Art/Museums logo

Correggio and Parmigianino

Metropolitan Museum of Art

February 6 to May 6, 2001

"The Annunciation" by Correggio

"The Annunciation," by Correggio, circa 1522-5, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

By Michele Leight

When the works of two master draughtsmen of the Italian Renaissance from Parma are brought together from the finest British and North American public and private collections, the result is the glorious feast for the eyes, "Correggio and Parmigianino: Master Draughtsmen of the Renaissance," currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, February 6 through May 6, 2001. The exhibition was previously on view at the British Museum, (the co-organizer of the show), from October 6, 2000 through January 7, 2001.

"The painterly subtleties of Correggio's drawings and the mannered refinements of Parmigianino's sheets continue to attract the same enthusiasm today as they have over previous centuries," noted Robert Anderson, the director fhte British Museum, and Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, in their joint foreword to the exhibition's catalogue.

The 130 stunning drawings, many of them preparatory studies for oil paintings and frescoes, stand on their own as works of art, though one viewer could be heard lamenting in the galleries the drawings would have been more meaningful with a few accompanying paintings by the artists. To the museum's credit, it should be noted that several of the drawings are accompanied by small black-and-white photos of the paintings/frescoes for which they were studies. In addition, the museum has attractively installed an angled, wooden leaning shelf for museum-goers to more comfortably study the drawings on view, a very nice and thoughtful touch. For lovers of the immediacy, spontaneity and insight into the artist’s working methods which inspired drawing and top-notch doodling provides, this show will dazzle with its virtuosity and exquisite draughtsmanship.

Correggio comes off not as well as Parmigianino in this show because his drawings are rarer and Parmigianino, who was a pupil of Correggio's, clearly produced greater drawings. Their styles are quite different. Correggio is soft and sensual. Parmigianino is frenetic, dramatic and extremely mannered. Correggio's oil paintings are vary in quality, but his true masterpieces are his church frescos, which are astoundingly inventive and glorious. Parmigianino's paintings are startling in their elongated figures, elegant postures and bold colors. These are both very great masters of paintings, but in this show Parmigianino's drawings display more beauty and genius than Correggio's. (Fortunately, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has on sale major books on each artist that all visitors should at least look at closely, if not buy.)

Correggio (circa 1489-1534) was, according to Giorgio Vasari’s "Vita" of him a modest, self-effacing man who grew up in decent circumstances in a small town after which he is named, on the outskirts of Parma. His father was a small businessman, and his son’s given name at birth was Antonio Allegri. His uncle Lorenzo may have been his teacher, but more importantly he was influenced by Mantegna, whose son he knew, and by Leonardo da Vinci.

Given the artistic geniuses he had to choose from in the pantheon of Italian painters of his day, Giorgio Vasari does not wax poetic on these two late-Renaissance artists, who are excluded from the definitive "Who’s Who?" of Renaissance talent, his famous "Lives of the Artists." Vasari clearly preferred the structural design sensibilities of Raphael and Michelangelo, but there is no doubt among scholars and cognoscenti of art that Correggio and Parmigianino are amongst the most original, brilliant and innovative pictorial draughtsman of the sixteenth century. Vasari's own style, in fact, was quite manneristic as is Parmigianino's.

Correggio’s favorite medium for drawings was luscious red chalk, which suffuse his drawings with light, movement, and poetry, a notable example being "The Annunciation," (circa 1522-5, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), shown above, a highly finished work which illustrates the evolution of Correggio’s technique of integrating diverse media; it is so highly worked it looks like the final drawing for a painting, yet further changes were made in the final work. It bears a resemblance to the work of William Blake, whose poetic and illusionist pictorial style were considered modern several hundred years after Correggio and who will be the subject of an exhibition later this year at the Metropolitan.

In his day, Correggio became famous for creating magical effects of light and shadow and for his technical virtuosity as a painter of enormously complex, illusionist frescoes, as seen on the domes of two of Parma’s major churches, the Camera di San Paolo, San Giovanni Evangelista (1518-24) and the Dome of Parma Cathedral (1524-30). Correggio’s drawings are considered primarily functional, or preparatory studies for paintings that offer an intimate glimpse into his preliminary processes in the design of a finished work.

