Sunday, November 21, 2010

Precipices, mountains, wolves, torrents, rumblings

Salvator Rosa, Self-Portrait, c1647

The Salvator Rosa exhibition about to finish at Dulwich and transfer to the Kimbell seeks to show that Rosa is more than simply synonymous with the "precipices, mountains, wolves, torrents, rumblings" that Horace Walpole famously saw on his journey through the Alps in 1739.  The exhibition begins with a room of portraits, including one of the most arresting paintings in the National Gallery which I'd always taken to be a self-portrait (there is now some doubt).  It shows a brooding young philosopher with tousled hair and furrowed brow, holding a Latin inscription: "Keep silent, unless your speech is better than silence."  Nearby was the Met's Rosa self-portrait (not in doubt) where he bears a passing resemblance to Russell Brand.  Rosa was famous for his spontaneous wit and lively character 'with a skill in repartee and improvisation that enchanted and astonished his companions'.  In her biographical essay in the catalogue Helen Langdon describes him shining at conversation, poetry and theatrical performance, although he could take the humour too far on occasions - the reaction to a satirical comedy attacking the playwright Ottavio Castelli and Rome's greatest artist, Bernini, may have contributed to Rosa's decision to leave for Florence in 1640.  Three years later Rosa's performance on stage in Pisa was reported to have been so funny that the audience was 'in danger of bursting, or meeting some such similar mishap.'  Writing of his friend Rosa's performance in another role, Lorenzo Lippi, a poet-painter 'of vivacious and fiery spirit' who excelled as swordsman and dancer and shared with Rosa a passion for practical jokes, declared that 'whenever he moves or speaks / he dislocates the audience's jaws.' 

Away from the city, Rosa indulged in more cultivated pursuits at various Tuscan villas, 'reading "good books", enjoying festive meals with amusing friends, taking the air in the late evening, and then, after dinner, discussing topics that had arisen from their morning's reading' (Helen Langdon, paraphrasing Baldinucci).  A letter written to Ascanio della Penna quotes Guarini's praise of wild countryside in Pastor Fido (1590) and describes life at the Maffei villa where 'freed from worry, they read philosophy by the water and shade of the banks of the streams, and sometimes climb a mountain to satirize the follies of the world beneath.'  But Rosa also used his walks to find inspiration for paintings - at the Maffei villa at Monterufoli he could see rocks, ravines, cliffs, gorges and distant crags.  The poets of Florence praised Rosa's landscape paintings for the way they created a whole world, mixing pastoral beauty with more frightening prospects.  Paganino Gaudenzio said such works "sweetly transported souls and hearts" whilst Antonio Abati wrote that "who gazes at them, remains enchanted."

Rosa continued to seek out what would later be thought of as Romantic landscapes and in 1662 was in the Appenines, where he wrote a letter praising the rugged countryside and remarking on the desolate hermitages visible from the road.  The exhibition at Dulwich has three of Rosa's hermit paintings, where the small figures are seen dwarfed by inhospitable surroundings and, in contrast to Renaissance paintings of saints in the wilderness, there are no glimpses of distant fields and cities. The church at the time was seeking to make links with early Christianity and the hermit motif was pursued by other artists in addition to Salvator Rosa (Philippe de Champaigne, for example).  Roman aristocrats like the Chigi, Altieri and Colonna had hermitages built in their private palaces  - Cardinal Flavio Chigi was so enthusiastic he had three - and they all bought paintings from Salvator Rosa.  

Stories about about the lives of the saints were popularised in Paolo Bozzi's novel Tebaide Sacra, which described penitent monks in rugged Rosa landscapes.  Other writers were talking about the wildness of nature more directly, like Carlo de' Dottori, whose L'Appenino includes "a horrid scene" on a steep mountain path, looking down on a dark misty valley and a sheer drop over the precipice.  Helen Langdon also quotes Daniello Bartoli's L'Uomo al punto di Morte, which evokes the sort of elemental landscape seen in Rosa's late works, like Tobias and the Angel (below), where the figures seem menaced by the powers of nature.  After walking through woods, valleys and fields, Bartoli's man comes to 'a forest, bare and solitary; a desert and wilderness more than a countryside; an earth that is dead and desolate, with mountain crags and rocky alps opposite' and torrents of water cascading off them "con piacere di orrore a vederli" - provoking a feeling of pleasurable horror.

Salvator Rosa, Landscape with Tobias and the Angel, c1670

No comments: