Rosa’s Fall: From Picturesque to Ruskin’s Anti-Turner, Salvator Rosa in Victorian Britain

Giulia Martina Weston

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Undine Giving the Ring to Masaniello, Fisherman of Naples i Fig. 8.6 Joseph Mallord William Turner, Undine Giving the Ring to Masaniello, Fisherman of Naples (1846–7). Oil on canvas, 79.1 × 79.1 cm. Tate, London. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

John Ruskin’s rebuttal of seventeenth-century landscape painting, particularly the elegiac compositions carefully staged by Claude Lorrain (1600–82), forms an undisputable and consistent element of his aesthetics and art criticism. Still underexplored is Ruskin’s systematic and highly pragmatic denunciations of the landscape paintings of Salvator Rosa (1615–73), a Neapolitan Seicento artist exploited by the British critic as a paradigmatic ‘anti-Turner’, a pedagogic anti-hero whose ultimate function was to demonstrate, e contrario, the excellence of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s (1775–1851) art.[1] By closely looking into Salvator Rosa’s nuanced afterlife in Britain, the present research sets out to cast brighter light onto the bonds between Ruskin’s absolute moral imperative, ‘truth-to-nature’, and previous histories of taste and collecting.[2] Whilst Ruskin’s condemnation of seventeenth-century landscape has been the object of fierce scholarly debates, chiefly connected to the aesthetics of the ‘picturesque’ and often conducted through the prism of landscape gardening theories, this inquiry aims to demonstrate how Ruskin’s sharp criticism closely relates to a well-established painterly and literary response to Salvator Rosa’s artistic output.[3]

To question afresh Ruskin’s criticism, a two-fold analysis has been conducted, reconstructing both the rise of a legend surrounding Rosa’s artistic persona, and the shaping of an aesthetics stemming from the painter’s landscape patterns—two spheres progressively blending one into another by Ruskin’s times. Discussion of significant episodes for Rosa’s fame and fortuna critica in Britain seeks to demonstrate how the presence and actual display of Rosa’s paintings favoured a mythological reading of Rosa as a ‘rebel’ or ‘bandit’ painter, as well as a subsequent incorporation of Rosa’s landscape patterns into the newly-shaped category of the ‘picturesque’.[4]

An immensely ambitious and versatile painter, poet, and performer, Salvator Rosa received his artistic training in Naples in the wake of the Caravaggesque realism prompted by Jusepe de Ribera, Francesco Fracanzano, and Aniello Falcone. The size and style of his first landscapes, painted in Rome in the 1630s, were close to those produced by the Flemish and Dutch followers of Pieter van Laer, known as Bamboccianti. From 1640 to 1649, Rosa is documented in Florence as court painter to prince Gian Carlo de Medici, younger brother of Ferdinand II, Grand Duke of Tuscany. A fruitful combination of Medicean hedonism and art patronage, on the one hand, and the painter’s acquaintance with the Galilean milieu in Florence, on the other, fostered Rosa’s bold experimentation across genres, ranging from monumental and golden harbour scenes inspired by Claude Lorrain to philosophical subjects imbued with moral teaching, from dusty and furious battle scenes to horrific depictions of witches and witchcraft.[5] The artist’s ambition of establishing a reputation as history painter (pittore d’historia), becomes especially tangible in his Roman production of the 1650s and 1660s, when he exhibited highly original iconographies and adopted unscrupulous self-promotional strategies to attract buyers and potential patrons.[6] As will be discussed, a peak in his career as erudite painter is represented by the pendant canvases depicting Democritus in Meditation and Diogenes Throwing Away his Bowl, exhibited at the Pantheon in 1651 and 1652. This search for novel subjects, such as episodes from the lives of pre-Socratic philosophers, was meant to enhance him professionally, but is once again significantly close to the scientific and philosophical debates fostered in Rome by Queen Christina of Sweden, or by the Jesuit polymath and collector Athanasius Kircher.[7] For the scope of our analysis, it should therefore be emphasised that the artist’s unquenchable desire for obscure philosophical themes is inextricably combined with a quasi-scientific investigation of natural phenomena. The Death of Empedocles shows the philosopher’s leap into the Sicilian volcano Etna, an episode accounted in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers (third century CE) (Fig. 8.1). The bold disciple of Pythagoras allegedly threw himself into the smoking mountain to confirm that he had become a god, only to be contradicted by one of his bronze slippers, which, thrown up in the flames, betrayed Empedocles’s mortal fate. Rosa’s rendition of this unprecedented subject is an exercise in red and brown hues, in which the theatrical gesture of the vain yet fearless philosopher is magnified by the gigantic and threatening features of the rocks and the crater, with the ruffles of Empedocles’s clothes visually matched by the stormy clouds in the sky. The pronounced verticality of the composition enhances the sense of terror and wonder instilled by the subject, while Salvator’s thick and magmatic brushwork closely evokes the incandescent fluidity of volcanic lava.[8] As Helen Langdon has remarked, Rosa here ‘suggests a seventeenth-century passion for novità and meraviglia, yet looks forward to the eighteenth-century sublime, with its passion for the awesome grandeur of nature’.[9] With this articulated scenario in mind, our analysis shall thus focus on the British reception and interpretation of the Neapolitan artist’s oeuvre and life.