Although he spent most of his life working in and around Parma, he did visit Rome (1518-19) and he was well-aquainted with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, Leonardo’s "sfumato" (misty) compositions which profoundly influenced him, and Raphael’s Vatican frescoes; regrettably, there are no surviving drawings by him from the "Antique," a term used to describe drawing directly from ancient sculptures, which is still expected of students in many famous art schools. It is inconceivable that Correggio would not have been moved to record some of the wonders of Rome to dazzle his Parmese patrons.

"The Adoration of the Shepherds" by Correggio

"The Adoration of the Shepherds," by Correggio, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University, England, circa 1522

In addition to the absense of such drawings, which most artists visiting Rome would be inspired to create, it is presumed that only a fraction of the artist's drawings have survived as there are no landscape, portrait or life studies, which he must surely have made in his lifetime. While the purpose of some of Correggio’s drawings was utilitarian, his most highly worked drawings are a magical combination of light and shade and his own delicious brand of "sfumato," which defines the "Adoration of the Shepherds," circa 1522, (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), shown above. "This is perhaps Correggio's most beautiful drawing and among his most elaborate, in which the artist obtained a highly colouristic effect by working the white gouache into the red chalk and brown wash, such that the principle group is essentially a painting. The sheet is generally accepted to be a study for the Adoration of the Shepherds in Dresden..., commonly known as La Notte, with which he shares many elements, though completely rearranged...The painting was apparently installed in the Pratoneri chapel of the church of San Prospero, Reggio," the catalogue noted. The drawing was once owned by Sir Peter Lely, the artist.

Thirty-six drawings by Correggio introduce the show, followed by 98 by Parmigianino; the reason for this imbalance is that no more than 100 drawings by Correggio have survived, and this show represents a third of that total. Among the drawings featured are his studies for the Camera di Sao Paolo, San Giovanni Evangelista, and the Dome of Parma Cathedral, two of his best known frescoes. Correggio’s drawings are most often related to his paintings, and his studies reveal how meticulously he examined and refined each element of his compositions on paper before executing the final work. His innovative drawing techniques, which he regarded as functional, would later be widely imitated by Baroque artists.

"Head of a Woman" by Correggio

"Head of a Woman," by Correggio, circa 1511, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

While one gets far more insight into Parmigianino’s temperament, lifestyle and working methods from the sheer volume of his work, it is humbling to realize that Correggio’s sheets are consistently of very high quality. Mantegna’s powerful influence is visible in the fragment of a cartoon of the head of Mary Magdalene, or "Head of a Woman," (circa 1511, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York), Correggio’s first drawing in the show. The study, shown above, was an early work, made for the frescoed tondo, the "Entombment of Christ," for the atrium of Saint Andrea in Mantua (1514). The detached fresco is now in the Museo Diocesano, Mantua.

This mesmerizing cartoon blends the classical, expressive force of Mantegna with the "sfumato," or misty modeling that Correggio may have encountered in Leonardo da Vinci’s early work. It has been suggested by several scholars that Correggio either visited Leonardo and his Lombard followers in Milan, or at the very least saw examples of his work when he was there, and it was after this visit that he adopted the use of red chalk, which was introduced by Leonardo. The provenance of the drawing shows that it was twice sold (at T. Phillipe & Sotheby's, London) as a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. It was eventually sold by the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter, Charles Fairfax Murray, to J. P. Morgan in London in 1910. It is easy to understand why this remarkable drawing was mistakenly attributed to Leonardo. It resounds with his mysterious genius. Despite the fact that the drawing has been patched together, its power remains remarkable.

Correggio’s visit to Rome in 1518 did not change his style until a few years later, in his frescoes at San Giovanni Evangelista. A mouth-watering trio of studies for the Del Bono Chapel (the fifth chapel on the right in San Giovanni Evangelista), and the only surviving drawings for the church, are "Two putti supporting a medallion with a figure of Christ, (circa 1524, Chatsworth, Devonshire Collections), "Two putti supporting a medallion" (circa 1524, Chatsworth, Devonshire Collections), and "Christ in Glory," (circa 1524, J. Paul Getty Museum, provenance the Dukes of Devonshire). According to the catalogue, "this beautifully homogenous trio of drawings had presumably been together from Correggio’s lifetime until 1987, when "Christ in Glory" was sold to the Getty. They were originally sold by S. Resta (?) to the Dukes of Devonshire, according to the provenance. Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, is a fine resting place for at least two of these studies, but it is so obvious that they belong together when hung in close proximity as they are at this show.

