From Allegri to Laetus-Lieto: the shaping of Correggio's artistic distinctiveness.

Author:Periti, Giancarla
 
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The placing of artists' signatures on works of art has been viewed as an act that communicates the masters' presence and authenticates the authorship. Signatures usually consist of artists' names or monograms, but they also appear as visual, phonetic, emblematic, or literary transformations of the masters' names. These alternative forms of self-identification may occur not only as signatures on works of art but also as the artists' chosen name in records. This essay focuses on a paradigmatic case of an artist's self-naming, exploring the denotative force of the name and how it contributed to forging both the master's personal and professional persona. Names were part of the metaphoric way of thinking about individuals and their identities in the early modern period. They were signifiers of cultural processes through which relationships between the self, art, and the historical context were negotiated. Signatures and adopted names thus constitute fruitful areas for examination, pointing to issues of artistic identity, painterly style, and intentionality.

Antonio Allegri, better known as Correggio, from his hometown, identified himself by means of an unusual signature between 1517 and 1519. This consisted of the Latinized "Anton.[ius] Laet.[us]" that the artist inscribed on his Portrait of a Lady (Fig. 1) and on the Madonna of Albinea (Fig. 2), now lost, but known through copies. In the latter painting the artist carved this signature on a rock near Saint Lucy, while in the former he placed it on the tree trunk behind the sitter. In the following years, the same form of self-presentation also entered official records. Documents dating between 1521 and 1524 attest that he had assumed the cognomen Lieto, the Italian version of Laetus, substituting this for his actual patronymic, Allegri. These documents, which include a record of affiliation with the Benedictine congregation of S. Giustina, (1) a note from Allegri's hand appended to the agreement for his Adoration of the Shepherds (Fig. 3), (2) and an autograph receipt for payment received from the administrator of the S. Giovanni Evangelista Benedictine monastery in Parma, (3) all name the painter as Antonio Lieto of Correggio. These records suggest that Allegri's self-presentation had gone beyond its origin as a personal and artistic matter to become an identification that was publicly accepted and understood. More than simply a variation of the artist's patronymic, it was revelatory of the way Allegri constructed his self-identity and achieved an effect of subjectivity both as an individual and as an artist.

In general, the cognomen Lieto has been interpreted as a transformation of the artist's patronymic Allegri. The etymological meaning of lieto as happy, lighthearted, or joyful has been seen to contain a pun embracing the artist's family name Allegri (merry). Such assessments have relied on the assumption that the terms lieto and allegro had the same meaning in the Renaissance. It can be ascertained, however, that for sixteenth-century readers these vernacular words and their Latin equivalents, laetus and alacer, albeit interchangeable, maintained their specific connotation. Niccolo Perotti and Ambrogio Calepino's sixteenth-century dictionaries refer to laetus as the joy expressed in faces or bodily motions or, alternatively, as fertile soil (laetamen, fertilizer, has the same root), while associating the adjective alacer with a jocular, active spirit. (4) With his adopted name Laetus-Lieto, the artist embraced the essence of merriment and joy inherent in his cognomen, utilizing its inner force to direct the development of his personal and professional selves. Allegri thus demonstrated an awareness that names were perceived as comments on the essence of things and as having the power to impress themselves on the characters of those who bore them. Names were therefore testimony to a myriad of possible discourses that far surpass a simple explanation of Allegri's name Laetus-Lieto merely in terms of a translation of his patronymicus.

Meditations on the significance of names belong to a long tradition that can be traced back to classical lore and to the Bible. Whether names were labels arbitrarily imposed and retained by convention or whether they somehow revealed the essence of what they named was a question that Plato discussed in the Cratylus. (5) Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we find that to know and state certain names is to be empowered, both as the bearer and as the speaker of the name. Saint Augustine proposed various etymological principles to explain how all words encapsulated the essence of what they described. Names and their etymologies found a relevant place in Isidore of Seville's Etymologiarum libri as fundamentals of grammar and rhetoric, and they remained an obligatory ornament of poetry. (6) The philosophy of names had also a strong influence on the poetics of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. In Dante's Vita nuova, Beatrice's name was to inspire a love understood to be true, since, Dante argues, "names are the consequence of things [nomina sunt consequentia rerum]." (7) Petrarch's and Boccaccio's poetics, which attained great importance in cinquecento Italy, contributed much to reestablishing a relation between the naming and the characters of individual personalities. (8) Ernst Robert Curtius has acutely discussed etymology as a "Denkform" (a category of thought). (9) Curtius's observation that the etymological evaluation of proper names was considered among the "attributes" of a person lends weight to an understanding of the power of names.

