"It is easy to trace Correggio's art back to some of its sources. To begin with, there were his earliest masters, Costa and Francia, and afterwards, at Mantua, the wealth of Mantegna's works, besides personal contact with Dosso and perhaps Caroto. Venice also cast her spell upon him, not improbably through Lotto and Palma; and finally came acquaintance, no matter how indirect, with the designs of Raphael and Michelangelo. But it is obvious that these various rivulets tapped from rolling rivers did not, by merely combining, constitute the delicious stream which we know as Correggio. The same influences doubtless spread in the same region over others without such result. He alone had genius; and he offers a rare instance of its relative independence. A Michelangelo was perhaps inevitable in Florence, a Raphael in Umbria, a Titian in Venice, but not a Correggio in the petty principalities of the Emilia. His appearance in those uninspiring surroundings was a miracle.
"His time had no greater right to him than his birthplace; for by temperament he was a child of the French eighteenth century. As is attested by the universal enthusiasm he then inspired, it is in that seductive period that his genius would have found its friendliest environment, both as an Illustrator and as a Decorator - and few have lived in whom these two elements of art coincided more exactly.
"The more one reflects upon the art of the epoch known as the Eighteenth Century, the more must one concede its distinguishing trait to have been its sensitiveness to the charm of mere Femininity. The Greeks of course felt this charm, and expressed it in many a terra-cotta figurine which still survives to delight us. Then many centuries intervened during which the charm of femininity remained unrecorded, and until the eighteenth century there was no change, except for one beam that yet sufficed to light up the whole sky. That beam was Correggio. None of his contemporaries, older or younger, expressed it, not even his closest follower, Parmigianino, in whom charm was quickly lost in elegance.Giorgione felt the beauty of womanhood, Titian its grandeur, Raphael its noble sweetness, Michelangelo its sibylline and Pythian possibilities,Paolo Veronese its health and magnificence; but none of them, and no artist elsewhere in Europe for generations to come, devoted his career to communicating its charm.
"Assuming that a sensitiveness to the charm of femininity was Correggio's distinguishing trait, let us see whether it offers the key to his successes and failures as an artist. Before approaching this inquiry, we must get acquainted with his qualities and faults, in order to be able to distinguish what he could do best, what he could do less well, and what not at all. If we compare his merits and shortcomings with those of his great contemporaries, and particularly with those of Raphael, his cousin in art descent, we shall find that Correggio displays less feeling for the firmness of inner substance than any of them, even Raphael. Both these painters made a bad start in a school where form had not been a severe and intellectual pursuit; but the latter, at the right moment, underwent the training that Florence then could give, while the former had nothing sterner in the way of education than the example of Mantegna's maturer works. On the other hand, Correggio was a much finer and subtler master of movement: his contours are soft and flowing as only in the most exquisite achievements of eighteenth-century painting; his action, at the best, is unsurpassable, as in the 'Danae' with her arm resting on the pillow and Cupid's legs clinging to the couch; in the 'Leda', with the swan's neck gliding over her bosom; in the Budapest Madonna, with the Child's arm lying over her breast; or in the 'Antiope', with her arm resting on the ground. Yet for all his superiority, his movement seldom counts as in Raphael, and his form, inferior as it is, is even less effective than, on its merits, it should be. In both cases the fault is not specific but intellectual. Correggio lacked self-restraint and economy. Possessing a supreme command over movement, he squandered it like a prodigal, rioted with it, and sometimes almost reduced it to tricks of prestidigitation, as in his famous 'Assumption of the Virgin'. He thereby practically defeated the purpose of the figure arts, which is to enhance the vital functions by communicating ideated sensations of substance and action. To produce that effect the figure must be presented with such clearness that we shall apprehend it more easily and swiftly than in real life, with the resulting sense of heightened capacity. Now no work of art meriting attention could be less well fitted to realize this purpose than the fresco in the Parma Cathedral. Instead of quickened perception, this confused mass of limbs, draperies, and clouds, wherein we peer painfully to descry the form and movement, gives us quite as much trouble and is consequently quite as life-diminishing as a similar spectacle in reality. And as actuality it is scarcely superior to those modern round dances, where the changing groups of interlaced whirling figures leave nothing for the tired eyes of the onlooker to rest upon. How much it is a failure in economy and not in specific gift, is illustrated by the 'Ganymede' at Vienna. The eye contemplates this figure with caressing delight, as it floats over the hill-tops; and yet it is nothing but the exact transfer of one of the figures from a pendentive under the 'Assumption'. Although one of the least confused parts of that whole work, and relatively well placed, this figure of a boy needed isolation - and isolation only ~ to become a masterpiece of imaginative design. If it be realized that many of the figures thus isolated would become equally triumphant, Correggio's reckless and fabulous extravagance may be appreciated.
"This fatal facility in the presentation of movement accounts for his obvious faults, his attitudinizing and nervous restlessness, as well as for the showman's gestures that disgrace his later altar-pieces. Everybody must be doing something, even when least to the point, whether as Illustration or Decoration, although of course such a genius would finally twist pattern around to serve his master passion. A good example is the impish boy in the Parma 'Madonna with St. Jerome', who is making a face as he smells the Magdalen's vase of ointment! We may go farther, and ascribe to the same cause Correggio's distaste for everything static, which almost amounts to saying for everything monumental. Obliged by the traditions of art in his day to attempt the monumental in the architectural settings of his altar-piece, he created, or at least foreshadowed the Baroque, Left quite to himself, he might very well have plunged at once into Rococo, and perhaps ended by emancipating himself, like the Japanese, from everything architectonic.
