Parma

It is perhaps the brightest Residenzstadt of the second class in Italy. Built on a sunny and fertile tract of the Lombard plain, within view of the Alps, and close beneath the shelter of the Apennines, it shines like a well-set gem with stately towers and cheerful squares in the midst of verdure. The cities of Lombardy are all like large country-houses : walking out of their gates, you seem to be stepping from a door or window that opens on a trim and beautiful garden, where mulberry-tree is married to mulberry by festoons of vines, and where the maize and sunflower stand together in rows between patches of flax and hemp. But it is not in order to survey the union of well-ordered husbandry with the civilities of ancient city-life that we break the journey at Par-ma between Milan and Bologna. We are attracted rather by the fame of one great painter, whose work, though it may be studied piecemeal in many galleries of Europe, in Parma has a fulness, largeness, and mastery that can nowhere else be found. In Par-ma alone Correggio challenges comparison with Raphael, with Tintoretto, with all the supreme decorative painters who have deigned to make their art the handmaid of architecture. Yet even in the cathedral and the church of St. Giovanni, where Correggio’s frescos cover cupola and chapel wall, we could scarcely comprehend his greatness now—so cruelly have time and neglect dealt with those delicate dream-shadows of celestial fairy-landwere it not for an interpreter who consecrated a lifetime to the task of translating his masters poetry of fresco into the prose of engraving. That man was Paolo Toschi — a name to be ever venerated by all lovers of the arts, since without his guidance we should hardly know what to seek for in the ruined splendors of the domes of Parma, or even, seeking, how to find the object of our search. Toschi’s labor was more effectual than that of a restorer however skilful, more loving than that of a follower how-ever faithful. He respected Correggio’s handiwork with religious scrupulousness, adding not a line or tone or touch of color to the fading frescos; but he lived among them, aloft on scaffoldings, and face to face with the originals which he designed to reproduce. By long and close familiarity, by obstinate and pa-tient interrogation, he divined Correggio’s secret, and was able at last to see clearly through the mists of cobweb and mildew and altar smoke, and through the still more cruel travesty of so-called restoration. What he discovered he faithfully committed first to paper in water-colors, and then to copperplate with the burin ; so that we enjoy the privilege of seeing Correggio’s masterpieces as Toschi saw them, with the eyes of genius and of love and of long scientific study. It is not too much to say that some of Correggio’s most charming compositions—for example, the dispute of St. Augustine and St. John—have been resuscitated from the grave by Toschi’s skill. The original offers nothing but a mouldering surface from which the painter’s work has dropped in scales. The engraving presents a design which we doubt not was Correggio’s, for it corresponds in all particulars to the style and spirit of the, master. To be critical in dealing with so successful an achievement of restoration and translation is difficult. Yet it may be admitted once and for all that Toschi has not unfrequently enfeebled his original. Under his touch Correggio loses somewhat of his sensuous audacity, his dithyrambic ecstasy, and approaches the ordinary standard of prettiness and graceful beauty. The Diana of the Camera di S. Paolo, for instance, has the strong calm splendor of a goddess: the same Diana in Toschi’s engraving seems about to smile with girlish joy. In a word, the engraver was a man of a more common stamp—more timid and more conventional than the painter. But this is after all a trifling deduction from the value of his work.

