Correggio’s Conundrum

His pagan room for an abbess defies easy analysis

On a hot summer afternoon, Parma looks like a Giorgio de Chirico painting, its elegant squares and clean, flat, narrow streets devoid of human life. Sunlight intersects with shade at unexpected angles. But far from being Cole Porter’s “stingy, dingy menace,” Parma—the world’s ham-and-cheese capital, in Italy’s broad Po valley—offers a tourist ample artistic as well as gustatory pleasures. The smallest, most hidden and most memorable of the former is the earliest commissioned work of Antonio Allegri (1489-1534), who was called Correggio in honor of his nearby native town.

At the end of an allée of graceful acacia trees in a shaded courtyard in the center of the city stands what remains of an old Benedictine convent (the so-called Monastery of St. Paul), begun in the 11th century. It reached its pinnacle at the turn of the 16th century when Giovanna da Piacenza became abbess. A woman of aristocratic blood and enlightened, humanistic intelligence, Giovanna decided to commission local artists to design her private apartments. Little remains today except a cluster of rooms, one of which, completed in 1518-19, is Correggio’s first masterwork.

To anyone suffering from museum overload (or “Stendhal syndrome”—Stendhal, of course, loved Parma above all other Italian cities), this room is wonderful not only in itself, but in contrast to other tourist spots. I spent more than two hours in Correggio’s camera, and a mere handful of other tourists walked through, quickly and quietly. Compared with any major museum, this little gem inspires contemplation.

To get a sense of Correggio’s achievement—the ceiling and wall frescoes for a modest, 22-foot-square space—it’s best to measure it against the room from which you enter. Alessandro Araldi (1460-1529) was Correggio’s senior by nearly three decades and represented an entirely different sensibility. In 1514 Araldi did a room for the abbess in the older, fashionable Gothic style. Its ceiling is chock-a-block with figures both Christian and classical, sacred and profane, grotesques, sphinxes, griffins, a unicorn with the Virgin Mary—all visions of the conflict between vice and virtue.

Correggio’s room, by contrast, is a breath of fresh air, embodying the Renaissance’s rediscovery of classical art and values. Nature’s green is its primary color. The room’s tone combines jubilance and dignity, but its intention remains pretty much a mystery. What was Giovanna trying to do or say? Why is the decoration totally pagan and secular, a series of scenes in honor of Diana, Roman goddess of chastity and of the hunt?

The umbrella-like vaulted ceiling has 16 frescoed panels—ribs that look like bamboo—which descend at the apex from the coat of arms of Giovanna’s family. The entire dome resembles a painted latticework pergola, with garlands of fruits and flowers, and wonderful oval frames surrounding rollicking putti or cupids, beneath which are lunettes of classical figures in grisaille, atop a cornice with painted columns supported by ram’s heads, festooned draperies and domestic objects like pitchers and bowls.

The lunettes bear symbolic weight, but both their literal references and their meaning have remained obscure. We see, for example, Juno and Jupiter, Saturn, satyrs and Pan, the three Graces, and personifications of the four natural elements, all of whom have been analyzed from multiple perspectives over the course of the past century. One grisaille with a young woman holding a bouncing boy may represent Rea Silvia or Ino, carrying young Jupiter, or perhaps Bacchus. Another, of a seated older man, may symbolize age, or philosophy, contemplation or Saturn.

The liveliest figures are the painted boys, poised between youth and adolescence, delicately plump children with a hint of sexuality. Baby fat is turning to muscle. Correggio obviously learned something from Michelangelo’s men. (At least one figure in the lunettes looks like the master’s David in Florence.) Why he—or Giovanna—chose to portray Diana with these boys rather than, as might be expected, her own female attendants, remains a puzzle.

The noise of Pan and the turbulence of the hunt are depicted here, but so are tranquility, peace and plenty. There’s something of a teasing game going on too, since the oval pictures of the boys suggest activity continuing in the greenery outside their frames; it’s a dense, pastoral world that we spectators cannot penetrate, of whose action we catch mere glimpses. The boys wrestle, climb hills, blow horns, carry bows and the heads of slain animals, and wrap themselves sexily around their hunting dogs. Their lives are entirely of the body. Nothing of them suggests the spirit, only the pleasures of maleness without the threats of virility.

Giovanna was an independent woman who was friendly with artists and secular, free-thinking humanists. She may have sent Correggio to Rome, where he would have seen Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanze della Segnatura and Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Vatican. But what she and her young painter meant to express in this ceiling is still unresolved. What it all means has been debated for years. The art historian Erwin Panofsky called the camera an allegory for the abbess’s virtue, based on the three “mirrors” of Renaissance iconography: the moral, the natural and the doctrinal. Roberto Longhi called it an allegory of the hunt, whereas Arnaldo Barilli said it suggested the evolution of the social and the individual life. No one would call it sacred. Perhaps Giovanna invoked Diana in her role as goddess of chastity, and also perhaps because of the partial resemblance of their names. On the north wall of the room, over the hood of the fireplace, Correggio has painted Diana on her chariot. She clearly represents the abbess, and the partial moon over her head repeats Giovanna’s own coat of arms. Below her are the words “IGNEM GLADIO NE FODIAS” (“You will not poke out the fire with the sword”), perhaps a terse statement of proud resistance to Papal authority, or a simple formula of independent self- assurance.

The new air of the Renaissance did not last long, at least at this Benedictine monastery, which in 1524 was sequestered, cut off from the world. Giovanna died shortly thereafter at the age of 45. The convent endured quietly for several more centuries, but Correggio’s camera fell into oblivion until the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs, in 1774, got special permission to see it and began to speak of “Correggio’s miracle.” In the 19th century, other visitors began to discover it. It remains as miraculous, green and fresh today—as tempting, quiet and mysterious—as it was almost half a millennium ago. The rebirth signaled by the Renaissance continues.

Mr. Spiegelman’s latest book, “Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness,” has been released in paperback by Picador. He is the editor in chief of the Southwest Review.


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