Salvator Rosa, The Death of Empedocles
Fig. 8.1 Salvator Rosa, The Death of Empedocles (c.1666). Oil on canvas, 135 × 99 cm. Private collection, England. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Salvator Rosa, The Prodigal Son
Fig. 8.2 Salvator Rosa, The Prodigal Son (c.1650). Oil on canvas, 253.5 × 201 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A milestone in Rosa’s British afterlife is to be found in the art collection displayed in Houghton Hall, seat of the prime minister, Robert Walpole (1676 –1745). Rosa’s Prodigal Son, in a prominent position over the chimney of the gallery at Houghton, is characterised by a great solemnity, in which the pathos expressed by the kneeling protagonist is emphasised by the equally static and gigantic animals in the foreground (Fig. 8.2). In his Aedes Walpolianae, a poetic praise of the architecture and art collection of Houghton Hall, Horace Walpole, Robert’s son, praises Rosa as ‘the greatest Genius Naples ever produced’ and the Prodigal Son for showing ‘the extremity of Mistery and low Nature; not foul and burlesque like Michael Angelo Caravaggio; nor minute, circumstantial and laborious like the Dutch Painters’.[10]Horace’s references to Rosa’s landscape production play a significant role in shaping the subsequent debate on the picturesque, as much as Ruskin’s rejection of the latter. Walpole maintains that ‘Pliny describ’d Salvator in the person of Timanthes: “In omnibus ejus operibus intellegitur simper plus quam pingitur” [sic] (In all his works there is always more to be understood than what is painted)’.[11] This metaphorical overlap between Timanthes and Salvator Rosa suggests that the ultimate meaning of the painting is to be found at the metaphysical level of the artist’s and the viewer’s mind, for the depicted subject is nothing but a visible sign of much deeper aspirations and ideas. This approach would pave the way for art critics and men of letters to reinterpret Salvator’s landscapes in accordance with their own sensibility and taste. Whilst Walpole’s use of Pliny’s text concerns the essence of Rosa’s works, another passage of the Aedesestablishes a parallelism between the Neapolitan painter and William Shakespeare on the basis of exquisitely linguistic matters, claiming that both ‘not only invented new Characters, but made a new Language for those Characters’.[12]Walpole’s criticism, partially shaped by the pragmatic need of praising the Prodigal Son in his father’s collection, offered an incredibly prolific platform for a wealth of associations between the wilderness of Rosa’s landscape, the unconventional characters of the depicted figures, and the artist’s matching genius-rebel reputation.

In his Essay on Prints of 1792, William Gilpin states that ‘Salvator was a man of genius, and of learning: both which [sic] he has found frequent opportunities of displaying in his work. His style is grand; every object that he introduces is of heroic kind, and his subjects in general shew an intimacy with ancient history and mythology’.[13] Notably, Gilpin draws on the fictional account of the Neapolitan biographer Bernardo De Dominici to recount that Salvator ‘spent the early part of his life in a troop of banditti: and that the rocky and desolate scenes, in which he was accustomed to take refuge, furnished him with those romantic ideas in landscape, of which he is so exceedingly fond; and in the description of which he so much excels’.[14] This ‘bandit-like’ profile of the painter came in sharper focus with Sydney, Lady Morgan’s novel The Life and Times of Salvator Rosa of 1824, in which connoisseurial remarks on British collections are blended with an allegedly accurate account of Rosa’s involvement in the revolt of Masaniello, a Neapolitan fisherman who revolted against Spanish taxes in 1647. According to the writer,

the event which most singularly marked the fearless enterprise of Salvator in the Abruzzi was his captivity by the banditti, who alone inhabited them [the mountains], and his temporary (and it is said voluntary) association with those fearful men; that he did for some time live among the picturesque outlaws, whose portraits he has multiplied without end, there is no doubt, and some of his finest works afford a circumstantial evidence.[15]

As will be further argued, Sydney Morgan’s biography played a chief role in Rosa’s British afterlife, affecting artists’ reception of the seventeenth-century painter, as well as contemporary art criticism.[16]

