PARMA, Italy (Reuters) - Critics have placed him among the great masters of Italy’s 16th century painting, but Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio after his birthplace, never enjoyed the fame of Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci.
Now an Italian exhibition, the second this year to display the enigmatic artist’s work, literally aims to increase awareness of the heights Correggio achieved by taking visitors up to the gleaming golden sky he painted in the dome of Parma’s cathedral.
Home to all of Correggio’s frescoes, the northern Italian town of Parma hosts until January 25 an exhibition spread in various locations across its elegant city center
Born around 1490, Correggio led a quiet provincial life in Correggio and then in nearby Parma, where he died in 1534.
Critics disagree on whether he went to Rome, a trip that might explain the echoes of Michelangelo and Raffaello in his works. He certainly spent time in Mantua, where he saw the works of the Gonzaga family’s court painter, Andrea Mantegna.
Not having worked in any of Italy’s major Renaissance cities cost him fame, both in his lifetime and for centuries after.
“His works speak to the senses awakening strong feelings, while art criticism has a rational approach and is almost diffident toward something so sensual,” said Maddalena Spagnolo at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence.
The delicate face of an angel borrowed from what many consider Correggio’s masterpiece -- the Madonna with Saint Jerome -- greets those entering Parma.
The angel’s enchanting smile dots the city, but the original is at the stately Palazzo della Pilotta, home to Parma’s national gallery and a rebuilt 17th century wooden theater.
Here Correggio’s paintings are displayed next to other works from the time, including da Vinci’s and Parmigianino‘s. There is also a striking group of life-size terracotta statues mourning over the dead body of Christ.
The itinerary proceeds to Camera di San Paolo, a room he decorated in 1519 with fruit swags, ram heads and classic statues at the request of a cultivated Benedictine abbess.
Through the sweet faces of his Madonnas and the silky undertones of his naked figures, Correggio revealed a unique ability to portray feminine grace and sensuality. But he also achieved a revolutionary concept of space, which shines in the frescoed domes of Parma’s cathedral and San Giovanni church.
“His domes are really staggeringly new as an idea of representing the infinite space of the heavens,” said David Ekserdjian, Professor of Art History at Leicester University.
In the cathedral, stairs and scaffoldings have been put in place to allow an unusually close look at the twirling cone of clouds and naked legs which frame Mary’s ascent to Paradise.
Melting geometry into light, Correggio anticipated Baroque art by over a century.
“He was so ahead of his times that when he finished the dome they wanted to whitewash it,” said Luca Sommi, the exhibition’s organizer. “Luckily, they say, Titian was asked for advice. On seeing it, he said: ‘Turn it upside down, fill it with gold and you still would not have paid it its worth.”
Missing from the exhibition, is one of Coreggio’s mythological paintings, kept in Berlin, and a religious painting at Madrid’s Prado Museum.
For fans, the next stop after Parma is Dresden. The German city hosts some altar pieces considered among his best works.
Editing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Paul Casciato