Salvator Rosa: Bandits, Wilderness, and Magic

Salvator Rosa: Bandits, Wilderness, and Magic

December 12, 2010 to March 27, 2011

Salvator Rosa (1615–1673) was one of the boldest personalities and most powerfully inventive artists of 17th-century Italy. Best known as the creator of wild landscapes where bandits and hermits lurk among shattered trees and rocks, he ranged widely and with great originality in his choice of subjects; he was fascinated by extremes of action and danger, and equally by science and magic. Rosa was also an actor and a poet. His grace and charm delighted the scholarly world, but he was excessively vain and often involved in bitter feuds. This is the first major U.S. exhibition devoted to Rosa; it surveys his career with 36 of his best paintings.

The works in the exhibition are grouped by theme, beginning with portraits. Rosa’s portraits are not official or commissioned likenesses, but imaginary representations of philosophers, allegorical figures, and studies of expressive faces. A skilled self-publicist, he also presented his many-sided talents with panache in a group of self-portraits, showing himself as actor, painter, or philosopher. These are personal works that Rosa gave to his friends from literary academies.

An important selection of Rosa’s landscapes are featured in the exhibition. During his earlier career, Rosa painted the Neapolitan coastline with a new directness. In Rome and Florence, he responded to the brilliant light effects of Claude Lorrain and to Dutch and Flemish scenes full of lively sailors and peddlers. Rosa’s later landscapes became increasingly theatrical, and humankind seems tiny and insubstantial before the violence of the elements. The enormous fame of his work among British Romantic artists and writers of the 18th and 19th centuries depended on these dark, awe-inspiring landscapes, so neatly summarized in Horace Walpole’s famous comment: “Precipices, mountains, wolves, torrents, rumblings––Salvator Rosa.”

Rosa’s scenes of witchcraft, the focus of the third section, are among the most bizarre images of 17th-century art. The practice of witchcraft was still widely regarded as a reality, and the supposed activities of witches were codified in the manuals of Renaissance demonologists. Rosa’s literary friends, particularly in Florence, delighted in macabre and gruesome themes, and unlike earlier Italian painters, Rosa turned for inspiration to the ugly and obscene witches created by German artists such as Albrecht Dürer. He shows grotesque old women astride skeletons or practicing necromancy and elaborate still lifes of the ingredients of magic.

The visitor next turns to Rosa’s paintings of bandits, the earliest of which are rooted in reality and show the highwaymen who terrorized the Italian countryside in the 17th century. In 1656, he moved away from this kind of realism with etchings showing imaginary warriors in fanciful armor, and he began to enrich his landscapes with such exotic figures. They are associated with harsh and inaccessible countryside and evoke the dangerous glamor of outlaws who haunted the Apennine Mountains. In England, Rosa’s name rapidly became synonymous with wild scenery and brigands, and by the mid-18th century he had himself become a legendary figure. It was believed that he had been part of a mythical band of soldier-artists in Naples or a prisoner of bandits in the Abruzzo region.

The final section of the exhibition explores the artist’s interest in philosophy and magic. Rosa had “an overriding love and thirst for glory [and] . . . a passionate desire to appear a true philosopher.” To this end, he painted scenes from the lives of ancient philosophers, from the Cynics and Stoics, who had debated the virtues of the simple life, to the natural philosophers and magicians from the earliest eras of civilization who seemed the heroic precursors of the Galilean scientists of modern times. These subjects resonated with intellectuals in Rome, where experimental science existed alongside an older culture of wonders and marvels. His mythological and biblical paintings featured dreams, prophecies, and the strange creations of nature. In some allegorical and satirical compositions, he addressed such themes as the vagaries of fortune and the sorry state of the arts in a corrupt age.

Salvator Rosa: Bandits, Wilderness, and Magic is organized by the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.