The influence of Salvator Rosa in British literature and, more specifically, the impact of his landscape production on the debate centred on the picturesque, is witnessed by the provenance, display, and interpretation of the pendant paintings Democritus in Meditation and Diogenes Throwing Away his Bowl, once housed in the destroyed villa of Foots Cray Place, built for Bourchier Cleeve (1715–60) (Figs. 8.3 and 8.4).[17] Thanks to the recently rediscovered description of Foots Cray Place included in the second volume of London and Its Environs Described (1761), it was possible to trace the first British collection in which the paintings were exhibited, filling a lacuna in the collecting history of the canvases (prior to their appearance in the Lansdowne and Grosvenor collections) and unveiling the remarkable collecting activity of Bourchier Cleeve.[18] The guidebook reports the actual display of the artworks, squeezed into a specific portion of the house, which included the north gallery, the west dining parlour and the east drawing room. Hung in the latter, Rosa’s Democritus and Diogenes present stylistic affinities in the typology of the figures and the natural setting, characterised by an asymmetric grouping of oblique trunks against a gloomy and stormy sky. Democritus, surrounded by animal skeletons and artistic fragments, is depicted in the pose of Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514), embodying the saturnine and solitary philosopher in the act of contemplating the vanitas (vanity, emptiness) of human existence and refusing the world (contemptus mundi).[19] By contrast, the prominent figure of Diogenes, pointing at a drinking young boy to show the futility of his cup to his followers, symbolises the active philosopher, keen on dispensing moral teachings and reshaping social behaviours. In both cases, the landscape acts as a co-protagonist, reflecting the turmoil of Democritus’s soul or providing a stage-like setting for Diogenes’s demonstrations.

Salvator Rosa, Democritus in Meditation (1651)
Fig. 8.3 Salvator Rosa, Democritus in Meditation (1651). Oil on canvas, 344 × 214 cm. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Diogenes Throwing Away his Bowl
Fig. 8.4 Salvator Rosa, Diogenes Throwing Away his Bowl (1652). Oil on canvas, 344 × 212.5 cm. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Landscape, both fictional and real, played a crucial role at Foots Clay Place. Quite indisputably, Bourchier Cleeve had a taste for landscape paintings, which formed the core of his collection (thirty-nine paintings out of eighty-six). Remarkably, the sole three rooms devoted to the display of the paintings were those facing the back garden, in line with an aesthetic criterion favouring an amalgamation between the inside and outside of the villa. The eighteenth-century description of Foots Cray Place praises the convenient position of the house on a rising ground and the pleasant abundance of water, which flows in a small river along the whole length of the ground and forms a cascade before the house. Notably, these apparently spontaneous elements were obtained artificially through the construction of a canal which deviated the flux of the river Cray, so that the ‘water which appears to be such a natural stream, is in reality artificial’.[20] Therefore, whilst the landscape paintings displayed in the three rooms allowed a dialogue with the natural scenery of the garden, the real landscape surrounding the villa was modified on the basis of artistic, even pictorial criteria. This parallelism may cast some light onto Rosa’s involvement in landscape aesthetic theories, as well as on an increased degree of ‘artificiality’ posthumously attached to his works.

Favouring the rise of the ‘picturesque’ garden, William Kent famously owned paintings by Salvator Rosa and Nicolas Poussin, and infamously inserted dry trunks in the style of ‘Savage Rosa’ in the gardens of Kensington and Carlton. Similarly, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown attempted to recreate a truly ‘Salvatorial’ landscape at Hawkstone Park in Shropshire.[21] In 1790, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, even from opposed theoretical and methodological premises, praised Salvator’s landscapes and the peculiarities of his style in their writings on the picturesque effects achieved by artists and gardeners. Arguing that ‘Rosa is one of the most remarkable for his picturesque effects’ for ‘the roughness and broken touches of his pencilling’, Uvedale Price highlighted the role of painting in the improvement of garden landscapes, as both the depicted and real ‘picturesque’ are meant to please the eye.[22] By contrast, Richard Payne Knight, who drew a distinction between the faculties of sight and those of mental judgment, asserted that light and colour were the only stimuli that could be produced visually. In his view, Salvator Rosa provided the gardener with chief examples of his own perception of natural effects, as in the case of the plant species selected for their sharp chiaroscuro contrasts.[23] Furthermore, in those decades, the category of the picturesque was not fully distinguished from that of the sublime, which had been introduced in Britain by Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). Accordingly, in Price’s Dialogue on the Distinct Character of the Picturesque and the Beautiful (1801), one reads that ‘there is a sublimity in this scene [Rosa’s landscape] of rocks and mountains, savage and desolate as they are, that is very stricking’.[24] This statement is matched by a passage of Payne Knight’s Analytical Enquiry (1805), which asserts that a scenery ‘to be really sublime, should be, not only wild and broken, but rich and fertile; such as that of Salvator Rosa, whose ruined stems of gigantic trees proclaim at once the vigour of the vegetation, that has produced them, and of the tempests, that have shivered and broken them’.[25]

