1902 Encyclopedia > Salvator Rosa

Salvator Rosa
Italian Baroque painter, poet and printmaker

SALVATOR ROSA (1615-1673), a renowned painter of the Neapolitan school, was born in Arenella, in the out-skirts of Naples, in 1615: the precise day is given as 20th June, and also as 21st July. His father, Vito Antonio de Rosa, a land surveyor, was bent upon making the youth a lawyer, and sent him to study in the convent of the Somaschi fathers. Here Salvator began showing a turn for art: he went in secret to his maternal uncle Paolo Greco to learn the practice of painting, but soon found that Greco had little pictorial lore to impart, so he trans-ferred himself to his own brother-in-law Francesco Fracan-zaro, a pupil of Ribera, and afterwards had some practice under Ribera himself. Above all he went to nature, fre-quenting the Neapolitan coast, and keeping his eyes open and his hand busy. At the age of seventeen he lost his father; the widow was left unprovided for, with at least five children, and Salvator found himself immersed in a sea of troubles and perplexities, with nothing for the while to stem them except a buoyant and adventurous temperament. He obtained some instruction under the battle-painter Aniello Falcone, but chiefly painted in solitude, haunting romantic and desolate spots, beaches, mountains, caverns, verdure-clad recesses. Hence he became in process of time the initiator of romantic land-scape, with a special turn for scenes of strange or pictur-esque aspect—often turbulent and rugged, at times grand, and with suggestions of the sublime. He picked up scanty doles when he could get them, and his early landscapes sold for a few pence to petty dealers. The first person to discover that Rosa's work was not as trumpery as it was cheap was the painter Lanfranco, who bought some of the paintings, and advised the youth to go to Rome. Hither in 1635, at the age of twenty, Rosa betook himself; he studied with enthusiasm, but, catching fever, he returned to Naples and Falcone, and for a while painted nothing but battle-pieces, and these without exciting any atten-tion. This class of work was succeeded by the landscape art peculiarly characteristic of him—wild scenes wildly peopled with shepherds, seamen, or especially soldiers. He then revisited Rome, and was housed by Cardinal Brancaccio; this prelate being made bishop of Viterbo, Rosa painted for the Chiesa della Morte a large and noticeable picture of the Incredulity of Thomas—the first work of sacred art which we find recorded from his hand. At Viterbo he made acquaintance with a mediocre poet named Abati, and was hence incited to try his own faculty in verse. He then returned to Naples. Here the mono-polizing triumvirate—Ribera, Caracciolo, and Corenzio— were still powerful. Rosa was as yet too obscure to suffer from their machinations; but, having painted a picture of Tityus Torn by the Vulture, which went to Rome and there produced a great sensation, he found it politic to follow in the footsteps of his fame, and once more, in 1638, resought the papal city.

