by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Glories of Two Parma Masters

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 5 May 2016
Museo di Capodimonte, Naples
Antea by Parmigianino



Parma and its region were an artistic backwater until the end of the 15th century, but then produced two artistic geniuses: Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio after the town of his birth, in or around 1489, and Francesco Mazzola, nicknamed Parmigianino, born in 1503. This duo put Parma firmly on the artistic map and made it an essential destination for art lovers for centuries to come.

'Correggio and Parmigianino: Art in Parma in the 16th Century,' curated by David Ekserdjian, a leading expert on Renaissance art in Parma, is the first exhibition devoted to comparing and contrasting their lives and works.

It brings together, at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, more than 100 works from nearly 40 collections by Parma's two most celebrated artists and by the principal local painters inspired by them during the first half of the 16th century. The show continues until June 26.

Although Parmigianino was never formally Correggio's pupil, the younger artist worked alongside him on his two great monumental commissions in Parma: the stupendous fresco projects for the Benedictine monastic church of San Giovanni Evangelista and for the Duomo.

The influence of Correggio's first important frescoes in Parma, for the abbess of the Benedictine Convent of San Paolo, is visible here in two enormous organ doors by Parmigianino, for the Santa Maria della Steccata church, later to be the scene of his only major independent fresco commission (sadly unfinished) in his native city.

Correggio spent most of the first two decades of life in his birthplace. The section called 'The Young Correggio' demonstrates that the most powerful force in his early development was Andrea Mantegna, the Gonzaga court artist in nearby Mantua. This is especially marked in such works here as a 'Virgin and Child' (the Barrymore Madonna) of about 1508-10 and 'David Before the Arc of the Convenant,' inspired by Mantegna's 'Triumphs of Caesar.'

But very soon evident is the emergence of a new manner, which softens Mantegna's harder, more sculptural lines, and the blossoming of a distinctive, more richly colorful palette. Works such as 'Rest on the Flight Into Egypt With St. Francis' also show Correggio's increasing mastery of illusionistic angling, which he was so brilliantly to deploy in his enormous frescoes.

'The Young Parmigianino' section features some impressively confident red-chalk copies of figures from Correggio's drawings and an altarpiece from Bardi (near Parma) painted when Parmigianino was 16. Already, in the figures of the Virgin and St. Catherine, we can see his trademark elongated necks and oval faces. An accomplished military portrait of Lorenzo Cybo dates to around 1525, during Parmigianino's stay in Rome, which was brought to an abrupt end by the sack of the city by German Imperial troops in 1527.

'Correggio and Parmigianino: The Later Works' gathers together a series of paintings illustrating their mature styles. These include, by the former, 'The Redeemer in Glory With Angels' (from the Vatican), its golden luminosity recalling his dazzling fresco cycles in Parma, and an intensely melancholy 'Face of Christ' (from Los Angeles).

Two captivating Correggio works, the gracefully balletic 'Noli me tangere' (from Madrid) and the ecstatic 'Martyrdom of SS Placido, Flavia, Eutichio and Vittorino' (from Parma), give ample evidence that he not only anticipated but also was a potent influence on the Baroque in general and Bernini in particular.

Among the works representing Parmigianino's fully formed style are two large canvases — the altarpiece 'San Rocco With the Donor Baldassare della Torre da Milano' (from Bologna) and 'The Conversion of Saul' (from Vienna), both containing striking landscape elements.

The latter picture is often cited as an example of the more extreme forms of Mannerist distortion. But the bizarre, almost giraffe-like neck and small head of Saul's rearing horse obviously derives from one of the two horses in the colossal Roman statue group of the 'Dioscuri' in the Piazza del Quirinale (only a few paces from the exhibition), which Parmigianino saw when he was in Rome.

Correggio first displayed his talents in rendering the female nude in the Convent of San Paolo cycle of frescoes for the abbess's private apartments, revolving around Diana, the ancient goddess of chastity. And in his depiction of Eve in the frescoed dome of the Duomo, he created one of the most sensual images in Western art. A section of the show entitled 'Mythologies' contains 'The School of Love' (from London), with a Venus whose rococo voluptuousness antedates that stylistic phenomenon by some two centuries. Also here (from Rome) is his 'Danae' from the 'Loves of Jove,' the quartet of paintings that set the seal on Correggio's fame as one of the all-time masters of the nude.

Parmigianino's abilities as a draftsman made him a potential master of the genre and is most fully displayed in his scores of nude and erotic drawings, the explicit nature of some of which have kept them from public view and from the current exhibition. But the brevity of his career, which lasted only about two decades, deprived him of the opportunity to fully realize his talents in this field. Yet his coolly classical 'Saturn and Filira' brings to mind later developments — of the neo-Classical era — in this art form.

A movement that burned brightly but briefly, 'The School of Parma,' on the upper floor of the show, is the subject of an absorbing section displaying the works of the Correggio and Parmigianino followers. All but one of these artists collaborated, along with Parmigianino, on Correggio's monumental frescoes.

Some emerge as being especially influenced by one or other of Parma's two leading masters, and Michelangelo Anselmi, the author of the lovely 'Christ and the Samaritan,' drew judiciously on both, but the limited production and early deaths of so many of these painters prevented the school from putting down more durable roots.

The final sections of the exhibition focus on two areas in which Parmigianino excelled in comparison with his older, friendly rival: drawing and portraiture.

A skilled draftsman, Correggio treated the discipline as above all a preparatory tool for his other great works. Only around 100 of his drawings have come down to us, whereas we have well over 1,000 drawings and prints by Parmigianino. The latter was a compulsive sketcher, the breadth of his subject matter ranging from religious, classical and mythological figures to informal sketches — of a mother breastfeeding, a man lifting a pregnant dog on her hind legs, and a snapshot of oarsman and passengers sitting on the gunwales of a ferry boat.

Parmigianino was also a far more prolific portraitist than Correggio. He had already made his mark as a youth with his 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,' which he presented to the pope. His virtuoso follow-ups here include his 'Man With a Book' (from New York), his 'Portrait of a Man' (from the Villa Borghese in Rome) and the so-called 'Antea' (from Naples) — one of the most emblematic portraits of the Italian Renaissance.

First published: New York Times International Edition

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023