer who looks at them must imagine as if he were looking at a wall, otherwise the figures would inexorably fall over the observer. Correggio’s concept of perspective is completely different, the figures painted on the ceiling appear to the viewer exactly as if the scene was really happening above him, making him participate in the event.
Finally we come to Leonardo, who as we know did not paint so much, the Last Supper, his masterpiece, offers a rigidly determined space based on the ideal central vanishing point that the walls suggest. However, he was responsible for the definition of the aerial perspective, which due to the interposition of layers of air, provides for a progressive modification of the tones and colors of the objects as a function of moving away from the first floor.
This idea probably had a certain influence on Allegri, who for this purpose uses a complex and studied combination of light, color, proportional relationships and above all movement, the kineticism of the limbs of his figures fragments the geometric rigidity of the lines of the ideal space, in an unlimited quantity of vanishing points, which the mind of the observer is no longer able to reconstruct and reduce to a synthetic logic, as it is also in nature, in reality.
Correggio’s figures are finally disconnected from the constraint of gravity: the bond absolutely necessary to the concept of the terrestrial perspective, they are perfectly mastering the three-dimensional space in which they are living, and completely free to whirling happily in it, almost as acrobats, as we can see in the beautiful pose of the angel facing backwards in the vault of the Cathedral (Fig. 3). The shapes in this fresco, wrapped in an eccentric vortex, have been placed according to the principle of celestial perspective, and therefore organized according to several vanishing point perpendicular to the horizon, coherently with their upward movement which now acts as a binder instead of the principle of gravity, and moreover they are projecting from the wall, respect to the point of view of an observer from below, in other words they are moving also perpendicular to the plane on which they are painted, this increases the illusionistic effect of their penetration into the space, in this way the figures are clearly detached from the painted surface and appear in their complete three-dimensionality, if they had not been placed in foreshortening there would have been the perceptual risk of seeing them fall over the head of the beholder, this is a further extraordinary expedient used by Correggio to neutralize the sense of impending characteristic of the surface curve that he was forced to use, his genius is capable of transforming even that limit into a value. In the dome of the Cathedral (Fig. 4)
Correggio comes to conceive an idea of perspective and space of a complexity that before had never been even imagined, nor realized, now we can understand what were Titian‘s thoughts when he said that not even the volume of the dome filled with gold would have been a sufficient price to quantify its value.
Lanfranco, who among all in this sense was his most direct heir, approaches a similar fresco in the dome of Sant ‘Andrea della Valle in Rome, which he manages to organize as an ascending vortex, but at the end his figures are simply seated on the clouds that are keeping them tied, they cannot detach themselves from the walls to which they remain glued, finally we must conclude that none can break free himself from the constraints of gravity, not even in the imagination of the mind, only Correggio ” knows how to fly“. In Sant ‘Andrea della Valle fresco the shape of the dome is perfectly perceptible with its concrete form, the imaginary space conceived by Lanfranco, and his idea must adapt to the structural limit and not vice versa as happens in Correggio’s dome, the absolute freedom of movement that makes his figures loose from any bond and makes them so happy, it is completely disappeared, we will have to wait another 50 years and get to Father Pozzo to see again something comparable to the ineffable feast painted by Antonio Allegri.
Correggio’s space does not have the appearance of a rational space but rather natural, it records and reflects what happens in reality, not what happens in the ideal perfection of the mind. When he is dealing with the description of a scene, he does not start from an imaginary construction that logically foresees that all the actors are fully included in it, Correggio, in order to give the maximum impression of verisimilitude to the action, does not perfectly inserts all the elements, which in part are cut, he’s limiting voluntarily and arbitrarily the field of the shot, just as the field of vision of man is limited in reality, in other words he composes the frame, as if he were filming a live scene, in a way that is absolutely innovative. It is therefore not a matter of staging a representation, on the contrary it wants to give the impression of portraying an action that is taking place right in front of him, even if to our mind the overall picture may appear in some ways unbalanced.
This intent appears clearly in the Martyrdom of the four saints (Fig. 5),
where only two of them are placed in the center of the scene, the other two can be glimpsed just on the right, as memory of an action that has just taken place, the conscious effort in the direction that we have just described can be understood from the comparison with the first idea in the preparatory drawing (Fig. 6), where all four saints are placed at the center in a symmetrical way, that scene is absolutely canonical in the imagination, but totally unrealistic, and that did not correspond to what Correggio wanted.
The scale of the figures also changes, now they occupy the whole scene, the cut becomes closer, direct, urgent.
