Salvator Rosa - Between myth and magic
Review of the exceptional event at the Museum of Capodimonte - Naples (Italy)

review by Jizaino, 5 June 2008

"Salvator Rosa tra mito e magia" (Salvator Rosa between myth and magic)
Monographic exposition on the great protagonist of the painting in the XV century.
Museum of Capodimonte - Naples (Italy)
from 19 April to 29 June 2008

This monographic (but not only) exposition on Salvator Rosa is an exceptional event: it had been being waited for centuries... in fact it is the first and greatest display ever realized in Italy in honour of this great Master of the XV century who has been a leader of school in Europe.

In this article we won't speak to detail of the strong personality of Salvator Rosa; those who like to deepen the knowledge of the Artist can read the file card devoted to his artwork "Self-portrait as a philosopher" yet included in the Collection.

"Self-portrait as a philosopher" (˜1645), oil on canvas, 116.3 x 94 cm, National Gallery, London

The Museum of Capodimonte

The entrance ticket to the exposition of Rosa includes the visit to the whole museum, to which therefore i have dedicated a entire day.
The permanent collection, that extends on the whole noble floor of the building, is impressive: hundreds of square meters dense of Art from every epoch and great Masters, as well as the famous porcelains of Capodimonte and other ancient manufactures, all immersed in the yet sumptuous rooms of the palace.
A place where one can be seriously prone to Stendhal syndrome: Caravaggio, Rafael, Titian, El Greco, Simone Martini, Jusepe de Ribera, Lorenzo Lotto, Bruegel the Elder, Mengs, Gérard, as well as artworks of modern Art by Burri, Kounellis and many others.
The only unpleasant note of these rooms is the parquet flooring that strongly creaks anywhere, forcing the visitors to reduce to a minimum the movements and the displacements in order to not disturb too much.

Capodimonte is rather distant from the town centre, it is located on the first heights of Naples in Italy, and can be reached changing two buses; to this fact, one have to add that in the museum there is not yet a restaurant suitable to a visit that can last a whole day. It is known that there has been an announcement for a competition, nearly three years ago, to build an area of restoration in the museum, but to date there is no trace of it, apart the café that offers few things and a good pastry. A serious lack, considering that this event also concludes the 500th anniversary of the museum and its park is also a place of relaxation for all the Neapolitans.

In this period Naples is sadly protagonist of the media for the problem of the management of waste (in Neapolitan 'a munnezza'), to a point that this fact has been quoted also in the catalogue of the exposition. If Salvator could express himself on these facts, he would probably hand us a more disdainful sentence than "aut tace aut loquere meliora silentio".
Not much distant from the museum there is Chiaiano, where happened the violent clashes between the police and the population protesting against the adaptation as dump area of the adjacent open-pit mine.

Between myth and magic

The exposition on Salvator Rosa has been cut in two sections: one in the noble floor of the palace, that includes all the etchings and several of his paintings placed side by side to analogous artworks, which come from international collections, of other artists contemporary with Rosa; and the other one in the underground floor, in which there is the largest part of the painting activity of the Master.

The more than eighty artworks displayed, offer an exhaustive panoramic view on the activity of Rosa, covering all the periods and the thematic he dealt with in his life, as well as there are pieces that represent a novelty to me: in fact big part of the canvases are coming from private collections: this is one of the reasons for the exceptionality of this exposition. As an example the "Autoritratto in veste di guerriero" (Self-portrait as a warrior), a canvas of strong emotional intensity and excellent technique; or "Appostamento di soldati in un antro roccioso" (Ambush of soldiers in a rocky cave), in which one can notice the particular care that Rosa reserves to the reproduction of rocky asperities of the wild nature.

"Autoritratto in veste di guerriero", oil on canvas, 94 x 107 cm, Banca del Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Siena

"Appostamento di soldati in un antro roccioso", oil on canvas, 94 x 78 cm, private collection

The enormous paintings of battles, seen in the reality, are masterpieces where to lose oneself for a long time to observe the details of it; they make to recall the indistinct tumults of the armies, without glory nor infamy, but only with a romantic destructive folly and the frantic desperation of war.

"Battaglia tra cristiani e turchi" (Battle between Christians and Turks, ˜1640)
oil on canvas, 234 x 350 cm, Galleria Palatina of Palazzo Pitti, Florence

I have to remind that the paintings by Rosa, as generally the whole painting, must absolutely be seen in the reality: no catalogue or image, even in well done, can reproduce the expressive strength of the pictorial stroke, so evident and diversified depending on the various components of the scenes. Seen in the reality, his canvases assume unbelievable light and depth, with tonal harmonies and a detail that in photographs appear fuzzy, dull and flat.

