In the time of Correggio the convent of S. Paolo (St. Paul) in Parma was in charge of the abbess Giovanna da Piacenza, who had succeeded an aunt in this office in 1507. She was a woman of liberal opinions, who did not let the duties of her position entirely absorb her. She still retained some social connections and was a patroness of art and culture. The daughter of a nobleman, she was a person of consequence, whose private apartments were such as a princess might have. Already a well known painter of the day had decorated one of her rooms when she heard of the rising artist Correggio. Probably advised by her relative the Cavaliere Scipione Montino, she commissioned the young painter to fresco a second room.

The decorative scheme he designed is very beautiful and elaborate. The square ceiling is completely covered with a simulated trellis, embowered in foliage and flowers, and pierced by oval windows through which children are seen at play. A circle in the centre contains the family arms of the abbess, a shield on which three crescent moons are set diagonally. From this centre, as from the hub of a wheel, a series of gilded ribs radiate towards the sides, cutting the whole space into triangular sections whose surfaces are slightly hollowed. The oval windows of the trellis open in these sections, one in each triangle, and sixteen in all. Above every window hangs a bunch of fruit, seemingly suspended from the centre by ribbons fancifully braided about the ribs. The outer edge of the design, where the ceiling joins the walls, is finished by a series of sixteen lunettes or semicircles running around the square, one in each section. The frieze around the side walls simulates a narrow scarf caught up in festoons between ornamented capitals formed of rams' heads. The remaining decoration of the room is on the cap of the chimney, and represents the goddess Diana setting forth for the chase.

This picture furnishes the subject of the children's games in the lattice bower. The little sprites are attendants of the goddess, playing in a mimic hunt. Two or three may be seen through every window, busy and happy in their innocent sport. One is the delighted possessor of a quiver of arrows, from which he draws a shaft. Others play with the hounds, pulling them hither and thither at their will. A group of five find the hunting-horn an amusing plaything, and good-humoredly strive together over the treasure.

Convent of S. Paolo, Parma

Our illustration shows a quarter section of the ceiling, from which we can in imagination reconstruct the whole diagram.[7] Let us see what the children are doing in this corner of the lattice. At the window directly in front of us a little fellow proudly exhibits a stag's head as a trophy of the chase. Just behind his shoulder a merry companion, peeps out, and lower down, on the other side, appears the head of an animal like a doe. In the next window is a boy with a wreath of flowers with which he and a companion apparently mean to crown the head of the stag. The third boy of the group has for the moment lost interest in the play, his attention being attracted by something going on outside. Now comes a boy passing by the next window, who hastens to join the party we have just seen. His playfellow wants to go the other way, and tries to detain him. "Come," he says, seizing him by the arm, "there's no fun over there. See what I have found."

[7] A quarter section, mathematically exact, is of course, square in shape. In our illustration the lower part of two lunettes is cut off.

We are somewhat at a loss to know just what mischief the baby in the next window has been plotting. He grasps with both hands a tall staff, which may be a hunting-spear, or perhaps a pole with which he hopes to reach the fruit. In some way he has managed to get both feet through the window, and is now in a precarious position, half in and half out. His companion tries to draw him in; but whether he is alarmed at the danger, or is himself eager to get the pole, we cannot tell.

The lunettes of the ceiling are painted in gray, framed in borders of sea-shells. They are made to simulate niches containing sculptured figures with some allegorical or mythological meaning. In our illustration we see first the figure of Chastity, holding in her right hand the dove, which is the emblem of innocence. The dress is the long, plain tunic seen in Greek sculpture, and the thin stuff of which it is made flows in graceful lines about the form. We are reminded of Milton's lines in "Comus:"—

"So dear to Heav'n is saintly Chastity,
That when a soul is found sincerely so,
A thousand liveried angels lacky her,
Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt,
And in clear dream and solemn vision,
Tell her of things that no gross ear can hear."

The next figure is similar in character and meaning. It is Virginity, holding in her right hand the lily, which is the symbol of purity. The other two figures, of which we see only the upper portion, are Fortune, with a cornucopia, and the helmeted Athena, with spear and torch.

At the death of the abbess Giovanna in 1574, the convent of S. Paolo entered upon a period of severe ecclesiastical discipline. For more than two centuries it was impossible for outsiders to gain admittance, and the "Sala del Pergolato" was a sealed treasure. Finally, in 1794, the Academy of Parma gained permission to examine Correggio's paintings. After the suppression of the convent the room was thrown open to the public, and the building is now used for a school.