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Rondani and the Grotesque: Francesco Maria Rondani's oeuvre is profoundly indebted to Correggio's ideal of beauty. Yet Rondani's fresco cycle for the Centoni Chapel of Parma Cathedral marked a radical departure, and also provides evidence for his authorship of two drawings previously attributed to Correggio.

Relatively little is known about the artistic career of Giovanni Francesco Maria Rondani, who was born in Parma on 15 July 1490 and died there 60 years later in 1550. He is traditionally believed to have assisted in the fresco campaign that Correggio (1489?-1534) undertook in the Parmesan church of San Giovanni Evangelista in the early 1520s. Although no known documents can confirm this working arrangement, some of the mural decoration has been plausibly assigned to Rondani on stylistic grounds. Neither a pupil nor a mere assistant of Correggio, by 1520 Rondani was a painter capable of securing his own commissions. (1) Correggio was undeniably the brighter star, and his art had a profound impact on Rondani, prompting one modern writer to remark that 'Correggio's influence may in fact be sensed in greater or lesser degree in all Rondani's works'. (2) The dependence on Correggio is perhaps least evident in Rondani's only surviving independent mural cycle, which he painted in the Centoni Chapel of Parma Cathedral between 1527 and 1531. The project is well documented, including a contract that carefully specifies the intended iconographical programme. Recent cleaning of the frescoes in 2006 has restored legibility to their once-darkened surfaces, inviting a renewed assessment of them.

This article considers the imagery in the Centoni Chapel in light of Rondani's stylistic ties to Correggio. The frescoes offer further evidence to support the artists' collaboration in San Giovanni Evangelista. Yet, in the Centoni Chapel, Rondani transposed Correggio's ideal of beauty into a surprisingly grotesque key. As I will note, the transformation accords with anti-classical tendencies that can be found elsewhere in early 16th-century northern Italian art and literature. Finally, I will introduce two drawings that have been assigned to Correggio, but which are, in my opinion, graphic preliminaries by Rondani for this fresco cycle.


Two signed pictures by Rondani are known to survive: an altarpiece of the Virgin and Child in Glory with Saints Jerome and Augustine (Galleria Nazionale, Parma), and a male portrait (private collection).3 The delicate brushwork, fused colour, figures and landscape--albeit very much indebted to Correggio's example--declare Rondani's skill. A Latin inscription in the portrait implores the intended (female) viewer to cherish her beloved's likeness that has been painted by the learned hand of Rondani, the Latin word for sparrow ('Hirundus'), which translates into Italian as 'Rondine', serving as a clever wordplay on the artist's surname. (4) Both the inscription and the portrait exemplify contemporary conventions of lyrical love poetry, an ideal of beauty in which Rondani was demonstrably conversant, but which he altogether abandoned in the Centoni Chapel. The slightly exaggerated facial features of the two saints in the signed altarpiece, which probably dates to the mid-1520s, hint at the anti-classical direction that Rondani would soon take.

In the early 1520s Rondani is believed to have worked closely with Correggio in the Benedictine church of San Giovanni Evangelista. Documents indicate that, from 1520 until 1524, Correggio painted the cupola, apse and other areas throughout the church. (5) Extant documents of payment make no mention of assistants or collaborators, yet the large mural project presumably required the kind of teamwork that characterised contemporary workshop procedure. Correggio had incentive to conclude his work expeditiously in the church. He received the commission to paint the friezes and pilasters in the nave--the last phase of his project--only two days before he signed a contract on 3 November 1522 for an extensive pictorial campaign in the nearby cathedral, which would pay four times the total amount he was to earn in San Giovanni. A tradition that can be traced to the early 18th century claims that Rondani helped to paint the frieze along the nave according to Correggio's designs. (6) Correggio may also have asked Rondani to devise cartoons for minor decorative elements, for example, the candelabra on the pilasters in the nave. (7)

A red-chalk study in the Uffizi, which depicts youths carrying wheat and grapes toward an altar, and which was on public display for the first time in a recent exhibition on Correggio, is pertinent to the debate surrounding the master and his assistants. (8) Although formerly catalogued under the school of Annibale Carracci, the drawing can be dated to the 1520s on technical grounds, as I have demonstrated elsewhere. (9) Its invention and style are profoundly indebted to Correggio, but inconsistencies in figural proportions and modelling suggest that the design is by a lesser hand. I originally assigned it to the 'circle of Correggio, possibly Rondani', based on what little was known to survive of Rondani's graphic oeuvre. (10) Two drawings that I will later discuss here strengthen the case in favour of an attribution to Rondani.