Rosa was a man of facile and versatile genius, and had by this time several strings to his bow. It is said that, still keeping painting steadily in view as his real objective, he resolved to secure attention first as a musician, poet, improvisatore, and actor—his mother-wit and broad Neapolitan dialect (which appears to have stuck to him through life) standing him powerfully in stead. In the carnival he masqued as Formica and Capitan Coviello, and bustled about Rome distributing satirical prescriptions for diseases of the body and more particularly of the mind. As Formica he inveighed against the farcical comedies acted in the Trastevere under the direction of the celebrated Bernini. Some of the actors, in one of: their performances, retaliated by insulting Rosa, but the public was with him, and he now enjoyed every form of success,—social prestige, abundant commissions, and any amount of money, which he was wont to throw about broadcast to the populace. In 1646 he returned to Naples, and is said to have taken an active part in the insurrection of Masaniello ; certain it is that he sympathized with and admired the fisherman autocrat, for a passage in one of his satires proves this. His actual share in the insurrection is, however, dubious; it appears only in recent narratives, and the same is the case with the well-known story that at one time he herded with a band of brigands in the Abruzzi—an incident which cannot be conveniently dove-tailed into any of the known dates of his career. As regards the popular revolt against Spanish tyranny, it is alleged that Eosa, along with other painters —Coppola, Porpora, Micco Spadaro, Dal Po, Masturzo, the two Vaccari, and Cadogna—all under the captaincy of Aniello Falcone, formed the Compagnia della Morte, whose mission it was to hunt up Spaniards in the streets and despatch them, not sparing even those who had sought some place of religious asylum. He painted a portrait of Masaniello—probably from reminiscence rather than from life : indeed it is said that he painted him several times over in less than life size. On the approach of Don John of Austria the blood-stained Compagnia dispersed, Eosa escaping or at any rate returning to Eome. Here he painted some important subjects, showing the uncommon bent of his mind as it passed from landscape into history —Democritus amid Tombs, the Death of Socrates, Eegulus in the Spiked Cask (these two are now in England), Justice Quitting the Earth, and the Wheel of Fortune. This last work, the tendency of which was bitingly sati-rical, raised a storm of ire and remonstrance. Rosa, endeavouring at conciliation, published a description of its meaning (probably softened down not a little from the real facts); none the less an order for his imprisonment was issued, but ultimately withheld at the instance of some powerful friends. It was about this time that Eosa wrote his satire named Babylon, under which name Eome was of course indicated.

Cardinal Giancarlo de' Medici now invited the painter to leave Eome—which had indeed become too hot to hold him—for Florence. Salvator gladly assented, and remained in the Tuscan capital for the better part of nine years, introducing there the new style of landscape; he had no pupils, but various imitators. Lorenzo Lippi the painter poet, Baldovini, and other beaux esprits shared with Rosa the hospitalities of the cardinal, and they formed an academy named I Percossi (the Stricken), indulging in a deal of ingenious jollity—Rosa being alike applauded as painter, poet, and musician. His chief intimate at this time was Lippi, whom he encouraged to proceed with the poem II Malmantile Racquistato. He was well acquainted also with TJgo and Giulio Maffei, and housed with them more than once in Volterra, where he wrote other four satires—Music, Poetry, Painting, and War. About the same time he painted his own portrait, now in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence. Finally he reverted once more to Eome, and hardly left that city again. Much enmity still brooded there against him, taking the form more especially of an allegation that the satires which he zealously read and diffused in MS. were not his own production, but filched from some one else. Rosa indignantly repelled this charge, which remains indeed quite unsubstantiated, although it is true that the satires deal so extensively and with such ready manipulation in classical names, allusions, and anecdotes that one is rather at a loss to fix upon the period of his busy career at which Rosa could possibly have imbued his mind with such a multitude of semi-erudite details. It may perhaps be legitimate to suppose that his literary friends in Florence and Volterra had coached him up to a large extent—the satires, as compositions, remaining none the less strictly and fully his own. To confute his detractors he now wrote the last of the series, entitled Envy. Among the pictures of his closing years were the admired Battlepiece now in the Louvre, painted in the short space of forty days, full of long-drawn carnage, with ships burning in the offing; Pythagoras and the Fishermen; the Oath of Catiline (Pitti Gallery); and the very celebrated Saul and the Witch of Endor (Louvre), which is perhaps his latest work. He undertook a series of satirical portraits, to be closed by one of himself, but while occupied with this pro-ject he was assailed by dropsy, which, after lasting fully half a year, brought his life to a close on 15th March 1673. In his last moments he married a Florentine named Lucrezia, who kept his house and had borne him two sons, one of them surviving him, and he died in a contrite frame of mind. He lies buried in the Chiesa degli Angeli, where a portrait of him has been set up. Salvator Rosa, after the hard struggles of his early youth, had always been a successful man, and he left a handsome fortune.

Rosa was indisputably a great leader in that modern tendency of line art towards the romantic and picturesque which, developing in various directions and by diversified processes, has at last almost totally differentiated modern from olden art. He saw appearances with a new eye, and presented new images of them on his canvases, and deserves therefore all the credit due to a vigorous innovator, even if we contest the absolute value of his product. He himself courted reputation for his historical works, laying comparatively little stress on his landscapes ; in portraits ho was forcible. In chiaroscuro he is simple and effective ; his design has energy and a certain grandeur, without any high type of form or any superior measure of correctness. His colour is too constantly of a sandy or yellowish-grey tone. Personally he was a man of high spirit, and he sold his pictures at large prices, more (it is said) to assert the honour of his art than from love of money ; rather than sell them cheap he destroyed them. In his later Florentine period he etched several of his works, subjects of mythology, soldiering, &c. He was choleric, but kind and generous. Though a man of gaiety and pleasure, and a jovial boon companion, he does not appear to have been vicious in any serious degree. He was talkative, very sharp -tongued, and an unblushing encomiast of his own performances. Among his pictures not already mentioned we may name, in the London National Gallery, Mercury and the Dishonest Woodman, and two others; in Raynham Hall, Belisarius ; in the Grosvenor Gallery, Diogenes ; in the Pitti Gallery, a grand portrait of a man in armour, and the Temptation of St Anthony, which contains his own portrait. This last subject appears also in St Petersburg, and in the Berlin Gallery.

The satires of Salvator Rosa deserve more attention than they have generally received. Though considerably spread abroad during his lifetime, they were not published until 1719. They are all in terza rima, written without much literary correctness, but. remarkably spirited, pointed, and even brilliant. They are slashingly denunciatory, and from this point of view too monotonous in treatment. Rosa here appears as a very severe castigator of all ranks and conditions of men, not sparing the highest, and as a champion of the poor and down-trodden, and of moral virtue and Catholic faith. It seems odd that a man who took so free a part in the pleasures and diversions of life should be so ruthless to the ministers of these. The satire on Music exposes the insolence and profligacy of musicians, and the shame of courts and churches in encouraging them. Poetry dwells on the pedantay, imitativeness, adulation, affectation, and indecency of poets— also their poverty, and the neglect with which they were treated ; and there is a very vigorous sortie against oppressive governors and aristocrats. Tasso's glory is upheld ; Dante is spoken of as obso-lete, and Ariosto as corrupting. Painting inveighs against the pictorial treatment of squalid subjects, such as beggars (though Rosa must surely himself have been partly responsible for this misdirection of the art), against the ignorance and lewdness of painters, and their tricks of trade, and the gross indecorum of painting sprawling half-naked saints of both sexes. War (which contains the eulogy of Masaniello) derides the folly of hireling soldiers, who fight and perish while kings stay at home ; the vile, morals of kings and lords, heresy, and unbelief also come in for a flagellation. In Babylon Rosa represents himself as a fisherman, Tirreno, constantly unlucky in his net-hauls on the Euphrates ; he converses with a native of the country, Ergasto. Babylon (Koine) is very severely treated, and Naples much the same. Envy (the last of the satires, and generally accounted the ' best, although without strong apparent reason) represents Rosa dreaming that, as he is about to inscribe in all modesty his name upon the threshold of the temple of glory, the goddess or fiend of Envy obstructs him, and a long interchange of reciprocal objur-gations ensues. Here occurs the highly-charged portrait of the chief Roman detractor of Salvator (we are not aware that he has ever been identified by name) ; and the painter protests that he would never condescend to do any of the lascivious work in paint-ing so shamefully in vogue.

As authorities for the life of Salvator Rosa, Passeri, Vite de'Pittori, may he
consulted, and Salvini, Satire e Vita di Salvator Rosa; also Baldinucei and
Dominici. The Life by Lady Morgan is a romantic treatment, mingling tradition
or mere fiction with fact. (W. M. R.)

The above article was written by: W. M. Rossetti.

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