Naturalness and feeling
Naturalness is the cardinal principle that Correggio chooses to adopt, this one guides him in all decisions, he reproduces exactly what he saw, even in the study of light, also in that field he was one of the greatest innovators, do you remember having ever seen a completely white sky like that that you can admire in the Deposition of the Correggio Museum? If you pay attention to that, you will notice that the sky in winter is almost always white, especially in the morning, at the opposite the dawn and its splendid rippling of light is the scene in which the figures of the Noli me tangere (Prado) are moving. The darkness instead are the protagonists of the eclipse in the Lamentation over dead Christ (National Gallery Parma), the Light that now are just disappearing at his death, it was shining among them at his birth, in the stupendous twilight of “The Night” (Fig. 7) ( National Museum of Dresda), this is one of the first Italian nocturne painting.
The golden light of a summer afternoon invades its counterpart, “The Day” ( National Gallery Parma) (Fig. 8), you can see there the same warm, harmonious, joyful light that pervades the fresco in the Cathedral.
Correggio is fully master of all the nuances of the atmosphere, he is also able to render the ineffable lightness of the fog, not by chance coupled with the soft flesh of the nymph in the Jupiter and Io (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna) (Fig. 9).
But it’s not only the atmosphere of the nature that arouse his interest, but also the atmosphere released by the delicacy of human feelings, this is the other field where Correggio makes a radical innovation, he refines a never more achieved ability to express emotions, which are always the focal point of his narration. Serenity, sweetness are the melody to which all the protagonists of his works are tuning, they always manifest openly their affective sphere, creating that feeling of mutual understanding and participation, and the general harmony that distinguishes everyone of his painting.
Correggio once again does not choose to represent the heights of rational mind, as usual in the classical renaissance, but the feeling of heart, in doing so he is making a radical change in this direction, and he is making also a turning point to the whole history of art, taking into account how much emotions and sensuality took the center of the stage in the Baroque era. Love, sweetness are always the protagonists of his stories, even when the action becomes tragic the pathos is composed, on the face of his martyrs there is no hint of pain but rather bliss (see Fig. 5), which can only be explained with the certainty of Hope for those who are led by the Spirit in their race to an otherworldly goal. Correggio fully possessed the sense of the Divine, which he demonstrates with an incessant, uninterrupted joy, disconnected from earthly events, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God”.
The representation of motion is the other field where Correggio operates a radical innovation, there is no painting of his mature period where action is not at the center of the stage, movement coupled with feeling are managing to create a link between his figures, as well as in nature there is no scene without movement, reality is once again its guide. This is also the expedient that he uses to coordinate the figures inside a painting, in this manner he gives an harmonic structure to the space, something that becomes particularly evident in the dome of Parma Cathedral, the most amazing concert of movements that has ever existed.
The figure’s draperies divided into a thousand soft facets, exfoliated into increasingly complex folds, are the most direct consequence of the continuous movement that animates them, a perennial activity that in his latest works will turn more and more into wind, flourishes of clothes that herald the baroque taste that will be there to come. This new conception is completely irreconcilable with the search for classical equilibrium, which always longs for the measured harmony of Polykleitos, so typical of Renaissance. There is only one cultural center, which in the Renaissance era ventures in a different direction from that of the others, all aimed at classical culture, and that is Ferrara, this happens thanks to the work of two fundamental artists who are Niccolò dell’Arca and Ercole de’ Roberti, their genius is fully revealed in the Lamentation over dead Christ in Bologna ( Fig.10, detail),
and in the predella Griffoni, emotions and movement are the two cornerstones of their art, that will also become the cornerstones of future art.
This intuition probably prompted Roberto Longhi to write:
“Thanks to Ercole, Ferrara sits, towards the last decade of the century, higher than any other point in Italy; and, by force of Ferrara, Ercole conquers such a personal position that in those days he could not find any other comparison of value than in Leonardo.” (3).
Correggio comes from these roots, he is a painter who represents more what he sees than what he imagines, more what he feels than what he thinks, or at least this is the illusion that he wants to create. At this point, looking only at the appearance and quality of his paintings, if we would had the idea of a painter all intuition and feeling, we would be very far from the truth. His rational faculties, his technical knowledge, his skill in learning through incessant study were of highest level and very refined.
Starting from his ability to analyze and study perspective problems, to carry out the necessary measurements using technical tools in order to arrange the figures of the domes avoiding optical distortions deriving from the vision of a curved surface, in that his skill is still unsurpassed, Geraldine Wind has shown that for this purpose he used the astrolabe (4). You can imagine the difficulty of transforming an idea that is forcibly conceived and drawn on a flat space and adapting it to a curved surface, as the grid divided into segments according to the spherical space demonstrates in the drawing preserved in Frankfurt (Fig. 11).
