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Correggio (Antonio Allegri) (1494?-1534)  
 
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One of the most innovative Italian painters of the sixteenth century, Antonio Allegri is usually called Correggio, after the small town in the Emilian region of Italy where he was born. One of the first artists to abandon the classical restraints of the High Renaissance, Correggio devised a highly original manner with many features that directly anticipate the Baroque style of the seventeenth century--including free and fluent handling of paint, illusionistic effects, and physical and emotional interaction with the spectator.

Correggio infused all of his figures--male and female alike--with an intense voluptuousness that transcends any limitations of gender. His depiction of exquisite youths has made him a favorite among gay male viewers in the modern era. The artist also challenged dominant conventions by celebrating the fusion of pain and ecstasy in altarpieces, such as The Martyrdom of Four Saints (about 1520, Galleria Nazionale, Parma).

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Correggio as Queer Icon

The appreciation of Correggio can be traced back to at least 1874 when the pioneering homosexual writer John Addington Symonds celebrated the "soft voluptuousness" of Correggio's figures in his book, Sketches and Studies in Italy and Greece. Given the sexual repression of the Victorian period, it is not surprising that Symonds avoided naming Correggio as a homosexual. However, his lavish commentary leaves little doubt about his understanding of the implications of the Italian artist's pictures.

For instance, Symonds characterized the figures of seraphs and saints in the dome of Parma Cathedral as "among the most splendid instances of the adolescent loveliness conceived by Correggio" and further asserted that "in their boyhood and their prime of youth, they acquire a fullness of sensuous vitality and a radiance that are peculiar to Correggio." Among other prominent homosexuals in late nineteenth-century Britain, Oscar Wilde shared Symonds's admiration for Correggio's art, and he sought out his paintings during his trip to Italy in 1875.

The homoerotic qualities of Correggio's paintings have continued to be appreciated by gay viewers in recent decades. Thus, Charles W. Leslie, co-founder of the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation, recently remarked that "When one looks at Correggio's Christ Crowning the Virgin, it is almost impossible to believe that the artist was not gay."

Frequently included in lists of famous gay historical figures, Correggio is among the fifty-two individuals whose name is recorded on Into the Light, the mural covering the dome in the Gay and Lesbian Center of the San Francisco Public Library. Furthermore, the overall conception of this trompe l'oeil painting by Mark Evans and Charley Brown (1995-96) was ultimately inspired by Correggio's revolutionary fresco of the Assumption in Parma Cathedral.

The Heterosexualization of Correggio in Scholarly Writing

Despite the intuitive recognition by gay viewers of the queer dimensions of Correggio's work, virtually all modern scholars--including glbtq historians--have maintained that the artist was exclusively heterosexual. For instance, in his influential account of representations of Ganymede, Saslow emphatically maintains that the homoerotic aspects of Correggio's paintings could have nothing to do with his own personality because he was married and fathered children. Such assertions overlook the fluid conception of sexual identity that prevailed in Renaissance Europe despite the harsh condemnation of . (Such assertions are also curiously naive, especially coming from gay scholars. After all, many of the most famous homosexuals of the modern era, including Wilde and Symonds, were also married and the fathers of children.)

To account for the homoerotic aspects of Correggio's work, scholars have resorted to a variety of unconvincing explanations. Some have dismissed the homoeroticism of his paintings as an unintended byproduct of such technical innovations as his delicate coloring and soft, atmospheric effects. Of course, this theory implies that the artist was a "gifted idiot," unaware of the impact of his creations.

More commonly, it is claimed that Correggio incorporated homoerotic elements into his work in order to appeal to the sophisticated tastes of aristocratic patrons. However, it is difficult to believe that all of the artist's clients (many of whom are unknown today) would have encouraged homoerotic imagery.

Saslow specifically associates the homoerotic qualities of Correggio's paintings with the influence of writers in the circle of Federigo II Gonzaga, Marchess of Mantua, for whom Correggio created some of his most famous mythological pieces. However, Correggio infused his paintings with homoerotic qualities long before he did any work for the Mantuan court. Furthermore, as Saslow admits, same-sex love was described primarily in derogatory and satirical terms in the poems and theatrical pieces at the Mantuan court.

The queer dimensions of Correggio's work have largely been overlooked by scholars who regard the sensuality of his images as a distinctive response to the needs of the emerging Catholic Counter Reformation. While these historians demonstrate the relevance of sexual desire to worship, they do not explain why Correggio would have infused his religious paintings with such strong homoerotic feeling.

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zoom in
A portrait of Correggio (top) and three of his paintings (top to bottom):
The Adoration of the Magi (ca 1517), The Martyrdom of Four Saints (ca 1520), and Ecce Homo (ca 1525-1530).

  
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