Our debt to Paolo Toschi is such that it would be ungrateful not to seek some details of his life. The few that can be gathered even at Parma are brief and bald enough. The newspaper articles and funeral panegyrics which refer to him are as barren as all such occasional notices in Italy have always been, the panegyrist seeming more anxious about his own style than eager to communicate information. Yet a bare outline of Toschi’s biography may be supplied. He was born at Parma in 1788. His father was cashier of the post-office, and his mother’s name was Anna Maria Brest. Early in his youth he studied painting at Parma under Biagio Martini ; and in 1809 he went to Paris, where he learned the art of engraving from Bervic, and of etching from Oortman. In Paris he contracted an intimate friend-ship with the painter Gérard. But after ten years he returned to Parma, where he established a company and school of engravers in concert with his friend Antonio Isac. Maria Louisa, the then duchess, under whose patronage the arts flourished at Parma (witness Bodoni’s exquisite typography), soon recognized his merit, and appointed him Director of the Ducal Academy. He then formed the project of engraving a series of the whole of Correggio’s frescos. The undertaking was a vast one. Both the cupolas of St. John and the cathedral, together with the vault of the apse of St. Giovanni* and various portions of the side aisles, and the so-called Camera di S. Paolo, are covered by frescos of Correggio and his pupil Parmegiano. These frescos have suffered so much from neglect and time, and from unintelligent restoration, that it is difficult in many cases to determine their true character. Yet Toschi did not content himself with selections, or shrink from the task of deciphering and engraving the whole. He formed a school of disciples, among whom were Carlo Raimondi of Milan, Antonio Costa of Venice, Edward Eichens of Berlin, Aloisio Juvara of Naples, Antonio Dalcô, Giuseppe Magnani, and Lodovico Bisola of Parma, and employed them as assistants in his work. Death overtook him in 1854, before it was finished; and now the water-color drawings which are exhibited in the gallery of Parma prove to what extent the achievement fell short of his design. Enough, however, was accomplished to place the chief masterpieces of Correggio beyond the possibility of utter oblivion.

To the piety of his pupil Carlo Raimondi, the bearer of a name illustrious in the annals of engraving, we owe a striking portrait of Toschi. The master is represented on his seat upon the scaffold in the dizzy half-light of the dome. The shadowy forms of saints and angels are around him. He has raised his eyes from his cartoon to study one of these. In his right hand is the opera-glass with which he scrutinizes the details of distant groups. The upturned face, with its expression of contemplative intelligence, is like that of an astronomer accustomed to commerce with things above the sphere of common life, and ready to give account of all that he has gathered from his observation of a world not ours. In truth, the world created by Correggio and interpreted by Toschi is very far removed from that of actual existence. No painter has infused a more distinct individuality into his work, realizing by imaginative force and powerful projection an order of beauty peculiar to himself before which it is impossible to remain quite indifferent. We must either admire the manner of Correggio or else shrink from it with the distaste which sensual art is apt to stir in natures of a severe or simple type.

What, then, is the Correggiosity of Correggio ? In other words, what is the characteristic which, proceeding from the personality of the artist, is impressed on all his work? The answer to this question, though by no means simple, may, perhaps, be won by a process of gradual analysis. The first thing that strikes us in the art of Correggio is that he has aimed at the realistic representation of pure unrealities. His saints and angels are beings the like of whom we have hardly seen upon the earth. Yet they are displayed before us with all the movement and the vivid truth of nature. Next we feel that what constitutes the superhuman, visionary quality of these creatures is their uniform beauty of a merely sensuous type. They are all created for pleasure, not for thought or passion or activity or heroism. The uses of their brains, their limbs, their every feature, end in enjoyment; innocent and radiant wantonness is the condition of their whole existence. Correggio conceived the universe under the one mood of sensuous joy: his world was bathed in luxurious light; its in-habitants were capable of little beyond a soft voluptuousness. Over the domain of tragedy he had no sway, and very rarely did he attempt to enter on it : nothing, for example, can be feebler than his endeavor to express anguish in the distorted features of Madonna, St. John, and the Magdalen, who are bending over the dead body of a Christ extended in the attitude of languid repose. In like manner, he could not deal with subjects which demand a pregnancy of intellectual meaning. He paints the three Fates like