An awakening on Correggio: the Madonna of Casalmaggiore

The Diocesan Museum of Cremona, over the past Christmas holidays, exhibited a rare reprise of the Madonna of Casalmaggiore, a little-known work by Correggio. The copy, enhanced and studied by Stefano Macconi, gave the reason for a revisiting of the original painting, which is kept in the storerooms of the Städelmuseum in Frankfurt.

This brief essay takes the form of a sequence of notes, first on the Madonna of Casalmaggiore, a painting executed by Correggio probably around the year 1522, oil on canvas measuring cm. 90.5 x 72.2 preserved at the Städelinstitut in Frankfurt, where it was acquired by donation in 1889; also on the discovery of the copy formerly housed by the Diocesan Museum of Cremona, curated and exhibited there in December 2023-January 2024 under the meritorious care of Stefano Macconi, and presented with beautiful workmanship. For its part, on this occasion, the Städelmuseum in Frankfurt has commendably provided us with the color photographic image of the specimen predominantly believed to be autograph, including the precise measurements and studies recently made by Jochen Sander. We thank intensively Dr. Bastian Eclercy for his accurate expertise and courtesy, together with our friend Dr. Andreas Henning. Other thanks go to Oscar Riccò and Renza Bolognesi for their collaborations.

The creation of the Correggio

Let us preface by pointing out that the theological-devotional theme of the “Madonna and Child Jesus and St. John” was painted several times by Correggio in his youthful and early maturity phase, reaching almost a dozen examples from the end of the first decade of the 16th century to the end of the second decade, obviously alternating with the artist’s other works but becoming for Allegri - who always “lived as a very good Christian” - a kind of intense symbolic and figurative training ground. We offer here three examples.

Correggio, Madonna and Child with St. John (c. 1515; oil on canvas, 64 x 50 cm; Chicago, Chicago Art Institute)
Correggio, Madonna and Child with St. John (c. 1515; oil on canvas, 64 x 50 cm; Chicago, Chicago Art Institute)
Participates in the first vivid eloquence of the St. Francis altarpiece and brings back the landscape sensations of Correggio’s travels. And here is the tightly woven espalier of lemons, an ever-loved symbolic fruit that bears the marks of life and sacrifice
Correggio, Madonna and Child with St. John (c. 1516; oil on panel, 48 x 37 cm; Madrid, Museo del Prado)
Correggio, Madonna and Child with St. John (c. 1516; oil on panel, 48 x 37 cm; Madrid, Prado Museum)
Already owned by Isabella Farnese, nun and Abbess (Parma 1593 - Rome 1651), and understandably held by her as a genuine treasure. It reveals a Leonardesque afflatus in the extraordinary and highly sensitive concentration of naturalistic elements between the shadowy recess of mystery and the distant victorious light: an authentic gem of Italian painting
Correggio, Holy Family with St. John (c. 1517; oil on panel, 64 x 53 cm; Orleans, Musée des Beaux-Arts)
Correggio, Holy Family with St. John (c. 1517; oil on panel, 64 x 53 cm; Orleans, Musée des Beaux-Arts)
Here Correggio achieves the pictorial maturity that he also expresses in his coeval works, a true prelude to the choral hosanna of the Camera di San Paolo in Parma. The mystical encounter between Jesus and his precursor cousin occurs through a truly complex composition, but in a stringent intimacy of souls. This “Holy Family” is today luminously reevaluated in the context of an Exhibition in Krak├│w (2024) by renowned scholar and friend Marcin Fabia┼?ski

The Madonna of Casalmaggiore

Concerning the original, preserved in Frankfurt, we can say that it is a work that has always been considered minor in Correggio’s corpus because of its low historical visibility and state of preservation, then considered precarious. It is noteworthy to note David Ekserdjian’s suspicion that it is a painting originally on panel then carelessly brought back to canvas, but on examination such an operation would not appear. Ancient reports want the work first present in Casalmaggiore, as Thode proposes, and then hoarded by the usual Francesco I Duke of Modena in 1646. After some passages, the canvas reappears chronologically in 1889 in Milan, when here it was purchased from an English lady by Henry Thode himself (born in Dresden in 1857 and died in 1920 in Copenhagen), who considered it positively and then donated it to the Städelmuseum in Frankfurt, where it is currently kept in storage. In the decades that passed, other distinguished scholars examined it and balanced among various uncertainties due to its poor state of preservation; finally recognition prevailed, already confirmed by Quintavalle in his L’opera completa del Correggio (1966).