The Uffizi design relates to two friezes depicting scenes of sacrifice, painted largely in grisaille, which were originally located to either side of the presbytery in San Giovanni. Differences in figural type and arrangement imply that it is a preparatory drawing for, rather than a copy after, the frescoes. The painted friezes were designated as autograph works by Correggio in the recent exhibition, (11) but, given their prosaic quality and relative insignificance in the overall decorative scheme, they are more likely to be a workshop production. Since Correggio was, at the time, involved with more prominent parts of the cycle, such as the large apsidal scene of the Coronation of the Virgin, he would plausibly have delegated responsibility for ornament of lesser importance to his collaborators. (12) Rondani's authorship of the related design implies that he participated in the conception, as well as the execution, of the friezes in the presbytery.

A few years later, in 1527, Rondani began working on a documented fresco cycle of his own in the nearby cathedral of Parma. The fifth chapel to the right of the cathedral's entrance belonged to a local family, the Centoni, whose members were renowned in the fields of jurisprudence and notarial practice. Its decoration was largely a result of the testamentary wishes of a certain Ludovico Centoni, who died in Rome in 1518. His patronage, especially regarding his cenotaph in the chapel, has been the subject of an excellent study by Alessandra Talignani. (13) David Ekserdjian has since published transcriptions of passages of the documents that pertain to Rondani's pictorial cycle. (14) Two redactions of Ludovico Centoni's last testament, dated 1504 and 1517, respectively, offer precise iconographical instructions regarding the chapel. The first document calls for a comprehensive mural cycle of Christ's life (from the Incarnation to the Ascension), whereas the revised will of 1517 changes the programme to focus on scenes of the Passion, together with scenes from the life of the chapel's titular saint, Anthony Abbot.

On 3 October 1527, nearly a decade after Centoni's death, his heirs--a confraternity known as the Consorzio dei Vivi e dei Morti--enlisted Rondani to paint in the chapel, which he finished by 1531. (15) The contract lists the exact episodes of the Passion that were to be depicted: 1 Christ taken in the Garden ('uno quadro como Christo fu preso in l'orto'); 2 Christ before Caiaphas ('un altro quadro como Christo fu presentato a Cayphas'); 3 Christ before Pilate ('un altro quadro como Christo fu presentato a Pilato e como se lavo le mani'); and 4 Christ carrying the Cross ('un altro quadro como li Judei il ligorno et li fecere portare la croce [+]'). Above the altar the artist was to show the crucified Christ ('sopra l'altare pinger Christo in Croce [+]'). Rondani's fresco cycle closely corresponds to the contractual dictates, yet, somewhat curiously, he arranged the four narrative scenes into pairs to be read in a counter-clockwise direction, beginning on the eastern wall, and culminating with a stark image of the crucified Christ on the altar (southern) wall. (16)



The contract stipulates that four precise stories from Saint Anthony's life be depicted in grisaille along the lower area of the walls ('al basso la vita de santo Antonio ... in chiaro et scuro'). (17) Rondani arranged these too in a counter-clockwise direction. He added two scenes that were not specified in the contract, notably Saint Anthow tormented by demons, suggesting that the artist may have had some degree of creative flexibility with the project. Moreover, the contract calls for the four Evangelists to be painted in the vault ('li quatri evangelisti in la volta') and Sibyls in the arches ('le sibille in li archi'). The most damaged part of the chapel, the vault was extensively re-painted in the 18th century. The recent restoration campaign has nonetheless revealed remnants of the original figures. (18) Much better preserved is the grisaille fresco of two male figures on the inner arch of the chapel's counter-fagade. Although not mentioned in the contract, they may be prophets or Doctors of the Church. (19)

