September 24, 2006

The Genius of Salvator Rosa

In his etching The Genius of Salvator Rosa, part of which is shown in the detail immediately below, the artist is not merely boasting, as the modern definition of genius would imply. In the 17th century, genius was more often used to mean, simply, ‘characteristic disposition;’ in which light, this print, which Rosa made in about 1661, could be taken as a fairly straightforward (albeit encoded) depiction of his artistic personality: an allegorical self-portrait. This was a painter, however, who was not at all shy of vaunting his own particular ‘characteristic disposition’ in a way that, perhaps, helped nudge the concept of genius towards its present location. This etching is more concerned with publicity than with introspection, and serves as a kind of emblematic advertisement for its author’s work. In the picture, Rosa’s genius is the reclining youth, as careless of death (the background, where a tomb stands in a grove of cypresses) as he is of wealth (the overturned cornucopia under his hand).

Detail from 'The Genius of Salvator Rosa' etching by Rosa, ca 1661-2.

Rosa’s genius reaches out toward the heart of a kneeling woman, the personification of Sincerity; while Liberty, likewise personified as in Ripa’s Iconologia stands behind him. Of the remaining figures, one obviously represents the art of painting, while the other two are more puzzling, and less iconographically conventional. They have been interpreted as figurations of, respectively, the Apollonian and Dionysiac tendencies in art, with the fellow in the toga representing the coolly rational, philosophical and equitable, and the androgynous satyr standing for the passionately inspired & irrational. Rosa’s headstrong attitude toward patronage and artistic independence is highlighted in the following etching, perhaps intended as a companion-piece to The Genius Of… It depicts an anecdote recounted by Pliny of Alexander the Great and his favourite painter, Apelles.

Detail from 'Alexander in the Studio of Apelles' etching by Salvator Rosa, ca 1661-2.

On his visits to the painter’s studio, the king was wont to discourse about art, about which subject, however, he was none too knowledgable. When Apelles pointed out that the boys who mixed his paints were laughing at their king’s ignorance, Alexander, such was his respect for Apelles, was stung into respectful silence. Rosa prized his independence, and insisted that as an artist he should follow only the dictates of his exalted imagination: an attitude that was singular in his day, but which proved to be prototypical for later generations of painters. While he was long typecast as a painter of the wildly imaginative and the savagely sublime, Rosa also considered himself as something of a philosopher, his outlook having been strongly influenced by his readings of ancient Stoicism and Cynicism. While he admired the Stoic ideals of self-control, fortitude and detatchment, his aspirations toward them were undermined by his passionate, volatile temperament.

Detail from 'Diogenes Casting away his Bowl' etching by Salvator Rosa, ca 1661-2.

Rosa felt an affinity with the figure of Diogenes the Cynic—a thinker that the Stoics esteemed for his self-sufficiency, independence, honesty, and intellectual courage, but whose un-Stoic tendencies to irascibility, stringency, harshness and satire also appealed to the painter, himself a notable author of satirical works. The etching above, Diogenes Casting Away his Bowl illustrates an incident from the account of the philosopher’s life by Diogenes Laertes. This etching, like Democritus in Meditation, the print shown below, reproduces an earlier painting of Rosa’s (both canvases now belonging to the collection of the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen). The Democritus painting & print are unusual, in that, counter to pictorial convention, they show the ‘laughing philosopher’ in a mournful, melancholic attitude: ‘Democritus, the mocker of all things is here stopped by the ending of all things,’ explains the print’s caption.

Detail from 'Democritus in Meditation' etching by Salvator Rosa, ca 1661-2.

Rosa produced well over a hundred etchings over the course of his career, many of which were widely circulated, and such was the demand for his work that they were often reprinted, copied, and pirated. His success lasted well beyond his lifetime, with the Rosa legend being perpetuated by eager admirers well into the 19th century. Although an accomplished printmaker, Rosa’s graphic style was, for the most part, unremarkably conventional, influenced here & there by predecessors and contemporaries such as de Ribera, Annibale Carracci, Castiglione, Stefano della Bella, and Pietro Testa. Besides the elaborate, large-format prints discussed here, he also produced an album of sixty-two etchings of small-scale figure-studies, collectively known as the figurine, which were his most popular and influential graphic works, but which, to my eye, are considerably less interesting than the later, larger, classically-inspired pieces.

Detail from 'Rescue of the Infant Oedipus' etching by Salvator Rosa, ca 1663-4.

