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.

Self-portrait, oil on wood, by Andrea del Sarto, 47 x 34 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).
View of the atrium with some frescoes of Andrea del Sarto in the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (Florence). Between 1509 and 1514 the Servite Order commissioned del Sarto, Franciabigio and Andrea Feltrini with the frescoes for the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata di Firenze. For this series, Andrea del Sarto painted a total of seven frescoes in the atrium (known as chiostro dei voti): five of these frescoes illustrate the Life and miracles of Filippo Benizzi (a Servite saint who died in 1285), the other two represent a Procession of the Magi and the Nativity of the Virgin.
Nativity of the Virgin, fresco, by Andrea del Sarto, 1513-1514, 413 x 345 cm (Chiostro dei Voti, Santissima Annunziata, Florence). This interior scene is presented to us as a vast space dominated by the huge canopy of the bed and defined in all its vastness by elegant architectural features and furnishings. In this grandiose framework, the women are moving slowly attending with serene solicitude to the tasks as they are told in the apocryphal Gospels. This fresco also shows influences from the work of Domenico Ghirlandaio, specifically from his Nativity of Mary in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella. This fresco’s richness of poses, sumptuous clothes and reduced pallet of rare colors such as violets, made it one of the 16th century works most studied by later Mannerist painters.
Miraculous Cure by Relics of Filippo Benizzi, fresco, by Andrea del Sarto, 1510 (Chiostro dei Voti, Santissima Annunziata, Florence). This fresco represents one scene of the life of the patron saint of the Servite order, Filippo Benizzi. Andrea here represented a miraculous cure done by the intervention of Filippo Benizzi’s relics inside a church: a priest in an apse is showing the holy objects, and the people are approaching from the front and sides. Andrea’s architectural motifs of an arch and columns harmonize with the real architecture of the atrium.
Punishment of the Gamblers, fresco, by Andrea del Sarto, 1510, 360 x 300 cm (Chiostro dei Voti, Santissima Annunziata, Florence). In this scene we notice similarities with the works of Leonardo, Raphael and Fra Bartolomeo. In this scene of the life of St. Philip Benizzi, the saint punishes groups of gamblers and blasphemers within the frame of a fantastic landscape, jutting rocks, and trees.
Journey of the Magi, fresco, by Andrea del Sarto, 1511, 360 x 305 cm (Chiostro dei Voti, Santissima Annunziata, Florence). Del Sarto’s unconventional interpretation of the traditional Journey of the Magi scene shows the three Magi arriving in tandem at Herod’s palace and includes some portraits of contemporaries, even a self-portrait of the artist.

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.