Monochromatic candelabra all'antica are not specified in the contract, but are painted on the pilasters flanking the chapel's entrance and around the frames of the chapel's two windows. This subsidiary aspect of the decorative scheme has been altogether neglected in the literature and, until now, never properly illustrated (Fig. 2). (20) It should be observed that the motif closely relates in style and type to the candelabra that are painted along the nave of San Giovanni Evangelista (Fig. 3). The remarkable correspondence supports the possibility that Correggio delegated to Rondani the task of devising, as well as painting, such ornament in the Benedictine church. Rondani later adapted the invention to make variant and considerably more elaborate cartoons for the Centoni Chapel. (21)

More important, the Centoni Chapel reveals the extent to which Rondani moved away from the normative model of Correggio's art. For example, the scenes of Saint Anthony Abbot in the lower zone--executed with tremendous confidence--reveal unusually elongated proportions and exaggerated physiognomies. Such imagery demonstrates that Rondani was not simply, to use A.E. Popham's colourful phrase, a 'spineless and rather ineffectual imitator of Correggio'. In the Centoni Chapel, as Popham recognised, 'crude and in a way incompetent as Rondani certainly is ... there emerges from these frescoes a very definite and slightly bizarre personality, with a harsh and original sense of drama and characterization verging on caricature, surprising in an artist in many ways so near to Correggio'. (22)

Rondani found inspiration in German and Netherlandish prints. Popham noted, in passing, a possible link between the fresco on the chapel's western wall (Fig. 5) and Lucas van Leyden's large engraving of Ecce Homo (1510; Fig. 4). (23) While Rondani did not directly quote from the print, he seems to have known it and adopted its generalised arrangement: a raised platform and stairway with an architectural backdrop of block-like buildings and arched openings. He employed similarly scornful and gesticulating figures, who can be seen in the immediate foreground of the print, for his treatment of the story. Furthermore, Rondani's adjacent scene of Christ Bearing the Cross (Figs. 1 and 5) recalls a large print of the same subject by Martin Schongauer (c. 1475; Fig. 7). (24) Notwithstanding differences, such as the orientation of the Cross, Christ's pose and demeanour are strikingly analogous. Rondani's fallen Christ, whose face is arguably the most beautiful in the entire fresco cycle, exhibits a serene beauty that, as in Schongauer's print, contrasts and transcends the surrounding physical and moral ugliness. The grotesque man who kicks Christ in the fresco has no obvious visual source: his mask-like face and peculiar costume may derive from theatrical types that were common in contemporary street performance. (25)

How are these odd frescoes in the Centoni Chapel to be understood? Deficiencies in the overall composition may be explained by the artist's lack of experience in organising visual narratives on large wall surfaces. But what of the repulsive and elongated figures, some of whom strike anatomically impossible poses, as if multiple heads were sprouting from the same body? Rondani could render figures without such monstrosity. He was capable of producing works of considerable refinement, such as the handsome male portrait, whose Latin inscription, as previously noted, invokes the poetic conventions of love. The caricaturelike idiom that Rondani employed in the Centoni Chapel must be seen as calculated, though it is not necessarily unique.

Heterodox visual and literary experiments were taking place elsewhere in northern Italy in the first decades of the 1500s. Scenes of the Passion by Romanino and Pordenone in the cathedral of Cremona, a town that is not far from Parma, manifest a deliberately ugly and violent anti-aesthetic, alluding to German and Netherlandish prints without directly quoting from them. As Messandro Nova and others have persuasively argued, these artists were exploring the language of the grotesque as an alternative model to visual elegance. (26) The strange imagery in the Centoni Chapel invites consideration in terms of this broader interpretive framework. Rondani's choice of an expressionistic visual language may be, in part, a function of the subject matter: the frescoes in the Centoni Chapel, like those by Romanino and Pordenone in Cremona, chronicle the sufferings of Christ's Passion. Possible ties to contemporary literary trends, as well as to theatrical spectacle and social (especially anti-Semitic) (27) stereotypes, in Parma merit further study.



