Correggio's fame rests largely on his illusionistic frescoes in Parma: the Camera di San Paolo and the domes of the cathedral and San Giovanni Evangelista, all of which were painted between 1518 and the artist's death in 1534. For many, however, experience of Correggio is based on his smaller, portable works such as those on display in the National Gallery. It is therefore especially welcome that David Ekserdjian's stylish book on this delightful painter rights an imbalance in Correggio's historiography by giving at least as much attention to his altarpieces and small pictures as to his frescoes.
Moreover, unlike some of Yale University Press's monographs, it is clear that Ekserdjian has not published the "thesis book", and Correggio benefits from years of reflection on the painter and his art. As a result, his book will stand as the standard monograph on Correggio for years to come, notable also for its critical asides regarding the impact of Mantegna on north Italian painting, the development of the painting of night scenes and an entirely compelling analysis of the development of Raphael's Madonnas.
The book is lively and accessible to all - more of a rich panforte (which will last for ever and is best enjoyed in small slices) than a heavy Christmas cake (which generally leaves one rejoicing that it comes but once a year). It reveals the greatness of the artist and is rich with the insights of the author. There are times when the sympathy between Ekserdjian and his subject is clear, such as when the author discusses Correggio's visual sources. Many of Ekserdjian's articles have resulted from his unrivalled eye for small connections between prints, drawings and paintings, and he successfully demonstrates both Correggio's response to other artists (especially Mantegna, Durer and Raphael), and his own impact on Parmigianino, the Carracci and countless others.
If there is a clear sympathy between Ekserdjian and Correggio, the author warns against, and generally avoids, hero worship. Indeed, he is keen to stress that Correggio succeeded despite an essentially provincial power base. The artist never worked in Rome, Venice, Florence, Bologna or Milan; and what emerges from his career is the picture of an artist who, encouraged by an enlightened group of local patrons, produced a series of extremely innovative works in smaller centres. These works show him responding intelligently to his subjects and daringly to their compositional possibilities. This further demolition of theories that the periferia was dominated by Italy's recognised artistic centres, and of the portrayal of provincial patrons as slavish followers of centrist trends, is a crucial historical correction. It is equally applicable to the careers of Piero della Francesca, Signorelli or Lotto, as well as Correggio.
Ekserdjian carefully reconstructs the interests that connect Correggio's patrons and occasionally demonstrates that they were a cultivated lot. He is also particularly good when discussing drawings, which is important because so many of Correggio's works have been destroyed or irreparably damaged, and drawings offer one way in which we can approach the artist's original conceptions. More unusual in an art historian is real compositional awareness, and this is wonderfully revealing of Correggio's artistic thinking. One example is the Lamentation at Parma, which is photographed from the side to underline Ekserdjian's observation that the picture is designed to be seen from an angle as one approaches the chapel where it was first displayed. His observations on the construction of the Madonna of the Basket in the National Gallery and the great Dresden altarpieces are equally strong.
One has come to expect Yale monographs to be beautifully illustrated and sympathetically designed, but Correggio is still strikingly lavish in comparison with most monographic studies. Perhaps the greatest pleasure (and surprise) is page after page on which drawings are reproduced in colour. Too often drawings are reproduced in black and white, giving a completely false representation of their variety. Red chalk, brown ink, coloured washes and heightening have their own qualities that are evident only in colour. Even drawings in black chalk are done a disservice by black-and-white illustrations because the chalk is rarely as black as ink and the paper is never pure white. Although one might have wished for a catalogue of Correggio's works, or a complete chronology or appendix of documents, this would inevitably have resulted in a reduction of Ekserdjian's text, which would have been much the greater loss. It might have resulted in the omission of the asides regarding other artists, or fewer illustrations and footnotes. The book has succeeded in making Correggio's great Parmesan frescoes, and his work in other media, accessible to a non-Italian audience.
Tom Henry is at the Courtauld Institute of Art.
Author - David Ekserdjian
ISBN - 0 300 07299 6
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 333