During the following century, these peculiar readings of Rosa’s landscapes, as well as the painter’s association with the literary topoi introduced by Horace Walpole and his legacy, provoked a considerable misunderstanding of his works and, inevitably, the end of his long-lasting fortune. In 1844, Anna Jameson analysed Salvator Rosa’s canvases formerly in Bourchier Cleeve’s collection, at the time exhibited in the Bridgewater Gallery. While the Democritus is regarded as a fine example of Rosa’s wild imagination, in the Diogenes ‘the treatment is at the same time humorous and picturesque’.[26] In this case, the category of the ‘picturesque’ clashes with the philosophical content of the paintings, leading to a substantial misunderstanding of the landscape itself, originally conceived by Rosa to epitomise the cynic or stoic fight against the corruption of the civilised world. Notably, in Rosa’s philosophical paintings, resonating with the artist’s acquaintance with the Galilean milieu in Florence and with Athanasius Kircher’s quasi-scientific research in Rome, nature is associated with virtue and tranquillity, granted by a greater freedom from worldly goods. Conversely, in Jameson’s view, Salvator (or ‘Savage’) Rosa, had an idiosyncratic ‘love of the wildest, strangest, most fantastic forms of natural scenery, and of the representation of the robber-life, brigands, battles, soldiers’, resulting in his ‘picturesque style’ and the omnipresent representation of the ‘picturesque element’.[27] Moreover, Salvator seems ‘to have delighted in fixing and making permanent to the eye, effects of which the charm consists in their very transitoriness’, so that ‘like all things which bear the impress of the individual character of the earnest nature which created them, his work may sometimes offend our taste, but always arrest the attention and strike the imagination’.[28] By stressing the paradoxical clash between the artist’s practice of immortalising the most dynamic natural phenomena and the transitoriness of those effects in the real world, Jameson denounces the almost ontological weakness of Rosa’s paintings.

Both Sydney Morgan’s legendary biography of 1824 and Anna Jameson’s derogatory remarks formulated in 1844 stand out as meaningful forerunners of John Ruskin’s more articulate and radical denunciations of Salvator Rosa’s persona and landscape painting. As will be argued, Ruskin’s sharp passages included in his Lectures on Architecture and Painting (1853) and Modern Painters 3 (1856) led to an unescapable decline in Rosa’s critical and collecting fortune in Britain. Nevertheless, the context of Rosa’s reception in Victorian art criticism and collections, seems to suggest that Ruskin’s reaction was not entirely at odds with contemporary taste and sensitivity.[29] Anna Jameson’s comment that Rosa may ‘offend our taste’ makes clear that Rosa was already starting to decline in favour by the time Ruskin was writing. Drawing on a similar yet much deeper set of ethical and aesthetical connections between surface phenomena and epistemological possibilities, Ruskin formulated a two-fold reprimand of Rosa’s landscapes, which required him to turn the Seicento artist into a pedagogical anti-Turner as well as into an anti-exemplum for his theoretical axioms on nature’s truth and its painterly rendition.

On a pragmatic level, Ruskin was keen on drawing a substantial distinction between Salvator’s ‘pastoral landscape’ and Turner’s authentically ‘modern landscape’. This agenda emerges clearly in the Third Lecture on Architecture, in a passage devoted to the various eras of landscape painting:

You have, first, your great ancient landscape divided into its three periods—Giottesque, Leonardesque, Titianesque. Then you have a great gap, full of nonentities and abortions; a gulf of foolishness, into the bottom of which you may throw Claude and Salvator, neither of them deserving to give a name to anything. Call it ‘pastoral’ landscape, ‘guarda e passa’, and then you have, lastly, the pure, wholesome, simple, modern landscape.[30]

Clashing with Ruskin’s categorisation, Turner’s art seems consistently responsive to Salvator Rosa’s style and subject matters. Scholarly investigation has already noted the affinities between the British artist’s Castle of Dolbadern (1800) and Rosa’s Landscape with Hermits (c.1665) in both the impetuous rendition of natural wonders and an almost sublime disproportion between the figures and landscape.[31] Even if, stylistically, Turner progressively freed himself from the lessons of Seicento old masters, namely Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa, he nevertheless reiterated quintessentially ‘Salvatorial’ themes. The fable of Glaucus and Scylla, which Salvator Rosa explored in both painting and print, reappears in a graphite and watercolour sketch in Turner’s Liber Studiorum (1811–19), and, twenty years later, in a wonderfully evanescent painting, in which the erudite subject is radically transfigured by a highly-loaded and luminous brushwork (Fig. 8.5). A last homage to the Neapolitan painter, Turner’s Undine Giving the Ring to Masaniello, Fisherman of Naples presents a highly theatrical and bizarre iconography, possibly inspired by Daniel Maclise’s now lost Salvator Painting his Friend Masaniello, exhibited in 1838, and certainly influenced by Sydney Morgan’s fictional biography of Salvator Rosa (Fig. 8.6).[32]

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Glaucus and Scylla
Fig. 8.5 Joseph Mallord William Turner, Glaucus and Scylla (1841). Oil on canvas, 78.3 × 77.5 cm. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Undine Giving the Ring to Masaniello, Fisherman of Naples
Fig. 8.6 Joseph Mallord William Turner, Undine Giving the Ring to Masaniello, Fisherman of Naples (1846–7). Oil on canvas, 79.1 × 79.1 cm. Tate, London. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Turner’s appropriation of Rosa’s style and themes might have caused Ruskin a generous dose of embarrassment, forcing him to reassert and accentuate the discrepancy between the two. In Modern Painters 3, the British art critic argues that:

Salvator possessed real genius, but was crushed by misery in his youth, and by fashionable society in his age. He had vigorous animal life, and considerable invention, but no depth either of thought or perception. He took some hints directly from nature, and expressed some conditions of the grotesque of terror with original power; but his baseness of thought, and bluntness of sight, were unconquerable; and his works possess no value whatsoever for any person versed in the walks of noble art. They had little, if any, influence on Turner; if any, it was in blinding him for some time to the grace of tree trunks, and making him tear them too much into splinters.[33]

Interestingly, Ruskin’s vocabulary—particularly the terms ‘genius’, ‘misery’, and ‘animal life’—seem to evoke the above-discussed literary tradition surrounding ‘Savage Rosa’, in which the painter’s persona tends to overlap with his lowest and most miserable subjects, such as the bandits or the prodigal son.

