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CORREGIO AND JOHANNA OF
When I was at Parma (1820) the cognoscenti of the place were still talking of the wonderful discovery of the “ piu insigne pitture” of the great Antonio Allegri detto il Corregio, which, after the lapse of nearly three centuries, had been found to exist in the monastery of St. Paul, belonging to the Benedictine sisters. The authenticity of the paintings, and the certainty of their immortal author, were questions long set at rest. But nothing grows old in Italy, and every thing in which the arts are concerned serves as a thesis of disputation, to those ardent but suppressed minds, to which all subjects of discussion are forbidden, save such as have no intimate connexion with human interests and human happiness. While the empty shops and silent streets of Parma exhibit the hopeless and torpid uncertainty of its pauper inhabitants (a city once the mart of bustling commerce), it is not unusual to see learned disputants holding forth, with great zeal and energy, on the merits of some rival“ maestro,” or disputing the date or authenticity of some picture of Mazzuolo, or Corregio, as if the emancipation of wretched Italy, from the Austrian tyranny, depended upon the settling of the question.
I was one morning whiling away a listless halfhour, previous to our departure, in the noble church of San Giovanni Evangelista, from whose aisles the fume of the morning service was not yet dispersed, when I was attracted by the loud voices (loud for such a place) of two persons, who were arguing with violent gesticulations before the splendid picture of St. Paul destroying the statue of Diana of Ephesus. The one was in a laical dress, but covered with the dust of the closet; there was no mistaking him ; he was evidently a professor of virtù. The other was in the monkish habit of St. Benedict. The virtuoso seemed anxious to prove that Diana of Ephesus was a certain Giovanna di Piacenza, abbess of the neighbouring convent of Benedictines, two cen.
turies back, and the patroness of Corregio's early efforts. The other (the monk) was denying the allegory insinuated by the lay virtuoso - that Jane of Placentia had been persecuted for her too liberal spirit, or that the mysterious fresco, discovered in the long closed chamber of the neighbouring convent, could have been painted as a fit subject for the chaste nuns of St. Paul, and their holy mother to gaze on. The apartment SO painted, he insisted, had originally made a part of the palace of a Parmesan noble,—and, with other neighbouring houses, had been gradually annexed to the monastery, during the last century, when the community had become too numerous for the original building
I could not stop to hear the argument out, as we were on the point of starting for Bologna, and our carriage was literally in waiting. But I left the porch of San Giovanni Evangelista with my imagination so full of Giovanna of Piacenza, abbess of the monastery of St. Paul, of whom the lay virtuoso had let drop some curious anecdotes, that long before we had reached Modena, I had made her character and patronage of the arts, the
subject of an Italian romance; giving it all the colouring of the scenery through which I was passing—and taking down particulars, features, and sites between Parma and Reggio (the birthplace of her immortal protégé), which, in my veteran knowledge of novel writing, I knew would work up well,
At Bologna, where we remained much longer than we intended, and where we lived much with the learned and the ingenious, I could only learn of my interesting abbess, that she was a " grande dame de par l'église;" but the forty languages of Mezzofanti, and the profound erudition of the excellent Costa, could tell me nothing more. Santa Caterina, too, was just then beginning to roll her eyes in the church of “ Our Ladies of St. Catherine,” at Bologna; and she so occupied public attention, that it was impossible to extort a word on the subject of any other saint in the calendar. Still, as often as I sat listening to Crescentini singing his delicious cavatina, in the frescoed salone of the beautiful Martinetti, the idea of my Jane of Placentia came upon my mind; for whatever I have best conceived (and even mediocrity has its degree of excellence); whatever I have written most successfully, has all been done under the influence of music; the whole of Salvator Rosa . was composed (and composed à trait de plume) in my drawing-room, in Dublin, while listening to the master-compositions of Rossini.
It was at Florence I first obtained more precise information concerning my charming abbess ; for charming I was determined she should be. During our delightful residence in that pleasantest of all Italian cities, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Signior Giuseppe Michali, whose very erudite work, “L'Italia avanti il dominio dei Romani,” is a monument of learned industry. The true Italian feeling of this gentleman had led him to devote his time and attention not only to the subjects connected with the ancient glories of the country, but to whatever illustrates those divine arts of which it is the mother. At the very time of my making his acquaintance, he was occupied with the subject that had got hold of my imagination; and his account of the long-concealed and celebrated abbess is as follows:
A vague tradition that there existed, in the mo