Salvator Rosa (1615-73): Bandits, Wilderness and Magic
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The poet laureate Colley Cibber aspired to fame as the author of many plays, a successful actor-manager and the foremost poet of his age, but was cursed by fate to be remembered only as the chief but of Alexander Pope’s criticism in the Dunciad.
Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan hoped to be regarded as the Victorian musical equivalent of Tennyson, but is nowadays only feted for his light operas written with W.S.
Gilbert. Salvator Rosa (1615-73) is another of those ill-used by fame.
Born in Naples, he began his career as a landscape painter, making spontaneous works based on plein-air oil sketches on paper.
In 1635 he moved to Rome where he founded a company of actors. He made his debut as a playwright and at the same time his landscapes incorporated aspects employed by the Bamboccianti, artists who delighted in low-life subjects.
His overweening ambition to be a great man was matched by his violent temper. He managed to insult Bernini, which put paid to his Roman ambitions.
Rosa found work in Florence in 1640.
Under the patronage of Cardinal Giovanni Carlo de’ Medici the artist’s paintings became grander and more idealised.
He began to write satires, modelled on Juvenal, the beginning of his life-long streak of pessimism and dark thoughts.
His 1640 self-portrait (above) illustrates his idea of himself as the harsh critic of the follies of mankind—in his scholar’s cap and gown, he points to the text, “Keep silent, unless your speech is more profitable than silence”.
Rosa became engrossed in magic, alchemy and witchcraft, and he began to produce landscapes and genre pictures featuring witches and bandits in macabre settings.
These works were a great success commercially. For Rosa, however, the success of these works became his torment, their popularity eclipsed by what he believed were his greater achievements.
Rosa returned to Rome, but was subject to prolonged periods of melancholy and a sense of persecution that drove him to publish a series of bitter and despairing satires that got him into trouble with the papacy.
In the 1600s his painting style turned first to classicism and then back to occult and sinister subjects.
Despite being patronised by the Roman nobility, he was still unhappy at what he deemed his lack of success—an altarpiece for a Roman church.
He achieved this in 1669 (The Martyrdom of Sts Cosmas and Damian in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini), but his gloom was unrelieved.
On his deathbed he railed against the philosophies that brought him no consolation.
This show, despite its subtitle, attempts to rehabilitate Rosa by showing the wide range of his interests and talent.
It is organised thematically—self-portraits, landscapes, and large figure paintings. One hopes for Rosa’s sake that visitors come away with memories of more than bandits, wilderness and magic. D.L.
Categories: Old Master