Correggio (1489-1534) decorated the Room of the Abbess (or Room of Saint Paul) in the former Monastery of Saint Paul in Parma, likely in 1519. He achieved such surprising and innovative results, that to this day the space bears testimony to the artistic maturity of the great Renaissance painter.
Ironically, the room was kept a secret for a long time after the death of the woman who had ordered its paintings: the superior of the convent, noblewoman Giovanna Piacenza, who was in touch with the most important figures in her time’s cultural world – “a great lady in a monastic habit, who loved receptions and long conversations with cultured humanists”, to describe her with Gustaw Herling’s words (translated from “Le perle di Vermeer”, Fazi, Rome 1997).
Not even Vasari was able to see this hidden gem, which was precluded to critics for at least two centuries.
Correggio decorated the vault ceiling and the fireplace of this private room, probably used by the superior for private meetings. The umbrella vault – with the Abbess’s coat of arms in the center – features a fake pergola made of cane, intertwined branches, flower and fruit festoons; there are egg-shaped openings from which putti are visible, and sixteen monochrome lunettes with trompe-l’oeil mythical figures.
On the fireplace’s hood you can see Diana, goddess of hunting and of purity, whose name echoes in Giovanna (or Joana); according to art critic Renato Barilli, her presence speaks of “the desire for classical ennobling that was behind every humanistic cenacle at the time”.
Barilli goes on to explain, “The Abbess wished to compete with Parma’s laic circles, who were not subject to the constraints of convent life. The legend of Diana, suggested by the name’s soft assonance, fit her well because the goddess had made a vow of chastity, and required her nymphs to do the same as she led them in virtuous activities as feisty and ‘masculine’ as hunting. In Diana, all in all, the rules of the convent that separated genders and were based on vows were reborn in a virile and pugnacious version, which Giovanna must have really appreciated.”
Here are some photographs of the beautiful room.
Tuesday-Sunday and holidays 8.30am-2.00pm
(ticket office closes 30 minutes earlier)
(opening hours may vary during the year)
Paid entrance, free visit (no guides)