On a macroscopic level, Ruskin’s condemnation of Salvator’s art, and Seicento landscape overall, may be understood as key to his mission to undermine the perceived ‘paganism’ of the British academic tradition, established by Joshua Reynolds and firmly rooted in the culture of the picturesque. In a passage of the third Edinburgh lecture ‘Turner and his Works’, this equation of Salvatorial landscape and paganism is made explicit:

as Christianity had brought this love of nature into Paganism, the return of Paganism in the shape of classical learning at once destroyed this love of nature; and at the moment when Claude and Salvator made the effort to paint the effects of nature faithfully, the objects of nature have ceased to be regarded with affection … Salvator’s painting was like a scene in a theatre, viciously and falsely painted throughout, and presenting a deceptive appearance of nature; understood, as far as it went, in a moment, but conveying no accurate knowledge of anything, and, in all its operations of the mind, unhealthy, hopeless, and profitless.[34]

In the carefully-staged landscapes imagined rather than copied by Salvator Rosa, Ruskin found the antithesis of his own aspiration to nature truly rendered, as Robert Hewison expounded, ‘not as a generalization of an idea of what nature should be like, but as truthfully as possible’.[35] The ethical and moral consequences of aesthetics divorced from truthfulness further emerge in a subsequent passage, where the theorist explains that ‘the step which should have freed landscape from conventionalism was actually taken by Claude and Salvator Rosa, but taken in a state of palsy,—taken so as to lose far more than was gained’.[36]

John Ruskin, Trees in a Lane, Perhaps at Ambleside
Fig. 8.7 John Ruskin, Trees in a Lane, Perhaps at Ambleside (1847). Graphite, black and brown ink, and ink wash on white paper, 44.5 × 57.2 cm. The Ruskin—Library, Museum and Research Centre, University of Lancaster, Bailrigg. Photo: © The Ruskin—Library, Museum and Research Centre, University of Lancaster.

Further light on Ruskin’s self-positioning as an anti-Rosa is cast by his approach to drawing, in both aesthetical and theoretical terms. Ruskin’s Trees in a Lane, Perhaps at Ambleside, one of his most accomplished early drawings of the late 1840s, well exemplifies what Ruskin identified as two of the most powerful driving forces in sketching from nature: the individual character of things, and a composition guided by the law of harmony (Fig. 8.7). As one of the inscriptions in the drawing signals, the artwork stems from the ‘Best way of studying Trees / with a view to knowledge of their leafage’. The dark trunk on an oak tree, bathed in natural light and scattered by diffused shadows, acts as the fulcrum of the composition, vertically dividing the plane into two even portions. Its saturated colour is counterbalanced by lighter stems of ash trees, which are obliquely arranged to create a web of visual intersections. This generates a sense of movement, which is further developed in the tree branches and foliage masses above, as well as in the foreshortened lane to the right. Ruskin showcases a particular sensitivity in the handling of the techniques, combining a neat use of graphite and ink with softer touches of wash to create diverse depths of shade. The definition of branches and leaves is uniformly meticulous, anticipating the emphasis Ruskin will place on individual naturalistic characters in The Elements of Drawing (1857). Trees play a paradigmatic role in the section devoted to sketching from nature, in which it is argued that:

we have to show the individual character and liberty of the separate leaves, clouds, and rocks. And herein the great masters separate themselves finally from the inferior ones; for if the men of inferior genius ever express law at all, it is by the sacrifice of individuality. Thus, Salvator Rosa has great perception of the sweep of foliage and rolling of clouds, but never draws a single leaflet or mist wreath accurately.[37]

Before returning to the alleged faults of Rosa’s perception and artistic technique, it may be worth recalling that, as Ruskin further clarifies, this individuality is more essential and more difficult to achieve because ‘in these matters of beautiful arrangement in visible things, the same rules hold that hold in moral things’.[38] At the same time, this ethical commitment to the particularity of things was to be combined with the law of harmony. In Ruskin’s Trees in a Lane, this harmony emanates from the carefully studied chiaroscuro in the orchestration of lights and shadows, and, as Christopher Newall has eloquently suggested, from ‘Ruskin’s understanding of the psychology of the counterpoint of invitation and denial of opportunity to explore a physical environment about which the spectator longs for further knowledge’.[39] Comparison between this drawing and Salvator Rosa’s A Group of Broken Trees, part of a series of sketches dating c.1645, effectively explains Ruskin’s rebukes (Fig. 8.8). Through a cursive and rapid use of pen and ink over paper, Rosa offers a virtuoso exercise in broken trunks, imagining—rather than sketching—a highly fragmented and implausible set of intersections among trunks and branches, and creating an expressive yet somehow discordant grid of lines across the sheet. On closer inspection, the leaves are not individually defined, but, rather, evoked by curved hatches of the pen. Contrasting with Ruskin’s wealth of hues and depths in shadows, Rosa’s sketch presents a simplified and theatrical rendition of chiaroscuro contrasts. One explanation for this could be that Rosa’s drawing was a quick and experimental sketch to fix natural characters on paper, to be later introduced into more finished compositions. Presumably, the sketch is not taken from nature, but freely inspired by it. Considering the provenance of Rosa’s drawing, it seems highly relevant that it was purchased, alongside other five sketches by the Neapolitan artist, by Uvedale Price in a private house in Perugia in 1768, and may therefore have gained some reputation in Britain by Ruskin’s times.

A Group of Broken Trees
Fig. 8.8 Salvator Rosa, A Group of Broken Trees (1640–50). Pen and brown ink on paper, 40.2 × 28.5 cm. The British Museum, London. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Ultimately, denouncing in such strong terms Rosa’s landscape painting and drawing serves the purpose of reinforcing a crucial set of dichotomies, in which Rosa’s ‘low’ picturesque is opposed to Turner’s ‘noble’ picturesque; paganism in painting to Christianity in art; Reynolds’s ‘aesthetic idealism’ to Ruskin’s ‘theoretic practicality’.[40] These axioms stem from a decade-long speculation of the ethic, aesthetic, and artistic bonds between Nature, Truth, and Divinity. Crucially, these entities are intertwined in the passage from William Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814) which Ruskin includes on the title page of every volume of Modern Painters. In it, a powerful opposition between ‘Self-love’ and ‘daily sacrifice to Truth’ seems to anticipate the paradigmatic clash between Rosa’s blind hubris and Ruskin’s inspired awareness of God.[41]

Significantly reshaped to embody Ruskin’s anti-Turner and programmatically deployed as an anti-exemplum in Ruskin’s dialectics, Salvator Rosa lost the enticing and legendary aura he had gained in Britain over a two-century period. Ruskin’s intervention marks the beginning of the end for Rosa’s once-sought-after wild and picturesque landscapes among the British public. As has emerged, however, even prior to Ruskin’s rebuke, Rosa’s British afterlife, a finely-crafted artifice itself, had substantially contributed to the painter’s biased association with a ‘picaresque’ life and a ‘picturesque’ style. Passages from Horace Walpole, Sydney Morgan, and Anna Jameson cast further light onto the interesting ambiguity of Ruskin’s response to Rosa’s artistic persona and output. In his effort to dismantle a layered and heterogeneous tradition, which had seen Rosa becoming a bandit in the mountains of Abruzzo or the champion of British landscaping, Ruskin seems to have assimilated some of the misinterpretations and clichés he was so eager to eradicate.

Nevertheless, whilst Ruskin ultimately fails to offer a coherent interpretation of Rosa, the distinctions he draws between the Neapolitan artist and his British hero cast further light on his precocious engagement in ecological thought. In an ecological perspective, Rosa’s landscapes, in their artificiality and aesthetic conventions inherited from the past, have solidified into rigid and impersonal forms, and deactivate ‘Ruskin’s vision of nature-as-system’ and his fecund observation of the ‘dynamic connectedness of heterogeneous phenomena’.[42] The carefully-staged arrangement of rocky surfaces and tree branches—characteristic of Rosa’s mature stylistic cypher and especially appealing for eighteenth-century collectors and writers—seems to embody the anthropocentrism and subordination of environment to humanity which Ruskin, in his quest for vital beauty, was determined to reject. To Rosa’s hubris and blind act of self-love, Ruskin opposes Turner’s close and patient attention to the natural phenomenon, or environmental engagement, which, as Mark Frost has written, ‘offers opportunities for self-improvement, and collapses the distance between observer and observed by revealing what they share’.[43]


