This work by Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio, belongs to the early stage of his mature phase, characterized by a progressive softening of the physiognomies and a renewed softness of the drawing, delineating the figures, the colors, giving volume to the forms.
The Camera di San Paolo (Saint Paul Chamber), also known as the Camera della Badessa (Chamber of the Abbess), is located in the former Monastery of St. Paul in Parma and was a room in the apartment of Giovanna da Piacenza, abbess of the monastery since 1507.
For the first time in front of a demanding fresco work, a young Correggio decided to enclose within these four walls his homage to the artists who contributed to his training, and to those who represent real stimuli for him.
The herbaceous pattern that covers the entire ceiling, enriched with garlands of fruit and boxwood ovals, is a tribute to his master Andrea Mantegna, specifically his Camera degli Sposi in Mantua, and the Pala della Madonna della Vittoria, from which Correggio takes the idea of the vegetable vault. Correggio and Mantegna lineage is not surprising if we consider that Correggio decorated the Cappella Funeraria (funerary Chapel) of his master, thus becoming his spiritual heir. But if we look closer when we are in the Chamber of the Abbess, we can discover other influences, by artists working at the same time as Correggio.
The representation of fake sculptures in the lunettes, painted in perfect trompe-l’œil that makes them three-dimensional and realistic, could find a valid precursor in the false reliefs that decorate the Sala della Galatea (Galatea’s room) at the Villa Farnesina of Agostino Chigi in Rome: a construction where Baldassarre Peruzzi, Sebastiano del Piombo and Raffaello Sanzio worked around 1512.
But the most curious aspect of this oeuvre is that it is impossible to capture in a photograph. This is a remarkable failure, in our era of Walter Benjamin’s technical reproducibility of art. No reproduction can replace live vision, an experience that we consider more complete and satisfying because it implies our presence in front, or like in this case inside the oeuvre. This Chamber is a proof of that truth. If you are not there, free to move, get closer, look up, turn around, and focus on the many details, you will never understand its beauty as a whole. Any photographic reproduction shows only part of that beauty: a visual synecdoche aspiring to grasp the whole masterpiece, without succeeding.