It is not our intention to enter into the decisive question of autography, which, moreover, we accept; on this particular occasion we are rather concerned to reevaluate the subject by pursuing the creative cycle of Allegri, who proves himself capable of continuous research and innovation in all phases of his activity: a research driven by the irrepressible and ingenious creative induction. He wished, as always, to participate in the subject from within his soul (from that which is “quod intimius, quod profundius” we might say) that is, to that Gospel moment he later brought back to the painting, which was decisive on the human-theological level with respect to the great event of the Incarnation of the Word.

Correggio, Madonna and Child with St. John, known as Madonna of Casalmaggiore (c. 1522; oil on canvas, 90.5 x 72.2 cm; Frankfurt am Main, Städelmuseum)
Correggio, Madonna
Child with St. John, known as Madonna of Casalmaggiore (c. 1522; oil on canvas, 90.5 x 72.2 cm; Frankfurt am Main, Städelmuseum)
This is Correggio’s last work on the theme of the thought encounter between St. John and the Child Jesus in the presence and with the protection of the Madonna, which we comment on here

We believe that a spiritual analysis is necessary given the exceptional theological density of the subject played out. Indeed, for this Madonna of Casalmaggiore, Allegri chooses the theme of the mutual presentation that takes place between St. John and Jesus, both still in infancy. But such mutual agnition of the two holy children, already on their way to earthly life, follows the ineffable one that occurred in the meeting of the two pregnant Mothers at the moment of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, according to Luke’s Gospel. Then the son of Zechariah shuddered in the womb of Mother, and at that moment he was sanctified by the will of Christ, who was equally close to him in gestation. It is thus a matter of repetition and confirmation-in the light of nature and within the embrace of creation-of the already occurring presence of the Forerunner and Redeemer in real human history. Mary is its auspice and conduit. Admiring the pictorial resolution one seems to hear Correggio’s intimate throb, consonant with so much happening over which breathes the invisible breath of the Father who is in heaven.

And Correggio composes. Mary sits on a proda that mystically signifies the heart of creation, just as the Incarnation stands at the heart of history and in the fullness of time. Behind the group, on the right, stretches a panorama of many valleys, placid and fertile as the song of Isaiah intends them, whose vision reaches deep down to the mountain of God (El Saddài) rising powerfully toward heaven: it is the holy mountain of Abraham and Moses, of Prophecy and Word! It curiously has an outstretched top: here, then, is the personal imprimitura of Correggio, who was well acquainted with Dante’s mystical Bismantova Stone. On the left stands the rock, also the bearer of a divine statution on the Church, whose singular opening, which almost balances with the Face of Mary, assures that even by a path fraught with trials - per aspera dunque - one deservedly reaches heaven.

It is certainly certain that Correggio never painted a religious subject that did not have an anagogic sense, an indicator role. This we say in the face of widespread traditional art criticism that pins almost only on forms. Leonardo’s beloved landscape, and the sky growing brighter and brighter in the distance, call to the journey of life, to the process of work and fulfillment that is the duty of each of us: a process that John and Jesus will illustrate to the people in their educational preaching, pervasive and inexhaustible. The saplings that fill the foreground are a perhaps unique solution among Renaissance masters, and they cannot fail to refer symbolically to the places from which the two prophetic children came: John whose name means “gift or grace of the merciful God” was born in Ain Karim (“vineyard watered by an everlasting spring”), and Jesus who bears the name “God saves” comes from Nazareth, whose root means “sprout” (and so Pilate would statute it, in the table above the Cross).

