Aut tace, aut loquere meliora silentio. Salvator Rosa, or the artist's freedom of thought.

Salvator Rosa was one of the greatest artists of the seventeenth century, but he is also famous for being a freethinker, a whipping boy of customs, and a fierce critic of the hypocrisy of the society of his time.

Aut tace, aut loquere meliora silentio. “Either keep silent, or say something that is better than silence.” The sculptural evidence of those six words engraved on the panel that Salvator Rosa carelessly holds up in his Self-Portrait at the National Gallery, so clear, so imperative, so pungent, leaves an indelible mark on the minds of so many who gaze upon that powerful painting. It may be the disarming simplicity of that advice borrowed from Strabo, who in turn attributed it to Pythagoras (and it is idle to remark here on the importance and role of silence in the Pythagorean school), it may be the haughty pose of the painter who portrays himself as if he were an ancient philosopher, leaving implied the reference to that same Pythagoras who for centuries was thought to be the inventor of philosophy itself, it may be because of that proud and sullen gaze from which his tenacious, surly, passionate, rough, contemptuous temperament transpires and leaks out: it will be because of all this, that the appeal of this idealized Self-Portrait and its motto, echoing that all-sixteenth-century passion for enterprise, has transcended the narrow confines of art history and spilled over into literature, journalism, and non-fiction. And perhaps this painting alone would be enough in itself to suggest to the viewer a vague but well-founded idea of Salvator Rosa’s character, an artist against artists (or at least against the ignorant ones, against those who “believe they are masters, and know nothing”), a lashing poet, a scourge of the corruption of the Church, of the ignorance and hypocrisy of society, of the servility of poets, musicians and painters, of the cowardice of many of his colleagues.

Upstream, the primal root of the modernity of Salvator Rosa’s genius could be identified in that he continually wanted to refer back to the Horatian principle ofut pictura poësis: “the parallelism between verses and paintings,” has written Luigi Salerno, among the most eminent scholars and exegetes of the great Neapolitan artist, “is due to the same temperament of the outgoing and passionate man, who when he had an idea in his mind felt the need to externalize it with the different artistic means he had at his disposal and in which he engaged.” Painting, poetry, aphorisms, music: various are the fields in which Salvator Rosa’s versatile flair germinates and flourishes. In the fifth of his Satires, the compositions from which it is most convenient to start a reconstruction of Salvator Rosa’s thought and convictions, the protagonist, that is, the Author, in responding to a question from Invidia about the extent of the painter’s ingenuity, sketches in a few lines the idea of what in his opinion an artist should be: “s’i libri del Vasari osservi e noti / vedrai che de’ pittori i più discreti / son per la poesia celebri e noti. / And not only the painters were poets, / but great philosophers, and were demons / in seeking of nature the great secrets.” It is difficult to fully grasp the essence of Salvator Rosa’s screeds by skipping this premise: philosophy, knowledge, and the desire to imitate the ancients in their search for the “great secrets” of nature make up the framework within which Salvator Rosa aims to build his experience as a painter, a poet, and a human being. And it is in the furrow traced by the irreconcilable discrepancy between his ideas and the culpable indolence of his contemporaries (especially those who would have the means but prefer to set out on the path of vain adulation and passive sheepishness) that his fierce criticism is formed and moves.

The first of the seven satires, which picks on musicians, opens with a lash that, from the very first verse, comes down on society as a whole: “Have your place, O Priapus, in truth: / if the donkeys are dedicated only to you / it must be said that today’s world is yours. / Crédemi who have advanced so far / your vassals, that of a Xerxes on a par / you could form armed squadrons. [...] Let Apuleius’ time no longer be named, / for if then a single man seemed an ass, / a thousand asses in my day resemble men.” The artist goes on to hurl his barbs at the targets of his overwhelming polemic: the unworthiness of contemporary music (“it is today’s music unworthy and vile, / because it is treated is only with arrogance / by vicious and servile people”), the inconsistency of musicians (“only of beaks and castrati does Italy abound”) and, one could say, of the intellectual class as a whole since the object of his aims are also painters and poets, as well as politicians, and then again the absence of good teachers (“I scold, I scold you, you unworthy masters / you who teach the world to fuck up”), the propensity, on the part of patrons, to surround themselves with unworthy artists (“today no one drives them away or rejects them, / indeed in the house of princes and kings / this genius is only the well seen”), the substantial vacuity and uselessness of the poets’ reasonings and, consequently, the disengaged and frivolous character of their works (from Satire II: “instead of a fertile and living craft, / behind the dead and sterile poetry / you learn to sing always in passive”), the wastefulness of a court accustomed to spending fortunes on luxuries and festivities but which does not care for the poor and needy (“now these abuses in place of correcting, / you make the king hum to me / and festivities and comedies and dances elect. / How much of you would be fame and goodness / if what you spend in simil fole / were given in sovvenir la povertà!”), the uncontrolled spread of vice, the unjust application of justice.

