Parma Paintings – Italy

Leaving this, I proceeded to the Academy of Arts and Sciences; and now propose merely to point out a few of the most striking or interesting pictures it contains. On entering this apartment, one of my first objects was to obtain a view of Hannibal Caracci’s two celebrated paintings, from which Laland’s pictures in the Cathedral of Placentia had been designed, the recollection of which, as might easily be imagined, only served to heighten the beauty of the originals. There is in the composition and execution of these, a character of grandeur, mingled with a tone of deep and solemn melancholy, inexpressibly touching. The figures are gigantic; but here we find size without coarseness, giving only greater nobleness to the form. The Virgin lies on a bier borne by the Apostles, and carried so high as partly to conceal their grief; the cloak of one of them covers her form; her eyes are closed, while her matron-like countenance is seen pale and still, yet beautiful even in death. Angels, hovering over her, are represented scattering flowers, and waving censers. The whole beauty and interest of the piece, however, rests in the main subject, in the Virgin’s countenance, in her form, as she lies on the bier, in the fine representation of death, and in the solemn grandeur expressed in the manner and attitude of the Apostles:—the forms of the angels are wanting in aerial transparency; the figures also are too distinct no bright halo illumines to give distance, no light clouds produce that softening hazy medium, so beautiful in the representation of the ascending and disappearing of angels, as they rise into Heaven.

The piece, however, as a whole, is very fine. The companion to this painting, which represents, as I mentioned in describing the copy, the approach of the Apostles to the tomb of Christ, and their dismay on finding it unoccupied, is not so good: in this there is no story distinctly told, an object of the first importance in composition; nor any point sufficiently prominent to excite or fill the mind. The figures of the Apostles are of gigantic size, and possess a considerable character of grandeur; but this does not produce such an effect as to compensate for the general want of interest in the design. This portion of Scripture is a history rather to be told, than represented; because you do not on the first view immediately understand the subject, nor clearly comprehend the nature of the object engaging the attention of the Apostles. The figure of St John, who touches the linen partly hanging over the tomb, is by much the finest.

A picture by Correggio, a striking and beautiful piece. The Mother and Child are represented seated on the altar, and at their feet a St Cecilia with a violoncello; while St Peter, St John, and St Catherine, stand on either side of Mary. The composition and grouping is very masterly; the feelings and intentions of the surrounding figures being so finely expressed, that each bears a proportionate part; it is a tale told, not an unmeaning collection of figures, such as often fill the fore-grounds of paintings in other respects good. The figure of St Cecilia, especially, is finely drawn, and the colouring of the whole rich and beautiful.

The Espousals of the Virgin, by Procaccini. This painting is executed in a most superb style. The canvass is filled, yet not crowded; the disposition of the groups, and the keeping of the whole, is admirable. The youthful but manly figure of Joseph, is contrasted by the softest expression of feminine beauty in Mary; while the characteristic simplicity of both is a fine relief to the gorgeous costume, and the dignified aspect and demeanour, of the high priest. The countenance of a young woman, who is seen just behind the Virgin, is distinguished by a most touching sweetness, mingled with a grandeur of expression very striking; one of the group, standing behind Joseph, having his hands poised on his two thumbs, as he seems lost in the intensity of the fixed attention with which he regards the ceremony, although the posture is vulgar, is represented with a truth to nature singularly effective. In one corner of the painting, a child is seen playing with his mother’s hand, and pushing it back, while she smiles upon him with an expression of the greatest tenderness.

The three Maries at the Sepulchre, a picture by Schidone in a style so grand, so deep-toned, the figures so noble, the drapery so simple, and the expression so powerful, as to seize singularly on the imagination, producing an effect at once commanding and impressive, combining the highest elevation of sentiment with the most touching sorrow. The figure of the angel sitting on the tomb, is also fine; but the countenance is rather deficient in character.

La Madonna della Scala, a noble fresco painting, by Correggio, now framed, and carefully preserved.

The Descent from the Cross, by Hannibal Caracci; a celebrated and very fine picture. Our Saviour, taken down from the cross, is laid out in a reclining posture, while Mary is seen in the background, fainting, and sinking, surrounded by a group of angels; St Francis is standing a little below the body of our Saviour, with both his hands extended, pointing wildly and energetically towards his dead master; while Mary Magdalene is kneeling on the opposite side, with hands uplifted, and clasped in an agony of grief. The composition and execution of this piece are both in the first style of excellence. The drawing of the figure of our Saviour is at once the most learned in point of anatomy, and the truest to nature I have ever seen; the figures of the Virgin, and the angels in the back ground, are in such keeping, as not in any degree to intrude on the picture, but are beautiful, and very natural.

Another Descent from the Cross, by Schidone; superb indeed. Our Saviour, with the head turned towards the sepulchre, is laid and supported on the knee of St John; St Peter, bending over the body, is drawing the linen across to bind the wound; Mary, partly kneeling, is looking, with uplifted hands, from under the cloth; and Joseph, standing a little lower, with extended hand and finger, as if pointing towards the sepulchre, seen in the darker part of the picture, which presents a gloomy wild sky, and undefined landscape. The earnestness and interest of St Peter, while in the act of drawing the linen, with the mild and touching grief of Mary, are inexpressibly fine, as is the grand and prophetic figure of St John; while the deepened tone of the horizon, its sombre hue, the indistinctness of the distance in the back ground, in which all seems silent and desolate, are very affecting. This, in my opinion, is the finest piece in the collection; the most powerful in expression, and the most agitating in its effects on the mind.