The execution of the Casalmaggiore Madonna is pushed around 1522 by the drawing discovered by Popham. This is an important date since we must not forget that Correggio with his family had been received into the Benedictine Order in the previous year (1521) on his own great merit, after having frescoed the dome of San Giovanni in Parma, obtaining the enjoyment of all the spiritual benefits of the Order itself. He therefore meditated and prayed with painting: it will suffice to recall his intense closeness to Gregorio Cortese in the luminous years at San Benedetto in Polirone and in Rome. The dating to 1522 thus comes about thanks to a drawing discovered by Arthur Ewart Popham that connects with the cycle of the San Giovanni frieze, but it also marks the felicitous milestone achieved by Correggio after the beautiful series of Madonnas with Child and St. John, which punctuates his second decade of the 16th century like a dense prayer book. The drawing sketch in the British Museum stands on the verso of a small two-sided sheet largely devoted to the frieze of the nave of San Giovanni Evangelista in Parma. The curious sheet, which Correggio also turned over, was pointed out by Popham in 1957 and was carefully considered by David Ekserdjian in his 1997 Allegrian monograph.

Correggio, Drawing for the Madonna of Casalmaggiore (c. 1522; drawing, 108 x 112 mm; London, British Museum)
Correggio, Sketch for the Madonna of Casalmaggiore (c. 1522; drawing, 108 x 112 mm; London, British Museum)
The sketch for the Madonna of Casalmaggiore is accompanied by evidence for the Sibyls of the frieze of St. John the Evangelist in the two small faces. A. E. Popham appropriately stated the sketch around the year 1522, in November of which-as David Ekserdjian recalls-Correggio received the order for the composition of the sacrificial frieze to be stretched along the nave of the Parmesan church

The Frankfurt canvas represents an admirable goal in every sense. The liberties of the angelic infants in the dome of St. John’s we find here in the loose movement of the two biblical cousins. Indeed, a special laude is due to the figurative arrangement of the painting, which moves in almost spherical spatiality, where every posture is in harmonious counterpoint and where the movement of limbs and heads traces a network of cross-references that ends suavely in the mutual indication, and revelation, between Jesus and St. John. It is a song of lightness, and even in these small hands everything is harmony. The posturing of Jesus, then, returns from the right-hand putto in the oval above the Minerva on the fireplace wall in the well-known St. Paul’s Chamber. Lovers of formal quotations will still be able to go back to the “Madonnas” closer in time, but above all to the resounding anthology of children in the Camera della Badessa and the nude angelic putti in the nubilous lap of the Cupola di San Giovanni, all the way to the Madonna del Latte and the Madonna della Scala: thus they will find all Correggio’s marvelous mastery of the tenderness of bodies and childlike movements in the years close to our painting.

But we cannot overlook Mary’s essential role in the economy of Redemption, which appears decisive here. It is Our Lady who personifies the unfolding of the time of the Good News, and we see that she herself composes the relationship between the St. John and Jesus, that is, she forms the theological link in the conjunction of the two Testaments: Mary, who with her body was the Ark of the New Covenant, binds the two times of divine providence. And little John, who closes all ancient prophecies, looking expressly at us brings to Jesus the Cross of redemption.

If we then notice that the little cousin is the one most embraced by Mary, the one most offered toward us, and is of slightly pingier proportions than Jesus, this firmly signifies the relevant and indelible value of the ancient Covenant, from which Mary also comes.

We have thus wished to reevaluate a pictorial work by Correggio that has the substance of the masterpiece, and we have done so on the yardstick of the Augustinian recommendation toward every work: namely, to consider “quam vim habeat et quidv─? significet.” Certainly in the figurative process there enters with evidence that factual translation which involves the loquela of forms, the artist’s attitude, his style, his precedents and his professional culture. As we have said, Antonio Allegri arrives at the “Madonna of Casalmaggiore” after having executed at least eight other tablets on the same theme and several Madonnas with Child: the painter’s hand sought alternate postures and other embraces, among them the unspeakable one - for sweetness and grace - that is the glory of the Prado in Madrid. Now we are in the ineunte third decade of the 16th century and Correggio takes leave, in fullness, from the theme that so long fascinated him.

The reassessed copy at the Diocesan Museum in Cremona.

In Cremona between December 2023 and January 2024, on the occasion of an exhibition entitled Lost & Found, organized at the city’s Diocesan Museum, a small selection of works from the antiquarian market was presented to the public, and among them a small panel, of Correggio influence, depicting a Madonna and Child with St. John was visible. The painting, which is small in size, echoes the compositional scheme of the so-called “Madonna of Casalmaggiore,” painted by Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio (1489-1534), around 1522 and today identified by some critics with the work preserved at the Städelmuseum in Frankfurt.