The last of the present images, the Rescue of the Infant Oedipus, is thought to be one of Rosa’s last etchings, dating from ca. 1664. It features some particulalrly richly-detailed landscape-work, supposedly etched directly on to the plate, without the aid of preparatory drawings, and shows the unfortunate Oedipus hanging by his feet from a tree. I scanned this, and the other images from Richard W. Wallace’s The Etchings of Salvator Rosa, a catalogue raisonée published by the Princeton University Press in 1979. A good deal of what I have written above quotes or paraphrases Mr. Wallace’s text. This entry is for Loxias, who suggested in an e-mail back in February that I might like to write something about Rosa: sorry it took so long!

Posted by misteraitch at September 24, 2006 11:48 AM

Gratefully acknowledged!

Posted by: Loxias on September 24, 2006 04:37 PM

Is any of his terza rima still read, I wonder?

Interesting; thanks!

Posted by: marlyat2 on September 24, 2006 07:51 PM

Salvator Rosa is also credited with several songs, mostly in Neapolitan. One of his tunes appears in Franz Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage (1856). His most famous song, Michelemmá, is one of the finest Neapolitan melodies and is included in the wonderfully garish film Carosello Napoletano (featuring a 19 year old Sophia Loren!). I don’t understand Neapolitan but apparently the song tells the story of a beautiful girl who is kidnapped by the Moors, and whose lovesick captors all languish to death.

Posted by: Michelangelo on September 24, 2006 09:31 PM

Great post, congrats! And very interestint to me because there is a text writed by Michel Foucault (Le non du père) with some correlative questions. Like the question on the role of the author at XVI´s century. By this way, i´m curious about the passage "In the 17th century, genius was more often used to mean, simply, ‘characteristic disposition'": the concept of "genius" go on the same way of the foucauldian text. Can you explain and/or write more more about it?


Posted by: catatau on September 25, 2006 04:20 AM

Yes, I saw that he was a musician--that is very amusing and interesting, Michelangelo! If only all kidnappings ended that way...

Posted by: marlyat2 on September 25, 2006 05:11 AM

Catatau—my claim that ‘In the 17th century, genius was more often used to mean, simply, “characteristic disposition”’ is no more than an educated guess based on the 17th-century texts that I have read: I could be proven wrong… However, I note that in John Florio’s 1611 Italian-English dictionary the New World of Words, he defines genio only as ‘the good or evil genius or angel of man.’ or ‘the instinct or spirit of man given to him by nature.’ Whereas, Samuel Johnson’s mid-18th-century definitions of genius include ‘A man endowed with superior faculties,’ as well as ‘mental power or faculties,’ ‘disposition of nature by which any one is qualified for some peculiar employment,’ and, more generally, ‘nature, disposition.’ The SOED records that genius was first used to denote exceptional intellectual or artistic ability (or the persons possessing such ability) in the mid-17th century. In The Etchings of Salvator Rosa Wallace quotes a letter where Rosa refers to ‘pittori della mia condizione e genio stravagante.’ I suppose that genius came to be joined often enough with hyperbolic adjectives such as extravagant, that the hyperbole eventually became implicit whenever genius was used.

Posted by: misteraitch on September 25, 2006 10:14 AM

In his article on Extempore Comedies, Isaac D’Israeli relates an anecdote from Passeri’s Life of Rosa, about the artist performing in Commedia dell’Arte, which he [D’Israeli] introduces by stating that ‘Men of great genius had a passion for performing in these Extempore Comedies.’ So even ca. 1817, when that article was written, here is an instance where genius is still being bolstered by a hyperbolic adjective.

Posted by: misteraitch on September 25, 2006 10:33 AM

From the Online Etymology Dictionary: genius 1390, from L. genius ‘guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth; spirit, incarnation, wit, talent,’ from root of gignere ‘beget, produce’ (see kin), from PIE base *gen- "produce.’ Meaning ‘person of natural intelligence or talent’ first recorded 1649.

Posted by: Michelangelo on September 25, 2006 02:06 PM

Well, i see the various meanings of the word, specially on XVI and XVII´s. On 'Le non du Père', Foucault states how the statute of some type of artists on the XVI´s and XVII´s is correlated of the role of the hero. The 'heroism' go from the hero to the man who represents the hero. Like some type of hero´s, there is some types of procedures that allow to "disclose" an artist (or its ' genius ') to humanity. Like a procedure of learning of a "genius" it was only one work of discovery of that the proper artist always was superior of his master.