All this serves as a prologue to the problem that concerns us: the significance of Allegri's self-naming Laetus-Lieto viewed as an act by which the historical maker of works of art retires behind the persona introduced by his chosen name. Within this context, a change of name suggests a change in identity and role. Allegri's self-constructed identity Laetus-Lieto, as will be demonstrated below, marked his status as a fully fledged artist and the achievement of an artistic distinctiveness that he integrated into his art as an aspect of lietezza to affect the beholder. Lietezza thus became the artist's "signature style," which, it will be seen, reflects his self-identity and subjectivity bound into the process of creating his art. (10) There will, in particular, be given accounts of two paintings, his Madonna of Saint Francis, the lieto character being represented in the artist's namesake, Saint Anthony, and his Portrait of a Lady, in which the painter's joyful self was transposed into both the subject and the stylistic features of the painted imagery. (11) While in the former the artist moves toward an ontology of the self to render homage to his piety, in the latter he declares his intentionality as the inventive author. Allegri's style of lietezza and his adopted name will also be understood as responses to the cultural values and activities stimulated at his hometown court by the local ruler-poets Niccolo da Correggio and Veronica Gambara, as well as to broader discourses on the human passions, including happiness. Despite his acquaintance with members of the ruling family and the noble status held by painting at the da Correggio court, Allegri never became their court artist because the rulers had not the wealth to secure the services of masters such as he. (12) Yet more important than their patronage had been the intellectual discourses localized in the literary academy of Correggio and the interrelations between the self, painting, and nature as commented on by Leonardo da Vinci. Whether scholarship has, in general, observed the sense of joy characteristic of Allegri's production and the pleasing forms of his figures, the significance of the artist's laetae forms in relation to his self-naming and to discourses of artistic distinctiveness and human passions has until now remained untouched. (13)

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Discourses of Self-Referentiality

Allegri was commissioned to paint the Madonna of Saint Francis (Fig. 4) for the high altar of the church of S. Francesco in Correggio on August 1514, as a record testifies. (14) Cecil Gould has sustained that the altarpiece includes a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of his name saint, Saint Anthony of Padua. (15) The scholar has observed that Saint Anthony (at far left) is set apart from his companions, Saint Francis, Saint Catherine, and Saint John the Baptist, through the combination of joyful aspect and individualized features. In the altarpiece. Saint Anthony communicates with the viewer by glance and bodily posture. Gould's hypothesis entails a discourse of homonymic visualization between the figure's character and its author, with the name determining the way the depiction was conceived. A similar interaction between masters and their art was characteristic of some Renaissance portraiture, with the poetic painted metaphors suggesting the sitter's name as found in Leonardo's Portrait of Ginevra de' Benci, his Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, and Lorenzo Lotto's Portrait of Lucina Brembati. (16) In the case of Allegri's representation, a bond is implicit between the painter, his saint figure, and its outer features, the center of which resides at the intersection of discourses of artistic persona, theories of art, and naming.

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It might first be asked how Correggio's depiction of Saint Anthony diverges from earlier representations, and if so in which ways? The saint is shown not as an ascetic leader of the Church, as in Donatello's or Cosme Tura's Saint Anthony (Fig. 5), but rather as a clean-shaven, cheerful young man wearing the Franciscan habit, with his head covered. Allegri's image of the saint most impresses the observer for the happy spirit it conveys. Saint Athanasius's biography of Saint Anthony attests to the saint's unrestrained jollity, which, along with...

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