Salvator Rosa, Autoritratto (1645; olio su tela, 116,3 x 94 cm; Londra, National Gallery)
Salvator Rosa, Self-Portrait (1645; oil on canvas, 116.3 x 94 cm; London, National Gallery)

The Roman curia, the papal court of Pope Alexander VII, in Salvator Rosa’s verses becomes a new Babylon against which his pen writes mercilessly, in the sixth satire: Rome is the city where “the unclean sect of Vice” not only goes away “pompous and impune,” but well cares for “colonies fondar for every shore,” it is the place where great souls languish in fasting and where fortunes are overthrown in great numbers on those who do not deserve them, where it is full of arrogant and ignorant who pass themselves off as wise, of “berylers” who “pass for diamonds,” of flatterers, of simulators well received because in the new Babylon “well pretending is esteemed a virtue,” where modesty is held in contempt and is unable to guarantee advantages to those who practice it, where men who should be remembered “for infamy sol” are held up as high examples. And so that the dart would not only sting, but also be able to penetrate all the more deeply, the artist plans to underscore the concepts of satire with a painting, now in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles: An Allegory of Fortune, where the tawny-haired, disheveled young woman, signifying that fortune changes according to how the wind shifts, tips a cornucopia filled with gold and coins onto beasts of burden and slaughter, donkeys, sheep, goats, pigs, assorted cattle, a vulture. Which invariably trample and destroy the symbols of arts and knowledge: the books, the palette, the brushes. And the swine, rooting perplexedly before a handful of pearls, eloquent image of the famous saying, in the process shreds and disintegrates the rose that alludes to the artist’s surname. As to who the dedicatees of the painting are, there is no doubt at all: the donkey wears the cardinal’s robe, and overshadows the owl, symbol of wisdom, to whom nothing touches the riches overthrown by Fortune. Baldinucci recounts that Salvator Rosa had the idea of exhibiting the painting for the feast of St. John Taken Off in 1658, in the Roman church dedicated to the saint: The disconcertment in papal circles was such that, the Florentine historian recounts, the artist risked being imprisoned if the pope’s brother, Prince Mario Chigi, had not come to his defense (probably with a writing that sweetened the content of the work: Baldinucci speaks of a “very learned apologia” written in defense of Salvator Rosa).

It is the same culture of dissent that, scholars Stefania Macioce and Tania De Nile recently wrote in a contribution to the monograph on Salvator Rosa and his time, fuels his admirable and celebrated paintings populated with witches, monsters and ghosts: “the treatment of witch themes does not denote particular convictions, but rather an interest in unconventional or even censored arguments and not at all common in Italy.” There is perhaps no predetermined program, nor can one trace, in the witchcraft paintings, precise addressees, but it is evident that some polemical intent runs to enliven the scenes, and that Salvator Rosa’s corrosive criticism somehow comes to permeate these monstrous sabbaths overflowing with demonic presences. Again, it is the artist’s strong anticlericalism that is the ground on which his devilry grows, an anticlericalism to be declined according to two orders of ideas. At first glance, the presence of monks in certain witch-like compositions (in one drawing in the Metropolitan we see an unmistakable friar, wearing a habit and tonsure, participating in a magic ritual where monsters of all sorts are evoked) could be motivated by Salvator Rosa’s eagerness to denounce the turpitudes of the Church and the monastic orders. However, these paintings should also be linked to the scientific thought of the time, and in particular to the Neapolitan environment in which the artist was trained, an environment in which, writes Luigi Salerno again, one senses “since the end of the sixteenth century, a new ferment.” the “tendency towards the revaluation of physics with respect to metaphysics and the modern need that was appearing, albeit on the level of traditional erudition, of experimental research, leading the reason for the universe back to the bosom of nature, favored the concept of the scholar-wizard who by intuition, genius and divination discovers natural secrets: consequently, magic, alchemy and astrology, which, as experimental practices, were to contribute far more to the birth of modern science than abstract philosophical and theological speculation, entered largely into the new philosophical orientation.” And as is well known, scientific thought, in the first decades of the seventeenth century, often found obstacles along its path, including ecclesiastical ones, as the story of Galileo well recalls (and do not forget that, in the 1940s, Salvator Rosa stayed for some time in Florence).