I´m not a good english writer, but i think it goes by this way...

Posted by: catatau on September 25, 2006 02:58 PM

"Lorsque l'Europe chrétienne se mit à nommer ses artistes, elle prêta à leur existence la forme anonyme du héros: comme si le nom devait jouer seulement le rôle pâle de mémoire chronologique dans le cycle des recommencements parfaits. Les Vite de Vasari se donnent la tâche de rappeler l'immémorial; elles suivent une ordonnance statutaire et rituelle *. Le génie s'y prononce dès l'enfant: non sous la forme psychologique de la précocité, mais par ce droit qui est le sien d'être d'avant le temps et de ne venir au jour que déjà dans l'achèvement; il n'y a pas naissance mais apparition du génie, sans intermédiaire ni durée, dans la déchirure de l 'histoire; comme le héros, l'artiste rompt le temps pour le renouer de ses mains. Cette apparition toutefois n'est pas sans péripétie: une des plus fréquentes forme l'épisode de la méconnaissance
* Vasari (G.), Le Vite de piu eccelenti pittori, scultori e architetti italiani, Lorenzo Torrentino, 1550 (Les Vies des meilleurs peintres, sculpteurs et architectes italiens, trad. et éd critique sous la dir. d'A. Chastel, Paris, Berger-Levrault, coll. «Arts», 1981-1985, 9 vol.).

|PAGE 193

reconnaissance: Giotto était berger et dessinait ses moutons sur la pierre quand Cimabue le vit et salua en lui sa royauté cachée (comme dans les récits médiévaux, le fils des rois, mêlé aux paysans qui l'ont recueilli, est reconnu soudain par la grâce d'un chiffre mystérieux). Vient l'apprentissage; il est plus symbolique que réel, se réduisant à l'affrontement singulier et toujours inégal du maître et du disciple; le vieillard a cru tout donner à l'adolescent qui déjà possédait tout; dès la première joute, l'exploit inverse les rapports; l'enfant marqué du signe devient le maître du maître et, symboliquement, le tue, car son règne n'était qu'usurpation et le berger sans nom avait des droits imprescriptibles: Verrocchio abandonna la peinture quand Léonard eut dessiné l'ange du Baptême du Christ, et le vieux Ghirlandaio s'inclina à son tour devant Michel-Ange. Mais l'accès à la souveraineté impose encore des détours; il doit passer par la nouvelle épreuve du secret, mais volontaire celui-là; comme le héros se bat sous une cuirasse noire et la visière baissée, l'artiste cache son oeuvre pour ne la dévoiler qu'une fois achevée; c'est ce que fit Michel-Ange pour son David et Uccello pour la fresque qui figurait au-dessus de la porte de San Tommaso. Alors les clefs du royaume sont données: ce sont celles de la Démiurgie; le peintre produit un monde qui est le double, le fraternel rival du nôtre; dans l'équivoque instantanée de l'illusion, il prend sa place et vaut pour lui; Léonard a peint sur la rondache de Ser Piero des monstres dont les pouvoirs d'horreur sont aussi grands que ceux de la nature. Et dans ce retour, dans cette perfection de l'identique, une promesse s'accomplit; l'homme est délivré, comme Filippo Lippi, selon l'anecdote, fut réellement libéré le jour où il peignit un portrait de son maître d'une surnaturelle ressemblance.
La Renaissance a eu de l'individualité de l'artiste une perception épique où sont venus se confondre les figures archaïsantes du héros médiéval et les thèmes grecs du cycle initiatique; à cette frontière apparaissent les structures ambiguës et surchargées du secret et de la découverte, de la force enivrante de l'illusion, du retour à une nature qui, au fond est autre, et de l'accès à une nouvelle terre qui se révèle la même. L'artiste n'est sorti de l'anonymat où étaient demeurés pendant des siècles ceux qui avaient chanté les épopées qu'en reprenant à son compte les forces et le sens de ces valorisations épiques. La dimension de l'héroïque est passée du héros à celui qui le représente, au moment où la culture occidentale est devenue elle-même un monde de représentations. L'oeuvre ne tire plus son seul sens d'être un monument qui figure comme une mémoire de pierre à travers le temps; elle appartient à cette légende que naguère elle