Comparison of the two paintings reveals the existence of a clear link: the Virgin and the two children are arranged following the scheme of the German original, which in turn is linked to an autograph drawing by Correggio kept at the National Gallery in London. The poses and gestures are the same even if some differences can be recognized: in the “Madonna di Casalmaggiore” appears the detail of the thin reed cross held by the child in the foreground, thus identified as Giovanni. The privately collected tablet lacks this key detail and the Virgin’s right hand is also depicted in a different pose than the original.

The Frankfurt version is also characterized by an elaborate construction of the landscape surrounding the central group: the grotto that can be seen behind the St. John is the result of a precise perspective and naturalistic study that is influenced by Lombardian painting between the 15th and 16th centuries, embellished by Leonardo’s research. In the painting exhibited at the Diocesan Museum in Cremona, the same care is not found in the description of the landscape, which seems to have been done quickly and roughly. Also due to a less than optimal state of preservation, the grove behind Giovanni is now an indistinct mass of shrubs.

Copy of the Madonna of Casalmaggiore (panel, 57 x 43; Private collection)
Copy of the Madonna of Casalmaggiore (panel, 57 x 43; Private collection)

The author of the second version, which given its small size may have been made to satisfy requests related to the devotion of a private individual, shows that he had the opportunity to study Correggio’s original or related preparatory drawings. In the description of the children, especially in the detail of the faces, our artist almost goes so far as to “pay homage” to Correggio’s creations by taking them up with great precision. In the face of the Virgin, however, distinctive features emerge that make it easy to identify her hand. The sharp and rigidly outlined profiles of the nose and brow arch, as well as the excessively bulging and protruding eyes, characterize Mary’s face. The choice of colors in cool but at the same time vibrant tones, as seen in the almost pearly complexions of the characters and the Madonna’s robe of a ringing pink, mark this master’s approach to the manner, shifting the painting’s dating to the second half of the 16th century.

The critical fortune of the panel now in a private collection is yet to be investigated; in fact, no documents referable to this painting are known to date before the early 19th century. Indeed, one has to wait for Father Pungileoni’s valuable essay on Correggio, published in two volumes between 1817 and 1818, to find a first and fundamental documentary foothold. At that date the priest shows that he was very familiar with the painting, which, even in the opinion of the professors of the Accademia di Disegno in Parma, was undoubtedly considered to be an original work by Allegri. In the essay, in addition to the faithful description of the subject, which leaves no doubt as to its correct identification, the dimensions of the panel are also given, which coincide with the version in question. We discover, again thanks to Pungileoni, that the painting had previously been owned by Biagio Martini (1761 - 1840), a painter active at the court of Parma, but that at the time of writing the essay on Correggio, the work was already in the collection of Sir John Murray.

In 1937, more than a century after the release of Father Pungileoni’s work, we find the Madonna and Child with St. John in Lugano, during an exhibition held at Villa Favorita of the Schloss-Rohoncz collection, the name by which Baron von Thyssen’s prestigious collection was previously known. In the catalog produced for that occasion, there are two works attributed to the hand of Allegri, the second of which is precisely the tablet we discuss here. The brief description of the work reports the presence of a larger version to be identified with the Frankfurt original. Also reported is the favorable opinion regarding the authorship of our work by prominent scholars such as Detlev von Hadeln, Adolfo and Lionello Venturi. Also briefly documented is some collector information subsequent to the painting’s landing at the Murray Collection that occurred following its purchase in Parma in 1816. Our copy of the “Madonna and Child with St. John” in just over a century had in fact passed through the Beckett - Denison collection first and later to the Scottish collection of Sir J. E. Fergusson, Baron of Dumfries.

Following the passages on the antiquarian market, which need to be investigated more carefully, it appears that the painting then passed through a Sotheby’s auction in London to an Italian collector before coming to the present private collection. The panel thus remains an important starting point for the study of the fortune of the Casalmaggiore Madonna model, and it will be necessary to investigate some of the aspects, especially related to critical fortune, that still elude us today.

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