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Jupiter and Io by Correggio - Kunsthistorisches Museum Guide

Updated: Jul 1



Jupiter and Io by Correggio

Jupiter and Io, one of the highest points ever reached in 16th-century art, is among the most famous artworks of Antonio Allegri known as Correggio, an Italian painter who lived between Correggio (his hometown), Mantua and Parma during the first half of the 1500s.


A prolific artist who however probably never had apprentices and therefore painted all his works by himself, he was renowned and respected during his lifetime and knew an incredible fortune after his death. Today, he is still admired and continues to inspire visitors of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna with Jupiter and Io, where he managed to recreate the shape and feel of a cloud like no one before and after him.


Here you will find a complete guide and analysis of this masterpiece, with facts, history, commission, description and explanation of its subject, the myth of Io.



 


In this article:


Artwork Profile and Meaning: Jupiter and Io by Correggio


 



Artwork Profile and Meaning: Jupiter and Io by Correggio



OVERVIEW


Title(s): Jupiter and Io (in Italian: Giove e Io)

Artist: Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio (1489-1534)

Execution: ca. 1530-32

Commissioner: Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua

Style: High Renaissance/Early Mannerism

Subject: Myth of Io

Technique: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 163x70cm / 64x27in

Original Location: Palazzo Te, Mantua

Ticket: Yes (full price: 21€)



THE ARTIST AND HIS STYLE: ANTONIO ALLEGRI KNOWN AS CORREGGIO (1489-1534)


Antonio Allegri, later known as Correggio from his hometown, is considered a master of a style in between High Renaissance and Early Mannerism and knew a significant fortune during and after his lifetime. Giorgio Vasari, the great art historian of the Renaissance, even became his first biographer when he included his life in his Vite.


Quick note: High Renaissance (1490-1520) notably had Michelangelo and Raphael as main masters, while Early Mannerism (1520-1610) counted Pontormo, Tintoretto, Bronzino, and Parmigianino among its lines. Correggio's works thus stood right in between the epochs.


And yet, despite his popularity, Antonio Allegri is one of the least-known artists of his age, suffering from such scarce documentation that scholars from the 17th century onwards struggled to retrace his life.


We know that he died suddenly in 1534, at a relatively young age. We do not know exactly when he came to the world, although the year is set on 1489 after considering other circumstances (i.e. in 1511 he must have been at least 21 since he was appointed godfather of a newborn, which was not possible before that age). He was born in Correggio, near Parma, in Northern Italy, from Pellegrino de Allegri and Bernardina Ormani in a relatively well-off family.


The following years are nebulous. Antonio Allegri blossomed artistically in a provincial but strategic place within Italy, close enough to Florence, Milan, Venice and Rome as to be influenced by Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and the Venetian school. However, it is not clear whether he had one, two or more masters, but likely several, including Andrea Mantegna, whom Correggio must have met before he died in 1506.


He would spend his life between Correggio, Parma and Mantua, plus short periods in Modena and Rome for apprenticeship and study.


Anyway, by 1514 his career was ready to take off: it was when he signed his first important contract as a solo artist, committing himself to creating a Madonna altarpiece for the church of San Francesco in Correggio. After that moment, new jobs would pop up consistently until, in 1520, he got the commission that established him as one of the main painters in Parma, where he had moved from Correggio a few years earlier: the frescoes for the church of San Giovanni Evangelista.


From 1520 and until his death in 1534, Antonio Allegri knew a veritable golden age that culminated in the commission of the frescoes for the cupola of Parma's Cathedral (still one of his most famous artworks). In between, he got married (likely in 1518) and had one son and three daughters. His job also allowed him and his family to live comfortably: just months before his death, he was purchasing lands and properties around Correggio.


A detail of the Cathedral of Parma's cupola with Correggio's Assumption of the Virgin, 1525-30
A detail of the Cathedral of Parma's cupola with Correggio's Assumption of the Virgin, 1525-30

His death, as we said, came suddenly: Vasari left us a fantabulous tale of Antonio Allegri’s last days and of a tragic journey back to Correggio from Parma, with so much money on his back that the burden eventually killed him. In fact, he probably succumbed to fatigue while already ill from some fulminant disease.


At the time of his death, he was working for an important commissioner, the Duke of Mantua Federico II Gonzaga (1500-1540), for whom he was producing some profane paintings. Among them the series of the Loves of Jupiter, which includes Jupiter and Io. The series remained incomplete due to the tragic departure of its artist.



A Brief Introduction to Correggio's Artistic Style

Antonio Allegri has inspired generations of artists and fascinated the people of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, becoming a model for Baroque and Rococo painters.


Correggio's style took the best from all artistic worlds he was touched by: by Leonardo's school he acquired a perfect use of lights and colors (chiaroscuro), from Raphael and his school he learnt how to shape forms and give them monumentality. From Mantegna he interiorized human gestures, and the Venetian area gifted him with an excellent sense of natural aesthetics and fluidity of forms. The list could be longer.


