Correggio’s Portrait of a Lady by Antonio Allegri

In this piece on Portrait of a Lady by Correggio I answer these questions:

  • What’s the symbolism in Correggio’s Portrait of a Lady?
  • Why is Portrait of a Lady a significant painting?
  • Who did Correggio paint in Portrait of a Lady?

Correggio’s Portrait of a Lady beckons with a silver bowl. This meaningful detail might get missed at first. That’s because this classic portrait features a striking lady. Her wry expression seems natural and self-possessed. The painter imbues her face with expressive strength. She’s sure of herself. Antonio Allegri da Correggio also fills this painting with prescient details.

Click below for a podcast version of this piece.

Her silver bowl, held out to us, presents an obvious clue about this lady. It’s engraved with a phrase from Homer’s Odyssey. This bit refers to demi-goddess Helen. She concocts a potion to help people escape their earthbound troubles. With art, music, and poetry Helen lifts them out of everyday life. Fine arts transport them into joyful wonder and awe.

This Homeric passage is only one of many telling features in Portrait of a Lady. Symbols abound. A laurel tree signifies Apollo, god of song. While the ivy climbing behind our Lady represents immortality. These living plants shade her in background shadow, as if to tell us she will sing forever.

At first I thought this painting might tell us she’s remembered through song. But Correggio wants us to know more about her. He gives us clues galore. So, a quick bit of digging unearths her true identity in a flash. Turns out she’s given more than the silver bowl of this moment. She’s a poet.

Correggio’s Portrait of a Lady could point to either of two women in his life. Ginevra Rangone was one. His friend and a poet, she’s a keen match to this portrait. We don’t need to know this piece portrays an actual writer to see the poetry in this painting. It sings with poetic imagery, from her golden chain to the thick face-framing braid. There’s artistry woven through this portrait.

Her necklace represents an infinity of riches. It’s gold oval disappears at our lady’s breast. But we know it forms an endless chain. Artists live on through their work. It could be with painting. Or, as with Homer’s Odyssey – poetry. This portrait embodies both. Songs too. Correggio’s clues thus point us to a beloved friend and esteemed poet.

Portrait of a Lady Grieving

My first inclination on seeing this masterpiece was to figure out who this lady was. I saw her as a real person right away. That’s thanks to Correggio’s attention to her special features. She represents a particular person rather than an ideal. The wonder of Italian painter, Antonio Allegri da Correggio, isn’t only in this, though. It’s remarkable how he tells stories through portrayals. Most of his characters are from religious and allegorical stories. So, it’s a marvel that he makes them so real.

But Correggio’s Portrait of a Lady has additional wondrous qualities. Viewers might speculate, as I did, whether she’s Ginerva Rangone. I mentioned signs that point in that direction. It’s not a certainty, though. That’s because there was another key woman in Correggio’s life when he painted this.

There’s also emotional subtext in this piece that might go unnoticed to modern day viewers. Our Lady wears a mourning dress. She’s likely a widow. We also know she was a poet and close enough to Correggio to warrant a portrait. He rarely painted portraits. So, she needed to be a close friend at the very least. Hard as it may be to believe, two women fit into these contexts.

Ginerva Rangone has all these attributes. But so does Antonio Allegri’s friend Veronica Gambara. Also a poet, Gambara may be an even more likely candidate for his portrait sitter. That’s because her husband died in the same year Correggio painted this – 1518. My favorite art historian, Sister Wendy, points out an aesthetic distinction between the two women.

She notes that Ginerva Rangone was known to be a great beauty. Thus, this must be Gambara, Sister Wendy concludes. It’s a beautiful painting. But not of a classic beauty. Touché, Sister. None of Antonio Allegri’s clues make for a definitive identification. However, Correggio’s Portrait of a Lady certainly presents us with a fantastic personality.

Correggio’s Portrait of a Lady – FAQs

Why was Correggio an important painter?

Correggio served as a founding father of the Mannerism movement. He did this with illusions. Specifically, his settings often presented improbable spaces behind his characters. This gave Correggio’s people all the more reality. He used illusion the way painters often employ light and dark. Impossible backgrounds illuminate the possible reality of characters. He put the people in his paintings hard at work. They grounded the stories his paintings tell.

We see this in Correggio’s Portrait of a Lady. She’s surrounded by shadowy forms in nature. It takes a careful look to name these plants. But the murky backdrop also makes us look even closer at this Lady. We now believe she must be a significant and real person. Thus Correggio’s work served as precursor to Mannerism. He didn’t know it at the time. Still he set the stage for a new category in Renaissance masterpieces. Mannerism elevated the use of illusion in painting. It also cemented Correggio’s work into art history canon.

What is Mannerism in painting?

Mannerism played a key role in late Renaissance painting. It refers to a more stylized and illusory way to present subject matter. Often this meant a lack of perspective, unlikely proportions, and instability. So, Mannerism was a style that contradicted art world doctrine. Most compositions at the time focused on balance and clarity.

Mannerism disrupted these visual expectations and practices. It added an artificial and unbalanced sense to painting. This exaggerated new way of portraying subject matter shook up Renaissance painting. Thus Mannerism also set the stage for future style revolutions.

Why is Correggio’s Portrait of a Lady an important painting?

Born Antonio Allegri in the town Correggio, the Italian painter got famous fast. During his initial surge of fame he was Antonio Allegri da (the Italian for from) Correggio. But as his notoriety spread across the land, that shortened to Correggio. He’s not known for mere fame anymore, though. This master made a meaningful difference. Most of his paintings weren’t at all like this portrait. Correggio’s Portrait of a Lady stands out. It’s a true rarity in his body of work.

A master of his time, Antonio Allegri often painted religious and allegorical paintings. He was well known for the fleshy physicality of his work. This brought Correggio’s religious pieces down to earth. With a masterful handling of light and dark, he drew a spiritual sense into these paintings as well. He often used reflected bits of light and slightly off proportions in his early works.

These gave Correggio’s painted bodies the essence of belonging to a real person. They were more realized than idealized. So, he gave characters in his work a sense of reality. We see this in Correggio’s Portrait of a Lady. It’s a rare gem among his paintings. But this jewel also compels us with Correggio’s particular artistry. That’s what makes this a masterpiece.

ENJOYED THIS Correggio’s Portrait of a Lady ANALYSIS?

Check out these other essays on Italian painters.

* Works by Correggio

Ricci, Conrado (1896). Antonio Allegri da Correggio: His Life, his Friends, and his Time. London: William Heinemann

Beckett, Sister Wendy. (1987) Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour: Discovering Europe’s Great Art. Penguin

Mannerism Stokstad, Marilyn; Cothren, Michael Watt (2011). Art History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.