Correggio's fame, of course, rests on his paintings, especially his large works for churches that are marked by a fine sense of grace and tenderness and soft light and color, such as the "Ascension of Christ," (1520, San Giovanni Evangelista), the "Assumption of the Virgin," in the dome of the Cathedral in Parma (1522), the "Madonna of St. Jerome" (1528, Parma), and the "Adoration of the Child" (Uffizi, Florence) among others. His illusionist ceiling decorations and his sensual, mythological paintings were tremendously influential on Baroque artists. While this esoteric show is tremendously appealing to connoisseurs of Old Master drawings, it is a bit daunting for the average museum-goer most likely, at least as far as Correggio is concerned, as only a few of his exhibited works here are knockouts.

Speaking of sensual, which is all the more extraordinary considering the religious locations of almost all his paintings before their removal to museums as fragments of larger works, there is one drawing, "Venus Asleep," (circa 1523, Royal Library, Windsor Castle), which looks like something Renoir might have done, 350 years later. This incredibly modern drawing, once in the collection of King George III) may have been painted as a pendant to the National Gallery "Venus with Mercury and Cupid,"(circa 1523). Whatever Correggio’s intention for the study in red chalk, it is considered to be amongst the most sensuous and texturally sophisticated figure studies of the Renaissance, owned by a King no less!

Correggio had the honor and satisfaction of recognition and respect as an artist in his lifetime, leading a contented life governed by his important commissions and large family. For the most part he painted in or around his hometown and Parma, the last commission being the "Loves of Jupiter" series (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna; Galleria Borghese, Rome; Gemaldegalerie). He died peacefully in Correggio in 1534 at the age of 54.

The provenance of all the drawings in this exhibit is awesome, many of them drawn from collections that began at the end of the Renaissance. The English were the first to collect and admire the drawings of Correggio and Parmigianino, establishing very early collections, and there are beautiful examples from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle (Courtesy of Queen Elizabeth II), Chatsworth, Devonshire Collection (the Dukes of Devonshire), the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England, and, of course, the renowned collection from the British Museum, to name only some institutions who have lent drawings for this show. It may be possible that William Blake saw examples of Correggio’s drawings at the British Museum, and drew inspiration for them.

The show also draws superb examples from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the Getty Museum, Los Angeles and the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, amongst others. Detailed information on all the drawings is available in the exhibition catalogue, "Correggio and Parmigianino: Master Draughtsmen of the Italian Renaissance." Co-authored by George R. Goldner, C. Bambach, Hugo Chapman and Martin Clayton, British Museum Press, it is available in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s book store in a hardcover edition for $55.

Mercurial Parmigianino seems to have been a very different sort of person to the quiet Correggio, and his numerous drawings capture all his moods. He was born Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola in 1503 in Parma, and as a young boy he was trained by his uncles Michele and Pier’Illario Mazzola, following the death of his father in 1505. Later, he most certainly worked under Correggio, assisting him with the frescoes in San Giovanni Evangelista. Parmigianino lead a tumultuous personal life, died young, aged 37, and packed a great deal into his short life. An amusing self-portrait, "A Man (Parmigianino?) holding up a pregnant bitch," (circa 1530-40, British Museum, London), shows him with man's best friend, one of many references he made to dogs in paintings and sketches. The drawing belonged for a while to the English painter, Sir Thomas Lawrence. One gets the feeling from the dog’s long-suffering expression that Parmigianino frequently made her perform tricks.

The paths of the two artists crossed twice, first at the painting of the frescoes at San Giovanni Evangelista, between July, 1520 and January, 1524, and at Parma Cathedral around November-December 1522. Correggio’s star shone more brightly, as the older more experienced artist, and, according to scholars, young Parmigianino removed himself when he was around rather than be outdone, all the while absorbing Correggio’s fine artistic example. Parmigianino’s early paintings, including "The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (circa 1521, Parma Gallery) and the frescoes of San Giovanni Evangelista, show the influence of Correggio.