The Annunciation (also known as San Gallo Annunciation), oil on wood, by Andrea del Sarto, 1512-1513, 183 x 184 cm (Palazzo Pitti, Florence). Andrea painted this work for the convent of San Gallo which was destroyed in the siege of Florence in 1529. It is one of his early works. The atmosphere in which the scene unfolds is filled with ancient references. The characters on the background are usually interpreted as being Susanna and the Elders: Susanna resembling a male nude, while the Elders (three) are pointing to her up in an airy loggia. The two main figures of the Madonna and the Angel in the foreground, accompanied by two angels, were represented with vibrant poses and poetic intensity.
Madonna of the Harpies, oil on wood, by Andrea del Sarto, 1517, 208 x 178 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Andrea’s style, influenced by his studies of the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, and characterized by exquisitely balanced compositions and high level of formal control, strongly influenced 16th Florentine painting, to such an extent that it was considered a precursor of Mannerism. Del Sarto was commissioned to paint this sacra conversazione, with the Virgin and Child between Sts. Francis of Assisi and John the Evangelist (known as the Madonna of the Harpies, one of his most famous works) for the nuns of the convent of St. Francis de’Macci. In this work, within its solid and meticulous compositional structure, Andrea managed to seamlessly combined the typical pyramidal shape of the Virgins painted by Raphael with the statuesque feel of the figures created by Michelangelo, but mellowing them with the delicate, shaded colors of Leonardo da Vinci. The traditional title of the painting was coined based on Vasari’s identification of the figures depicted on the Virgin’s pedestal as harpies. However, today art scholars mostly agree that they depict the locusts described in St. John the Evangelist’s Apocalypse. Between the figures of the “harpies” at the base of the pedestal, and beneath Andrea’s signature, are the opening words of a hymn to Our Lady of the Assumption. This Madonna therefore represents the Virgin of the Assumption. The figure of the Madonna lights up the center of the painting with the intense rose-color of her robe harmonized with the pale blue of her mantle, and with the brilliant yellow of the light fabric draped over her shoulders beneath the beautiful drapery of the white veil covering her head. On her left is the sculptural St. John swathed in a cinnabar red mantle linked to the lilac of his robe by means of a highly refined drapery, while on the other side the figure of St. Francis strikes a clear note that emerges by subtle varieties of tone from the architectural motif of the background. In the background the viewer can perceive “the smoke of transparent clouds veiling the architecture and the figures, that appear to move” in words on Vasari: a warm, mysterious halo, made of colors and of shadows, that behind and around the figures impels an atmosphere that implies the rich spiritual message brought to us by this painting.
Madonna and Child with the Young St. John, oil on wood, by Andrea del Sarto, ca. 1518, 154 x 101 cm (Galleria Borghese, Rome). In this work, Andrea displays extraordinary originality in the composition, constructed on an X-shaped scheme clearly outlined by the emotional expressiveness of the three protagonists. The Madonna’s sweet face is shadowed by the soft chiaroscuro that also gives depth and body to the colors. She seats on the ground, filling the space diagonally. In a dramatically unstable pose between her knees, Child Jesus with an elongated figure exhibits a tragic contortion of his body and face. This work was originally painted for the Florentine businessman Giovanni Gaddi.
Madonna della Scala, oil on panel, by Andrea del Sarto, 1522-1523, 177 x 135 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). This painting shows influences of Michelangelo and Raphael, though with del Sarto’s very own style. The structure of the painting, with the Holy Family and the Angel, is complex and pyramidal: at the apex is the kneeling Madonna holding the Child who reaches out towards the angel, who, together with St. Joseph, composes the base of the composition. The links between the group and the landscape are given by the horizontal line of steps. On the left background, del Sarto placed the towering figure of St. Elizabeth, who, according to a story in the apocryphal Gospels, is leading the little Baptist off by the hand in order to escape the persecutions of Herod, going towards the vast blue spaces of the hills and mountains in the distant background.
Pietà with Saints, oil on wood, by Andrea del Sarto, 1523-1524, 239 x 199 cm (Palazzo Pitti, Florence). This work was painted for the altar of the church of the Camaldolese convent of Luco in the Mugello east of Florence, where he took refuge during the plague of 1523. The composition is dominated by the monumental figures set directly in the foreground. The x-shape of the composition is evident through the poses of the interlocking characters. To the right kneel Mary Magdalene (in pink) and a female saint. According to sources, the face of the Virgin is a portrait of Lucrezia del Fede (Del Sarto’s wife) and that of Mary Magdalene is the semblance of Maria del Berrettaio (his step-daughter).
Assumption of the Virgin (also known as Poppi Altarpiece), oil on wood, by Andrea del Sarto, 1530, 309 x 205 cm (Palazzo Pitti, Florence). Andrea emphasizes Mary’s passivity in her contemplative seated position among clouds and angels. The saints at the base are: Fedele (holding a sword), Catherine of Alexandria, Giovanni Gualberto and Bernardo degli Uberti.

