Painting in Central Italy during the 16th Century. Andrea del Sarto and il Correggio
Michelangelo’s pupils in painting were not as irritating as Raphael’s. The Venetian Sebastiano del Piombo, initially his friend and confidant, was very respectable in all respects; Giorgio Vasari himself, the most delicate Domenichino, the famous Caravaggio (Ribera’s teacher), of whom we will speak when dealing with the origins of Baroque art in Italy, all owe something to Michelangelo. And the reason for this superiority lies in the fact that Michelangelo worked alone, he didn’t educate pupils nor he transferred his commissions to them, as Raphael did with his own: the artists who entered Michelangelo’s orbit formed an independent personality; for them the maestro was the model of an exalted artist, not a painter to be imitated. These facts led to a movement “in the manner of Michelangelo” (alla maniera di Michelangelo) that later spread to all of Europe and evolved in an original way, developing its own characteristics, a movement that is called Mannerism.
The sack of Rome in 1527 brought to an end the High Renaissance epoch in the Eternal City; the members of Raphael’s workshop, as well as the emerging Roman Mannerists, scattered and the confidence of patrons largely disappeared. The Sack had major repercussions for Italian society and culture, and in particular, for Rome, which had been a center for the development of Italian High Renaissance culture and patronage. As a consequence of the Sack, Rome suffered depopulation and economic collapse, which caused artists and thinkers to disperse. But before dealing with the Mannerist movement, we must refer to two artists from Florence and Parma, whose sentimental and fine art must still be placed within the brief remaining period of the Renaissance classicism. They are Andrea del Sarto and Correggio.
The Florentine Andrea del Sarto (July 16, 1486 – September 29, 1530), a direct successor of Florentine art not influenced by the school of Rome, he began his apprenticeship as a goldsmith and a woodcarver, and later he was a disciple of the painter Piero di Cosimo, who in turn inherited from Botticelli and Verrocchio the characteristics of his style. The son of a tailor (sarto in Italian), Andrea d’Agnolo di Francesco di Luca was therefore nicknamed del Sarto (meaning “tailor’s son”). He began his independent career in 1509 by painting the frescoes of the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata di Firenze and later painted a number of beautiful images of Madonnas of a more Florentine and delicate type than those painted by Raphael. The warm colors of his paintings, without reaching mannerism, have a somewhat effeminate sentimental grace that sometimes makes them precious. In them, del Sarto almost always depicted a type of simple woman, his own wife named Lucrezia del Fede, to whom almost all the female heads that the artist painted resemble. The Madonna series by Andrea del Sarto allows us to follow his artistic evolution from the throbbing disorder of the Annunciation (Galeria Pitti) painted in his youth, to the sweet aristocracy of the famous Madonna of the Harpies (at the Uffizi), from 1517, painted with a kind of static poetry in which form, color and light are manifested as a single and complex factor. In this last work Andrea managed to combine a refined synthesis of the Leonardesque sfumato, together with the Raphaelesque balance, and the plastic monumentality in the style of Michelangelo.
Vasari, who was his contemporary, was very diffuse when explaining the life of Andrea del Sarto. Nonetheless, he details the artistic value of his works and recounts, in the paragraphs of his writing, some interesting biographical data. According to Vasari, Andrea del Sarto would have been the first painter of his time hadn’t he always shown a certain shyness of mind that made him appear inferior to his other contemporaries, that is, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and his disciples. He also regrets that Andrea hadn’t been in Rome longer to be influenced by the art of Michelangelo. For Vasari, Rome was by itself (already in the middle of the 16th century), the best art school. “If he had stopped in Rome,” said Vasari, “he would have overtaken all the artists of his time”. Vasari also tells us about Andrea del Sarto’s trip to France and the welcome Francis I gave him there, as well as the anecdote of his return, prompted by the nostalgia that struck him when reading his wife’s letters, and the joyous time he spent in Florence on his return until he used up all the money that the King of France had given him. Andrea del Sarto’s wife turned out to be a very modern woman; she seems was one of those painter’s companions, difficult to please, dominating her husband for the collaboration she provided him as a model. This is how we see her in the various portraits that del Sarto painted of her. It is true that the repetition of the same feminine type in all the works of Andrea del Sarto becomes a bit monotonous, but, on the other hand, the color is beautiful, the garment’s folds are gently combined and the composition is pleasing. In the end, Andrea del Sarto was the last great Florentine artist. Most of his life was spent in Florence and Tuscany, except for his trip to France. Seeing his works in Tuscany in the Vallombrosa convent or in other neighboring monasteries remind us of the works of a 15th century painter. His frescoes from the convents of Florence are still great series that captivate the viewer’s mind; it seems as if the old spirit of the Florentine fresco painters, rejuvenated, still lived in the middle of the 16th century. Andrea del Sarto died in Florence at age 44 during an outbreak of Bubonic Plague at the end of September 1530. After him, the painting in Florence became Romanized, and at the end of the 16th century there was no promising atmosphere for an authentic Florentine spirit.
