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Salvator Rosa

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Salvator Rosa
Self Portrait (c. 1650s), oil on canvas, 75 x 62.5 cm., Detroit Institute of Art.
BornJune 20 or (1615-07-21)July 21, 1615
DiedMarch 15, 1673(1673-03-15) (aged 57)
Known forPainting, printmaking, poetry

Salvator Rosa (1615–1673) is best known today as an Italian Baroque painter, whose romanticized landscapes and history paintings, often set in dark and untamed nature, exerted considerable influence from the 17th century into the early 19th century. In his lifetime he was among the most famous painters,[1] known for his flamboyant personality, and regarded as an accomplished poet, satirist, actor, musician, and printmaker, as well. He was active in Naples, Rome, and Florence, where on occasion he was compelled to move between cities, as his caustic satire earned him enemies in the artistic and intellectual circles of the day.[2]

As a history painter, he often selected obscure and esoteric subjects from the Bible, mythology, and the lives of philosophers, that were seldom addressed by other artists. He rarely painted the common religious subjects, unless they allowed a treatment dominated by the landscape element. He also produced battle scenes, allegories, scenes of witchcraft, and many self portraits. However, he is most highly regarded for his very original landscapes, depicting "sublime" nature: often wild and hostile, at times rendering the people that populated them as marginal in the greater realm of nature. They were prototypes of the romantic landscape and the very antithesis of the "picturesque" classical views of Claude Lorrain. Some critics have noted that his technical skills and craftsmanship as a painter were not always equal to his truly innovative and original visions.[3] This is in part due to a large number of canvases he hastily produced in his youth (1630s) in pursuit of financial gain, paintings that Rosa himself came to loathe and distance himself from in his later years, as well as posthumously misattributed paintings.[4]: 138 p.  Many of his peopled landscapes ended up abroad by the 18th century, and he was better known in England and France than most Italian Baroque painters.

Rosa has been described as "unorthodox and extravagant", a "perpetual rebel",[5] "The Anti-Claude",[4]: 6 p.  and a proto-Romantic. He had a great influence on Romanticism, becoming a cult-like figure in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and myths and legends grew around his life, to the point that his real life was scarcely distinguished from the bandits and outsiders that roamed the wild and thundery landscapes he painted. By the mid 19th century however, with the rise of realism and Impressionism, his work fell from favor and received very little attention. A renewed interest in his paintings emerged in the late 20th century, and although he is not ranked among the very greatest of the Baroque painters by art historians today, he is considered an innovative and significant landscape painter and a progenitor of the romantic movement.[1][3][4][6]


Early life[edit]

Rosa was born in Arenella, at that time in the outskirts of Naples, on either June 20 or July 21, 1615. His mother was Giulia Greca Rosa, a member of one of the Greek families of Sicily.[citation needed] His father, Vito Antonio de Rosa, a land surveyor, urged his son to become a lawyer or a priest, and entered him into the convent of the Somaschi Fathers. Yet Salvator showed a preference for the arts and secretly worked with his maternal uncle Paolo Greco to learn about painting. He soon transferred himself to the tutelage of his brother-in-law Francesco Fracanzano, a pupil of Ribera, and afterward to either Aniello Falcone,[5] a contemporary of Domenico Gargiulo,[7] or to Ribera. Some sources claim he spent time living with roving bandits.[8] At the age of seventeen, his father died; his mother was destitute with at least five children and Salvator found himself without financial support and the head of a household looking to him for support.

He continued apprenticeship with Falcone, helping him complete his battlepiece canvases. In that studio, it is said that Giovanni Lanfranco took notice of his work, and advised him to relocate to Rome,[9] where he stayed from 1634 until 1636.

Returning to Naples, he began painting haunting landscapes, overgrown with vegetation, or jagged beaches, mountains, and caves. Rosa was among the first to paint "romantic" landscapes, with a special turn for scenes of picturesque, often turbulent and rugged scenes peopled with shepherds, brigands, seamen, soldiers. These early landscapes were sold cheaply through private dealers.

He returned to Rome in 1638–39, where he was housed by Cardinal Francesco Maria Brancaccio, bishop of Viterbo. For the Chiesa Santa Maria della Morte in Viterbo, Rosa painted the first of his few altarpieces, the Incredulity of Thomas.