Then there is one of the lyrics in Salvator Rosa’s Music Book, entitled La strega (The Witch), which could facilitate a further level of reading, also related to the cross-references between science and witchcraft, with the latter becoming a drift, corruption, degeneration of the former: with a fast-paced pace, Salvator Rosa, in his composition, describes the preparation of a sorceress’s ritual (“magician circle / icy waves / various fishes / chemical waters / black balms / mixed powders / mystic stones / serpents and noctules / putrid sangues / soft viscera / dry mummies / bones and vermin / suffumes that blacken / horrible voices that frighten / murky saps that poison / fetid stylls that corrupt / that obfuscate / that freeze / that spoil / that anchor / that conquer the stygian waves.”) who for his filter, whose purpose is to evoke an infernal turmoil, employs tools that are also typical of the scientist’s preparations (the powders, balms, chemical waters), familiar to the artist given also his association with illustrious men of science of his time. And so in the devilishness, in those witches who traffic with books, formulas, potions, tinctures, fumes, stills, pots, mortars, who exhume corpses, who seclude themselves in environments far from everything and everyone, it will not be difficult to glimpse the distorted and corrupted image of the seventeenth-century scientist.

Salvator Rosa, Allegoria della Fortuna (1658-1659; olio su tela, 200,7 x 133 cm; Los Angeles, Getty Museum)
Salvator Rosa, Allegory of Fortune (1658-1659; oil on canvas, 200.7 x 133 cm; Los Angeles, Getty Museum)

Salvator Rosa, Sabba di streghe (1640-1649 circa; penna e inchiostro marrone e acquarellature marroni su carta, 272 x 184 mm; New York, Metropolitan Museum)
Salvator Rosa, Sabbath of Witches (c. 1640-1649; pen and brown ink and brown watercolors on paper, 272 x 184 mm; New York, Metropolitan Museum)

Salvator Rosa, Streghe e incantesimi (1646 circa; olio su tela, 72 x 132 cm; Londra, National Gallery)
Salvator Rosa, Witches and Spells (c. 1646; oil on canvas, 72 x 132 cm; London, National Gallery)

Macioce and De Nile, as mentioned, sought to establish a cause and effect relationship between Salvator Rosa’s devilishness and his attitude toward dissent, his “deep love of freedom of conscience and thought,” that love that moved his hand in the composition of the Satires, that causes him to risk prison for painting the Roman prelatic class in the form of donkeys and pigs, that leads him several times to take a stand and condemn the malpractice of his time, nurtured and exalted by artists prone to the presence of power. To that freedom, Salvator Rosa would not renounce even in the most tribulated moments of his life. A freedom that overflows impetuously from a letter dated February 1656, sent from Rome to his fraternal friend Giovanni Battista Ricciardi: at that time, slander thickens on the painter involving the sphere of his affections, since for some time the artist has been cohabiting (one would say today) with his beloved Lucrezia, a married woman who has given him a son of whom he is proud, Rosalvo. Salvatore tries in vain to seek an annulment of his previous marriage for her: not having obtained what he hoped to obtain, he resolves to have her and her 15-year-old son transferred to Naples since, believing himself persecuted by the Holy Office, the artist hopes to be able to remove his loved ones from impending danger. The affair has a tragic ending, however, as in that same 1656 a terrifying plague epidemic falls ruinously on Naples, carrying off half the city’s inhabitants: among them, the beloved Rosalvo, and then again the painter’s brother, his sister, her husband, and the couple’s five children. The artist is left even more alone. And in that climate he paints one of his most famous works, The Human Frailty, a horrific memento mori, starring a frightening winged skeleton who swoops in to seize a young woman with her head garlanded in roses holding a small child, and made all the more somber by the fact that it springs from a direct and mournful experience.