young and joyous Bacchantes. Place rose-garlands and thyrsi in their hands instead of the distaff and the thread of human destinies, and they might figure appropriately upon the panels of a banquet-chamber in Pompeii. In this respect Correggio might be termed the Rossini of painting. The melodies of the Stabat Mater—Fetc ut portem, or Quis est homo—are the exact analogues in music of Correggio’s voluptuous renderings of grave or mysterious motives. Nor, again, did he possess that severe and lofty art of composition which subordinates the fancy to the reason, and which seeks for the highest intellectual beauty in a kind of architectural harmony supreme above the melodies of gracefulness in detail. The Florentines and those who shared their spirit—Michael Angelo and Leonardo and Raphael—deriving this principle of design from the geometrical art of the Middle Ages, converted it to the noblest uses in their vast, well-ordered compositions. But Correggio ignored the laws of scientific construction. It was enough for him to produce a splendid and brilliant effect by the life and movement of his figures and by the intoxicating beauty of his forms. His type of beauty, too, is by no means elevated. Leonardo painted souls whereof the features and the limbs are but an index. The charm of Michael Angelo’s ideal is like a flower upon a tree of rugged strength. Raphael aims at the loveliness which cannot be disjoined from goodness. But Correggio is contented with bodies “delicate and desirable.” His angels are genii disimprisoned from the perfumed chalices of flowers, houris of an erotic paradise, elemental spirits of nature wantoning in Eden in her prime. To accuse the painter of conscious immorality, or of what is stigmatized as sensuality, would be as ridiculous as to class his seraphic beings among the products of the Christian imagination. They belong to the generation of the fauns. Like fauns, they combine a certain savage wildness, a dithyrambic ecstasy of inspiration, a delight in rapid movement as they revel amid clouds or flowers, with the permanent and all -pervading sweetness of the master’s style. When infantine or childlike, these celestial sylphs are scarcely to be distinguished for any noble quality of beauty from Murillo’s cherubs, and are far less divine than the choir of children who attend Madonna in Titian’s “Assumption.” But in their boyhood and their prime of youth they acquire a fulness of sensuous vitality and a radiance that are peculiar to Correggio. The lily-bearer who helps to support St. Thomas beneath the dome of the cathedral at Parma, the groups of seraphs who crowd behind the Incoronata of St. Giovanni, and the two wild-eyed, open-mouthed St. Johns stationed at each side of the celestial throne are among the most splendid instances of the adolescent loveliness conceived by Correggio. Where the painter found their models may be questioned but not answered ; for he has made them of a different fashion from the race of mortals : no court of Roman emperor or Turkish sultan, though stocked with the flowers of Bithynian and Circassian youth, have seen their like. Mozart’s Cherubino seems to have sat for all of them. At any rate, they incarnate the very spirit of the songs he sings.

As a consequence of this predilection for sensuous and voluptuous forms, Correggio had no power of imagining grandly or severely. Satisfied with material realism in his treatment even of sublime mysteries, he converts the hosts of heaven into a “fricassee of frogs,” according to the old epigram. His apostles, gazing after the Virgin who has left the earth, are thrown into attitudes so violent and so dramatically foreshortened that, seen from below upon the pavement of the cathedral, little of their form is distinguishable except legs and arms in vehement commotion. Very different is Titian’s conception of this scene. To express the spiritual meaning, the emotion of Madonna’s transit, with all the pomp which color and splendid composition can convey, is Titian’s sole care ; whereas Correggio appears to have been satisfied with realizing the tumult of heaven rushing to meet earth, and earth straining upward to ascend to heaven in violent commotion—a very orgasm of frenetic rapture. The essence of the event is forgotten : its external manifestation alone is presented to the eye ; and only the accessories of beardless angels and cloud-encumbered cherubs are really beautiful amid a surge of limbs in restless movement. More dignified, because designed with more repose, is the Apocalypse of St. John painted upon the cupola of St. Giovanni. The apostles throned on clouds, with which the dome is filled, gaze upward to one point. Their attitudes are noble; their form is heroic ; in their eyes there is the strange ecstatic look by which Correggio interpreted his sense of supernatural vision : it is a gaze not of contemplation or deep thought, but of wild, half-savage joy, as if these saints also had become the elemental genii of cloud and air, spirits emergent from ether, the salamanders of an empyrean intolerable to mortal sense. The point on which their eyes converge, the culmination of their vision, is the figure