From all these sources of inspiration, Correggio came up with a personal style: he would master the art of depth and perspective by constructing his subjects within a diagonal composition, so as to guide the viewer's eye and create a proportionate scene. He would learn how to paint soft and gentle human figures engaged in natural and delicate poses; he would convey emotions and ecstasy from the figures' eyes and faces, and he would use nature and rural landscapes to escape from reality and give a mystical fascination to his subjects.


Many of his achievements in terms of aesthetics and perspective would be unpaired for decades, and the rendering of a few of the subjects he represented (among them, Jupiter and Io) would remain at the highest possible level in the history of art.



HISTORY, COMMISSION AND THE LOVES OF JUPITER SERIES


The commissioner of Jupiter and Io was Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (1500-1540), who requested a series of canvases representing the many loves of Jupiter (Zeus), the Greek-Roman God famous for his lust and infidelity. The canvases were requested after Antonio Allegri painted a few other profane subjects and those were positively acclaimed within the aristocratic clique of Mantua in the late 1520s. We therefore reach the early 1530s, dating Jupiter and Io around 1530-1532, right before Correggio's sudden death in 1534, when the series was not yet complete.


In fact, the Duke must have been very satisfied with the paintings Correggio managed to create: when the artist passed away, he rushed to obtain the cartoons for the remaining paintings. The Duke actually commissioned an unknown number of works, but today we have and know 4 in total:


  1. Jupiter and Io (1530-32 - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

  2. The Abduction of Ganymede (1531-32, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

  3. Danae (1530-31 - Galleria Borghese, Rome)

  4. Leda and the Swan (1530-31 - Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)



The 4 paintings of the Loves of Jupiter Series: from left to right, Leda and the Swan, The Abduction of Ganymede, Jupiter and Io, Danae
The 4 paintings of the Loves of Jupiter Series: from left to right, Leda and the Swan, The Abduction of Ganymede, Jupiter and Io, Danae


The Duke probably meant to hang them in a room dedicated to Jupiter's loves in his residence, Palazzo Te in Mantua, but they only briefly reached their destination. In a matter of years, he himself handed the canvases to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.


Why give away the series if he cared so much about it? Noblemen like the Duke of Mantua were politically weak in 16th-century Italy and their fate was often bonded to a more or less positive relationship with a higher power, a king or an emperor. In this case, Emperor Charles V favoured the ascent of the Duke, and in a time of need Federico II opted for a valuable gift for his benefactor. Artworks, sculptures and manuscripts were often gifted to important figures, sometimes to impress and sometimes to ask for forgiveness or mercy.


From that moment, the 4 paintings went on different paths. Jupiter and Io would end up in Vienna as soon as the early 17th century, after being sold to a wealthy Italian sculptor and later to Emperor Rudolf II of Habsburg, who eventually brought it to what is now Austria. Today, it is exhibited side by side with The Abduction of Ganymede from the same series, its vertical twin.



Jupiter and Io by Correggio


DESCRIPTION


Jupiter and Io is a large painting (163x70cm or 64x27in), vertically cut, that was likely meant to be used as a wall decoration and to be hung on one side of a door, with The Abduction of Ganymede on the other side.


It depicts the upmost crucial moment in the myth of Io, a nymph of Juno (Jupiter's wife) who was seduced by Jupiter. Jupiter is here seen in the form of a cloud in the act of descending on Io, who seems not to dislike what is happening, thus giving the whole scene a marked sensual power. You can read about the myth and Correggio's source below.


Despite Correggio's notable ability in creating diagonal compositions, here, for space reasons, he opted for a vertical scene. The geometry is built by the characters: Jupiter descends on Io and Io ascends towards Jupiter, while on the upper side is a blue sky and on the lower portion is a marshy ground.


Jupiter and Io, Correggio
The nymph Io

The figure of Io shows all the influences of Antonio Allegri (including Hellenistic and Roman art) and at the same time anticipates Baroque: her fluid pose and porcelain-like skin are reminiscent of Venetian art, while her ecstatic expression foreruns the great Christian paintings and sculptures of the 17th century. Her pinky skin is put in high contrast with the sharpness of the towel she is sitting on, creating an impressive game of lights.



Jupiter represents the highest point in the painting: depicting the clouds has always been one of the greatest challenges for a painter, and here Correggio mastered it like very few before and after him. He managed not only to recreate its idea but also to give it a pillowy and soft appearance. ➜ If you look closely, you will see Jupiter's features in the cloud: look at Io's left hip and you will spot Jupiter's hand grabbing it to hold the nymph closer; look at her face and you will notice the cloud becoming the God's face to allow him to kiss her beauty. ➜ Overall, the cloud is grabbing the nymph, who seems as if ready to levitate and ascent in the blue sky above with the God to consume their love. The presence of the blue sky also tells us that the scene is happening in plain sight.


The ground below Io holds several meanings: the marshy appearance of it recalls a river, for Io is a nymph (a minor divinity associated with rivers and water flows) and so are her parents (her father is a River God and her mother an Oceanid, a nymph of the ocean).


