The last of this month’s four pictures for summer, and the subject of my penultimate column for this magazine, is a characteristically desolate landscape by the Italian seventeenth-century painter Salvator Rosa. River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl was definitely created after 1649 and probably, to be more precise, in the mid-1650s. It is owned by the Wallace Collection, in London, and is currently on display there as part of an exhibition devoted to the subject of Rosa’s landscape paintings: “Salvator Rosa: Wild Landscapes”.
Rosa was an ambitious self-made man, famous for being as turbulent as the storm-tossed visions of nature with which he made his name. Born to a builder and his wife in a suburb of Naples in 1615, he studied painting with his brother-in-law Francesco Fracanzano, an artist of distinctly mediocre talents. Rosa left his home town in 1635 and sought to establish himself in Rome, the inevitable destination for any Italian painter seeking to forge a more than merely provincial reputation. A man of considerable literary as well as artistic ambitions, he wrote numerous satirical poems, became the centre of a group of poets and writers and also formed a troupe of actors. His natural bent for satire and his fiery temperament got him into trouble on more than one occasion, and having made an enemy of the most powerful artist in Rome, the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, Rosa moved away and settled in Florence for several years, winning the patronage of Giovanni Carlo de’ Medici. His house became a meeting place for the Florentine learned elite, who went by the name of the Accademia dei Percossi,the “Academy of the Afflicted”. Like his newfound friends, Rosa came to espouse the fashionable doctrine of neo-Stoicism, a revived form of the ancient Greek moral philosophy developed by Diogenes, among others. But while affecting a Stoic’s lofty disdain for the things of this world, he continued to seek worldly success as a painter. He moved back to Rome in 1645 and spent the rest of his life there, devoting himself to the creation of a new form of landscape painting. The picture reproduced on this page is one of the masterpieces of the later part of Rosa’s life.
Landscape had been regarded as a relatively humble genre of painting in Italy. But two French artists based in Rome, Claude Lorraine and Nicholas Poussin, had done much to raise its status by setting scenes drawn from classical myth or biblical legend in grand arcadian landscapes inspired by the nearby countryside. Rosa inherited the tradition that they had founded, but departed from their example in presenting scenes of stormy desolation rather than calm pastoral beauty. River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl is a characteristically tumultuous example of his work. The two principal figures in the are dwarfed by a landscape of unrelenting wildness. The scene is an isolated inlet of the sea, surrounded by towering cliffs of rough and rugged stone. In the left foreground, the trunks of a pair of silver birches are twined together to form the shape of a St Andrew’s cross. One has been snapped by gale-force winds, its white bark split to reveal a slice of the sappy, salmon-coloured wood that lies beneath. On the other side of the painting, a dark crag towers against a stormy summer sunset, spindly trees as fragile and feathery as sprigs of parsley sprouting from it at eccentric angles. Rosa’s nature is inhospitable, fickle, tempestuous, mirroring perhaps his Stoic’s sense of worldly existence itself as treacherous and unreliable.
The story which the artist has chosen to illustrate contributes to the gloomy mood, being an allegory of the vanity of human wishes. The tale of Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl is told in the ancient poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Sibyl of Cumae was one of the most famous of the sibyls, women credited with oracular powers. The god Apollo fell in love with her and offered to grant her any wish in exchange for her embraces. She asked to live for as many years as there were grains in a heap of dust, but failed to keep her end of the bargain. Apollo made her wish come true but failed to grant her perpetual youth, condemning her to centuries of life as a wizened and arthritic crone. The granting of the wish is the moment that Rosa depicts. The god raises his arm in a gesture that signifies his magical powers. The fateful handful of dust has begun to trickle through the Sibyl’s fingers, symbol of her doom.
Rosa managed his own reputation with as much skill as he manipulated his paintbrush, deliberately cultivating the image of a difficult, wilful and aloof creative genius. Whereas most other artists of the time bent over backwards to accommodate their wealthy patrons, he was often deliberately obstructive. His contemporary, the Florentine art historian Filippo Baldinucci, was astonished by Rosa’s approach: “I can find few, in fact, I cannot find any, artists either before or after him or among his contemporaries, who can be said to have maintained the status of art as high as he did… No one could ever make him agree a fixed price before a picture was finished and he used to give a very interesting reason for this: he could not instruct his brush to produce paintings worth a particular sum but, when they were completed, he would appraise them on their merits and would then leave it to his friend’s judgement to take them or leave them.” Rosa played different games with different patrons. When one prospective client baulked at the asking price of 200 scudi, the artist informed him that the price would go up by 100 scudi for each day that he dithered. On another occasion, when asked by Prince Lorenzo Colonna how much he wanted for a particular picture, he gave the reply that he wished for no more than the work merited, leaving it to the prince’s discretion. His reward was a small fortune. Unlike the Cumaean Sibyl, Rosa understood that sometimes it is only by asking for nothing that you can make your wish come true.