Wife and family[edit]

Self-portrait (c. 1645), oil on canvas, 61 x 45 cm., (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg)
Portrait of Lucrezia Paolini (c. 1656–60), oil on canvas, 66 x 50.5 cm., Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica

In 1640, Rosa met Lucrezia Paolini (c. 1620–1696) in Florence. Lucrezia was a married woman, whose husband had left the city and abandoned her soon after their marriage, never to return. She served as a model for Rosa on occasion, and was likely the model for the allegory of Music (c. 1641). Rosa and Lucrezia soon became dedicated and lifelong companions. Their first son Rosalvo was born in August 1641, probably in Volterra, and another son, Augusto, was born in 1657. Records show at least four more children were born and placed with foundling hospitals between 1641 and 1657, giving some indication of their poor financial condition in those years. The custom of unmarried couples living together was not uncommon in the early years of the 17th century, but as the decades passed the church grew less and less tolerant of the practice. At times Rosa's prominent reputation and relationships to powerful patrons helped to shield him from the Inquisition. At other times, the situation left him vulnerable to the many rivals and enemies he made through his satires and ostentatious character. In 1656, feeling pressure in Rome from the poet Agostino Favoriti and his close ally Fabio Chigi, recently elected Pope Alexander VII, Rosa sent Lucrezia and their son Rosalvo to stay in Naples with his family. Soon after she arrived, a severe outbreak of the plague hit Naples, and Rosalvo, Salvator's brother, sister, brother-in-law and their children all died in the epidemic. Lucrezia survived however and returned to Rome alone. The following year their son Augusto was born. Near the end of his life, declining in health and anticipating death, Rosa married Lucrezia on March 4, 1673. On March 17 he died. An inventory of Rosa's house taken in 1673 shortly after his death, indicated the Portrait of Lucrezia Paolini was hanging in a prominent location in the home, and one of the few paintings in his possession when he died.[4]: 23, 34, 44, 106, 120–121 p. 


Self-Portrait (c. 1647), oil on canvas, 91 x 79.4 cm., Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rosa inscribes the Greek words "Behold, whither, when" while contemplating a skull

While Rosa had a facile genius at painting, he pursued a wide variety of arts: music, poetry, writing, etching, and acting.[10] In Rome, he befriended Pietro Testa and Claude Lorrain. During a Roman carnival play he wrote and acted in a masque, in which his character bustled about Rome distributing satirical prescriptions for diseases of the body and more particularly, of the mind. In costume, he inveighed against the farcical comedies acted in the Trastevere under the direction of Bernini.

While his plays were successful, this activity also gained him powerful enemies among patrons and artists, including Bernini himself, in Rome. Around 1640, he accepted an invitation from Giovanni Carlo de' Medici to relocate to Florence, where he stayed until 1649.[11] Once there, Rosa sponsored a combination of studio and salon of poets, playwrights, and painters—the so-called Accademia dei Percossi (Academy of the Stricken). To the rigid art milieu of Florence, he introduced his canvases of wild landscapes; while influential, he gathered few true pupils. Another painter poet, Lorenzo Lippi, shared with Rosa the hospitality of the cardinal and the same circle of friends. Lippi encouraged him to proceed with the poem Il Malmantile racquistato. He was well acquainted also with Ugo and Giulio Maffei, and was housed with them in Volterra, where he wrote four satires Music, Poetry, Painting, and War. About the same time he painted Philosophy, now in the National Gallery, London.

A passage in one of his satires suggests that he sympathized with the 1647 insurrection led by Masaniello—whose portrait he painted, though probably not from life. Rosa's tempestuous art and reputation as a rebel gave rise to a popular legend—recounted in a biography of Rosa published in 1824 by Sydney, Lady Morgan—that Rosa lived with a gang of bandits and participated in the uprising in Naples against Spanish rule.[11] Although these activities cannot be conveniently dovetailed into known dates of his career, in 1846 a famous romantic ballet about this story titled Catarina was produced in London by the choreographer Jules Perrot and composer Cesare Pugni.

He returned to stay in Rome in 1649. Here he increasingly focused on large-scale paintings, tackling themes and stories unusual for seventeenth-century painters. These included Democritus amid the Tombs, The Death of Socrates, The Death of Regulus (these two are now in England), Justice Quitting the Earth and the Allegory of Fortune. This last work raised a storm of controversy among religious and civil authorities who perceived in it a satire directed at them. Rosa, endeavouring at conciliation, published a text in which he provided anodyne explanations for the painting's imagery; nonetheless he was nearly arrested.[12] It was about this time that Rosa wrote his satire named Babylon.