Jupiter and Io by Correggio
The vase

➜ The vase in the bottom right corner with a tree branch growing out of it is another typical representation of a river.


Jupiter and Io by Correggio
The deer's head

➜ Below the vase, almost completely hidden due to the choice of colors, is the head of a deer drinking from a water source. This is likely a second-though addition and scholars have attributed it both a spiritual and a sensual meaning: it could be a Biblical reference (the deer would be the human soul drinking from the source of God) to remind the viewer of what truly matters and to avoid being too lustful, or it could be yet another reference to sensuality (a deer drinking from a water source sometimes represented sexual desire in medieval imaginary). We will probably never know, but considering Correggio's historical period, both theories could easily be true.




SUBJECT EXPLAINED: THE MYTH OF IO


Correggio's Jupiter and Io represents the focal moment in the myth of Io when Jupiter, disguised as a cloud, descends on earth to seduce the nymph Io and bring her away to consume their love together.



The Myth of Io

According to the myth, Jupiter (Zeus for the Greeks) could not help but fall in love with yet another woman who was not his wife Juno (Hera for the Greeks). The God was well-known for his infidelity and did nothing to resist his attraction towards a beautiful nymph, Io, a priestess of Juno.


Jupiter nevertheless wished to act in secrecy and tried to hide his love escapade by turning into a cloud and seducing the girl without anyone knowing it was him. He thus descended on the earth from the Olympus in cloud form and took the nymph with him.


But Juno was far too aware of her husband's methods and soon understood what was happening. She went right where the lovers were hiding, in the hope of surprising them. Jupiter, who saw Juno arrive, was quick enough to turn the poor nymph into a white cow, concealing her identity and his infidelity.


Juno could not be fooled and, convinced that the white cow was in fact Io, took the unlucky nymph away and gave her to a shepherd, Argus. Argus, a mythological figure, was a giant with 100 eyes who could not sleep because his eyes were never closed all at once.


Jupiter was having his troubles: besides his wife's rage, he had to face Io's parents' supplications to have their daughter back. They were minor divinities themselves, and Jupiter could not avoid listening to them. He therefore sent Mercury to save Io from Argus but he struggled quite a lot to make the giant fall asleep and eventually killed him.


In the end, Io was free to go, the poor Argus was dead, and... Jupiter was forgiven by his wife, ready to cheat again!



Correggio's source: the Metamorphoses

The 1600s was a century of profound psychological and spiritual turmoil, and people from Italy lived in a society that was heading towards religious conservatism but was also exploring Greek-Roman culture and celebrating the pleasures of life. Therefore, it does not surprise us that Federico II Gonzaga requested a series of paintings depicting the loves of Jupiter, for Roman mythology was increasingly used to represent various aspects of modern society.


To recreate the mythological scenes, Correggio took inspiration from a widely-known work, the Metamorphoses (8 CE) by the Roman poet Ovid. This long poem is a virtuosic narration of the history of the world from its creation until a few decades before being written, ending with the death of Julius Caesar (44 BCE). It includes a variety of myths and tales and it inspired basically every Western writer throughout the centuries.


In Jupiter and Io, Correggio decided to slightly change the original narration: for example, Ovid told us of Jupiter hiding behind a cloud and not turning into one. Also, Io was not described as consenting to her abduction but instead being rather scared.



A Controversial Celebration of Rape

With our contemporary sensibility, we probably would have never chosen this subject for a painting. Correggio slightly changed the original narration of the myth to convey sensuality and consent from the physical and facial expressions of Io. However, this scene could easily be intended as rape, for Jupiter alone fell in love with the nymph and decided he must possess her.


16th-century collective morals were extremely different from ours, and this subject was considered a perfect fit for a duke or a king, for it symbolized absolute power: what the ruler wanted he could obtain, no matter the obstacles. This could be valid for politics, money and, of course, lovers. This also explains why Federico II Gonzaga thought the painting series could be a good gift for Emperor Charles V.

Note that this concept was not women-related only: Jupiter and Io was to be hung beside The Abduction of Ganymede, a depiction of another myth where Jupiter falls in love with a handsome young man and abducts him to possess him.


The Abduction of Ganymede, Correggio
The Abduction of Ganymede, Correggio



 

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WHERE AND HOW TO VISIT





You can see Jupiter and Io at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.


It is exhibited in the Picture Gallery, on floor 1, Kabinett 3, in the section dedicated to Italian painters. In the room, Jupiter and Io is hung side by side with The Abduction of Ganymede by Correggio. You can also admire the works of Lorenzo Lotto, Parmigianino, among others.


 To visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum you will need a ticket: a full price ticket costs 21€, a reduced one 18€ (valid for students), free entry for kids under 19, and there are some other options in case you have specific cards or opt for a combined ticket.


 The Museum is normally closed on Mondays, open Tue-Sun from 10AM to 6PM, and on Thursdays from 10AM to 9PM. From June to August, it is open every day (Mon 10AM - 6PM).


You can find these and other pieces of information here, on the official website of the Museum, where you can also purchase your tickets.




 



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