But the situation is certainly not rosy even at the time of his separation from his companion and child, in that February 1656: a situation that plunges the artist into a gloomy melancholy and tormented loneliness, which leaves him “alone, without servant, without servants, with no other company but a cat.” The letter to Ricciardi, though veiled in deep sadness, has been widely referred to as a cornerstone of the artist’s dignity, as a blatant manifesto of Salvator Rosa’s freedom of thought. Commiseration for his condition thus becomes a crude invective against the inquisitors: “and all this arises out of fear lest I incur some misfortune of imprisonment, some fucking beak of a spy of St. Offitio, may the soul of the one who invented it be cursed a thousand times over. [...] Hora, tant’è, già sono in Napoli accarezzati da mio fratello e da mia sorella, provuti di comodi e di denari et io qui come un bellissimo viso di fava me ne sto insolidito in guisa che non so che non sa donde mi sia, rinegando e bestiemando chi introdusse nell’anima tanta paura, e chi trovò tante clausole e vincoli sopra le nostre conscienze, che maledetto sia per tutti i secoli de’ secoli. I beseech you therefore (if you also have viscera, and so much of humanity that you can dress yourself in my shoes) to pity me, and believe that in the whole course of my life I have never found myself in greater labery and need of relief and counsel, and if this time I do not make myself a Carthusian it is but a miracle of Heaven’s mercy, that He does not want me to be more of a jerk than I confess myself to be. O Lady Lucrezia, o Rosalvo, o peace, o quiet, o comfort, and where have you gone. Damn, at least I knew that really fusse as well as I count it to me these borricello cops of our consciences, who, doing to them what most pleases them, want us not to do what most pleases us. For Christ’s sake, for God’s sake, for the sake of your goodness, comfort me, advise me, that never shall I find myself in greater need, and if I am not sick, I will confess and believe that I am bronze. Nothing else; love me, and remember that I have a grateful soul, who knows how to love and know benefit.” These are the words of an artist who undergoes many risks in order to defend his convictions, of a free man who neither tolerates nor endures the idea of an authority that instills fear in people and tells them how they should think, nor accepts the spread of a hypocrisy that affects him in his intimacy.

Salvator Rosa, L'Umana Fragilità (1656; olio su tela, 199 x 134 cm; Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum)
Salvator Rosa, The Human Frailty (1656; oil on canvas, 199 x 134 cm; Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum)

One might wonder about the strength that animates Salvator Rosa and how consistently he pursued his battles, notwithstanding the fact that we cannot date the Satires with certainty, and that what has been discussed covers a very long span of his career, with all that that entails. However, it is possible to try to draw some assumptions that may apply to much of his career. Salvator Rosa is not a castigator divorced from reality, nor is he a hermit who judges without compromise. He detests society, but he is not an outcast or anti-social; on the contrary, in society he is well integrated. He loves success and seeks it: in one of his letters he rejoices at a prestigious commission received, sensing that it is an opportunity to be grabbed at once and without too much thought, because it could have contributed to his personal glory (“I swear to you, friend, that I have never found myself in greater commitment: but because a more beautiful occasion was never to arise again, so as not to betray it, I have this time risked everything to confirm myself in the credit of fame”). He polemicizes with the intellectuals of his time but frequents the courts, academies, and circles. He sincerely despises money, but boasts of the value of his paintings (“s’io vendessi tutte queste mie pitture che di presente mi trovo, vorrei avere in culo Creso”). He clashes with painters who paint “bambocciate”, “accattatozzi e poveri”, “stuolo d’imbriaconi e genti ghiotte / gypsies, tabaccari e barberie, / niregnacche, bracon, trentapagnotte: / chi si cerca i pidocchi e chi si gratta”, but he does not disdain genre scenes, which he indeed produces in quantity. So, perhaps the key to enter Salvator Rosa’s worldview should be sought in a line from the second of the Satires, where the painter and poet states that “moral violence spurs me on and arouses me.”

Salvator Rosa’s struggle is thus expressed in those same environments that are the subject of his accusations, and the artist acts with the weapons of painting and poetry, rebelling against the logic of the system from within. The choice of these weapons would have caused him strong enmities, denounced in the opening sonnet of the Satires (“more than a Peter denies me and abandons me / and more than a Judas ognor mi vedo a lato”), but that was what the force of his morality imposed on him. In short: Salvator Rosa is not a respecter, he is a rebel. He knows he is not perfect, he even reiterates this in the Satires, but he does not stop denouncing the reality he sees around him. He knows that to do this requires getting dirty, and he knows well, Salerno writes, that “only his morality, his artistic seriousness are truly incorruptible.” And that is why “his struggle is carried out openly, with satire and cultural polemic, not with the maneuvers of the arriviste courtier.”

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