Proceeding in my review of the paintings in the Academy of Science, I entered into what is styled the Chamber of Correggio, containing four of his most celebrated paintings.

The first, named la Madonna della della, from the vessel which she holds in her hand for drawing water, is one of the finest of all his compositions. The scene is the journey into Egypt; Mary is represented sitting with the child, her countenance bearing all that character of feminine loveliness, which Correggio so well knew how to display. Her drapery is of a yellowish pale colour, light and graceful and the action of Joseph, who, with an extended arm, is taking hold of the child’s hand, finely expressed.

The second is la Madonna di San Girolamo; and also most beautiful. The painting represents the Virgin sitting with the child on her knee, and Mary Magdalene at his feet, her countenance being raised towards him with an expression of lowliness, of love, and adoration, most forcibly and tenderly expressed; his hand is thrust into her hair with playful infantine grace, while an an-gel on his left hand seems endeavouring to attract his attention. St Jerome, forming the balance of the group, stands on the other side. The colouring of this picture is very rich,

The third is the martyrdom of Santa Placida, and her sister Santa Flavia. The colouring and painting of this piece are much finer than the composition. The whole is so ill conceived, and ill managed, and the subject of such a nature, that you cannot look on it with pleasure.

The fourth, the Descent from the Cross. The form of our Saviour, who lies supported on the lap of the Virgin, is very fine; the marble stillness, and silent resignation painted in Mary’s countenance, over whose features the paleness of death seems fast approaching, is inexpressibly touching; and the figure of Mary Magdalene, who is kneeling, with clasped hands, in an agony of despair, at our Saviour’s feet, is exquisitely drawn. The composition and expression of this group are, perhaps, among Correggio’s finest works, but the other departments of the painting by no means equal these. The two other Maries are vulgar ordinary figures; while the person who is coming down from the ladder does not seem to belong to the awful scene, and is in every respect quite out of keeping. I must observe also, that even in the figure of our Saviour, the whole is not perfect, the wound not being well represented, and one of the hands seeming contracted, as if to imitate a spasm; this effect, although not very prominent, must, nevertheless, be regarded as a fault, and at variance with the general character of such a representation.

In this room, we find a small picture, representing the Ascension, finely executed. Our Saviour is seated in the Heavens, with the Virgin and St John, one on either side; and St Paul and St Catherine in adoration below. The figure of St Paul is peculiarly majestic; the drapery richly coloured, and very beautiful; while the countenance of St Catherine is truly heavenly, painted with all that expression of sweetness and simplicity which characterizes true holiness.

The apartment more especially termed Correggio’s chamber, is that of the Lady Abbess in the Abbey of St Paolo, which he painted in his twenty-fourth year. The subjects present a strange mixture of profane and sacred history, which at that period we find very common. The whole is in perfect preservation, and some portions very beautiful, especially the Diana, forming the ornament of the chimney-piece; but there is no-thing masterly, with the exception of the figures of the angels, which are well drawn, full, fleshy, and sweetly coloured.

Many of the paintings now filling this Academy and Gallery were, before the Revolution, to be found in the churches of the city. Such of the paintings restored by France to Italy, as were not private property, are now chiefly to be found in the halls of public edifices, a measure of great importance, as tending to guard them against the danger of mouldering on dark damp walls, and to render them more useful as public property.

But as they have not been restored to their original destination, some time must elapse before a traveller can describe with certainty the position of the paintings now in Italy. Private collections, in consequence of a very general sale, must constantly be changing; in public halls, their final place is as yet hardly determined; and even where it is, these are frequently undergoing such repairs as to render their present habitation merely temporary. This last being the case in Parma, I have almost feared to give even these slight notices of the works I have visited; the paintings themselves, how ever, wherever found, must possess the same interest; many among them, as I have already mentioned, being very fine, especially the two superb paintings by Schidone, which, for expression and grandeur, are such as I hardly ever expect to see surpassed.

Correggio was esteemed the first great master of the school of Parma of that period. Francesco Mazzuola, styled Parmegiano, the second; but the sweetness and grace of that artist is ascribed more to his study of Raffaelo, than to his imitations of Correggio. His famous work of the Adoration of the Magi, is held to be the finest of his pictures.

Among the works of art in this city, the fresco paintings by Hanibal Caracci, in the Palazzo Giardino, excite great interest. This residence, which is beautifully situated just beyond the walls of the city, was entirely pillaged during the period of the Revolution, and as we ascended fine staircases, and passed through noble apartments, we could only perceive how delightful it had been. Here we may say Caracci died, for here his labours ended; he was busied with these chambers, had finished all the designs, and had executed four superb frescos, when he was taken ill and died, leaving what was yet unfinished to be completed by his pupils.

Of all the apartments that were adorned by this great master, that styled Caracci’s Chamber, has alone entirely escaped the depredations of time and accident.