While the frescoes in the Centoni Chapel depart from Correggio's lyrical style, Rondani seems, at least initially, to have conceived of his project in more traditional terms. A drawing in the Uffizi (Fig. 6) bears an old inscription to Correggio, an attribution that was recently upheld by Giovanni Romano, and has since been universally accepted. (28) Executed in red chalk and squared in black chalk, this study of the Arrest of Christ is admittedly Correggesque in spirit, but overly fastidious in its handling. The style is closer in its tonal modelling and figural types, for instance, in the youth on the far right, to the aforementioned drawing for the presbytery friezes in San Giovanni. An attribution to Rondani, rather than Correggio, finds additional support in terms of the subject matter portrayed. To date, no one has convincingly related this design to a picture by Correggio. Giovanni Agosti noted, in passing, that Rondani painted the theme in the Centoni Chapel, but denied any connection to the drawing. (29)




Nevertheless, several key factors point to the drawing's relevance for the eastern wall of the Centoni Chapel, where Rondani depicted the Arrest of Christ and Christ Before Caiaphas (Fig. 8). The design reads from right to left, in keeping with the counter-clockwise movement that Rondani employed in the fresco cycle. The device of a column appears in both the drawing and the fresco. In the study a gesticulating figure immediately to the right of the column suggests a larger or continuous narrative, as is to be found in the mural painting. Moreover, the implied light source in the drawing comes, unusually, from the right, corresponding to the actual light source in the Centoni Chapel. The design is squared for transfer, or enlargement, which does not necessarily imply that it represents a final solution. Given the degree of finish, it may have been a prospectus drawing of an idea that Rondani originally showed his patrons but then modified. Rondani ultimately recast such delicate beauty into a far more unpleasant language. He turned the soldiers into grotesque, mask-like characters in keeping with their hideous role in the biblical story.

Finally, I wish to introduce an unpublished drawing, a photograph of which I came across a few years ago during my research fellowship in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fig. 10). A handwritten notation on the back of the photograph allowed me to identify and contact the dealer, who confirmed that it had been sold as a design by Correggio in 1972, but had no idea of its present whereabouts. (30) Other notations on the reverse of the photograph register the drawing's medium (red chalk) and measurements (16 by 19.5cm). A collector's mark (Lugt no. 2092) on the sheet indicates that it once belonged to Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), an avid and typically well-informed collector of Correggio's designs.


The sheet is not by Correggio, but by Rondani. It relates to the fresco on the inner wall of the counter-facade of the Centoni Chapel (Fig. 9). Minor differences between the design and the fresco confirm the former's status as a graphic preliminary rather than a copy. In the painting, for instance, a book has been added inside the fictive oculus. So, too, Rondani shifted the placement of the legs of the righthand figure. Given its link to a securely documented mural cycle, the drawing is an important addition to Rondani's graphic oeuvre. Although it is difficult to judge a work of art without reference to the original (and it is my hope that publication of the photograph will eventually lead to discovery of its location), its style is patently indebted to Correggio, under whose name it was sold in 1972. The design underscores Rondani's fundamental ties to Correggio, even if, in the Centoni Chapel, he largely transformed Correggio's ideal of beauty into a disturbing and repulsive visual idiom.

Contemporary critical reception of the frescoes in the Centoni Chapel is unknown. It is nonetheless interesting to contemplate whether Ludovico Centoni--who commissioned an older local artist (Alessandro Araldi) to paint a highly conventional altarpiece for the chapel, where it may still may be seen today (31)--would have been appreciative of Rondani's efforts. No similarly 'ugly' fresco cycle was ever painted again in 16th-century Parma. The visual language of the beautiful--the sweetness of Correggio and the refined elegance of Parmigianino, as championed by artists such as Michelangelo Anselmi and Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli--would prevail. (32)


An earlier version of this paper was given at the Convegno Internazionale di Smdi su Correggin, which was held in Parma and Correggin, Italy, in November 2008. I thank Lucia Fornari Schianchi for her invitation to participate in the conference. I dedicate my essay, with affection, to the memory of both Francesca Baroeelli and Marin DiGiampaolo.

(1) / A con tract dated 31 October 1520 enlists Rondani to paint frescoes for the Anziani del Comune di Parma, for which see D. Ekserdjian, 'Francesca Maria Rondani e la cappella Centoni', in Basilica cattedrale diParma, ed. M. Pellegri, Parma, 2005, vol. II, p. 89 (transcribed). Ekserdjian mistakenly cites Scarabelli-Zunti to claim that Rondani was already considered to be an independent master by 1512: the source (Scarabelli-Zunti, yah III, c. 359r) states that a document of that year names Rondani as a witness 'senza titolo di maestro'.