"Such an artist obviously could not be a space-composer in any signal sense; and indeed Correggio's name in this connexion is not to be mentioned in the same breath with Raphael's. Correggio adds to all the extravagance and restlessness so incompatible with space-composition one of the worst tendencies of his time, that of packing the largest possible figures into a given space - witness his 'St. John the Evangelist' at Parma, an inspired creation, with no room for the noble head!
"On the other hand, he surpassed Raphael in landscape, as he was bound to do, with his command over most of the imaginative possibilities of light; for in the domain of light and shade he was perhaps the greatest Italian master. Some, with Leonardo as their chief, had used it to define form; others, like Giorgione, had caught its glamour and reproduced its magic; but Correggio loved it for its own sake. And it rewarded his love, for it never failed to do his bidding; and, besides what it enabled him to do for the figure, it put him above all his contemporaries in the treatment of the out-of-doors. The Crespi 'Nativity' and the Benson 'Parting" show that he was not inferior to any in conveying the mystery, the hush, the crepuscular coolness of earliest dawning and latest twilight; nor was he excelled by any other in the understanding of conflicting lights - as we can see only too well in his Dresden 'Night'; and he surpasses them all in effects of broad daylight, such as we find in most of his mythological pieces, and in the Parma 'Madonna with St. Jerome', rightly surnamed the 'Day'. This is the only picture known to me which renders to perfection the sweeping distances, the simple sea of light evenly distributed yet alive with subtle glimmerings through the hazes, that constitute one of the most majestic of nature's revelations, broad noontide in Italy.
"In the figure, also, Correggio's command of light and shade, the exquisite coolness yet sunny transparency of his shadows, discovered new sources of beauty. He was not only among the very first - a mere question of precedence with which art has no concern - but he remains among the very best who have attempted to paint the surface of the human skin. Masaccio's terra-cotta faced people are greater than Correggio's, for it is more vital to convey a tonic sense of inner substance than to give the most admirable rendering of the surface. But the skin too has its importance; and its pearliness, its sunny iridescence, as in the 'Antiope', are a source of vivid yet refined pleasure. Without attention to all its aspects, no one could have attained to such a supreme achievement as the 'Danae', where we watch a shiver of sensation passing over the nude like a breeze over still waters. Correggio's mastery of light explains his colour. Light is the enemy of variegated and too positive colour, and, where it gets control, it endeavours to dissolve tints into monochrome effects of tone. Hence the real masters of light have never been pretty and attractive, although for the same reason they have been great Colourists. Yet, while one would not hesitate in this respect to rank Correggio above Raphael, one must put him below Titian. His surface is too glossy, too lustrous, and too oily to give the illusion of colour as a material.
"Aware of what were Correggio's gifts and what his shortcomings, I kept studying his works to find the reason of his rare successes and his frequent failures. Supposing, at one time, that the latter were caused principally by his prodigality, I yet could not account for the small pleasure I took in his altar-pieces and other sacred subjects, where the relatively simple arrangements of monumental composition left little room for extravagance. It occurred to me then that these subjects imposed too great a restraint upon his passion for movement: which indeed is true, although it does not explain all their failings; and I thought that perchance in mythological and kindred themes, wherein the Renaissance painter could emancipate himself from the galling fetters of tradition hostile to his art and rejoice in the freedom of a Greek, Correggio would prove triumphant. This also turned out to be not quite, although almost, satisfactory as an explanation; and I was driven finally to conclude that among these pieces it was only those few wherein the female nude was predominant, and where the nude was treated so as to bring to the surface the whole appeal of its femininity, that his exaggeration, his nervousness,his restlessness, disappeared entirely and left only his finer qualities singing, in most melodious unison, harmonies seldom sweeter to human sense. I then understood why his sacred subjects could not please, for he had no serious interest in the male figures, and as to the female figures, the charm of femininity, mixing with the expression imposed by the religious motive, resulted in that insincerity which closely anticipates, if it be not already an embodiment of what in painting we call Jesuitism - and quite rightly, for the Jesuits always traded upon human weakness, and ended by marrying sensuality to Faith. I understood also why one constantly returned to the'Danae', the'Leda', the 'Antiope, and the 'Io' as Correggio's only perfect works, and I realized that they were perfect because in them his genius created fully, without let or hindrance, while all his faculties were lifted to their highest function. And they are hymns to the charm of femininity the like of which have never been known before or since in Christian Europe. For the eighteenth century, with all its feeling for the same quality, either failed to bring forth the genius to express it in such resplendent beauty, or else cooped it up in types too pretty and too trivial. Correggio was fortunate, seeing that in his day form, which is the alphabet of art, still spelt out mighty things.
"And yet, if we may not place Correggio, alongside of Raphael and Michelangelo, Giorgione and Titian, it is not merely that on this or that count he is inferior to them for specific artistic reasons. The cause of his inferiority lies elsewhere, in the nature of all the highest values, whereby everything, whether in art or in life, must be tested. He is too sensuous, and therefore limited; and the highest human values are derived from the perfect harmony of sense and intellect, such a harmony as since the most noble days of Greece has never again appeared in perfection, not even in Giorgione or Raphael."
- From Bernard Berenson, "Italian Painters of the Renaissance"