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Big Baby

By Dan Hofstadter

The Neapolitan painter Salvator Rosa cursed his fate, much to our good fortune.

The characteristic skill of the people of Naples, the capital of European unemployment since the 17th century, is l’arrangiarsi, or the art of occupational improvisation. It may be that Salvator Rosa, the great Neapolitan painter who lived from 1615–73, improvised rather too freely, since his large body of work—comprising portraits, landscapes, grand-manner figure pictures, altarpieces, scenes of witchcraft and engravings both small and large—is notably uneven. He also wrote a great deal of indifferent poetry, strutted for a while on the boards of the popular theater and won the favor of popes and princes while regularly enraging various touchy grandees. As a result he was often obliged to move—or, at times, to flee—from Naples to Rome to Florence and back to Rome again and into the Tuscan countryside or deep into Umbria or the Marches and so on, in a hegira of exhilarating success and bitter rebellion.

This early exemplar of the vie de bohème has now been accorded a full-scale exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, Tex. The show, titled “Salvator Rosa: Bandits, Wilderness, Magic,” which runs through March 27, 2011, was organized by Helen Langdon, an authority on Baroque painting and the author of a scrupulous biography of Caravaggio. A handsomely illustrated catalogue with an impressive essay by Langdon and two other scholarly essays is also available. The exhibition’s title, by emphasizing Rosa’s potentially crowd-pleasing genre paintings—especially his small pictures of witches’ sabbats, which anticipate Goya’s interest in the subject—downplays the painter’s brooding portraits and tempestuous landscapes. However, the Kimbell has assembled enough of the latter for the viewer to sense this artist’s proto-Romantic and truly original temperament.

Rosa was a handsome man of medium height, swarthy in the manner that southern Italians sometimes call saraceno, or Moorish-looking. He features his own keenness to mock and kick up trouble in his Self Portrait as Pascariello (the dangerous and simian-looking Pascariello is a minor character in the Neapolitan commedia dell’ arte.). In 1640, having moved to Florence, Rosa fell in love with a beautiful woman of about 20 named Lucrezia Paolini, who, as far as one can make out, had been unceremoniously dumped by her husband. The pair set up a ménage and remained passionately devoted to each other until Rosa’s death, producing a son named Rosalvo, as well as numerous other children who were given away to foundling hospitals, presumably because the couple felt they lacked the means to educate them.

Rosa was an ace at portraiture. Lucrezia was probably the model for his Poetry (1641), since the model’s features—triangular face, extremely tall nose, fleshy and somewhat protuberant lower lip—are identical with those of the sitter in his 1656 portrait of Lucrezia. In this masterpiece a brooding, almost scowling young woman clad in the coarse garments of servant girl, her hair disheveled and bound in something between a kerchief and a sibyl’s turban, looks over a bare shoulder at us in a moment of intense meditation, her pen-hand poised in mid-air. This picture unites several types of feminine portraiture, but what it achieves most effectively is to blend the informal girlfriend-portrait, of the sort more or less invented by Giorgione, at once fetching and tasteful, with the female personification of an art form. Not only are artistic creativity and a fierce femininity brought into a single image, but that image, with its picturesque, disorderly, counter-classical outline, suggests a dangerous and Circe-like sexuality. That Rosa could paint such black shadows on Poetry’s face, and surround her head with such a barbarous aureole of laurel leaves, knotted fabric and uncombed tresses, is a triumph of paint handling. The composition never degenerates into chaos, and the model’s beauty is enhanced despite her plebeian accoutrements.

A lot of Rosa’s genius lies in his lighting, an indirect heritage from Caravaggio, who had relied on direct illumination, probably artificial, in a basement studio, which produced contrasty skin tones with very deep, at times almost black shadows. The principal Neapolitan painter to draw upon Caravaggio, Jusepe de Ribera, had also used such shadows, but at times he deliberately heightened them to create an effect of menace or terror. Rosa’s lighting may be seen as an offshoot of Ribera’s, though of course he studied other painters as well and introduced innovations of his own. Rosa had a deft hand for landscapes, usually enlivened by a flickering, windswept glitter-and-gloom atmosphere. Some of these, shown in Forth Worth, are wonderfully well-realized paysages moralisés, influenced by Claude and Poussin, but Rosa gains even more sinew and freshness in his smaller views of rock formations peopled by hermits.