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.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, oil on panel, by Andrea del Sarto, 1513-1514, 73 x 56 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). The sitter is Lucrezia di Baccio del Fede, Andrea’s wife and inspiration for most of his Madonnas.
Portrait of a Young Man, oil on canvas, by Andrea del Sarto, ca. 1517, 72 x 57 cm (National Gallery, London). Formerly thought to be a self-portrait of the artist, the subject of this famous portrait is an unknown young man looking up from a book. Daylight enters as if through a high and narrow window on the left. It is highly praised for his management of light, particularly, for the masterful depiction of his white gathered undershirt, the reflections from which define the curve of his jaw and the twist of the neck, casts deep shadows on the eye sockets, smolders in the dark eyes, shapes the skull under the triangular hat, and in general, lends mobility and color to the sitter’s distinctive features. The twisting pose is at once momentary and stable.
View of the Chiostro dello Scalzo (Florence). The term “scalzo” makes reference to the barefoot brother of the Compagnia del diciplinati di San Giovanni Battista who carried the Cross during its public processions. Around 1508-1509, Andrea del Sarto, who was a member of the Scalzo company of lay men, received a commission from the brothers to paint a series of murals in grisaille with scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist. He worked on these for many years, between 1508 and 1526, interrupting his work on several occasions. These murals comprise 12 scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist and form a narrative that begins to the right of the entrance. The narrative scheme is framed by pilasters and cornices decorated with patterns, and which blend with the architecture of the cloister. Other artist involved in the execution of theses frescoes was Francesco di Cristofano, known as Il Franciabigio, who started a workshop with Andrea. For the general design and content of the scenes, Andrea del Sarto was influenced by many art works in Florence depicting the life of the Baptist, between them: the Baptistry mosaics on the vault, the bronze doors by Andrea Pisano, the frescoes by Giotto for the Peruzzi Chapel in the church of Santa Croce, those by Filippo Lippi in the cathedral of Prato and, the frescoes by Ghirlandaio for the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella.
Baptism of the People, from the series on the Scenes of the Life of St. John the Baptist in the Chiostro dello Scalzo, 1515-1517 (Florence).The use of monochromatic pigments in this fresco to obtain the grisaille finish creates an almost silvery aura. Andrea gave emphasis upon the rendering of the figures and in particular the nude in a variety of poses and states of undress, consistent with the subject matter. This series of frescoes was Andrea’s most ambitious monument, in terms of the amount of time he devoted to it.
The Sermon of John the Baptist, from the series on the Scenes of the Life of St. John the Baptist in the Chiostro dello Scalzo, 1515 (Florence). In painting the entire decoration of the cloister in grisaille, Andrea not only saved the brotherhood money, but also expressed the rigor and humility of the communal ideals of the brotherhood.
The Last Supper, fresco, by Andrea del Sarto, completed ca. 1520-1525, 525 x 871 cm (Museo del Cenacolo di Andrea del Sarto, Convent of San Salvi, Florence). Leonardo’s Last Supper was copied and adapted in several refectories, particularly in Lombardy (Italy). Andrea del Sarto’s fresco in the former refectory of the Vallombrosan monastery of San Salvi in Florence also reflects the influence of Leonardo’s fresco. In Andrea’s version, the characters look more humanized and touching, and the heroic drama of gestures and figures is reduced. As an anecdotal subsidiary motif, Andrea added a view of a window loggia at the top from where we can see two servants engaged in conversation in the central opening. Above the entire scene is an arch with medallions representing the Trinity and four Saints, protectors of the Vallombrosan Order.

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.

Madonna and Child with Saint George, oil on canvas, by Correggio, 1530-1532, 285 x 190 cm (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden). This altarpiece was originally painted for the oratory of the confraternity of San Pietro Martire in Modena. Around the central figures of the Madonna and Child placed under a flower decorated dome which takes elements from the Madonna della Vittoria by Mantegna, are St. Gimignano who is holding a model of the city of Modena assisted by a putto, he is the patron saint of that city, along with St. John the Baptist to the left, St. Peter the Martyr, patron of the confraternity (wearing the black and white habit of the Dominicans), and St. George with his foot resting on the dragon’s head. Other three putti are shown at the feet of St. George playing with his sword and helmet. The putto closest to the foreground has a vivacity that resembles the work of Parmigianino. Here Correggio is using an almost Mannerist back lighting.

