In the early sixteenth-century the Northern Italian cities of Ferrara, Parma and Mantua were major cultural centres. Following the lead of the art-savvy papal court, local aristocrats commissioned major artworks such as this painting by Correggio, which is one of a four-part series on the amorous pursuits of Jupiter commissioned by Federigo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua.
Federigo was the son of Isabella d’Este and grew up surrounded by art and artists. For this series he was inspired by a cycle of bacchanalia images commissioned from Bellini, Titian and others in the 1510s by Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, for his palace’s Camerino d’Alabastro. Frederigo wanted something as sophisticated for his Mantua palace featuring classical antiquity, humanist allusions, visual puns and illusionistic effects. The specific mythological subject Federigo chose – the amorous conquests of Jupiter - reflected his personal identification with the Olympian gods and his interest in erotica. It also reflected one of the great themes of the age: the union of man and nature. The resulting paintings by Correggio were some of the most sensuous works of the age.
At first glance, it is not quite clear what is happening in this painting, for it is a rather unlikely scene of sexual union between a god in the form of a cloud and a mortal. Ovid recounts the tale of how Jupiter, King of the Gods, developed a passionate lust for the mortal Io, daughter of the King of Argos. In order to have her without his jealous wife, Juno, discovering his infidelity, Jupiter took the guise of a cloud. Correggio depicts the moment Jupiter enfolds Io in his nebulous embrace. He seeks her lips with his just discernible face and wraps a cloudy hand around her waist. Io appears to be in the throws of ecstasy; her head tossed back, lips parted, her arm pulling the cloud to her and her toes and fingers curled with pleasure.
Io’s receptive pose is reminiscence of a work by Raphael, but Correggio adds a palpable sensuality; you can almost sense the frisson caused by the touch of cool, moist cloud against warm, fleshy skin. Correggio’s nuanced colour, subtle light and dark shadow create tangible, plastic figures and a luminous atmosphere. His lightness of touch, mastery of elongated forms and imaginative approach gives the painting a charm and subtle eroticism that lifts it above the average nude mythological scene and places it among the important works of the High Renaissance.
Named after the city of his birth, Correggio spent most of his successful career in nearby Parma. Giorgio Vasari wrote, “…everything that is to be seen by his [Correggio’s] hand is admired as something divine.” Vasari’s glowing opinion was shared by future generations of artists from Carracci to Rubens to Boucher. In fact, this specific painting would become a prized possession of Emperors: in 1532 Frederigo probably presented it as a gift to Emperor Charles V and later, his grandson, Emperor Rudolf II would take it to Prague for his famous Kunstkammer.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Early 1530’s Lucas Cranach the Elder: Cupid Complaining to Venus, London, National Gallery
c. 1530 Jean Clouet: François I, Paris, Musée du Louvre