Here the artist replaces Ribera’s purgatorial lighting with a proto-Romantic fluctuation of lights and darks and a nervous enjoyment of the harshness, the boniness of woodlands—blasted trees, bare escarpments, rocky promontories, roiling skies. This delight in a menacing nature, what the ancients called “the sublime,” would be explained in the following century as the pleasure we feel in experiencing something scary that we are free to walk away from (as with a horror movie today); but Rosa gladly sought out such views as he wandered in the vicinity of his friends’ villas in the Tuscan countryside or by the Cascata delle Marmore, the great falls outside Terni, in Umbria. The wild beauty of these scenes is analogous to the dangerous beauty of that woman in Poetry. Rosa was drawn to the crystalline complexity of rock formations, the serpentine forms of dead tree trunks, the claw-like ramification of dying boughs, the flutter of foliage against a melancholy cloud. By taking them as his subjects, he virtually invented a new genre, that of wilderness painting.

In Rome, in the 1650s and ’60s, Rosa was seduced by the idea of doing grand-manner, multi-figure pictures illustrating classical or biblical themes on big canvases. He received a fair number of commissions for such pieces, which Langdon understandably feels were often rather stilted and cramped, and which she has not emphasized in this show. Rosa complained bitterly when the market preferred his smaller paintings. Harassed by the Inquisition in 1656 over his manner of living with Lucrezia, he sent her and Rosalvo to stay with his brother, Domenico, back in Naples, only to learn that Rosalvo, Domenico, his sister, and all his sister’s family had perished of the plague.

This was a terrible stroke of bad luck, though bad luck of a thoroughly impersonal sort. Rosa, however, may not have seen it this way. Regularly short of patronage, at times hounded by the authorities, he had a wish to feel ill-done-by. Much of his poetry—at least as explicated by Langdon, who has bravely waded through the stuff, and by Jonathan Scott, who produced a scholarly biography of the painter, Salvator Rosa: His Life and Times, in 1995—was apparently devoted to complaints about the world’s injustice. His signal pictorial protest against bad luck and neglect in high places consists of two paintings, from 1650 and 1659, both titled Fortuna, of which the latter is by far the most startling.

The chief reference is most likely to that metaphorical Goddess of Fortune whose mysterious ways Virgil explains to Dante in a famous passage in Canto VII of the Inferno. “Master of mine,” says Dante, recently exiled from Florence on trumped-up charges, “tell me now, this Fortuna whom you touch upon—who is she, holding all the world’s treasure in her arms?” And Virgil, anticipating Dante’s inevitable question, Why do the wicked prosper? answers that Fortuna is blessed, and that all worldly treasure is vain, and that she shifts it from one family or dynasty to another, as slyly as a snake in the grass. In this picture Rosa rings a change on Dante’s Fortuna, whom he portrays as more witless than impartial; we see Lady Luck as a not-too-bright-looking, half-naked blonde babe, dumping a cornucopia of gems on a menagerie of animals, including, notably, an ass in cardinal’s crimson.

Rosa’s patron and friend Carlo de’ Rossi called this painting bizzarrissimo. But maybe it is more than that. In many respects it is a vaguely grand-manner, vertical-format figure picture like a number of others by Rosa, only smaller, and, as usual, over-crowded and choking on its own composition. But this one is totally burlesque, with livestock standing in (with commendable meekness) for people. Unexpectedly, the artist has found a theme that excites him, in a way that more formal subjects ultimately did not. With the image of Fortuna, he has grasped a joyful way to broadcast his disappointment that the world doesn’t worship him, and the result is unique.
John Ruskin wrote, “Salvator possessed real genius, but was crushed by misery in his youth, and by fashionable society in his age. He had vigorous animal life, and considerable invention … He took some hints directly from nature, and expressed some conditions of the grotesque of terror with original power; but his baseness of thought, and bluntness of sight, were unconquerable …” Setting aside Ruskin’s final, negative verdict, a product of his own prejudices, we can relish his phrases, some of which Rosa himself might have appreciated.

What many viewers of Rosa’s work may conclude, however, is that the faculty of invention—which in the 17th century meant the ability to originate deeply-felt figure compositions—was an elusive affair with him. Because he was never quite sure where his talent lay—and it lay mostly in making bohemian portraits, savage landscapes, and eccentric pictures like Fortuna—he tended to complain that fate was never his friend. Yet it is hard not to sense that some share of the blame must be borne by Rosa himself. The problem resided in the relation between fate and self-knowledge, since whenever self-knowledge is weak, fate may seem especially oppressive. Rosa confused invention with tackling noble, high-minded subjects, unaware that he lacked true feeling for them. At once exasperating and weirdly lovable, he was, in his gifted way, the big baby of Baroque art.

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: February 2011

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