Correggio in the top of the dome aims to depict an harmonic set of masses that must be visible from below without distortion, and once again chooses not to resort to the use of rational, geometric and visibly artificial arrangements like all its predecessors, but to for this purpose he uses the expedient of organizing an uninterrupted succession of movements that are projecting upwards in an apparently random upward motion.
Starting from this idea he solves the problem by designing the theory of figures starting from the initial stages of conceiving already in a perspective suitable for a point of view from below, and also in function of a curved space, such as the circle in the upper part of the Frankfurt drawing and the Windsor drawing are able to demonstrate, and furthermore by taking not into account the physical division into segments of the dome, as happens instead in the lower part, where the figures of the apostles lean, the two segmentations of the grid of the Frankfurt sheet in fact do not coincide with the physical segments of the dome.
In this way he solves the problem of giving to the space the shape he imagined, hiding from view the shapes of the dome that disappear completely, hidden by the vortex of his illusionistic ability, his design of the space is completely detached from the structure on which it is painted, and totally imposes its idea on it, freeing itself from its constraints. Before reaching this climax, at this turning point, Correggio also showed great skill in organizing the representation in a rational and geometric way, as happened in his first fresco in Parma, that of the room inside the convent of San Paolo (Fig. 12).
Also in this case he have to organize a dome made of triangular segments, but in his first exercise on the theme Correggio decides to integrate the physical structure into his design, while for the logical arrangement of the elements he choose to organize them in couple (5) according to the distribution provided by the square of oppositions made by Aristotle (Fig.13), that structure is normally used in the disciplines of logic and rhetoric. Regarding this aspect, it should be noted that Lina Bolzoni (6) notes the singular coincidence of the images contained in the San Paolo room and those contained inside the “Theater of memory” (Fig.14) invented by Giulio Camillo, that is a mnemonic logical structure with esoteric values that is outlined and explained in his text: L’idea del Theatro.
Giulio Camillo Delminio was a very famous scholar at his time, he was a teacher of rhetoric and also one of the most important scholars in the fields of menmonics and hermetics, as well documented by Frances Yates, and intuited by Ernst Gombrich (7), Camillo also considered himself a magician.
The news about his life is rather fragmentary, but by an exchange of sonnets that took place between the two (8) we know that he was linked by real friendship relations with Veronica Gambara, the patroness of Allegri, and he is certainly documented in the territories between Reggio Emilia and Bologna in 1521 where he taught rhetoric (Treccani biographical dictionary ad vocem). So the unusual and objective coincidence of images contained in the Theater of memory and also in the room of San Paolo frescoed by Correggio, have to be coupled with the personal relationship between the painter’s main patroness and Giulio Camillo. Considering also that Veronica Gambara was a close friend of the abbess and commissioner of the fresco: Giovanna da Piacenza, it is entirely possible that the complex and structured iconographic apparatus of the Abbey of San Paolo derives precisely from an idea by Giulio Camillo.
This room also shows the attention that Correggio payed in the study of ancient iconographies, he transcribes these models with precision in his lunettes, taking the images from Roman coins and medals. But his knowledge of antiquity is obviously not limited only to these minute details, that also highlight the almost maniacal accuracy of his inquiring mind, but must also be extended to the models of classical statuary as correctly analyzed in Marcin Fabiansky‘s study, Correggio: Mythologies of love (9). The same degree of care is found in the definition of the priest’s clothing, and in the objects present in the Triumph of David ( painting in private collection), which reflect with extreme attention the descriptions contained in the biblical passages.
The iconological project of the fresco in the abbey of San John is also very complex and extremely in-depth, with that singular intertwining of Christian and pagan iconography that at that time was considered usual. We certainly cannot think that Correggio designed all these elaborate programs, but he certainly was able to absorb the culture of the scholars who imagined it, considering how much in practice his paintings were faithful to the texts.
From all these observations we understand that Correggio was a very careful, scrupulous painter, and it is striking that in the midst of the ideal world of the Renaissance instead he adheres to the principle of reality. Following the principle of representation of truth, he does not improvise, but rather he studies before depicting, and this attitude shows something of the scientific spirit that is yet to come. We can observe the same mind in the accurate description of the botanical details present in his works, a type of research that goes hand in hand with that of Leonardo and Raphael. But his study is not limited to the field of “knowledge“, it also applies to the field of “doing“, in the technique of materials.