[1] For an overview on Salvator Rosa’s life and oeuvre, see Luigi Salerno, Salvator Rosa (Milan: Edizioni per il Club del Libro, 1963), Jonathan Scott, Salvator Rosa: His Life and Times (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), and Caterina Volpi, Salvator Rosa (1615–73) “pittore famoso” (Rome: Ugo Bozzi, 2014).
[2] On the British reception of Rosa’s ‘savage’ landscapes see Helen Langdon, ‘Salvator Rosa and Claude’, The Burlington Magazine 115:849 (1973): pp. 779–85. On the significance of Rosa’s landscape in British literature, art display, and aesthetics, see Giulia Martina Weston, ‘Salvator Rosa’s Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Britain: from Physical Presence to Literary Interpretations’, Valori Tattili 7 (2016): pp. 140–53.
[3] See, for instance, John Dixon Hunt, ‘Ut pictura poesis, the picturesque, and John Ruskin’, MLN 93 (1978): pp. 794–818; John Illingworth, ‘Ruskin and Gardening’, Garden History 22 (1994): pp. 218–33; and John Macarthur, ‘The Heartlessness of the Picturesque: Sympathy and Disgust in Ruskin’s Aesthetics’, Assemblage 32 (1997): pp. 126–41.
[4] On Salvator Rosa’s British afterlife see Leandro Ozzola, ‘Works of Salvator Rosa in England’, The Burlington Magazine 16 (1909): pp. 146–50; Elizabeth Wheeler Manwaring, Italian Landscape in Eighteenth-Century England: a Study Chiefly of the Influence of Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa on English Taste: 1700–1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1925); Tancred Borenius, ‘Salvator Rosa at Corsham’, The Burlington Magazine 76 (1940): pp. 37–8; Salerno, Salvator Rosa, pp. 9–17, 78–87; John Sunderland, ‘The legend and influence of Salvator Rosa in England in the Eighteenth Century’, The Burlington Magazine, 115 (1973), pp. 785–9; Scott, Salvator Rosa, pp. 222–32; and Giulia Martina Weston, Salvator Rosa nel Regno Unito: Arte, Collezionismo e Fortuna Critica (Rome: Artemide, forthcoming).
[5] For an overview on the Florentine production see Caterina Volpi, Filosofo nel dipingere: Salvator Rosa tra Roma e Firenze (1639–1659), in Salvator Rosa tra mito e magia, exhibition catalogue, Museo di Capodimonte (Naples: 2008), pp. 28–46.
[6] On Salvator Rosa’s self-promotional strategies see Xavier F. Salomon, ‘“Ho fatto spiritar Roma”: Salvator Rosa and Seventeenth-Century Exhibitions’, in Helen Langdon (ed.), with Xavier. F. Salomon and Caterina Volpi, Salvator Rosa (1615–1673): Bandits, Wilderness and Magic, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery and Kimbell Art Museum (London and Fort Worth TX: 2010), pp. 74–99.
[7] On Rosa’s Roman career see Helen Langdon, ‘The Representation of Philosophers in the Art of Salvator Rosa’, 2 (2011): pp. 1–17. On Kircher, see Paula Findlen, Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man who Knew Everything (New York: Routledge, 2004).
[8] For a fascinating insight into the various versions of the Death of Empedocles and their techniques, see Helen Langdon, ‘Salvator Rosa: A Variety of Surfaces’, in Piers Baker-Bates and Elena Calvillo (eds.), Almost Eternal: Painting on Stone and Material Innovation in Early Modern Europe (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2018), pp. 328–54.
[9] Langdon, ‘The Representation’, p. 14.
[10] Horace Walpole, Aedes Walpolianae or a Description of the Collection of Pictures at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the Seat of the Right Honorable Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Oxford [1747], in Andrew W. Moore and Larisa Dukelskaya (eds.), A Capital Collection: Houghton Hall and the Hermitage: with a Modern Edition of ‘Aedes Walpoliane’, Horace Walpole’s Catalogue of Sir Robert Walpole’s Collection (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), pp. xxvii–xxviii.
[11] Walpole, Aedes, p. xxix.
[12] Walpole, Aedes, p. xxix.
[13] William Gilpin, An Essay on Prints (London: Blamire, 1792), p. 57.
[14] Gilpin, An Essay, pp. 57–58. See also Bernardo De Dominici, Vite de’ pittori, scultori, ed architetti napoletani (Napoli: Francesco e Cristoforo Ricciardi, 1743), pp. 224–6.
[15] Sydney Morgan [Lady Morgan, née Owenson], The Life and Times of Salvator Rosa (London: Henry Colburn, 1824), p. 43.
[16] On this topic see, for instance, Bernard Barryte, ‘History and Legend in T. J. Barker’s The Studio of Salvator Rosa in the Mountains of the Abruzzi, 1865’, The Art Bulletin 71 (1989): pp. 660–73.
[17] On the construction of the villa see Stanford Anderson, ‘Matthew Brettingham the Younger, Foots Cray Place, and the Secularisation of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda in England’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historian 53 (1994): pp. 428–47.
[18] London and Its Environs Described, six volumes (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1761), vol. 2, pp. 311–16, published in Weston, ‘Salvator Rosa’s Landscapes’. The author of this guidebook has not been convincingly identified so far, but the description of Foots Cray Place is particularly significant as the villa caught fire on 18 October 1949 and its ruins were demolished the following year. See also The Catalogue of the Celebrated Collection of Pictures Belonging to Sir George Yonge, Bart. which was Sold by Auction (London, 24–25 March 1806), lot 91 (‘Diogenes, casting away his Golden Cup, on seeing the Peasant drinking Water out of his Hand’) and lot 92 (‘Democritus at Abdera, as discovered by Hippocrates, contemplating the End of all Things’). For lot descriptions see also The Getty Provenance Index Databases (Br-377). The canvases, attested in the Lansdowne collection again in 1824 (Morgan, The life and Times of Salvator Rosa, p. 256), were later included in the Grosvenor collection. See Gustav Friedrich Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain: Being an Account of the Chief Collections of Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, Illuminated Mss., &c.,
