Correggio: The School of Love (Venus with Mercury and Cupid) - c1525
London, National Gallery
This painting was probably commissioned by Federigo II Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. He is known to have commissioned similar mythological scenes from Correggio, in particular an erotic series of the Loves of Jupiter, and although The School of Love is not recorded as part of the Gonzaga collection until 1627, over a century after its probable completion, it seems reasonable to assume that this collection was its original home.
Correggio here enables us to share in a private family moment. However this is no ordinary family; we are in the presence of gods but it seems even gods need to attend to family matters. Venus is standing naked, some pink drapery having just parted company from her heavenly form. She looks out at the viewer engaging us with a smile, gesturing to her son Cupid whose father Mercury, resplendent in gold helmet and matching grieves is teaching the winged infant to read.
Correggio, born Antonio Allegri, takes his name from his birthplace which is situated not far from Parma to the west and Mantua to the north. Very little is known about his short life but it seems certain that the many works by Mantegna in Mantua were the inspiration for his early style. Indeed, some scholars believe that Correggio may have had a hand in completing a number of Mantegna’s later frescoes. Whether this is the case or not, and there is no doubt that Mantegna’s influence is discernible in Correggio’s large-scale fresco decorations, it is difficult to detect much of Mantegna in The School of Love which is nearer to the styles of Leonardo and Giorgione.
From about 1518 Correggio worked mainly in Parma which at the time was part of the Duchy of Milan. There is therefore a strong possibility that Correggio may have visited Milan and seen the work of Leonardo. The faint, enigmatic smile on the face of Venus is surely a quote from the great man and the soft modelling of the body contours of the divine threesome is derived from Leonardesque sfumato.
But Correggio is more than a mere follower. His synthesis of the art of Venice, Mantegna and Leonardo gives birth to the distinctive style which we can see here. The composition is complex, the execution masterful and there is a lightness of touch which is very distinctive. Indeed it is this delicacy which two centuries later inspired French Rococo painters such as Boucher and Fragonard who were able to study a number of works by Correggio in the royal collection.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1523 Titian: Man with a Glove, Paris, Musée du Louvre
1526 Albrecht Dürer: The Four Apostles, Munich, Alte Pinakothek