Title: Self-portrait as a philosopher

Year: around 1645

Artist: Salvator Rosa

Painting, oil on canvas, 116.3 x 94 cm.

The National Gallery, Londra

Salvator Rosa

Read also: review of the Neapolitan exhibition Salvator Rosa - Between myth and magic


Perhaps the name of Salvator Rosa could be unknown to many people, notwithstanding his artistic expression had influenced many European cultural milieus.
Salvator, of Parthenopean origins, considered himself a "painter-philosopher", and in his artworks was transmitting with strength his own philosophic experience. In his personality we can individuate the outlines by that time definitively explicit of the intellectual Artist.
Rosa has not been only a painter, but also an etcher, literate, musician, poet, and free-thinker.

Self-portrait as a philosopher

The frankness of a painter-philosopher

This self-portrait is surely his most penetrating and direct artwork. His austere glance admonishes us and his dark figure stands out on a sky which is portending a storm.
Rosa transmits us a message written in Latin on the [tablet] where he is resting his hand. It says "AUT TACE AUT LOQUERE MELIORA SILENTIO", or: "Say nothing, or say something better than silence".
The Artist puts the other hand on the stomach, or the liver, as if he wanted to advise to us a certain disgust or a raging bilious attack.

#1 “La Fortuna”, ~1658-59Rosa has always been a biting and stoical personage: he defended the virtues of the soul against the meannesses of the society, the marketplace driven art and the vanity of the world.
Some of his artworks rose a big clamour, like for example when he exhibited a painting where there was represented an allegory of the Fortune flooding in richness some animals (see picture #1); with this painting he wanted to rise a heavy and irreverent criticism to the Pope, who covered soulless artists with gold. You can imagine how his personality could have been disliked in the aristocratic sphere of that time, anyway Rosa did not cared about it, in fact his motto was "pinger per gloria e poetar per gioco" (to paint for glory and to make poetry as in a game).

"De le fatiche mie scopo e mercede
è sodisfare al genio, al giusto, al vero;"

("The purpose and reward of my labour
is to satisfy the genius, the just, the true;")

(short line from the artwork "Satire - La pittura", or "Satires - Painting" by Salvator Rosa)

It is said that Rosa exhibited also a painting representing only a stone, later explaining that over it his defamers had to break their teeth: a true example of Conceptual Art, in anticipation of 300 years!

“La selva dei filosofi”, ~1640-1642

Rosa was instead admired in the intellectual milieus and he was a protagonist of the beginning of an artistic-literary movement that has spread over on XV and XVI centuries: in his paintings prevails a wild nature, disquieting and eternal, where the man loses himself with his frail civilization made of ruins of the past. These kinds of subjects were defined "pittoreschi" (picturesque) and they were the prodromes of the Romanticism.

“Grotta con cascata”His way to paint was different from the typical one of his epoch: he did not studied classical disciplines, like perspective and anatomy, but he found a personal method to represent the reality, with an often chaotic style, like the harsh and rough nature that he wanted to represent, far away from the idealized aesthetics of the neoclassicism.

"Arte alcuna non v'è, che porti seco
de le Scienze maggior necessità;
ché de' color non può trattare il cieco,
ché tutto quel che la natura fa,
o sia soggetto al senso o intelligibile,
per oggetto al pittor propone e dà,
che non dipinge sol quel ch'è visibile,
ma necessario è che talvolta additi
tutto quel ch'è incorporeo e ch'è possibile."

(There is not a single Art, that brings with himself
greater necessity of the Sciences;
since the blind man cannot talk about the colours,
because everything the nature makes,
or is a matter of perception or intelligible,
it proposes and gives as a subject to the painter,
who does not paint only what is visible,
but it is necessary that sometimes he is pointing to
everything is incorporeal and possible.)

(from the artwork "Satire - La pittura", or "Satires - Painting" by Salvator Rosa)

His paintings were successively imitated and reproduced by many artists of international reputation. The philosophy of Rosa had much success in England, so much that his person was actually transformed into a myth, creating stories around his figure that were as much adventurous as fanciful.
In the reality Salvator was a placid man, who was searching for beauty in the astonishing contemplation of the nature and the deep mystery of the Cosmos.
Above all Salvator Rosa was a loyal painter, he loved to paint and heavily criticized other contemporary fellows, like Bernini, who were realizing their artworks committing them to manual executors teams.

From the point of view of Rosa, being an Artist means to have a innate personal genius; this belief takes him to an interest in the study of the cryptic origin of things, to the transcendental and the mysteries of the occult. in several artworks he treats the subject of magic; it is the case of the poem "La strega" (The witch) or the painting "Streghe ed incantesimi" (Witches and sorceries, see picture #2), which could easily have inspired the great contemporary painter Daniel Lezama.

“Streghe ed incantesimi”, ~1646

Other subjects preferred by him were the personages of classical mythology and philosophy known for their stoicism, the bandits and ruinous battle scenes.

“Battaglia eroica”, <1664

Notwithstanding the steadiness of his philosophic research, Salvator Rosa did not ever had the presumption to put in front of us an absolute truth, but he chose to paint for passion what he has loved, leaving to us this frank vision of the existential reality of the Man in front of the Nature.

"Chi de le colpe altrui troppo si duole
poco pensa a le sue, ma so ben anco
che imagini del cor son le parole:
scrissi i sensi d'un cor sincero e bianco,
“Paesaggio con eremita”, ~1662ché, se in vaghezza poi manca lo stile,
nel zelo almeno e ne l'amor non manco.

Siasi pure il mio dir sublime o vile,
a color che sferzai so che non gusta:
sempre i palati amareggiò la bile.

Corra la vena mia frale o robusta,
non pavento l'oblio; sospendo il braccio
da la penna eugualmente  e da la frusta;
il voler censurare è un grand'impaccio;
no, no, per l'avenir meglio è ch'io finga:
Musica, Poesia, Pittura, io taccio.

Gl'abusi un altro a criticar s'accinga,
per me da questa pasta alzo le mani:
canti ognun ciò che vuol, scriva o dipinga,
ch'io non vo' dirizar le gambe a i cani."

(Who complains too much the guilts of the others
thinks too little to his own, but i also know well
that the words are pictures of the heart:
i wrote the feelings of a sincere and white heart,
since, if then in longings a style is lacking,
for the zeal and love i do not lack.

Either sublime or low was my speech,
i know it was not pleasant to the ones i whipped:
the bile always embittered the palates.

Let my vein to run frail or robust,
i don't fear the oblivion; i suspend the arm
either from the pen and from the whip;
the will to censor is a big trouble;
no, no, in future it is better if i feign:
Music, Poetry, Painting, i keep silent.

Let another to criticize the abuses,
to me from this dough i lift the hands:
let anybody sing what he wants, write or paint,
since i don't want to straighten the legs of the dogs.)

(taken from "Tirreno", or "Tyrrhenian" by Salvator Rosa)

Jizaino's choice

The grave atmosphere of this painting make us to ponder about the motto of the Artist, and to search in the disarming frankness of his glance the reason of this phrase, which, even if intelligible, inspires profound philosophic issues.