What makes Correggio stand out is that his work is unconventional, even at times chaotic, by the standards of the day:
Correggio’s paintings are so idiosyncratic and so subtle that they don’t yield the sound bites history prefers, as with Titian (“Brushstroke Guy”) or Michelangelo (“Mr. Classic Nude”). Correggio’s art seems all about resisting simple views, of art or of the worlds it shows. We can’t get an easy handle on Correggio’s pictures, because they’re dedicated to flux, indirection and obliquity. He may have used that combination to stand out from the crowd in talent-packed Renaissance Italy. But, like most artistic choices, it must mostly have depended on this painter’s view of the world.
The ultimate example of Correggio’s unique vision is the huge fresco he unveiled in the dome of Parma cathedral, in 1530, after years and years of work. This is Correggio’s most innovative project, and his most influential. It seems to open up the dome to let us see a teeming host of angels in the sky beyond. (Many Catholic churches now have similar ceilings, probably without knowing that they owe them to Correggio.) And yet, despite the cupola’s stunning special effects, this is also the least legible of paintings. Correggio has taken a standard Christian story — of the Virgin Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven at the moment of her death — and painted it as something so complex, it’s hardly graspable. It may be the perfect picture for a dome: Its floating figures aren’t tied down to a single view, so worshipers below can take it in from any spot. And yet that also means that there’s no stable order to hang on to, no single take-home message you can pull out of its turmoil.
For Correggio, this is heaven: a place where nothing ever settles down and there’s no one way to look at things.
Be sure to check out the accompanying video of the Parma dome here. It’s really spectacular.