Salvator Rosa

Salvator Rosa

Salvator Rosa was another Italian artist that had an unorthodox approach to painting and a rebellious nature to match his non-conformist attitude. He was a multi-faceted artist with talent in printmaking, poem writing and oil painting. He emerged during the Baroque period with Paul Bril (1554-1626) and Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) as his contemporaries.

Salvator was often described as a romantic, flamboyant and temperamental individual but had the capability and resources to produce large number of history paintings, portraits and religious art works. His unorthodox nature would be seen in his inclination towards witchcraft paintings as his subject plus his talent in painting wide and melancholic landscape settings, which was in contrast with the warm and serene works of Claude, Bril and Poussin.

Examples of Salvator’s dreamy yet melancholic creations include the Landscape with Tobit and the Angel (1670) in Musee des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg and the River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl (1660) in Wallace Collection at London. These art works had made a significant impact on the Romantic English painters during the 19th century as demonstrated by John Martin.

Early Life

Salvator Rosa was born around 1615 in Arenella, Naples to a middle-class family. His father Vito Antonio de Rosa was a geodetic engineer in Naples and was the first person to influence the young Salvator to enter priesthood or become a notary officer. Thus, his father had signed him up for entering the Somaschi Fathers convent at a young age.

However, while growing up with so much love for the arts, he soon learned to secretly train himself in painting under the mentorship of Paolo Greco, his uncle from the mother side. He quickly grew interest in painting that he entered another studio which was of Francesco Francanzano, his brother-in-law.

Early Training

Salvator became a member of the Neapolitan School of Painting, in which he might have met the master who has had made a huge impact on the early stages of his career. He was apprenticed to Aniello Falcone, a rival to Domenico Gargiulo and Ribera. It is believed that Salvator influenced Falcone through his battle-oriented paintings as some years later; Salvator executed his own version of a battle painting called Battle in 1637.

When his father died, he was left with little to without financial support from his family. At the age of 17, he was believed to be traveling with bandits and then returned to Naples to continue his career in oil painting.

Aside from Falcone, Lanfranco also had his eyes on the young Salvator, whom he advised to go to Rome around 1634. Salvator’s stay in Rome meant a life-changing event as this was when he realized he wanted to become an independent and professional painter. He started with painting dramatic landscape settings with rich vegetation or ragged caves and beachfronts as the subjects.

These jagged scenes would be paired with naval explorers, military men or shepherds. He would often sell these to private collectors at a cheap price. From Naples, he then traveled to Rome again in 1638 to become a court painter for Cardinal Francesco Maria Brancaccio. He was particularly asked by the said cardinal to decorate Chiesa Santa Maria della Morte in Viterbo, including a small number of altarpieces such as the Incredulity of Thomas.

As an Actor and Playwright

While developing his oil style in painting, Salvator also spent a considerable amount of time pursuing his inclination towards poetry, satire writing, engraving, music and drama. He became friends with a few other versatile artists like Claude Lorrain and Pietro Testa in Rome. He met them during a carnival show that he wrote and dramatized himself. He was also an actor of Bernini in one of the plays that he directed, Trastevere.

Toward the latter part of 1630’s, Salvator was gaining momentum in the popularity of his plays. However his popularity also meant gaining a number of both enemies and patrons. The pressure from his enemies did not bring him any good but exhaustion. So in 1639, he found himself at peace in Florence where he stayed for nearly a decade.


Salvator Rosa was hired by Cardinal Giancarlo de Medici to paint some portraits. He also didn’t stop pursuing his other artistic talents as he had established his own studio that was as multi-faceted as him. It housed artists of different sorts like poets, painters and dramatists. He later called his studio, Accademia dei Percossi or Academy of the Stricken.

While working on the progress of his academy, Salvator tried to master his techniques in landscape painting most of which were wild in nature. He had also acquired more students like Lorenzo Lippy to help him with his projects for Cardinal de Medici. Lippy was particularly assisted him to crafting the poem Il Malmantile Racquistato.

Aside from Lorenzo Lippy, he also befriended Giulio Maffei and Ugo both of whom came from Volterra. In Volterra, Salvator produced a quadruple of satires entitled Music, Poetry, Painting and War. These subject matters were close to his heart obviously and after which, in 1640, he had his earliest self-portrait painted.
He entitled it Philosophy in which he was painted standing up while holding a banner which reads “Keep silent unless what you are going to say is more important than silence.” He used a cloudy dark sky as his background while his austere eyes seemed to reprimand somebody. This painting can now be seen at the National Gallery of London.

Return to Naples

Salvator Rosa retreated to Naples in 1646 to sympathize with the rebellion of Masaniello around 1648. This automatically assumes that he could be an active member of Masaniello’s rebellious group as he allegedly, together with Aniello Falcone, led the formation of the Compagnia della Morte. The group had one mission: to capture Spaniards wherever else they may be in Naples.

On this group, he had Domenico Gargiulo, Marzio Maturzo, Coppola, Cadogna, Paolo Porpora and Vaccari at the helm. However the group was dispersed by the efforts of Don Juan de Austria and captured its foremost leaders. But then, Salvator had escaped and lived with roaming bandits in Abruzzi.

Found Refuge in Rome

In 1649, Salvator managed to return to Rome and began focusing on his career. He started off with painting large-scale landscapes and history paintings, but his themes seemed to be very unusual for an early Baroque painter. The changes in themes and motifs can be seen in The Death of Socrates, Democritus amid the Tombs, Wheel of Fortune, Regulus in the Spiked Cask and Justice Quitting the Earth.

Around this time Salvator Rosa would also criticize the Roman art culture, which again didn’t do him any good. He had done this by writing satirical plays about his take on the said culture; from traditional names, anecdotes and references. Salvator simply had them manipulated for the purpose of making a satire out of it. It is believed that he may have received some advice and coaching from his colleagues in Volterra and Florence. And to add salt to the injury of his detractors he wrote Envy.

Advanced Years

While completing the Envy series, Salvator would have also been painting The Battle and Saul and the Witch of Endor art works. His witchcraft painting was completed in 40 days, and he was already in his advanced years at the time.

At the latter part of his life, Salvator Rosa suffered from Edema which ended his life six months later. Before his death he chanced upon marrying Lucrezia from Florence and the couple had two sons. The children grew up without Salvator’s presence unfortunately as he died on March 15, 1673 and his remains were buried in Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri.