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( Originally Published 1913 )
Antonio Allegri da Correggio was born in 1494. His life passed very quietly in northern Italy. He traveled little and lived in but three towns-Correggio, his birthplace and by whose name he is generally known; Modena, whither his family removed when the plague broke out in Correggio, and Parma, where he did his best work. Critics have sometimes tried to show that his painting was influenced by some of the great Renaissance masters, but it is certain that he never saw them and probably never saw their productions.
While a boy he studied with his uncle, but the uncle was such an indifferent painter that he quickly outstripped him and developed his own native genius. When but nineteen he received his first important commission-to paint the Madonna of San Francisco for a monastery in Correggio. One hundred ducats of gold were paid the young artist, and how well he executed his early undertaking we may still see if we visit the Dresden gallery.
In I 5I8 Allegri went to Parma, the art center for that part of Italy. The town was important, lying on the direct route north and south; it possessed much natural beauty, with its varied aspect of hills, plains, and flowing rivers. Several churches and convents in the vicinity offered a field for the young artist's abilities.
Three qualities are characteristic of Correggio's paintings: his mastery of foreshortening and chiaroscuro, and the joy of his characters, be they men or angels. By foreshortening we mean representing objects in a slant position, so that on a plane surface one appears to be farther front than another; chiaroscuro refers to the use of light and shadow. His use of light and shade has probably never been excelled. More apparent to the average beholder is the happiness imprinted upon his faces. His Madonnas are not lost in thought-his angels not pensive; they are all jubilant, smiling, happy, finding sufficient joy in living.
Correggio was a simple soul who did not attempt to fathom the mysteries of the universe; he was not despairing over a world that needed reform, like Angelo; he was not feverishly searching in a laboratory for some secret that might reveal the wonders of the world about him, like Leonardo. Undisturbed with the turmoil of this life and unconcerned about the next, he loved beauty and painted it. His women are beautiful women; his angels, joyous angels who bear glad tidings.
In Parma Allegri's first commission was to decorate the chief room of a convent. The religious fervor of mediaeval years had passed and we do not find the abbess selecting sacred subjects for her frescoes. The ceiling was painted to represent an arbor; trellises were heavy with vines, and here and there clusters of grapes seemed to hang down. All lines converged at the center, where the family arms of the abbess were painted. Through the trellis openings were left at regular intervals, and in these chubby Cupids played. The whole was finished by a series of paintings set in semi-circular spaces, these being filled in with pictures of Athena, Hera, Dionysus and other Greek deities. Finally over the great fireplace he painted a large picture of Diana riding in her chariot, drawn by snow-white steeds. Greek love of life and beauty permeated the entire room and made it most attractive.
The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine is probably best known of his easel pictures. The legends connected with this saint are still popular. Left an orphan when little more than a child, her people wished her to form a marriage alliance, but the maiden found none of her suitors to her liking. The situation preyed upon her mind, and one night she dreamed that the mother of Christ came to her with the child in her arms. The baby slipped a ring on Catherine's finger, which was still there when she awoke. Satisfied that this tokened a symbolical union of her soul with the love and purity of the infant Christ, Catherine gave herself up to a religious life. Many times the story has been told on canvas, but Correggio's conception is most tender and beautiful.
Probably the most wonderful Christmas picture that has ever been produced is Correggio's Holy Night. The birth of Christ has been a favorite theme with artists-especially those of the early Italian Renaissance; but the simplicity and joy of Correggio's Nativity has never been surpassed. The Christchild lies in a hay-filled manger, pillowed on his mother's arm. Behind her are shepherds, and still farther in the background the eternal hills over which the first light of morning breaks. Light emanating from the child illumines the stable and causes the shepherdess standing near to shield her eyes from such brilliancy. Overhead a group of happy angels proclaim the joyful news of a prophecy fulfilled. This picture is also preserved today in the Dresden gallery.
"To Correggio nature had no hidden meaning; he saw her and loved her, and put his whole soul into transferring her sensuous beauty to canvas. Tradition says that he covered his canvas with gold before beginning his picture, that the landscape setting might sparkle and glisten with that golden-green luster so noticeable in many of his pictures. There is a fascination in his wonderful display of color equal to that of the rainbow tints; he never startles, but soothes, as the ripple of the little stream over the pebbles soothes the tired mind. He awakens no passion; inspires no intense longing; gives no intellectual stimulus, for with him to be alive is joy enough."