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.

The Holy Family with Saint Jerome, oil on poplar panel, by Correggio, ca. 1515, 68 x 56 cm (Hampton Court Palace, London).
Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist, oil on canvas, by Correggio, ca. 1516, 48 x 37 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). This is the work in which the influence of Leonardo is most obvious. It can be appreciated as a free variation on Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks.
Noli Me Tangere, oil on panel transferred to canvas, by Correggio, ca. 1525, 130 x 103 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). Uninfluenced by the prevailing artistic tendencies of Rome, Florence or Venice, Correggio (who worked in Parma, in the North of Italy) maintained his originality throughout the High Renaissance and became one of the most important influences on the 17th century Baroque painting. However, his sense of ideal beauty and the structure of his compositions owe much to Raphael, while his handling of textures and light presupposes Leonardo. In his Noli Me Tangere he uses a pyramidal composition typical of the classic High Renaissance and a diagonal movement anticipating the Baroque. The beautiful landscape evokes the light of dawn, the time when, according to tradition, Mary Magdalene met Christ by the tomb.
The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, oil on poplar wood, by Correggio, 1526-1527, 105 x 102 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This panel is one of many where Correggio expressed his ideal of feminine beauty. It shows Leonardo’s influence in order to convey a soft and graceful effect. This particular painting was a frequent source of inspiration to artists during the 19th century, when it was copied several times.

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.