(2) / F. Russell, 'Rondani's masterpiece and a neglected Correggio', Apollo, vol, CIII, no. 167 (January 19761, p.13.

(3) / On the two pictures (illustrated), see the respective entries by A. Loda in Parmigianino e il manierismo europeo, exh. cat., ed. L. Fornari Schianchi and S. Ferino Pagden, Cinisello Balsamo, 2003, pp. 160-63, with bibliography.

(4) / Further on the inscription, see entry by M. Lucca in Natura e Maniera: le cenerivioletti di Giorgione ira Tiziano e Caravaggio, exh. cat., ed. V. Sgarbi, Milan, 2004, pp. 162-65. The word 'Victoria' in the inscription may indicate the name of the woman forwhom the portrait (her male beloved) was intended.

(5) / For the documents, see E. Monducci, II Correggio, la vita e le operenellefonti documentarie, Cinisello Balsamo, 2004. pp. 99-117.

(6) / M. Vaccaro, 'A drawing from the circle of Correggio in the Uffizi', The Burlington Magazine, vol. 149, no. 1252 (July 2007), p. 474, esp, note 14, with bibliography.

(7) / The ornament on the nave pilasters is generally thought to have been invented by Correggio and executed by the bottega: see D. Ekserdjian, Correggio, New Haven and London, 1997, pp. 118-19 (illustrated), with bibliography. Close parallels with decoration that Rondanilater painted in the Centoni chapel raise the possibility, as discussed below, that he had a share in designing the candelabra in San Giovanni.

(8) / See entry (illustrated) by M. Vaccaro, in Correggio, exh. cat., ed. L, Fornari Schianchi, Milan, 2008, pp. 402-03,

(9) / Vaccaro, op. cit. in n. 6 above, pp. 472-73.

(10) / Rondani's development as a d raftsman is largely obscure, yet in 1994 David Ekserdjian convincingly identified a red chalk study (once given to Correggio) as a preliminary design by Rondani for his signed altarpiece. Further on this drawing (illustrated) and its stylistic parallels to the one in the Uffizi, see Vaccaro, op. cit. inn. 6 above, with bibliography.

(11) / On the friezes (illustrated), see entry by M. Giusto in Schianchi op. cit., p. 308, noting the compromised state of conservation (i.e., much damaged and retouched). The quality is decidedly inferior to that found in Correggio's securely autograph works. It also seems improbable that Rondani would design (i.e., the study in the Uffizi) such minor decoration for Correggio to paint.

(12) / It has long been assumed, on stylistic grounds, for example, that Correggio delegated to another local independent artist (Michelangelo Anselmi) the design and execution of decoration on the cross-vaults of the nave of San Giovanni: see E. Fadda, Michelangelo Anselmi, Turin and London, 2007, p. 163. The lack of extant related payments suggests that the working arrangements may have been informal.

(13) / A. Talignani, 'Un name per tre monumenti funebri ovvero Giovan Francesca D'Agrate al servizin del Consorzio deiVivi e dei Mortidella cattedrale di Parma: il cenotafio Centoni e i sepoleri Carpesano e Musacchi', Parma per l'arte, Nuova serie, 4/5, 1998/99 (1999), 2/1, p. 33-63, esp. pp. 37-47, with extensive bibliography.

(14) / Ekserdjian, op. cit. in n. 1 above, pp. 90-91.

(15) / A transcription of the contract was first published by N. Pelicelli, 'Francesca Maria Rondani e gli affreschi della cappella Centoni in cattedrale', CrisopoIi, vol. III (1935), pp. 186-90; see also Ekserdjian, op. cir. in n. 1 above, p. 90 Pellicelli's reference to '13 ottobre 1527' (p. 188) is merely a typographical error; the correct date (3 October) appears both in his transcription and later in the same essay (p. 189).

(16) / F. Barocelli and C. Barbieri, La cappella Centoninel Duomo di Parma, storia e restauri, Parma, 2006, for extensive illustrations of the (recently cleaned) fresco cycle.