of Christ. Here all the weakness of Correggio’s method is revealed. He had undertaken to realize by no ideal allegorical suggestion, by no symbolism of architectural grouping, but by actual prosaic measurement, by corporeal form in subjection to the laws of perspective and foreshortening, things which in their very essence admit of only a figurative revelation. Therefore his Christ, the centre of all those earnest eyes, is contracted to a shape in which humanity itself is mean, a sprawling figure which irresistibly reminds one of a frog. The clouds on which the saints repose are opaque and solid ; cherubs in count-less multitudes, a swarm of merry children, crawl about upon these feather-beds of vapor, creep between the legs of the apostles, and play at bopeep behind their shoulders. There is no propriety in their appearance there. They take no interest in the beatific vision. They play no part in the celestial symphony ; nor are they capable of more than merely infantine enjoyment. Correggio has sprinkled them lavishly like living flowers about his cloud-land, because he could not sustain a grave and solemn strain of music, but was forced by his temperament to overlay the melody with roulades. Gazing at these frescos, the thought came to me that Correggio was like a man listening to sweetest flute-playing, and translating phrase after phrase as they passed through his fancy into laughing faces, breezy tresses, and rolling mists. Sometimes a grander cadence reached his ear; and then St. Peter with the keys, or St. Augustine of the mighty brow, or the inspired eyes of St. John, took form beneath his pencil. But the light airs returned, and rose and lily faces bloomed again for him among the clouds. It is not therefore in dignity or sublimity that Correggio excels, but in artless grace and melodious tenderness. The Madonna della Scala clasping her baby with a caress which the little child returns, St. Catherine leaning in a rapture of ecstatic love to wed the infant Christ, St. Sebastian in the bloom of almost boyish beauty, are the so-called sacred subjects to which the painter was adequate, and which he has treated with the voluptuous tenderness we find in his pictures of Leda and Danae and Io. Could these saints and martyrs descend from Correggio’s canvas, and take flesh, and breathe, and begin to live; of what high action, of what grave passion, of what exemplary conduct in any walk of life would they be capable? That is the question which they irresistibly suggest; and we are forced to answer, None ! The moral and religious world did not exist for Correggio. His art was but a way of seeing carnal beauty in a dream that had no true relation to reality.

Correggio’s sensibility to light and color was exactly on a par with his feeling for form. He belongs to the poets of chiaroscuro and the poets of coloring; but in both regions he maintains the individuality so strongly expressed in his choice of purely sensuous beauty. Tintoretto makes use of light and shade for investing his great compositions with dramatic intensity. Rembrandt interprets sombre and fantastic moods of the mind by golden gloom and silvery irradiation, translating thought into the language of penumbral mystery. Leonardo studies the laws of light scientifically, so that the proper roundness and effect of distance should be accurately rendered, and all the subtleties of nature’s smiles be mimicked. Correggio is content with fixing on his can-vas the many-twinkling laughter of light in motion, rained down through fleecy clouds or trembling foliage, melting into half-shadows, bathing and illuminating every object with a soft caress. There are no tragic contrasts of splendor sharply defined on blackness, no mysteries of half-felt and pervasive twilight, no studied accuracies of noonday clearness in his work. Light and shadow are woven together on his figures like an impalpable Coan gauze, aerial and transparent, enhancing the palpitations of voluptuous movement which he loved. His coloring, in like manner, has none of the superb and mundane pomp which the Venetians affected : it does not glow or burn or beat the fire of gems into our brain ; joyous and wanton, it seems to be exactly such a beauty-bloom as sense requires for its satiety. There is nothing in his hues to provoke deep passion or to stimulate the yearnings of the soul : the pure blushes of the dawn and the crimson pyres of sunset are nowhere in the world that he has painted. But that chord of jocund color which may fitly be married to the smiles of light, the blues which are found in laughing eyes, the pinks that tinge the cheeks of early youth, and the warm yet silvery tones of healthy flesh, mingle as in a marvellous pearl-shell on his pictures. Both chiaroscuro and coloring have this supreme purpose in art, to affect the sense like music, and like music to create a mood in the soul of the. spectator. Now the mood which Correggio stimulates is one of natural and thought-less pleasure. To feel his influence and at the same moment to be the subject of strong passion, or fierce lust, or heroic resolve, or profound contemplation, or pensive melancholy, is impossible.