three volumes (London: John Murray, 1854), vol. 2, letter 16, p. 170.
[19] For an iconographic reading of the painting see Richard W. Wallace, ‘Salvator Rosa’s Democritus and L’Umana Fragilità’, The Art Bulletin 50 (1968): pp. 21–32; and Wojciech Bałus, ‘Durer’s ‘Melencolia I’: Melancholy and the Undecidable’, Artibus et Historiae 15 (1994): pp. 9–21.
[20] London and Its Environs Described, vol. 2, p. 312.
[21] See Clovis Whitfield, ‘Dangerous and sublime’, Apollo 162 (2005): pp. 85–6.
[22] Uvedale Price, An Essay on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and Beautiful; and on the Use of Studying Pictures, for the Purpose of Improving Real Landscape (London: J. Robson, 1796), p. 78.
[23] For the praise of the effects produced by oak trees in Salvator’s paintings see Richard Payne Knight, The Landscape, A Didactic Poem (London: W. Bulmer and Co., 1794), pp. 59–60. For an inquiry into Payne Knight’s criticism see Andrew Ballantyne, Architecture, Landscape and Liberty: Richard Payne Knight and the Picturesque (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
[24] Uvedale Price, A Dialogue on the Distinct Character of the Picturesque and the Beautiful (London: D. Walker, 1801), pp. 154–6.
[25] Richard Payne Knight, An Analytical Enquiry into the Principles of Taste (London: Luke Hansard, 1805), p. 368. For a pioneering discussion on this matter see Manwaring, Italian Landscape, especially pp. 35–56.
[26] Anna Jameson, Companion to the Most Celebrated Private Galleries of Art in London: Containing Accurate Catalogues, Arranged Alphabetically, for Immediate Reference, Each Preceded by an Historical & Critical Introduction. With a Prefatory Essay on Art, Artists, Collectors, & Connoisseurs (London: Saunders and Otley, 1844), pp. 259–60, no. 70 (‘Democritus. The philosopher is seated in a gloomy solitude, surrounded with bones, skeletons, broken or decayed monuments of art, trees, torn or blasted. A fine example of the wild imagination of the painter, who has evidently intended to represent Democritus as he was found by the physician Hippocrates, when he visited him in his solitude near Abdera’) and no. 71 (‘Diogenes. He is in the act of throwing away his cup as a superfluous luxury, on seeing a boy drink out of his hand; two Athenians are standing by. The treatment is at the same time humorous and picturesque, but wholly without the poetical character of the former picture. In both the figures are life size’).
[27] Jameson, Companion, pp. 124, 259.
[28] Jameson, Companion, pp. 240, 259.
[29] For an overview on John Ruskin’s aesthetics and art criticism see, for instance, George P. Landow, The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971); Elizabeth Helsinger, Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1982) and Giovanni Leoni (ed.), John Ruskin. Opere (Bari: Laterza, 1987).
[30] Ruskin 12.123 (Lectures on Architecture and Painting, Lecture 3 ‘Turner and his Works’, 1853).
[31] See David Solkin (ed.), Turner and the Masters, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, Grand Palais, and Museo Nacional del Prado (London: 2009; Paris and Madrid: 2010).
[32] On the relationship between Maclise’s and Turner’s canvases, see Charles F. Stuckey, ‘Turner, Masaniello and the Angel’, Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen 18 (1976): pp. 155–75.
[33] Ruskin, 5.400 (Modern Painters 3, 1856).
[34] Ruskin, 12.116–7 (Lectures on Architecture and Painting, Lecture 3 ‘Turner and his Works’, 1853).
[35] Robert Hewison, John Ruskin: The Argument of the Eye (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), p. 18.
[36] Ruskin, 12.116.
[37] Ruskin, 15.116 (The Elements of Drawing, 1857).
[38] Ruskin, 15.117. See also Mark Frost, ‘Of Trees and Men: the Law of Help and the Formation of Societies in Modern Painters 5’, Nineteenth-Century Prose 23:2 (2011): pp. 85–108.
[39] Christopher Newall, John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa: 2014), p. 322.
[40] Wendell V. Harris, ‘Ruskin’s Theoretic Practicality and the Royal Academy’s Aesthetic Idealism’, Nineteenth-Century Literature 52 (1997): pp. 80–102. On Turner’s ‘noble’ picturesque and the notions of ‘affection’ and ‘sympathy’, see Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things: Ruskin and the Ecology of Design [2011] (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
[41] William Wordsworth, The Excursion (London: Longman, 1814), book 4, lines 978–92.
[42] Mark Frost, ‘Reading Nature: John Ruskin, Environment and the Ecological Impulse’, in Laurence W. Mazzeno and Ronald D. Morrison (eds.), Victorian Writers and the Environment: Ecocritical Perspectives (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), p. 14.
[43] Frost, Reading Nature, p. 13.

DOI: 10.33999/2021.64