This is an important, newly discovered work by Antonio Allegri, better known as Correggio, one of the greatest and most influential figures of the Italian High Renaissance. Painted circa 1514-15, this picture provides a profound insight into the development of the young artist, shedding new light on the extent to which Correggio was prepared to experiment with form and design and demonstrating a stylistic link between his formative years and his more mature work.
There is no record of Correggio's artistic training but his early style indicates that he must certainly have been aware of the work of Lorenzo Costa (1460-1535). However, his first real inspiration was Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506), in whose studio he may well have assisted, and whose influence he was never to shake off entirely. Since at least the seventeenth century it was thought that the young Correggio had collaborated with Mantegna in the decoration of the funerary chapel in Sant'Andrea in Mantua.1 It is thought that the Evangelists executed circa 1507 in the pendentives of the dome of Sant'Andrea may also be entirely by Correggio, as well as two frescoes detached from the same church and now in the Museo Diocesano in Mantua.2 It is also widely thought that a Madonna and Child in the National Gallery of Art, Washington (see fig. 1) should be included in Correggio's early catalogue. 3 Dateable to around 1510, it is a work painted almost entirely in the idiom of Mantegna yet with a softness not found in the latter's work, and which makes explicit the artistic link between the two artists. Yet these works also reveal an increasing awareness of Leonardo (1452-1519) and his Milanese followers. Whether the young Correggio made the trip to Lombardy is not known, though it must be considered a strong possibility.
Though Correggio's earliest surviving documented work is the altarpiece of the Madonna of Saint Francis in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, painted 1514-15, several works can be assumed to predate this on the basis of style.4 The considerable size of the work (299 by 245 cm) and the fact that it was commissioned for the largest church in his native town, San Francesco in Correggio, suggest that the artist must have already established himself as a figure of some repute. Amongst the works which must predate the Virgin of Saint Francis but postdate the Washington Madonna and Child are three different types of paintings. One is Correggio's earliest altarpiece, a Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine in Detroit which perfectly blends the influence of both Mantegna and Leonardo and was formerly ascribed to Bernardino Luini (circa 1480/82-1532), one of Leonardo's followers in Milan.5 The second group of paintings includes some narrative works such as Christ taking leave of his Mother, in the National Gallery, London, which through its chromatic developments shows Correggio moving away from Mantegna.6 The final group, which includes the present painting, consists of several interpretations of the theme of the Madonna and Child. These were destined for private devotion, are generally small in size and (originally) on panel. To these religious subjects Correggio brings a very human touch, portraying his figures with naturalism and tenderness. Here, for example, no attempt is made to cover the Infant's modesty for He is still but a child who is yet to argue with the Doctors in the temple; He is yet to commence His Ministry; He is yet to become the Messiah.
From this last group and closest to the present painting are a Madonna and Child with the Baptist, in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan (a panel transferred to canvas; see fig. 2) and a panel in the Art Institute in Chicago (see fig. 3).7 In these early works Correggio reuses models and figures presumably based on drawings but each time combines different elements to create variations on the same theme. At this stage the artist was still very much experimenting with facial types and had not yet settled on the idiosyncratic type of his later works, though the Madonnas do display the beginnings of a distinctive approach to cheekbones and brows. The foreshortened pose of Christ's legs in the present work is repeated in the Chicago painting and the aforementioned Dresden altarpiece and could well be inspired by Leonardo's presumed lost cartoon of the Madonna del Gatto, known today through preparatory studies (see fig. 4).8 Indeed all three works are united by a remarkably Leonardesque composition and in their interest in the relationship between the figures, and in the Milan painting in particular Correggio pays as much attention as in the present work to depicting the crossing of different figures' limbs. Each painting presents a slightly off-centre yet balanced triangular composition; in the present work the design is constructed by a steep diagonal rising from the Baptist's shoulder through Christ's left arm, His head and up to the Madonna's head. This is bisected just at the point where the Madonna's hand meets Christ's head by a line which runs from Christ's head, down through his body and right leg as far as the Madonna's right knee. Infra-red imagery shows that while the majority of the design conforms to Correggio's initial intentions, significant pentimenti are present in the Madonna's right hand which appears to have been changed twice, and in the placing of the Baptist's profile (see fig. 5).
The good overall condition of the work allows us to appreciate the glowing flesh tones as well as the strong colouring in the reds, green and blue of the Madonna's cloak, which look back to Lorenzo Costa. They mirror the Chicago painting which is also very well preserved, and shows similar care in the execution of the Children's curls, while the Madonna's hair recalls that of a Judith in Strasbourg, also an early work.9 Yet the present work is more nuanced than the Chicago picture in its decoration of the gold embroidered edges of the Madonna's mantle, and shows greater creative flair by its inclusion of the folded blue drapery at the centre of the composition. Moreover, the Milan and Chicago paintings lack the energy and directness of the present design which, somewhat unusually, shows Christ holding the Baptist's head with his left hand, accentuating the physical aspect of the work. Here we are closer in the pictorial space and as viewers we are drawn into the composition since the Madonna looks directly at us. A sense of immediacy is also increased by the lack of real background, which is merely alluded to at the right of the composition. In this, the present work differs markedly from the other two as it is composed only of a foreground inhabited by the figures, and a middle ground described by the tree and foliage behind the Madonna, whereas the Milan and Chicago paintings are composed of three pictorial spaces: the figures in the foreground, the middle ground represented by a balustrade in one and a trelliss in the other, and a very northern Leonardesque background beyond. That Correggio felt confident enough to do away with anything superfluous to the requirements of the scene is testament to his growing ability in these early years and looks forward to his feted work of the 1520s.
We are grateful to Professor David Ekserdjian, Dottor Pietro Marani, Dottor Emilio Negro and Dottoressa Nicosetta Roio for endorsing the attribution, the first following first-hand inspection of the painting and the others on the basis of a transparency.
1. See I. Donesmondi, Dell'istoria ecclesiastica di Montova, Mantua 1612-16, vol. II, pp. 47, 49. The fact that Francesco Mantegna, Andrea's son, is known to have settled some outstanding debt in 1512 with several creditors after his father's death, one of whom was Correggio, supports the idea that he was involved in Mantegna's workshop until the latter's death in 1506; see R. Signorini, 'Un inedito su Francesco Mantegna e il Correggio', in Te, 1996, 3, pp. 79-80 and E. Monducci, Il Correggio. La vita e le opera nelle fonti documentarie, Milan 2004, p. 43.
2. See D. Ekserdjian, Correggio, New Haven and London 1997, pp. 24-26, reproduced figures 20-23.
3. Idem, p. 27, reproduced in colour p. 28.
4. Idem, pp. 47-52, reproduced in colour p. 47.
5. Idem, p. 32, reproduced in colour p. 33.
6. Idem, pp. 41-46, reproduced in colour p. 45.
7. Idem, pp. 37-41, reproduced in colour p. 38, figure 36, and p. 39 respectively.
8. See C.C. Bambach (ed.), Leonardo Da Vinci, Master Draftsman, exh. cat., New York 2003, reproduced p. 87, figure 52.
9. See Ekserdjian, op. cit., pp. 35-37, reproduced in colour p. 36.
Oil on panel
Antonio Correggio Correggio Allegri
45 by 35.5 cm.; 17 3/4 by 14 in.
Private collection, Switzerland, from circa 1900;
From whom acquired by the present owner circa 2000.