In the noble floor section of the museum a lot of etchings are displayed, of which some were turned into paintings, and are equipped with good deepenings and nexuses in the explanatory notes. Rosa also used the etching to silence who accused him to lack in skill for the anatomy of figures; the exposition displays a lot of "figurine" (little nice figures) or "caprices", depicting single subjects like soldiers, merchants and young girls, which have not been wholly included in the catalogue, because of the big number.

"I cinque fiumi", (The five rivers, ˜1660-61) drypoint etching on ivory paper, 95 x 206 mm, Museum of San Martino, Naples

The style of the etchings of Salvator Rosa has a brief, disjointed and very vigorous stroke, even though soft in the global restitution, modern, similar to ballpoint pen sketches, different from the regular lines and calibrate representation of the volumes of a very patient style.

In the same section the first paintings are encountered: they are placed side by side to analogous artworks by other artists of that epoch, in order to understand the relationships and the cultural influences contemporary with Saltavor Rosa.
The first painting in which i came upon is "Un carnefice con la testa del Battista" (An executioner with the head of the Baptist, 1637-39) that reveals an amazing technical skill in the chiaroscuro, with the style of Caravaggio; the painting is placed side by side with the homonymous artwork that was made in 1639 by Jusepe de Ribera, who has lived for a while in Naples and is one of the painters most beloved by Rosa.

I would like to praise the organizers of the exposition for the good in-depth work, the selection and the comparison of artworks that picture a view on the life of Rosa and the culture of that epoch: from the soldiers with Spanish armour to the myths of the past, from the virtues of philosophers and martyrs to the miseries of war, from the natural beauties of Campania Felix to the romantic decadence risen from the horrors of the plague in Naples; this last episode etched the life of the Artist, since it caused the death of his son and a brother.

In the section of the underground floor, without creaking parquet, one can enjoy a nice atmosphere: in the quiet of this room the music of that epoch is spread in a very discreet way, in order to favour the contemplation and the identification with it.
Here we find the greatest part of the paintings, correctly equipped of explanatory notes and combined with brief excerpts of texts of the Artist quoted on the walls.
In a separated hall it is possible to assist to the video projection of the documentary on the life and the works, expressly realized for the event.

One can lose himself contemplating the abundance of the insane scenes of battle, the strength and the harsh beauty of the wild Nature, the allegorical details of the vanitas subjects, the proudly melancholic glances of portraits and self-portraits or the grotesque scenes of sorcery.

For example we encounter the "Tentazione di Sant'Antonio Abate" (Temptation of abbot Saint Anthony) with a surprisingly modern and realistic monster, or the atrocity of the "Prometeo" (Prometheus) whose intestines are being devoured by an eagle, painting with which Rosa affirmed himself getting notoriety and respect. We encounter atypical techniques as the oil on slate of "Stregoneria" (Witchcraft) and metaphors of decadence in "Vanitas" with a Flemish style, philosophical and classical themes or seashores with a surrealist look and the typical rocky bridges where improbable castles and towers in ruin are sitting, as in "Pescatori di Corallo" (Coral fishermen).

"Tentazione di Sant'Antonio Abate", (˜1645) oil on canvas, 125.5 x 93.3 cm, Galleria Palatina of Palazzo Pitti, Florence

"Prometeo", (˜1648-50) oil on canvas, 220 x 176 cm, Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica of Palazzo Corsini, Rome

"Stregoneria", oil on slate, 44 x 59 cm, private collection

"Vanitas", oil on canvas, 200 x 150 cm, private collection, Naples

"Pescatori di corallo", oil on canvas, 52 x 87 cm, private collection


For the admirers of Salvator Rosa this is an unique appointment absolutely not to lose: a great number of artworks coming from private collections, a good curatorial work and the support of audio-guides, didactic activities and in-depth courses.

Moreover the event was combined with some concerts (the last on 5th June) for Salvator Rosa, kept in the auditorium of the museum by the Soprano Ilaria Iaquinta accompanied to the piano by the Master Giacomo Serra.

And to close, an excellent catalogue of the exposition is available: big size, with full page pictures, good in-depths for each displayed artwork, including the comparative ones by the other artists contemporary with Rosa. More than a catalogue, this is a precious book for an fair price. The only fault: in the explanatory notes the dates of realization of the artworks are missing.

Jizaino -