|PAGE 194

chantait; elle est «geste» puisque c'est elle qui donne leur éternelle vérité aux hommes et à leurs périssables actions, mais aussi parce qu'elle renvoie, comme à son lieu naturel de naissance, à l'ordre merveilleux de la vie des artistes. Le peintre est la première flexion subjective du héros. L'autoportrait, ce n'est plus, au coin du tableau, une participation furtive de l'artiste à la scène qu'il représente; c'est, au coeur de l'ouvrage, l'oeuvre de l'oeuvre, la rencontre, au terme de son parcours, de l'origine et de l'achèvement, l'héroïsation absolue de celui par qui les héros apparaissent et demeurent.
Ainsi s'est noué pour l'artiste, à l'intérieur de son geste, un rapport de soi à soi que le héros n'avait pas pu connaître. L'héroïsme y est enveloppé comme mode premier de manifestation, à la frontière de ce qui apparaît et de ce qui se représente, comme une manière de ne faire, pour soi et pour les autres, qu'une seule et même chose avec la vérité de l'oeuvre. Précaire et pourtant ineffaçable unité. Elle ouvre, du fond d'elle-même, la possibilité de toutes les dissociations; elle autorise le «héros égaré», que sa vie ou ses passions contestent sans cesse à son oeuvre (c'est Filippo Lippi travaillé par la chair et qui peignait une femme quand, pour n'avoir pu la posséder, il lui fallait «éteindre son ardeur»); le «héros aliéné» dans son oeuvre, s'oubliant en elle et l'oubliant elle-même (tel Uccello qui «aurait été le peintre le plus élégant et le plus original depuis Giotto s'il avait consacré aux figures d'hommes et aux animaux le temps qu'il perdit dans ses recherches sur la perspective»); le «héros méconnu» et rejeté par ses pairs (comme le Tintoret chassé par Titien et repoussé tout au long de sa vie par les peintres de Venise). Dans ces avatars qui font peu à peu le partage entre le geste de l'artiste et le geste du héros s'ouvre la possibilité d'une prise ambiguë où il est question à la fois, et dans un vocabulaire mixte, de l'oeuvre et de ce qui n'est pas elle. Entre le thème héroïque et les traverses où il se perd, un espace s'ouvre que le XVIe siècle commence à soupçonner et que le nôtre parcourt dans l'allégresse des oublis fondamentaux: c'est celui où vient prendre place la «folie» de l'artiste; elle l'identifie à son oeuvre en le rendant étranger aux autres -à tous ceux qui se taisent -, et elle le situe à l'extérieur de cette même oeuvre en le rendant aveugle et sourd aux choses qu'il voit et aux paroles que lui-même pourtant prononce. Il ne s'agit plus de cette ivresse platonicienne qui rendait l'homme insensible à la réalité illusoire pour le placer dans la pleine lumière des dieux, mais d'un rapport souterrain où l'oeuvre et ce qui n'est pas elle formulent leur extériorité dans le langage d'une intériorité sombre. Alors devient possible cette étrange entreprise qu'est une

|PAGE 195

«psychologie de l'artiste», que la folie hante toujours, même lorsque le thème pathologique n'y apparaît pas. Elle s'inscrit sur fond de la belle unité héroïque qui donna leur nom aux premiers peintres, mais elle en mesure le déchirement, la négation et l'oubli. La dimension du psychologique, c'est dans notre culture le négatif des perceptions épiques. Et nous sommes voués maintenant, pour interroger ce que fut un artiste, à cette voie diagonale et allusive où s'aperçoit et se perd la vieille alliance muette de l'oeuvre et de «l'autre que l'oeuvre» dont Vasari nous a raconté autrefois le rituel héroïsme et les cycles immuables."

Posted by: catatau on September 25, 2006 03:04 PM

Thanks, michelangelo; and I didn’t know about Rosa’s musical talents—I have Liszt’s Années on CD somewhere: I shall have to listen to them again!

And thanks catatau: I really must get around to reading some Foucault…

Posted by: misteraitch on September 25, 2006 03:04 PM

FOUCAULT, M. Le non du père. Dits et Écrits vol. I. Paris: Gallimard, 1994.

Posted by: catatau on September 25, 2006 03:17 PM

One more note: the passage from Foucault quoted by catatau appears in English translation here.