"Parmigianino gave his creations a certain loveliness that makes whoever looks at them fall in love with them. (He was) so delicate and accurate in his draughtsmanship that every drawing of his that is preserved on paper brings astonishment to the eyes of the beholder," observed Ludovico Dolce in his "Dialoghi," (Venice, 1557). His contemporaries prized the aesthetic quality of "grace," above all, in his work. This quality pervades the only surviving study for the entire composition of the "Madonna of Saint Jerome," (circa 1526, British Museum, London). Parmigianino’s altarpiece is now in the National Gallery, London.

"Three canephorei and vaulting" by Parmigianino, circa 1531-3, pen and brown ink, brown wash, white heightening (partly discolored), 8 1/4 by 7 1/16 inches, British Museum, London

Emerging from Correggio’s powerful legacy as his artistic heir in the Emilian tradition of design, Parmigianino made his own mark as a master of elegant figure drawing, and as one of the most influential and technically accomplished artists of early Mannerism. He is credited with inventing etching, which is exceptional. He obviously loved to draw for its own sake, and his elongated figures often seem to dance, arms outstretched, in an expression of joyful movement and freedom which is very modern and Isadora-Duncanesque, as for example in "Three canephori, and vaulting," circa 1534, Chatsworth, Devonshire Collections, and a drawing of the same title, "Three canephorei and vaulting" by Parmigianino, circa 1531-3, pen and brown ink, brown wash, white heightening (partly discolored), 8 1/4 by 7 1/16 inches, British Museum, London, shown above, and the winsome "A standard-bearer," circa 1530-40, British Museum, London, which illustrates the cover of the exhibition catalogue, and is shown below. It is revealing that this wayward artist so often chose to use this pose to express his own inner yearnings. He was the opposite of conformist and even-tempered like Correggio, but eventually, and sadly, life caught up with him.

"A Standard-bearer" by Parmigianino

"A Standard-bearer," by Parmigianino, circa 1530-40, pen and brown ink, over traces of black chalk, 10 7/16 by 7 13/16 inches, British Museum, London

An exceptionally beautiful drawing in black chalk, "Mercury," circa 1524-6, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, demonstrates the impact of Parmigianino’s trip to Rome in 1524. The "sfumato" technique alludes to Correggio, but the influence of Michelangelo’s fresco of Jonah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling and ancient Roman sculpture are manifest here. It marks a departure for the artist into uncharted waters and to extraordinary technical virtuosity.

Scholars assume that Parmigianino’s interest in printmaking is linked to his arrival in Rome and because of its association with Raphael, who had worked closely with printmakers on the production of engravings after his designs. After Raphael’s death in 1520, there was potential for younger artists to supply printmakers in Rome with drawings. Parmigianino’s first collaboration with a printmaker was with the engraver Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio, who engraved after his design an "Adoration of the Shepherds" in 1526. Their collaboration ended abruptly with the sack of Rome in 1527, when Parmigianino fled to Bologna. A magnificent chiaroscuro woodcut (imagine cutting wood so finely by hand!) by Niccolo Vicentino’s after Parmigianino’s "Christ Healing the Lepers," circa 1525, Chatsworth, Devonshire Collections, and a gorgeous mixed media drawing once owned by Giorgio Vasari, "The Martyrdom of Saint Paul, circa 1524-7, British Museum, London, which was printed in reverse by Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio after Parmigianino’s original, demonstrates the ease with which the artist understood the demands of this exacting medium.

Parmigianino’s drawings at the show include studies for the frescoes in the Roca Sanvitale at Fontanellato, "A seated woman, asleep," circa 1525, (Courtauld Institute, London), which was the basis for his first etching, "Seated Woman," in the British Museum and the ill-fated commission at Santa Maria della Steccata in 1531, ("The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin," circa 1531-5, Royal Library, Windsor), which eventually led to his imprisonment.

"Prometheus animating man" by Parmigianino

"Prometheus Animating Man" by Parmigianino, circa 1524-7, pen and brown ink, over faint preliminary indications in black chalk, 5 3/8 by 6 1/16 inches, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

His departure from Bologna in 1530 ended his period of printmaking, but his contribution to the development of etching during this brief period was enormous. "He was," according to the catalogue, "the first artist to explore the spontaneous sketch-like potential of the technique which makes his etchings so similar in their immediacy to his spirited pen studies: this drawing-like manner of using the medium established a tradition that was followed by nearly all the great Italian printmakers, from Castiglione and della Bella in the seventeenth century to Canaletto and Tiepolo in the eighteenth. Parmigianino’s achievements as the first Italian painter-etcher (previously the medium had only been used by specialist printmakers) also encouraged other sixteenth-century artists to take up the practice, such as Andrea Schiavone (circa 1535-1612) and Federico Barocci (circa 1535-1612)"

Parmigianino’s involvement with printmaking had wider implications because his prints, and copies of them, were widely distributed so that his style and compositions, like his idol Raphael, were copied throughout Europe.