Wantonness, innocent because unconscious of sin, immoral because incapable of any serious purpose, is the quality which prevails in all that he has painted. The pantomimes of a Mohammedan paradise might be put upon the stage after patterns supplied by this least spiritual of painters.

It follows from this analysis that the Correggiosity of Correggio, that which sharply distinguished him from all previous artists, was the faculty of painting a purely voluptuous dream of beautiful beings in perpetual movement, beneath the laughter of morning light, in a world of never-failing April hues. When he attempts to depart from the fairy-land of which he was the Prospero, and to match himself with the masters of sublime thought or earnest passion, he proves his weakness. But within his own magic circle he reigns supreme, no other artist having blended the witcheries of coloring, chiaroscuro, and faunlike loveliness of form into a harmony so perfect in its sensuous charm. Be-witched by the strains of the siren, we pardon affectations of expression, emptiness of meaning, feebleness of composition, exaggerated and melodramatic attitudes. There is what Goethe calls a dæmonic influence in the art of Correggio ” in poetry,” said Goethe to Eckermann, “especially in that which is unconscious, before which reason and understanding fall short, and which therefore produces effects so far surpassing all conception, there is always something dæmonic.” It is not to be wondered that Correggio, possessed of this daemonic power in the highest degree, and working to a purely sensuous end, should have exercised a fatal influence over art. His successors, attracted by an intoxicating loveliness which they could not analyze, which had nothing in common with the reason or the understanding, but was like a glamour cast upon the soul in its most secret sensibilities, threw themselves blindly into the imitation of Correggio’s faults. His ‘affectation, his want of carnest thought, his neglect of composition, his sensuous realism, his all-pervading sweetness, his infantine prettiness, his substitution of thaumaturgical effects for conscientious labor, admitted only too easy imitation, and were but too congenial with the spirit of the late Renaissance. Cupolas through the length and breadth of Italy began to be covered with clouds and simpering cherubs in the convulsions of artificial ecstasy. The attenuated elegance of Parmigiano, the attitudinizing of Anselmi’s saints and angels, and a general sacrifice of what is solid and enduring to sentimental gewgaws on the part of all painters who had submitted to the magic of Correggio, proved how easy it was to go astray with the great master. Meanwhile no one could approach him in that which was truly his own—the delineation of a transient moment in the life of sensuous beauty, the painting of a smile on Nature’s face, when light and color tremble in harmony with the movement of joyous living creatures. Another daemonic nature of a far more powerful type contributed his share to the ruin of art in Italy. Michael Angelo’s constrained attitudes and muscular anatomy were imitated by painters and sculptors, who thought that the grand style lay in the presentation of theatrical athletes, but who could not seize the secret whereby the great master made even the bodies of men and women—colossal trunks and writhen limbs—interpret the meanings of his deep and melancholy soul.

It is a sad law of progress in art that when the aesthetic impulse is on the wane, artists should perforce select to follow the weakness rather than the vigor of their predecessors. While painting was in the ascendant, Raphael could take the best of Perugino and discard the worst ; in its decadence Parmigiano re-produces the affectations of Correggio, and Bernini carries the exaggerations of Michael Angelo to absurdity. All arts describe a parabola. The force which produces them causes them to rise throughout their – growth up to a certain point, and then to descend more gradually in a long and slanting line of regular declension. There is no real break of continuity. The end is the result of simple exhaustion. Thus the last of our Elizabethan dramatists, Shirley and Crowne and Killigrew, pushed to its ultimate conclusion the principle inherent in Marlowe, not attempting to break new ground, nor imitating the excellences so much as the defects of their forerunners. Thus, too, the Pointed style of architecture in England gave birth first to what is called the Decorated, next to the Perpendicular, and finally expired in the Tudor. Each step was a step of progress—at first for the better, at last for the worse—but logical, continuous, necessitated.

