Magazine article The Spectator

New Light on an Old Master

Magazine article The Spectator

New Light on an Old Master

Article excerpt


by David Ekserdjian

Yale, 45, pp. 334

Correggio is a small town in the province of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, one of those delightfully neat, unassuming places which, with its centro storico fanning out into leafy boulevards and its general air of no-frills prosperity, confounds our gloomier thoughts about the end of civilisation. It gave its name to the painter born here as Antonio Allegri in 1489, though perhaps through an instinct of academic over-scrupulousness David Ekserdjian, in his pioneering monograph, seems reluctant to assert this as a fact.

The artist we know as Correggio spent most of his career either on his home patch or else in the city of Parma, about 20 miles to the north, where he died in 1534. In a life whose profile seems spectacularly undramatic when compared to those of such contemporaries as Michelangelo and Benvenuto Cellini, almost the only event of any personal significance apart from visits to Rome and Mantua seems to have been his marriage to a girl named Hieronima Merlini. Their eldest child was called Pomponio after the celebrated humanist Pomponius Laetus, and evidence suggests that Correggio himself was more than usually learned, even for a Renaissance painter. Vasari tells us that he was modest, gloomy, pestered by a grasping family, and that he died from drinking tainted water on his way to Parma to collect a debt.

This meagre life record is entirely overwhelmed by the paintings themselves, a body of work which impresses us not simply as that of a numinous figure in the aesthetic orthodoxy of later ages, but more importantly for the extraordinary gamut of styles across which it ran in the space of scarcely more than 20 years. To most of us Correggio is merely an honoured arthistorical name, given occasional substance by the reproduction of the National Gallery `School of Love' or that oddly uninspiring `Virgin Adoring the Christ Child' in the Uffizi. Those inclined to pass him by with a polite nod as the saccharine-sweetened version of his contemporary (and inevitable influence) Raphael need to invest forthwith in Ekserdjian's book, whose dramatic impact springs from its disclosure, both in text and plates, of Correggio's multiple artistic incarnations as experimental innovator, visual poet, designer, scholar and interpreter of painterly traditions communicated by sources as diverse as Leonardo, Mantegna and Durer.

The pitch of lyrical elegance which so dazzles us in such works as the glowing tempera allegories of Virtue and Vice painted by Isabella D'Este, or the symphonic fresco inventions tumbling across Parma cathedral's great octagonal cupola, was not reached without difficulty. …

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