Posted by: misteraitch on September 25, 2006 03:28 PM

I caught a Rosa exhibition in London this summer (or was it last summer.... my memory is failing me); I didn't like it at all, I must admit. Like the prints, his paintings have that 17th-century flaccidity, and I find the composition very banal. Compared to Durer et al, this stuff is just baroque waffle. Ah well--at least the 17th century had the far superior graphic tradition of Kircher/Fludd, which is already well attested on your site!

Posted by: Conrad H. Roth on September 25, 2006 08:10 PM

Catatau—I have now read (and partially digested) the passage by Foucualt. I don't pretend to understand every sentence, but I do have some observations about it. I think that there are only very indirect parallels between the changing rôle and perception of the artist in the Renaissance as described by Foucault, and the change in the meaning of 'genius,' especially given that the latter transformation occurred after the former one was virtually complete. It did occur to me, however, that Salvator Rosa is a fairly good example of the 'new' type of artist descibed by Foucault: especially given Rosa's perception of himself as a 'genio stravagante,' set apart from society; and that his life and art were self-mythologised during his lifetime, and then further romanticised toward an heroic ideal after his death by his biographers and admirers. Also, he is an important link in the continuation the changing perception of the artist from the Renaissance individualist to the stereotypical figure of the lone, tormented Romantic genius… I was puzzled by some of the generalisations in Foucault's piece. For example, he begins by making a broad statement about Christian Europe, but then gives examples only from Italian art, and then more specifically only from Vasari. What about artists like the Van Eycks? They don't seem to me to fit the archetype of the hero, but rather, if an archetype must be applied, that of the magician, given that they have been preceived as having conjured their illusionistic style from nothing...

Michelangelo—I listened to Liszt’s Canzonetta of Salvator Rosa last night: & thought it pleasant but not really all that interesting. Oddly, the sleeve-notes of my CD of the Années have it that Rosa was a ‘Roman poet!’

Conrad—I have mixed feelings overall about Rosa’s work myself, but I do admire some of his compositions, and have a particular fondness for this self-portrait. And there’ll always be room for baroque waffle here at the Giornale!

Posted by: misteraitch on September 26, 2006 10:26 AM

Conrad—the plates in Kircher’s and Fludd’s books are certainly of high quality and fascinating for their imagery, but they are hardly a ‘superior graphic tradition’. The 17th century had a lot of outstanding print makers. Two of my favourites are Callot and the ‘experimental’ Seghers (the example I am linking to is hardly his finest print, but that’s the best I could find at the moment). Then there is Rembrandt, of course, the greatest of them all.

Posted by: Michelangelo on September 26, 2006 05:10 PM

Michelangelo--fair enough, it's a matter of taste, really. The Callot is OK in a Miltony sort of way, but neither of these do much for me. To be fair I don't like much mainstream art after Tintoretto--Rembrandt included--but I do like the diagrams of the period, and also the wonderful medical illustrations.

I'm always interested to see this stuff (and read about it), though, even when I don't especially like it. BTW, did you ever do a post on Luigi Serafini?

Posted by: Conrad H. Roth on September 27, 2006 05:55 PM

Oh, you did.

Why bother asking?

Posted by: Conrad H. Roth on September 27, 2006 05:59 PM

1.very very rare to read something new about Salvator Rosa, but when it happens it is for me interresting to see that more 3 centuries after his death Salvator stay in his Art unique sublime and has you write genius in the 17 century way in his Art.
Philosopher but satyric, romantic, humoristic and visionnaire of terrible human destiny. His philosophy expression uses tools of his own talent: poetry, music,drawing and paint.
2.In France he is unknown actually,only in the Louvre they try with their 4 paints to do a reborn after a incredible total influence in the 19 centuries on French artists and writers Hugo....Salvator Rosa in French Literature: the great book From the Bizarre to the Sublime J Patty 2005.
3.Thanks for info about his music so so hard to find have you more informations, where to find others.. ?
4. I have created on Salvator Rosa
but it is actually in french, and the target is restart the knowledge in France of him.
SR with his multi sublime talent and who stay a unique artist character for ever.

Posted by: Patrick on October 4, 2006 07:02 PM

Rosa's "Genius" is partly a response to Castiglione's "Genius of Castiglione" of about ten years earlier (they almost certainly knew each other). This is a less complex, but for me a more attractive work. I'm fine with Baroque waffle when it comes off, as it certainly does here

Posted by: JohnB on October 16, 2006 01:22 AM
Comments are now closed