Correggio works in an era of transition from painting on wood to canvas, and in a period in which we are witnessing the consequent transformation of the structure of the suppor, the primer “il letto“, which can be divided in two layers, one in contact with the canvas, and above that a second one in contact with the pigment. Also in this field Correggio was part of the avant-garde, in fact he was one of the most important experimenters in the formulation of the primers based on earth and white lead, add to this he used colored primers subdivided into areas, in this field the only one with which we can compare to him was Raphael (10).
Then if we analyze the extraordinary evolution of his way of painting, we can only be amazed, his beginnings are characterized by a delicate, subtle and careful brushstroke, almost like a miniaturist, which stands out well in his first fruit: The mystical marriage of Saint Catherine preserved in Washington (Fig. 15), while in his landings he reach a fat, free and impetuous brushstroke which are the most evident peculiarity of the Christ of the Apocalypse of the Vatican Museums.
A painting that, not surprisingly, for a long time was considered a copy made by a Carracci’s pupil, precisely because of this way of spreading the color like the seventeenth century manner, only recently scientific analyzes and historical studies have been able to demonstrate that it was the original one.
In the light of this further testimony, one must come to the inevitable conclusion that Correggio, while remaining steadfast in that equilibrium that distinguishes the Renaissance, was already baroque, or rather, most probably his genius opened a path in painting that was interrupted with his death, and taken up 50 years later (1). The assimilation of his inventions by the Baroque era happened in all senses, regarding the concept of space, regarding the attention to feelings, regarding the sensuality, in softness of the forms, in rendering of flesh, regarding the attention to movement, and now we know it, even in the way of spreading colors.
This was Correggio for painting, an unparalleled innovator.
It is certainly not easy to talk about Correggio in this age, thirsty for strong emotions, as Bernard Berenson said:
“Men do not desire happiness, men desire to live, they aspire to a certain violence of sensations, to a mixture of pain and pleasure, and because of that they forgive the peace of mind without remorse “(11).
But when emotions and adventures are over, what remains of these fires of soul ? Only ash that is lost in a breath, no ripening, no depth, no improvement. On the contrary, who among us actually, would not like to have, every day at our side, people endowed with that nature described by Allegri, endowed with understanding, kindness, humanity, simplicity, and being able to, who would not want to live immersed in an environment permeated by that atmosphere of serene affection that miraculously he manages to represent?
Certainly it is not easy to understand Correggio for us that we have never been able to realize that world imagined by him, and now we are so far from it that we are no longer even able to feel and imagine it. But only that universe of human correspondences and understanding that Correggio describes, is able to leave us a lasting memory, and in a certain sense make us better people. Our memory is not made up of shivers and ephemeral emotions, but it’s made by a constellation of personal relationships, to which Correggio was the first to pay attention and able to represent so well. We just have little to add to conclude, we just have to express the desire that Correggio was prophetic also in that.
P.S. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….
Charlie Chaplin – The Final Speech
Michele FRAZZI* Roma july 4 2021
1.Federico Zeri, 2003, 102-110
2.Maddalena Spagnolo, 2005
3.Roberto Longhi, 1975, pag.61
4.Geraldine Wind, 2002
5.Michele Frazzi, 2007
6.Lina Bolzoni,2015, pag.31
7.Frances Yates, 1993, pag . XXX , 121-159
9.Marcin Fabianski, Correggio Le mitologie d’amore, 2000
10. I thanks professor Claudio Rossi De Gasperis that gives me these precious technical informations
11.Umberto Morra- Bernard Berenson, 1963, pag. 149
Adani Giuseppe, Correggio Il genio le opere, Silvana Editoriale, 2020
Bolzoni Lina, L’idea del theatro, Adelphi Edizioni, 2015
Cingolani Gabriele , Su uno uno scambio di sonetti fra Giulio Camillo e Veronica Gambara, in Il Petrarchismo un modello di poesia per l’Europa, vol II, Bulzoni Editore, 2007
Ekserdjian David, Correggio, Silvana Editoriale, 1997
Fabianski Marcin, Correggio Le mitologie d’amore, Silvana Editoriale, 2000
Frazzi Michele, Correggio La camera alchemica, Silvana Editoriale, 2004
Longhi Roberto, Officina Ferrarese , Firenze, Sansoni, 1975
Morra Umberto, Colloqui con Berenson, Garzanti,1963
Spagnolo Maddalena, Correggio Geografia e storia della Fortuna, Silvana Editoriale, 2005
Wind Geraldine, Correggio l’eroe della Cupola, Silvana Editoriale , 2002
Yates Frances, L’arte della memoria, Giulio Einaudi Editore , 1993
Zeri Federico, Un velo di silenzio, Bur , 2003