Julian Bell in the LRB:
Paint serious, paint big! An 11-foot-tall Democritus in Meditation (presently in Copenhagen) was unveiled, littered with skulls, moonstruck clouds and carefully researched antique curios. Ricciardi, the writer friend who had supplied the erudition, was plugged for further themes: ‘Now that Rome has discovered that I am highly original in my ideas, I must live up to expectations.’ [Salvator] Rosa also sent Ricciardi a philosophic self-portrait – the poseur in cavalier ringlets contemplating a skull, as if Russell Brand were to land the role of Hamlet. But composure was not Rosa’s métier. He took fright when the Chigi, butts of his satire, took over the papacy in 1655, sent his mistress and their son out of town, then cursed his own cowardice: ‘Am I the person who let himself believe that he was the foremost man of the century? Of the finest talent, of unique wisdom, of the most proved discretion? For shame! I am a simpleton, an ass, a blockhead.’ Worse followed: the boy died of the plague; and his siblings had all been packed off at birth to the foundling hospital, Rosa insisting he couldn’t afford them.
But as Blake wrote, ‘If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.’ The Death of Empedocles was just one in a succession of foreboding, thunderous histories that occupied Rosa over the following dozen years. By 1668 they had bludgeoned a kind of pre-eminence for him, so that he was deemed the sole living master whose works might hang alongside those of Veronese, painting a century earlier. The pictures’ themes were for the most part deliberately unfamiliar and recondite. Why, you might wonder, did Rosa paint a philosopher diving into a volcano? Arguably, he could have seen something Faustian there, a seeker after knowledge issuing a dare to mortality – something to resonate while the memories of Giordano Bruno and Galileo still lingered. But Rosa’s own letters are not particularly free-thinking in their drift. (No more are they particularly devout.) As I see it, the image is chiefly one of fellow-feeling. The plunge is what the showman takes. There’s a brink and the audience – the great unknown – lies beyond it: get up there, throw in all you’ve got, court disaster if you must, but whatever you do, make something happen!