EVEN THE MOST casual student of art history knows the soft, sweet-E faced madonnas of the north Italian Renaissance painter called Correggio.

While it seems hard to believe, his reputation once rivaled that of Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian, inspiring Baroque artists such as the Carracci brothers and Bernini and sagging only when the 20th century began.

"Correggio and His Legacy: Sixteenth-Century Emilian Drawings," opening today at the National Gallery West Building, makes no attempt to restore Correggio to that lofty company, where he clearly does not belong. But it does present fresh evidence of his profound influence on several 16th-century artists--known and unknown--who worked with and after him in the Emilian region around Parma, Bologna, Ferrara and Correggio, the town from which he took his name.

Ironically, it is not Correggio who steals this show but the younger--and arguably better--artist known as Parmigianino, the most formidable of the 31 draftsmen whose work has been gathered here to illustrate Correggio's legacy.

The intriguing question of who is the better artist (most scholars would say Correggio) will not be settled by this show because Correggio's greatest achievements are stylistic innovations made in his frescoes and paintings, which regrettably are nowhere to be seen in this show, not even the two paintings owned by the National Gallery. No virtuoso draftsman, it is clear from his drawings that he used chalk, ink and wash only to work out ideas, not to create masterpieces. Of the 132 sheets in this show, Correggio made (or is assumed to have made) less than one quarter.

Parmigianino, on the other hand, proves to be a prodigious draftsman (about 800 drawings survive). His elongated, graceful and elegant linear forms soon fell easily into the mannerist mode, which dominated Italian painting until the last decades of the 16th century. It was only then that the Carracci brothers, seeking renewed naturalism, rediscovered and expanded upon the Baroque ideas that Correggio had advanced a half-century earlier in his precedent-shattering illusionist ceiling decorations for the interior of the cathedral dome in Parma.

"The problem with Correggio," said National Gallery organizing curator Diane DeGrazia, "is that people don't go to Parma, and you can't transport frescoes."

True. But those recently restored frescoes depicting the "Assumption of the Virgin"--the prototype for all the illusionist ceiling paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries--are the subject of a film that will be shown regularly during the run of the exhibition.

Apart from that, Correggio's long reach would have to be taken on faith but for the careful scholarly excavations--many of them new and many by National Gallery curators--on view in this show.

Divided into six sections (compressed by necessity into five rooms, causing some confusion), the show begins with several figures and compositional studies by or attributed to Correggio, selected from the 100 drawings by him that are known to survive. Most striking is a red chalk study for the aforementioned Parma Cathedral "Assumption," showing the Virgin ascending into heaven on a cloud, a revolutionary image for the time. Other studies, including one for an "Annunciation" fresco, reflect the same sense of turbulent movement and high drama that we now associate with Baroque--not Renaissance--art.

There are several drawings here of disputed authorship that DeGrazia hopes will pry further information and proper attributions from scholars. Separating the followers and imitators from the master is, of course, the ongoing business of scholarship, and a major preoccupation of this enterprise. But there's a surfeit of such works here, and many are likely to be seen as murky scrawls by the casual viewer. They can be passed by easily.

But everything is worth looking at in the room devoted to Parmigianino, which begins with studies after Correggio frescoes, establishing without question the influence of the slightly older master upon Parmigianino's early work. A red chalk drawing of three feminine heads in various poses--previously and understandably attributed to Correggio--are of special note. Clearly reflecting Correggio's favorite facial type, including the bulging eyelids, the drawing also echoes his style in its dissolution of forms into light and shade--the "sfumato" for which Correggio was known--and the intimate glances that hover between the demure and the erotic, an element that marks Correggio's finest paintings, specifically those dealing with mythological subjects.

But from there, Parmigianino swiftly moves on to produce images that are all his own, including the languid, linear female figures with outrageously long necks that were to become his signature forms. There is a charming scene of an artist in his studio, and a beautiful "Study of Tree Trunks and Foliage," rendered in pen and brown ink on blue-green paper, one of a few truly great master drawings on view. After Correggio's death in 1536, it was Parmigianino's mannerist style that dominated Emilian art, throwing Correggio into the background until the Carracci brothers and a lesser known artist named Pietro Faccini began to resurrect his ideas around 1580.

As the subsequent influence of both artists is ferreted out in the rest of this show, several lesser known names from Emilia and elsewhere emerge in drawings that should provide a gold mine for graduate students in search of a thesis topic. My choice would be Lelio Orsi, who has made lovely Correggio-infused drawings of "The Virgin Sewing," and "The Flight Into Egypt," as well as an odd "Dead Christ Between Charity and Justice" that should inspire viewers to go upstairs to see the great Caravaggio "Deposition" now on view.

The show ends on a high note with a chalk drawing of "A Boy Pulling on a Sock" by Annibale Carracci--again, and understandably--once attributed to the man whose influence Carracci carried into the next century: Correggio.

What's important about this survey won't necessarily be picked up by the casual viewer; the drawings in it were not selected chiefly for their looks, though there is much to see. For those who want to know more, a weighty catalogue has been published that should add spark to the current revival of interest in Renaissance drawings from the Emilian school.

The exhibition closes here May 13, and will then move to the Galleria Nazionale di Parma, where it can be seen from June 3 to July 15, giving visitors to Parma something to think about besides parmesan cheese and prosciutto.