(17) / For these scenes of Saint Anthony Abbot, see Ekserdjian, op. cit. in n. 1 above, pp. 90-92, and Barocelli and Barbieri op. cir., illustrated (pls. 20-26).

(18) / C. Barbieri, 'La cappella Centoni di Francesca Maria Rondaninella Cattedrale di Parma, il restauro', in Barocelli and Barbieri op. cir. [not paginated], with related illustrations (pls. 4, 27-29).

(19) / Illustrated, below (Fig. 9). The frst redaction of Ludovico Centoni's will (1504) indicates that the patron originally wanted to have four Doctors of the Church, along with the four Evangelists, painted in the vault.

(20) / Barocelli and Barbieri op. cit., pl. 16, for a partial view of the candelabra painted on the chapel's windowframes.

(21) / For example, the two cartoons that were used (transferred by spolvero) to either side of each window in the Centoni Chapel include devices such as skulls, mitres and a triad of birds. The ornament is painted in the same distinctive way (e.g., diagonal hatching) as are the candelabra in San Giovanni.

(22) / A.E. Popham, Correggio's Drawings, London, 1957, pp. 102-07.

(23) / Ibid., p. 140. Popham's idea that Rondanibased his composition primarily on Raphael's School of Athens is, I think, far less convincing. For Lucas van Leyden's print, see E. Jacobowitz and S. Loeb Stephanek, The Prints of Lucas van Leyden and his Contemporaries, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1983, pp. 96-97, with bibliography.

(24) / The connection between Rondanfs fresco and this print has never to my knowledge been made. Rondani's combined use of the two prints is also noteworthy, since Lucas van Leyden evidently conceived of his engraving as a pendant in terms of format, scale and subject matter to that of Schongauer. For Schongauer's print (illustrated), see M. Lehrs, Martin Schongauer: the Complete Engravings (1925), Eng. trans., rev. edn, San Francisco, 2005, pp. 90-93.

(25) / Compare the stock characters, such as the crafty Pulcinella, in the commedia dell'arte. I thank Nadine Orenstein and Claudia Orenstein for sharing this observation.

(26) / A. Nova, 'Folengo and Romanino: the questione della lingua and its eccentric trends', Art Bulletin, vol. 76, no. 4 (December 1994), pp. 664-79. On Pordenone, see C. Smyth, 'Pordenone's "Passion" frescoes in Cremona Cathedral: an incitement to piety', in ed. G. Periti, Drawing Relationships in Northern Italian Art, Aldershot. 2004, pp. 101-28, with bibliography.

(27) / The contract of 1527 refers specifically to Jews in the scene of the Bearing of the Cross ['como li Judei il ligorno et li fecere portare la croce'].

(28) / Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Inv. 1951 F, for which see entry in G. Agosti, Disegni del Rinascimento in Valpadana, exh. cat., Florence, 2001. pp. 346-47. The drawing is backed, but a sketch maybe discerned on the verso through the backing with transmitted light. It appears to be a figure in profile, perhaps a study for the scenes of Anthony Abbot in the chapel. Thanks to Maurizio Boni, paper conservator at the Uffizi, for examining the sheet on a light-table with me.

(29) / Ibid., p. 347.

(30) / The photograph was filed under the artist Correggio in the departmental photographic files. I am grateful to George Goldner and the entire staff of the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for their incalculable support. I also wish to thank the Galerie de Bayser in Paris for providing related sales information and permission to publish the photograph.

(31) / For the altarpiece (illustrated), see M.C. Chiusa, Alessandro Araldi, la 'maniera anticomoderna'a Parma, Parma, 1996, pp. 80-82, and Talignani op. cit., pp. 41-42,

(32) / Rondani, too, may have opted for a more elegant idiom in his later works. The tendency among scholars to dare his undocumented pictures in the 1520s, or earlier, leaves serious lacunae in the artistic production for the remaining three decades of his career. His collaboration with Michelangelo Anselmi in the Oratorio della Concezinne (documented, 1532-34) may have inspired the more delicate figural types that are found in, for example, the Assumption of the Virgin (Naples).

Mary Vaccaro is Professor of Art History at the University of Texas, Arlington. Her research focuses on the art of 16th-century northern Italy, especially that of Parma.
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