Philosophy (1641), oil on canvas, 116 x 94 cm., National Gallery. Inscription "Keep silent or say something better than silence". This painting and its companion, Poetry, are often identified as a self portrait and a portrait of Lucrezia, but these attributions have been questioned by some scholars.[4]: 109 p. 
Poetry (1641), oil on canvs, 116.2 x 94.6 cm., Wadsworth Atheneum. An inscription on a fragment of relining canvas on the back, added c. 1767, identifies this as Lucrezia Paolini, Rosa's companion/wife, but some scholars have argued that this attribution is an error.[4]: 108–109 p 

His criticisms of Roman art culture won him several enemies. An allegation arose that his published satires were not his own, but Rosa vehemently denied the charges. It may be possible that literary friends in Florence and Volterra coached him about the topic of his satires, while the compositions of which remained nonetheless his own. To confute his detractors he wrote the last of the series, entitled Envy.

Among the pictures of his last years were the Saul and the Witch of Endor and Battlepiece now in the Musée du Louvre, the latter painted in 40 days, full of longdrawn carnage, with ships burning in the offing; Polycrates and the Fishermen; and the Oath of Catiline (Palazzo Pitti).

While occupied with a series of satirical portraits, to be closed by one of himself, Rosa was assailed by dropsy. He died a half year later. His tomb is in Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, where a portrait of him has been set up. Salvator Rosa, after struggles of his early youth, had successfully earned a handsome fortune.

He was a significant etcher, with a highly popular and influential series of small prints of soldiers, and a number of larger and very ambitious subjects.

Among his pupils were Evangelista Martinotti of Monferrato and his brother Francesco. Another pupil was Ascanio della Penna of Perugia.[13]


During Rosa's lifetime his work inspired followers such as Giovanni Ghisolfi, but his most lasting influence was on the later development of romantic and sublime landscape traditions within painting.[11] Eighteenth-century artists influenced by Rosa include Alessandro Magnasco, Andrea Locatelli, Giovanni Paolo Panini and Marco Ricci.[11] As Wittkower states, it is in his landscapes, not his grand historical or religious dramas, that Rosa truly expresses his innovative abilities most graphically. Rosa himself dismissed his early landscapes as frivolous capricci in comparison to his history paintings and later work, but the academically conventional history canvases often restrained his rebellious streak. He generally avoided the idyllic and pastoral calm country-sides of Claude Lorrain and Paul Bril in his landscapes, and created brooding, melancholic fantasies, awash in ruins and brigands. By the eighteenth century, the contrasts between Rosa and the "sublime" landscape, and artists such as Claude and the "picturesque" landscape, were much remarked upon. A 1748 poem by James Thompson, "The Castle of Indolence", illustrated this: "Whate'er Lorraine light touched with softening hue/ Or savage Rosa dashed, or learned Poussin drew".[14]

In a time when artists were often highly constrained by patrons, Rosa had a plucky streak of independence, which celebrated the special role of the artist. "Our wealth must consist in things of the spirit, and in contenting ourselves with sipping, while others gorge themselves in prosperity". He refused to paint on commission or to agree on a price beforehand, and he chose his own subjects. In his own words, he painted "...purely for my own satisfaction. I need to be transported by enthusiasm and I can only employ my brushes when I am in ecstasy."[15]

Salvator Rosa and romanticism[edit]

Salvator Rosa Sketching Banditti, by Thomas Cole (1832), oil on pane,17.7 x 24.1 cm., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Rosa's influence on romanticism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was profound. Art historians have described him as a "cult figure",[4]: dj.  who "inaugurated the romantic landscape", an initiator of the "cult" of the sublime landscape.[3]: 67 p.  One of the earliest manifestations of the romantic movement to emerge in the early 18th century was the English landscape garden, and the paintings of Rosa, as well as Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin were key inspirations and models.[16] William Kent, who originated the naturalized garden was known to be a great admirer of Rosa and went so far as to plant dead trees in his gardens to achieve Salvator Rosa effects.[17]: 17 &19 p. 

One historian noted "An extraordinary amount of Rosa's fame and influence in England seems to have rested on verbal and literary transmission, and had an impact that extended far beyond the borderline of purely pictorial concerns."[18]: 5–6 p.  In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke designated Salvator Rosa as the "painter of the Sublime". Horace Walpole, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Percy Bysshe Shelly wrote highly of his paintings.[6]: 153 p.  "His name came to be a kind of code word for the qualities most appreciated by the romantics.....savage sublimity, terror, grandeur, astonishment, and pleasing horror"[18]: 6 p.  A number of accounts of Rosa's life were published purporting to be biographies, often including fictionalized anecdotes.[19][20][21] Salvator Rosa was the subject of an opera by Antônio Carlos Gomes, a ballet Catarina or La Fille du Bandit, and Franz Liszt included an arrangement of a song by Giovanni Bononcini, in his suite Annees de pelerinage, Deuxieme annee: Italie, (S.161) No. 3, Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa.

Salvator Rosa Sketching the Banditti, by Thomas Moran (1860), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 169.9 cm., Chrysler Museum of Art

Rosa and his tempestuous spirit became the darling of British Romantics such as Henry Fuseli, John Hamilton Mortimer, and Alexander Runciman.[11] His influence can be seen in the work of artist such as John Martin, who studied Rosa's work in his formative years,[22] A recent exhibit of William Turner's work, at the Prado museum in Madrid, notes the influence Rosa had on Turner's landscapes. Rosa's influence can also be seen in American art of the period. Thomas Cole counted Rosa among his heroes,[23] and his impact has been identified in the work of artist such as Washington Allston, George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Moran, William Sidney Mount, John Trumbull, Benjamin West and other American artist.[18]: 6 p. 

Rosa's reputation and influence waned in the nineteenth century; when his Monks Fishing was displayed in Dulwich in 1843 it was criticized by John Ruskin as telling "unmitigated falsehoods" and containing "laws of nature set at open defiance".[24] Since the 1970s, Rosa's work has received renewed attention from scholars.[11] including museum exhibitions,[25][18] a catalog raisonné,[26] catalogs of his drawings,[27] the publication of his letters,[28] biographical works,[29] and other volumes ranging from paperback picture books[30] to scholarly monographs.[4][31]


Cesareo (1892) and Cartelli (1899) wrote books taking account of Rosa's satires. The satires, though considerably spread abroad during his lifetime, were not published until 1719. They are all in terza rima, written without much literary correctness, but spirited. Rosa here appears as a very severe castigator of all ranks and conditions of men, not sparing the highest, and as a champion of the poor and down-trodden, and of moral virtue and Catholic faith.

Poetry (1641), oil on canvas, 73 x 58 cm., Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica
Music (1641), oil on canvas, 73 x 58 cm., Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica

The satire on Music exposes the insolence and profligacy of musicians, and the shame of courts and churches in encouraging them. Poetry dwells on the pedantry, imitativeness, adulation, affectation and indecency of poets—also their poverty, and the neglect with which they were treated; and there is a very vigorous sortie against oppressive governors and aristocrats. Tasso's glory is upheld; Dante is spoken of as obsolete, and Ariosto as corrupting.

Painting inveighs against the pictorial treatment of squalid subjects, such as beggars, against the ignorance and lewdness of painters, and their tricks of trade, and the gross indecorum of painting sprawling half-naked saints of both sexes. War (which contains a eulogy of Masaniello) derides the folly of mercenary soldiers, who fight and perish while kings stay at home; the vile morals of kings and lords, their heresy and unbelief.

In Babylon ofrece, Rosa represents himself as a fisherman, Tirreno, constantly unlucky in his net-hauls on the Euphrates; he converses with a native of the country, Ergasto. Babylon (Rome) is very severely treated, and Naples much the same.

Envy (the last of the satires, and generally accounted the best) represents Rosa dreaming that, as he is about to inscribe in all modesty his name upon the threshold of the temple of glory, the goddess or fiend of Envy obstructs him, and a long interchange of reciprocal objurgations ensues. Here occurs the highly charged portrait of the chief Roman detractor of Salvator (we are not aware that he has ever been identified by name); and the painter protests that he would never condescend to do any of the lascivious work in painting so shamefully in vogue.





All drawings are undated: pen, ink, and wash; or pen, ink, wash, and chalk on paper


All prints are etchings, or etchings with drypoint

Works about Rosa[edit]

Rosa's tomb

A number of biographies and fictionalizations of the life of Rosa exist:


  1. ^ a b Jaffé, Hans L. C., editor. 1967. 20,000 Years of World Painting. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers. New York. 418 pp. [page 228]
  2. ^ "Salvator Rosa | Italian painter". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved October 28, 2020.
  3. ^ a b c Venturi, Lionello and Rosabianca Skira-Venturi. 1952. Italian Painting: From Caracaggio to Modigliani. Editions D'Art Albert Skira, Geneva, Switzerland. 174 pp. [pages 67 & 85 ]
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Langelon, Helen, (with Xavier F. Salomon and Caterina Volpi). 2010. Salvator Rosa. Dulwich Picture Gallery and Kimbell Art Museum in association with Paul Holberton Publishing, London. 240 pp. ISBN 978-1-907372-01-8
  5. ^ a b Wittkower, p. 325
  6. ^ a b Pignatti, Terisio. 1985. Five Centuries of Italian Painting 1300-1800: from the collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation. Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation. Houston, Texas. 231 pp. [pages 153-155] ISBN 0-9615-615-0-5
  7. ^ Hobbes J.R. p. 241
  8. ^ Public Domain Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Salvatore Rosa". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  9. ^ "Salvator Rosa (Italian, 1615 - 1673) (Getty Museum)". The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. Retrieved October 28, 2020.
  10. ^ "Salvator Rosa". FAMSF Search the Collections. December 2, 2019. Retrieved October 28, 2020.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Langdon, Helen (2003). Rosa, Salvator. Grove Art Online.
  12. ^ Elmes, James (1825). The Arts and Artists: Or Anecdotes & Relics, of the Schools of Painting, Sculpture & Architecture. London: John Knight & Henry Lacey. p. 91. OCLC 982205644.
  13. ^ Storia della pittura in Perugia e delle arti by Angelo Lupattelli (1895), page 70.
  14. ^ Lines from "The Indolent Castle", James Thompson, 1748 quoted by Helen Langdon in Burlington Magazine 115(84):p. 779 (1973)
  15. ^ Johnson, Paul. Art: A New History, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003, p. 339.
  16. ^ Tomam, Rolf, editor. 2000. Neoclassicism and Romanticism: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Drawings, 1750-1848. Könemann, Verlagsgesellschaft. Cologne. 520 pp. [page 18 ] ISBN 3-8290-1575-5
  17. ^ Bris, Michel Le. 1981. Romantics and Romanticism. Skira/Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. New York 1981. 215 pp. ISBN 0-8478-0371-6
  18. ^ a b c d Wallace, Richard. 1979. Salvator Rosa in America. The Wellesley College Museum. Wellesley, Massachusetts. 124 pp. Library of Congress Catalogue Number 79-84183
  19. ^ Bernardo de' Dominici. 1742. Vita di Rosa. Naples.
  20. ^ E. T. A. Hoffmann. 1821. Signor Formica (aka Salvator Rosa), in vol. 4 of Die Serapionsbrüder.
  21. ^ Morgan, Lady Sydney. 1824. The Life And Times of Salvator Rosa. Henry Colburn. London.
  22. ^ Morden, Barbara C. 2010. John Martin: Apocalypse Now!. Northumbria Press. Newcastle Upon Tyne, U. K. 123 pp. [page 5 ] ISBN 978-1-904794-99-8
  23. ^ Powell, Earl A. 1990. Thomas Cole. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers. New York, NY. 144 pp. [page 53 ] ISBN 0-8109-3158-3
  24. ^ John Ruskin, Modern Painters Vol 1, part II, Chap 3, Also Modern Painters, edited and abridged by David Barry, Andrew Deutsch Ltd 1987, page 100.
  25. ^ Kitson, Michael, Helen Langdon, Richard Wallace, John Sunderland. 1973. Salvator Rosa: Hayward Gallery. London Arts Council. London. 88 pp. ISBN 0728700026
  26. ^ Salerno, Luigi.1975. L'opera completa di Salvator Rosa (Classici dell'arte series). Rizzoli Editore. Milano. 108 pp.
  27. ^ Mahoney, Michael. 1977. Drawings Of Salvator Rosa, Vol. I & II. Garland. New York. 869 pp. ISBN 0824027078
  28. ^ Hoare, Alexandra. 2019. The Letters of Salvator Rosa (1615-1673): An Italian Transcription, English Translation and Critical Edition (Studies in Baroque Art). Brepols Publishers. 1104 pp. ISBN 1905375883
  29. ^ Scott, I. Jonathan. 1996. Salvator Rosa: His Life and Times. Yale University Press. New Haven. 272 pp. ISBN 0300064160
  30. ^ Yotova, Raya. 2020. Salvator Rosa: Drawings & Paintings (Annotated). Independently published. 66 pp. ISBN 979-8669812980
  31. ^ Hoare, Alexandra. 2018. Salvator Rosa, Friendship and the Free Artist in Seventeenth-century Italy (Studies in Baroque Art). Harvey Miller Publishers. 521 pp. ISBN 1912554046
  32. ^ Au, Susan (1978). "The Bandit Ballerina: Some Sources of Jules Perrot's Catarina". Dance Research Journal. 10 (2): 2–5. doi:10.2307/1477997. ISSN 0149-7677. JSTOR 1477997. S2CID 191390259.
  33. ^ "Naxos Direct - Buy Performing Arts Media Online - Free US Delivery". naxosdirect.com. Archived from the original on September 28, 2013.

External links[edit]