Assumption of the Virgin, fresco, by Correggio, 1526-1530, 1093 x 1195 cm (Dome, Cathedral of Parma). Few visitors of Rome’s dazzling Baroque churches realize that their great Baroque dome and vault decorations, flooded with heavenly light and dizzying crowds of saints and angels, emulate Correggio’s frescoes of a hundred years earlier. Likewise, the playful sensuality of 18th century Rococo art owes much to Correggio’s easel paintings housed in French royal collections (see pictures below). The fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin he painted in the dome of the cathedral of Parma marks the culmination of Correggio’s career as a mural painter. This fresco anticipates the Baroque style of dramatically illusionistic ceiling painting. The entire architectural surface is treated as a single pictorial unit of vast proportions, equating the dome of the church with the vault of heaven. The realistic way the figures in the clouds seem to protrude into the spectators’ space is an audacious and astounding use of foreshortening. Correggio cleverly used the large space of the octagonal cupola of the Parma Cathedral and increased the number of figures and the complexity of the design. A series of foreshortened figures acts as a device to visually lead the viewer’s eyes up into the dome. Four gigantic saints representing the four protector saints of Parma (St. John the Baptist, St. Hilary, St. Thomas and St. Bernard) provide a sense of support for the drum and are placed within fictive giant architectural sea-shells. As in some of his earlier frescoes, Christ appears in the center now much reduced in size, so as to emphasize a greater distance. Below the feet of beardless Jesus (who is descending to meet his mother), the Virgin in red and blue robes is lofted upward by a vortex of singing musical angels. Ringing the base of the dome, between the windows, stand the perplexed Apostles, as if standing around the empty tomb in which they have just placed her (see pictures below).
Assumption of the Virgin (detail), fresco, by Correggio, 1526-1530 (Dome, Cathedral of Parma). In the group of the blessed with Mary ascending to heaven with opened arms and lifted up by a vortex of singing angels, we can see the figures of Adam and Eve (both partially naked above an to the sides of Mary), Eve holding the apple.
Assumption of the Virgin (detail), fresco, by Correggio, 1526-1530 (Dome, Cathedral of Parma). At the base of the dome, between the windows, Correggio placed the Apostles surrounded by playful and mischievous putti.
Venus and Cupid with a Satyr, oil on canvas, by Correggio, 1524-1525, 190 x 124 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This painting is probably the companion-piece of Venus with Mercury and Cupid in the National Gallery (London, see below). It shows a lustful satyr uncovering Venus sleeping in sensuous abandon on the ground accompanied by her son Eros.
Venus with Mercury and Cupid, oil on canvas, by Correggio, ca. 1528, 155 x 91,5 cm (National Gallery, London). Corregio’s Venus and Cupid with a Satyr (see picture above) seems to be the companion piece of this painting. This is one of the six erotic paintings on mythological themes made by Correggio for Federico II Gonzaga, Lord of Mantua. In this painting, Leonardo’s influence is evident in the exquisitely silky hair, the dreamy smiles and the complex pose of Venus. A winged Venus and Mercury unite in instructing Cupid, as married lovers educate their offspring.
Leda and the Swan, oil on canvas, by Correggio, 1531-1532, 152 x 191 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). The painting depicts three scenes of the story of Leda being seduce by Jupiter, who has adopted the form of a swan. Their first meeting is shown on the right, followed by their lovemaking in the center, where Leda sits with the swan between her legs. We can see they are accompanied by Eros (sporting his bow) and two other cupids playing flutes. In the third scene, again on the right, we see the swan flying away while Leda gets dressed. Leda’s current head is not by Correggio but the last restoration made by Schlesingen in 1830 after the painting was vandalized in the 17th century. This painting is part of a series conceived by Correggio entitled “Loves of Jupiter” after the success he had with his Venus and Cupid with a Satyr (see picture above). This series eventually consisted of two pairs of works, each pair having the same dimensions. Their main importance lies in their contribution to the development of secular and mythological painting via its new and extraordinary balance between naturalist rendering and poetic transfiguration.
Danaë, oil on canvas, by Correggio, ca. 1530-1531, 158 x 189 cm (Galleria Borghese, Rome). One of Correggio’s masterpieces, Danaë, depicts one of the four stories in his series on the “Loves of Jupiter”, commissioned in around 1531 by Federico II Gonzaga in Mantua as a present for Charles V. The scene is set in an interior draped with rich and suitably folded hangings, framing a window opening onto the landscape. Danaë, the daughter of Acrisius, King of Argos, and of Eurydice, was locked by her father in a tower with bronze doors, as it had been prophesied that she would gave birth to a son who would be the cause of Acrisius’ own death. But Zeus visited her in the form of a shower of gold falling from a cloud, and from their union Perseus was born. Correggio shows us his Danaë reclining on a bed of classical design ornamented with knobs. Nearby Eros, as an intercessor between Zeus and the maiden, helps her to hold the sheet, so as not to loose the seed. At their feet two cupids, one wingless and the other winged, intended as a contrast between “sacred love and profane love”, are busy testing gold and lead arrows against a stone . This is a perfectly handled and balanced composition and it maintains a purity of style that never descends to the vulgarly erotic. Thus it could be seen itself to be almost a prelude to some of Canova’s sculptures and to certain neoclassical elements later used by other artists: the folded sheet, rumpled so as to resemble an unmade bed became a model for numerous 17th and 18th century paintings.
Ganymede abducted by the Eagle, oil on canvas, by Correggio, 1531-1532, 163,5 x 70,5 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Two vertical canvases depicting Io (see picture below) and Ganymede, dated to 1531-1532, were made for Federico Gonzaga, first duke of Mantua. The duke intended to line a room in his palace with the Loves of Jupiter. Ganymede, the son of Tros, who gave his name to Troy, or of Laomedon, the father of Priam, was the most beautiful of mortal youths. Zeus chooses him as his cup-bearer and, taking the form of an eagle, takes him away from his earthly games and from his dog, that looks on in fear as the abduction takes place. The landscape beneath is of an almost 18th century style, to the point where it resembles a transparent English watercolor.
Jupiter and Io, oil on canvas, by Correggio, 1531-1532, 163,5 x 70,5 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). This is the companion piece to Ganymede Abducted by the Eagle (see picture before). In the first picture of the pair, Io, daughter of Inachus, the first king of Argos, and of Melia, priestess of Hera, whose anger she aroused for having attracted the attention of Zeus, is invited by the latter, at night, in a dream, to follow him and lie with him in the meadows of Lerna. Zeus, camouflaged within a blackish cloud of constantly changing forms and in which his face and hand we can see, undergoes new metamorphoses to conceal their loving from indiscreet gazes. Correggio shows us the naked priestess Io leaning against a white sheet with her body and face conveying an impression of ecstasy, of pleasure and amorous rapture, revealing a particular capture for erotic suggestiveness. The chiaroscuro is particularly effective, with the rocky sward covered with shrubs suggesting an abandoned place ideally suited to a secret rendezvous. In this work, Correggio gave us a powerful contrast between the evanescent figure of the immaterial Jupiter, and the sensual substance of Io’s body, shown lost in an erotic rapture which foreshadows the works by Bernini and Rubens.

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.

The Adoration of the Child, oil on canvas, by Correggio, 1518-1520, 81 x 67 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This painting was a present from the Duke of Mantua Ferdinando Gonzaga to Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici in 1617. The original commission of the painting is unknown. The luminous brightness that emanates from the Child and the expressive gesture of the Virgin are characteristic of Correggio’s style, whose sentimental and devotional taste was later developed by Baroque painters.
Madonna and Child with Sts. Jerome and Mary Magdalen (The Day), oil on panel, by Correggio, 1525-1528, 235 x 141 cm (Galleria Nazionale, Parma). The painting was originally commissioned in 1523 by Briseide Colla for a private chapel on the right side of the church of Sant’Antonio Abate in Parma at the same time that Correggio was working on the frescoes in the Cathedral of Parma (see pictures before). It can be considered as the companion of the Nativity (The Holy Night, see picture below) kept in Dresden. Considered Correggio’s masterpiece among his altarpieces, the composition is built up as a remote variation of the pyramidal arrangements favored by Leonardo, but broken by the dominant verticality imposed by the figure of St. Jerome on the left. The sacra conversazione is transformed into an informal and incidental narrative that takes place in a landscape. Correggio placed a makeshift red canopy in the foreground, where the figures are grouped on a compact, constricted plane. Their poses are particularly hard to reconstruct because they are either figures covered by draperies that effectively hide their structure, or are in intricate unnatural positions. As Correggio grew older, he began to take liberties with the conventions regarding the proportion of figures. Saint Jerome on the left, accompanied by his identifying lion, occupies almost the entire height of the painting, assuming a dominant role even in relation to the Madonna and Child. His thick, muscular right leg is strikingly long in comparison to his upper body and rather smallish head. The pictorial effects derive from a masterly application of the oil paint, confident and elegant color, and idealized, refined faces (like that of the angel holding the open book on the left). El Greco would study this painting with detail.
Nativity (Holy Night), oil on canvas, by Correggio, 1528-1530, 256,5 x 188 cm (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden). This work was commissioned in October 1522 by Alberto Pratoneri for his family chapel in the church of San Prospero of Reggio Emilia and was completed at the end of the decade, it was placed in the chapel in 1530. It has been described as the first monumental nocturnal scene in European painting, and it is an ideal companion to the Madonna and Child with Sts. Jerome and Mary Magdalen, also known as “The Day”, painted only a few years earlier for another private chapel (see picture before). Here, Correggio interprets the Nativity scene with an outstanding result. The light appears simultaneously to bathe and to emerge from the Child, who is lying on a rough pallet, only to soften on the face of the Virgin, tenderly rapt in a maternal embrace. They are surrounded by the fluid gestures of the shepherds and of St. Joseph, who is holding back the donkey, and by the kicking legs of the angels transported by the cloud that spreads hazily through the painting. Although attenuated by the dim nocturnal light that tones down all the shades, the painting is not lacking in color and the chiaroscuro spreads over and softens every form, bringing out their rotundities and caressing those leaves that are reminiscent of Leonardo’s painting.
Nativity, oil on canvas, by Carlo Maratta, 1655 (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden).

One thought on “Painting in Central Italy during the 16th Century. Andrea del Sarto and il Correggio

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