In another painting school, that of Parma, during the 16th century, Antonio Allegri called il Correggio, from the town where he was born (Correggio, a small town near Reggio Emilia), would exhibit his still classical art, albeit full of delicacy. Correggio (August 1489 – March 5, 1534) can be compared to Raphael for his extensive work and his short life. Contrary to Michelangelo, who made muscular giants out of human figures, Correggio seemed to delight in the rounded bodies of angels and Cupids, in surprising the psychology of small beings and the special characteristics of each one’s life. Even his great characters have something androgynous or childish, reaching the point of painting an almost hermaphroditic Saint John in his large painting of the Madonna with St. George.
Correggio always accentuated the vibration of the contours of human forms, as well as looked for chromatic vibration effects in his coloring. He loved the soft pink flesh of children and women, in which the rounded curves obliterate the impression of muscles, tendons and bones. We could say that his ideal of form was not that of the child’s, but that of the feminine that is still in the child. This delicate painter from Parma softened the body’s curves to turn saints and virgins into enlarged children. His depictions of hands and feet are precious; in all of his works there’s a strange abandon: it is not the conscious and almost tragic sensuality of Titian and Giorgione; it is like a vague desire that would be satisfied only by touch, by inspiring almost tactic qualities. Titian, seeing Correggio’s frescoes in Parma, said: “If I were not Titian, I would like to be Correggio”. Velázquez, on his second trip to Italy, stopped in Parma for several weeks trying to obtain works by Correggio for Felipe IV, and perhaps due to his own efforts two paintings by Correggio are preserved today in the Prado Museum. They seem painted with fragrant essences. The landscape of the Noli me tangere is painted with wonderful iridescent tones; Magdalene, blonde, dressed in yellow brocade, is prostrate in front of the young gardener, also looking somewhat childish. The other painting is a Madonna and Child with the young St. John, which is interesting to compare with the Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo.
Correggio died young, in 1534, at the age of 44, but had time and opportunity to undertake works of great proportions: the decoration of the dome of the Cathedral of Parma and several other paintings for the same church. However, it is necessary to appreciate him more by his profane-themed paintings, where his technique is glimpsed poetic and sensual. Since the 16th century they have been highly esteemed and fought over, bought and sold, and even cut up and destroyed. Then, at last, they were restored. Among such works we must highlight his famous series of paintings dedicated to representing the “Loves of Jupiter” as they were described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and which were commissioned by Federico II Gonzaga of Mantua, probably to decorate the Hall of Ovid in his Palazzo del Tè: Leda and the Swan (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), Danae (Borghese Gallery, Rome), Ganymede abducted by the eagle and Jupiter and Io (both in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The history of these paintings is more eventful than that of any other work of art. It seems that they’ve always aroused a particular curiosity for their singular aestheticism.
In his painting of Virgin adoring the Child, from the Uffizi, and on his Nativity from the Dresden Museum, Correggio created a type of painting that represents a Nativity scene in which all the light emanates from the body of the Child, a motif that would be repeated for subsequent generations of artists. In them, Corregio’s composition is of sweet bluish tones, the colors of a clear night, but the figures are illuminated by the luminous rays that come from the little body of the tender infant. This usurpation of the “rights of nature” was perpetuated in pictorial imitations of this same theme made during the Baroque period, such as Carlo Maratta’s Christmas Eve, which is kept in Dresden. When returning to his home town of Correggio, Antonio died there suddenly on 5 March 1534.