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Correggio (Antonio Allegri) (1494?-1534)  
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Sixteenth-century critics seem to have had less difficulty acknowledging Correggio's deliberate transgression of gender boundaries than many modern scholars have had. Commentators of the period consistently used terms, generally reserved for women, to describe both the artist's work and personality. For instance, Vasari characterized Corregio's handling of forms as morbido--a word for soft that had strong implications of "womanly"--and asserted that this aspect of his painting reflected his gentle and withdrawn nature. The accuracy of Vasari's assessment of his character seems to be confirmed by the self portrait, included in Madonna and Child with Saint Francis (about 1515, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden).

Because there is so little evidence available about Corregio's personal life, it is not possible to establish his sexuality beyond doubt. However, the efforts of modern historians to distance him from the homoeroticism of his work are unconvincing. The exuberant and pervasive sensuality of his paintings suggests that Corregio fully appreciated the erotic attractions of both men and women.

Correggio's Origins and Early Career

Many aspects of Correggio's early life are obscure, including the exact date of his birth, his artistic education, and the chronology of his paintings before 1519. He may have received his initial training in Correggio from his uncle, Lorenzo Allegri (d. 1527). However, the young Antonio seems to have been influenced more decisively by the achievements of such prominent artists as Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Mantegna, and Raphael. Although there is no documentation concerning Correggio's movements before 1519, it is generally thought that he must have taken extended trips during the 1510s to northern Italy and to Rome, where he could have studied major works by these artists.

A variety of stylistic influences are evident in Christ Taking Leave of his Mother (before 1514), one of Correggio's earliest certain preserved works. Basing the composition on a print by Albrecht Dürer, Correggio employed many distinctive features of the work of Mantegna, including simplified, volumetric shapes; vivid colors; and classical architectural features. However, Correggio moderated the firm contours, typical of Mantegna, through the subtle handling of chiaroscuro (dark/light effects), inspired by works of Leonardo da Vinci. A highly original aspect of the picture is the naturalistic landscape, which is infused with a tragic mood, complementing the theme.

The effects of chiaroscuro are still more pronounced in Saints Peter, Martha, Mary Magdalene, and Leonard (about 1515, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), in which Correggio also utilized Leonardesque sfumato (an Italian term referring to the "smoky" or hazy effects, used to soften contours) to soften the forms and to enhance the tender mood.

Correggio more fully defined his distinctive manner in the Adoration of the Magi (about 1517, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). His appropriations from other artists are less apparent in this picture than in earlier works because he has synthesized them into a coherent whole. He creates a mood of intense religious feeling through the eloquent and vivid facial expressions, gestures, and poses. Shimmering effects of light enhance the appeal of the picture.

A Major Commission from Gioanna Piacenza

In 1519, Gioanna Piacenza (d. 1524), Abbess of the Benedictine convent of San Paolo in Parma, entrusted Correggio with his first large-scale undertaking: the decoration of the salon of the convent. For this project, he devised an innovative and ambitious program. He painted the vault of the salon to resemble the trellises of a lush garden arbor, filled with playful putti. Taking into account the probable viewpoints of spectators, Correggio made the painted vault illusionistically convincing through the use of foreshortening and other devices.

In addition, on the upper part of the walls, he painted twelve lunettes with nude figures (primarily female), which represent mythological and allegorical themes. The ensemble is completed by the large, exuberant image of Diana on her Chariot, painted on the chimney piece. The full meaning of the program is still debated by scholars, but it certainly alludes to the power of women. This theme was of great importance to Abbess Gioanna, who repeatedly asserted her right to govern the convent without recourse to bishops or other male authorities.

The shimmering effects of light, fluid handling of paint, and glowing colors contribute to the sensual impact of the images. Most scholars insist that the erotic treatment of the figures simply accords with Renaissance conventions and has no relevance to the purposes of the program. However, it is possible that this aspect of the decoration would have had particular appeal for Abbess Gioanna and the other residents of the convent, who were rumored to practice "unnatural vices." Perhaps Abbess Gioanna selected Correggio for this project because of the same-sex eroticism already apparent in his pictures.

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