Salvador Rosa (1615–73) was a celebrated painter with a signature style. His dark, turbulent, theatrical landscapes—a personal scenography of the sublime—influenced generations of artists, including J.M.W. Turner. He brought the same sensibility to his allegories and classical subjects; he was part of an intelligentsia deeply involved in science, philosophy and the occult. If Rosais no longer well known, he is ripe for rediscovery. “Salvator Rosa: Bandits, Wilderness and Magic,” the first major exhibition of his art held in the United States, on view at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth,Texas, is an important event. Co-organized with the Dulwich Picture Gallery,London, the exhibition presents a strong selection of thirty-six paintings across a range of genres.
As the title of the exhibition suggests, Rosatended to staff his landscapes with brigands, hermits and witches, appropriate denizens of nature imagined as a scene of roiling skies, blasted trees and geologic convulsion. Claudian nature, with its horizontal sweep of earth and sky framed by the uprights of trees, held little appeal for Rosa, whose compositions were built on strong diagonals. In Jason and the Dragon (c. 1665–70), the classical hero climbs over crags to surprise the beast guarding the Golden Fleece. As the ferocious dragon, its serpentine tail twitching, begins to turn, Jason sprinkles the sleep-drug herbs, a gift from Medea, in the beast’s eyes. Jason’s knee leans against a sharply inclined rock; the dragon grasps another crag with his talons. Jason’s billowing cloak adds to the instability. The antagonists are stage-lit, emerging from the bituminous gloom of the backdrop. Jason wears Renaissance armor. The story is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of great sourcebooks of the Western tradition. In the courts of Rome and Florence, where the Neapolitan Rosa readily attracted patrons (although he was equally quick to alienate them because of a volatile temper), classical antiquity provided a host of subjects. The Death of Empedocles (c. 1665–70) shows the ancient philosopher (c. 490–430 b.c.) hurling himself intoMount Etna. A variety of motives were ascribed to Empedocles: scientific curiosity, poetic madness, despair. The Victorian poet Matthew Arnold cast the philosopher as an exemplar of agnostic anxiety in “Empedocles on Etna.” Empedocles was credited with devising the theory of the world as composed of four elements—earth, air, fire and water—in perpetual flux. InRosa’s painting, the small but striking figure launches himself into an elemental landscape of volcanic fire and jagged rock; the sky above is stained with smoke and streaked with clouds.
While he is best known for his landscapes, Rosaplunged into the visual cult of iconographic puzzles with zest. The Frailty of Human Life (c. 1656) is an elaborate, rather gloomy allegory in the tradition of Albrecht Dürer’s great engraving Melancholia. A winged skeleton, representing both Time and Death, hovers over a beautiful woman, a Madonna/Sibyl, holding a precocious infant on her lap. The infant writes on a scroll. Scattered around are fragments of ancient monuments. One putto holds a torch, while another blows soap bubbles, an emblem of ephemeral existence. The play of light and deep shadow gives rich reality to what could easily have become a schematic illustration.Rosa’s skill as a painter is evident in the woman’s flower crown and fluid drapery, in the greasy feathers of Death’s wings and in the topaz eyes of an owl.
The combination of erudition and painterly prowess endows several portraits with gravitas. Speculative portraits of philosophers and other worthies of antiquity were popular in the seventeenth century. One of Rosa’s contributions to the genre is Archytas of Tarentum (1668), depicting the early-fourth-century b.c. mathematician and inventor. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, a highly influential scientist and occultist, had a museum in Rome where he displayed magical mechanisms. One of his attractions was a clockwork wooden dove, a reproduction of one of Archytas’ wonders. In Rosa’s handsome painting, the philosopher holds the dove aloft, a dynamic gesture that gives the noble figure grace and energy. The loveliest of the portraits in the show may be the 1641 Lucrezia as Poetry (cover), a half-length figure of a young woman with a pen in one hand, a book in the other and a laurel wreath—all familiar attributes from Cesare Ripa’s ubiquitous handbook of symbols, Iconologia. Using lighter and brighter colors than his usual palette, Rosa combines the warm red of her skirt with the diaphanous gray of a scarf around her shoulders and the lilac of the loose turban that covers her disheveled hair. Poetry looks over her shoulder with darkly focused attention. She is a formidable beauty. The accompanying catalogue (240 pp., published in association with Paul Holberton, London) contains informative essays by Helen Langdon, Xavier F. Salomon and Caterina Volpi. “Salvator Rosa: Bandits, Wilderness and Magic” was on view December 12, 2010–March 27, 2011, at the Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Boulevard, Fort Worth, Texas 76107. Telephone (817) 332-8451. On the web at www.kimbellart.org