Today’s featured work is another self-portrait, this time by the 17th century Italian Baroque painter, poet and printmaker, Salvator Rosa. Salvator Rosa was a man of many talents and possibly one of the most daring and inventive artists of the Italian 17th century. Although in Britain, he is often best remembered for his unparalleled wild landscapes and mountain scenery, and it was just those scenes which Horace Walpole, the English art historian, antiquarian and politician so memorably wrote that what he witnessed during his 1739 journey crossing the Alps into Italy, some fifty years after Rosa’s death was so like the landscape works of the late artist:
“…Precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings – Salvator Rosa…”
But Rosa was not simply a landscape painter. It was Rosa who invented a series of new types of painting – novel allegorical pictures, which were characterised by poignant and melancholy poetry; whimsical portraits of romantic and mysterious figures; grisly and shocking subjects, which demonstrated the more sinister side of 17th-century triumphalism. Many believe that no other artist has managed to create windswept landscapes of such expressive and emotional power, or figures of such brooding intensity as those depicted in the artwork of Salvator Rosa.
Salvator Rosa was born in 1615 in Arenella, a hill-top suburb of Naples. His father, a land surveyor, Vito Antonio de Rosa, believed that his son would be well-served if he became a priest or a lawyer and with this in mind enrolled him into the convent run by the Somascan Fathers. Although his father had mapped out his future life, young Salvator had his own ideas for his future and had shown a liking and a propensity for the arts and a love of sketching and painting. His first formal artistic tuition was given to him by Francesco Francanzano, the artist who had married Salvator’s sister and then he studied at the Naples studio of the Baroque painter Aniello Falcone. Falcone although having painted numerous religious works and frescos for Neapolitan churches, will be primarily remembered as the first specialist of battle paintings. It was this painting genre that won him an international acclaim and he was dubbed L’ Oracolo delle Battaglie. It was also this genre that inspired Salvator Rosa. Falcone’s battle paintings generally depicted war as a disorderly struggle between unknown soldiers, and by so doing, created a depiction which was described as ‘the battle scene without a hero’.
In 1632 when Salvator was seventeen years of age is father died and his mother and five siblings, without their husband and father’s financial support, became destitute. Salvator continued to work for and be mentored by Falcone and helped him with his battle paintings. It is believed that the Rome-based painter Giovanni Lanfranco saw some of Rosa’s work and suggested that he would be best served artistically if he moved to and based himself in the Italian capital. Rosa took Lanfranco’s advice and moved to Rome in 1634 and stayed there for two years. In 1636 Rosa returned to Naples and concentrated on landscape painting. There was a romantic and haunting element to his landscape work, often populated by shepherds, soldiers, brigands, and mythological characters. In general his landscapes avoided the idyllic and pastoral calm countrysides depicted by the likes of Claude Lorrain and Paul Brill and the contrast between his work and theirs was often commented on. Claude Lorrain and Paul Brill created brooding, melancholic fantasies, awash in ruins and brigands. By the eighteenth century, the contrasts between Rosa and artists such as Claude was much remarked upon. The 18th century Scottish poet and playwright wrote about such differences in his 1748 poem, The Castle of Indolence. He wrote:
“…Whate’er Lorraine light touched with softening hue
Or savage Rosa dashed, or learned Poussin drew…”
I featured one of Salvator Rosa’s landscape painting, River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl in My Daily Art Display of May 10th 2012.
At the age of twenty-three Salvator returned to Rome and worked on commissions including an altarpiece for the bishop of Viterbo, a town to the north of the capital. The bishop treated him as his protégé and Rosa received many commissions from the Catholic Church. It was during his stay in Rome that Rosa further developed his multi-talented skills, not just as an artist but as a musician, a writer and a comic actor. Rosa founded a company of actors in which he regularly participated. He wrote and would often take part in his own satirical plays. The plays were often political in nature and often lampooned the wealthy and powerful, and it was his devilish satire which gained him the reputation of a rebel, pitting himself against these influential people. However these acidic satires made him some powerful enemies including Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the famous and powerful architect and who was at that time, the most powerful artist in Rome. He, like Rosa, was also an amateur playwright and it was during the Carnival in 1639 that Rosa ridiculed Bernini’s plays and his stature as a playwright. Eventually Rosa had made too many enemies in the Italian capital and decided it was just too dangerous to remain in the city.