Returning to his drawings, it was through Correggio that Parmigianino absorbed the lessons of Leonardo and his Lombard followers, especially in the use of "sfumato," or the seamless blurring of outline and tone ‘in the manner of smoke,’ which Leonardo referred to as ‘a uso di fumo,’ in his notes. This Leonardesque-Correggesque inheritance is especially evident in his drawings in natural red and black chalks, most brilliantly in "A rearing horse, seen from behind," circa 1524, Courtauld Institute, London. This drawing was sold by Sir Peter Lely to Sir Robert Witt, who bequeathed his incredible collection to the Courtauld in 1952. The old Courtauld hand-list described the drawing as copied from a small bronze horse and rider in Budapest sometimes attributed to Leonardo. There is also a general relationship to a frontal view of a horse behind Saint Vitalis in the second chapel on the left in San Giovanni Evangelista. Both these horses are illustrated in the exhibition catalogue.

"Studies of the Baptist preaching" by Parmigianino

"Studies of the Baptist preaching" by Parmigianino, circa 1526-30, black chalk, pen and brown ink, the studies on the left and in the centre with brown wash and white heightening, 6 1/8 by 8 3/16 inches, British Museum, London

The "Madonna of the Long Neck" has had a tempestuous history, not unlike Parmigianino’s own and it is this painting which instantly comes to mind when hearing his name. It was commissioned in December 1534 by the sister of his friend and patron, Francesco Baiardo, for the funerary chapel of her deceased husband for Santa Maria dei Servi, Parma (installed 1542, two years after his death). Parmigianino abandoned it when he fled to Casalmaggiore in 1539 after he was arrested and imprisoned for not fulfilling his commissions in Santa Maria della Steccata, for which he had been paid. He was released on condition that he complete the frescoes, but instead fled from Parma, leaving behind the beautiful "Madonna of the Long Neck." An inscription added in 1542 on the step in the background stated that the painting had been left unfinished. Parmigianino died in Casalmaggiore in 1540, unable to return to his home in Parma. The famous original oil on panel altarpiece is now in the Uffizi in Florence.

"The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Francis" by Parmigianino

"The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Francis," by Parmigianino, 7 3/16 by 4 1/16 inches, The British Museum, London

One of the most memorable of his drawings, "The Infant Christ asleep on the lap of the Virgin (recto), circa 1535-9, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, exquisitely rendered in red chalk, relates to the last stage of planning of the "Madonna of the Long Neck." When compared with the final painting, the rounded torso and abundance of curls on the sleeping child’s head in the study is in stark contrast to the bald infant with an elongated body in the finished work. The soft, smoothly blended strokes and sharp inflections of shadow over stylus underdrawing are typical of Parmigianino’s final years. The drawing exudes peace and tranquility, which were not apparent in the artist’s own unfortunate circumstances at the time.

The provenance of this drawing, as with many at this show, indicates that it has at various times been owned by an Earl, a Count, a Sir, the artist Charles Fairfax Murray and finally, to the great good fortune of New Yorkers and America, to J. P. Morgan himself.

Stability gave Correggio the same inspiration that tumult seems to have been necessary to fuel Parmigianino’s genius, and despite the fact that Giorgio Vasari did not rate these two trail-blazers as highly as his beloved Raphael, Michelangelo and other great masters of the Italian Renaissance, he did eventually devote time and energy to writing about their lives as artists once his work with the giants was completed. Both Correggio and Parmigianino created frescoes that are now considered milestones in the history of Italian art, and both were a tremendous influence on future generations of Baroque artists.

The exhibition in New York was made possible in part by Parmalat, but the catalogue makes no comment about its name and the town of Parma or the name of Parmigianino.

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


Home Page of The City Review

©The City Review Inc 2001. Written permission to use any part of this article must be obtained in writing from The City Review or Michele Leight