It is difficult to leave Correggio without at least posing the question of the difference between moralized and merely sensual art. Is all art excellent in itself and good in its effect that is beautiful and earnest ? There is no doubt that Correggio’s work is in a way most beautiful ; and it bears unmistakable signs of the master having given himself with single-hearted devotion to the expression of that phase of loveliness which he could apprehend. In so far we must admit that bis art is both excellent and solid. Yet we are unable to conceive that any human being could be made better—stronger for endurance, more fitted for the uses of the world, more sensitive to what is noble in nature—by its contemplation. At the best, Correggio does but please us in our lighter moments, and we are apt to feel that the pleasure he has given is of an enervating kind. To expect obvious morality of any artist is confessedly absurd. It is not the artist’s province to preach, or even to teach, except by remote suggestion. Yet the mind of the artist may be highly moralized, and then he takes rank not merely with the ministers to refined pleasure, but also with the educators of the world. He may, for example, be ponetrated with a just sense of humanity like Shakespeare, or with a sublime temperance like Sophocles, instinct with prophetic intuition like Michael Angelo, or with passionate experience like Beethoven. The mere sight of the work of Pheidias is like breathing pure health-giving air. Milton and Dante were steeped in religious patriotism ; Goethe was pervaded with philosophy, and Balzac with scientific curiosity. Ariosto, Cervantes, and even Boccaccio are masters in the mysteries of common life. In all these cases the tone of the artist’s mind is felt throughout his work : what he paints or sings or writes conveys a lesson while it pleases. On the other hand, depravity in an artist or a poet percolates through work which has in it nothing positive of evil, and a very miasma of poisonous influence may rise from the apparently innocuous creations of a tainted soul. Now Correggio is moralized in neither way—neither as a good or as a bad man, neither as an acute thinker nor as a deliberate voluptuary. He is simply sensuous. On his own ground he is even very fresh and healthy : his delineation of youthful maternity, for example, is as true as it is beautiful ; and his sympathy with the gleefulness of children is devoid of affectation. We have then only to ask ourselves whether the defect in him of all thought and feeling which is not at once capable of graceful fleshly incarnation, be sufficient to lower him in the scale of artists. This question must of course be answered according to our definition of the purposes of art. There is no doubt that the most highly organized art—that which absorbs the most numerous human qualities and effects a harmony between the most complex elements—is the noblest. Therefore the artist who combines moral elevation and power of thought with a due appreciation of sensual beauty is more elevated and more beneficial than one whose domain is simply that of carnal loveliness. Correggio, if this be so, must take a comparatively low rank. Just as we welcome the beautiful athlete for the radiant life that is in him, but bow before the personality of Sophocles, whose perfect form enshrined a noble and highly educated soul, so we gratefully accept Correggio for his grace, while we approach the consummate art of Michael Angelo with reverent awe. It is necessary in aesthetics, as elsewhere, to recognize a hierarchy of excellence, the grades of which are determined by the greater or less comprehensiveness of the artist’s nature ex-pressed in his work. At the same time, the calibre of the artist’s genius must be estimated ; for eminent greatness, even of a narrow kind, will always command our admiration; and the amount of his originality has also to be taken into account. What is unique has, for that reason alone, a claim on our consideration. Judged in this way, Correggio deserves a place, say, in the sweet planet Venus, above the moon and above Mercury, among the artists who have not advanced beyond the contemplations which find their proper outcome in love. Yet, even thus, he aids the culture of humanity. “We should take care,” said Goethe, apropos of Byron, to Eckermann, “not to be always looking for culture in the decidedly pure and moral. Everything that is great promotes cultivation as soon as we are aware of it.”