He left Rome and travelled to Florence, where he remained for the next eight years. One of his most influential Florentine patrons was Cardinal Giancarlo de’ Medici, who was a great lover and supporter of the Arts. Rosa worked for the Cardinal at his palace but was still allowed the freedom to spend time on his own landscape paintings and he would go off and spend the summers in the Tuscan countryside around Monterufoli and Barbiano. It was whilst living in Florence that Rosa did some work for Giovanni Battista Ricciardi who was at the centre of the literary and theatrical life of Florence and Salvator soon became part of Carlo’s circle of friends. Rosa used his own house as a meeting place for local writers, musicians and artists and it became known as the Accademia dei Percossi, or Academy of the Stricken.
He left Florence in 1646 being unhappy with the ever increasing restrictions put on him and his artistic and literary work by the Medici court. Initially, he went back to Naples where he remained for three years before returning to Rome once again in 1649 for it was here that he believed his writings and paintings would win him even greater fame. However, one of Salvator Rosa’s problems was himself for he often had a tempestuous relationship with his patrons, frequently ignoring their demands. Another of his quirks was that he refused to paint on commission or to agree a price beforehand. He frequently rejected interference from his patrons in his choice of subject. In a book by Francis Haskell, a twentieth century art historian, entitled, Patrons and Painters: Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque, Haskell quotes from a letter Rosa wrote to one of his patrons, Antonio Ruffo, explaining his thoughts on his art and commissions:
“…I do not paint to enrich myself but purely for my own satisfaction. I must allow myself to be carried away by the transports of enthusiasm and use my brushes only when I feel myself rapt…”
The 17th century Florentine art historian Filippo Baldinucci could not believe Rosa’s attitude to his patrons and wrote:
“…I can find few, in fact, I cannot find any, artists either before or after him or among his contemporaries, who can be said to have maintained the status of art as high as he did… No one could ever make him agree a fixed price before a picture was finished and he used to give a very interesting reason for this: he could not instruct his brush to produce paintings worth a particular sum but, when they were completed, he would appraise them on their merits and would then leave it to his friend’s judgment to take them or leave them….”
In his later years Rosa spent much time on satirical portraiture, history paintings and works of art featuring tales from mythology. In 1672 he contracted dropsy and died six months later. Whilst lying on his deathbed he married Lucrezia, his mistress of thirty years, who had borne him two sons. He died in March 1673 just a few months short of his fifty-eighth birthday. From the absolute poverty he endured on the death of his father he had managed to accumulate a moderate fortune by the time of his death.
My featured painting today is a self-portrait by Salvator Rosa which he completed around 1645 whilst he was in Florence. Rosa stands before us wearing a cap and gown symbolising a man of learning. His giant-like figure is silhouetted against a turbulent sky, dark with the threat of a storm. Rosa looks at us, tight-lipped. His distinctive swarthy looks are easily recognisable from his other self-portraits. His face is gaunt and yet animated. He is brooding and like the weather depicted in the background, he looks as though a storm is also brewing within him. He looks somewhat angry. His demeanour is challenging and rather scornful. His dark hair is matted and his face is depicted with unshaven stubble. The artist had obviously decided to portray himself as an “angry young man” intensely proud of his unshaven image. His posture could possibly be likened to one of anti-establishment and could be compared to present day photographs we see of angry and sullen rock stars
His right hand rests on a stone tablet on which has been carved a Latin epigram:
“…Aut tace aut loquere meliora silentio..”
Which when translated reads:
“…Be quiet, unless your speech be better than silence…”
This epigram comes from the Ancient Greek historian and teacher, Dionysius of Halcarnassus.
The painting can be seen at the National Gallery in London.