Salvator Rosa: River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl c. 1657-8
This dramatic, sweeping composition is one of Salvator Rosa’s masterpieces. It is set in the volcanic landscape of the Campagna surrounding Naples, Rosa’s native city. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this eerie place was the home of a Sibyl or prophetess, who took her name from Cumae, an ancient settlement in the area. Her cave, hewn out of the rocky hillside, can be glimpsed on the right. Dressed in her exotic robes and turban, she stands before Apollo, god of music and poetry, who is seated and rests on his lyre. The Sibyl is accompanied by her attendants, and Apollo by his Muses. Apollo, having fallen in love with the Cumaean Sibyl, has offered her anything she desires, and she asks for as many years of life as the grains of dust she holds in her hands. The god grants her wish, and offered eternal youth only on the condition that she yield to his advances. The Sibyl refuses, and as a consequence of her choice is to face an existence of seven hundred years, of ever increasing suffering. With an air of finality, Apollo raises his arm towards the Sibyl to grant her undesirable wish, just as the dust slips through her hands.
The sharp turn in the river echoes the ominous nature of the reversal of the Sibyl’s fortunes. The dark, monumental form of the rocky outcrop on the right is thrown into dramatic relief against the light, serene background. The shadows cast from it in the direction of the cursed Sibyl seem to anticipate her future suffering. The animated, feathery brushwork of the foliage makes the emotional tension of this episode almost palpable.
Rosa painted this work in Rome, where he responded to the naturalistic technique of Dutch and Flemish landscape painters resident in the city. Indeed, Rosa’s technique of foregrounding the massive forms of trees and outcrops against strong light can be compared with Adam Pynacker’s two landscapes in East Gallery III. His composition also forms an important contrast to the pastoral, idealised landscape invented by Claude Lorrain, which hangs near it.
The painting has a distinguished provenance. It was probably painted for Cardinal Mazarin, Chief Minister of France. It then became one of the few Italian paintings acquired by the collector Jean de Julienne, at whose posthumous sale the Earl of Ashburnham succeeded in buying the picture against fierce competition from Empress Catherine of Russia. It was acquired from the Ashburnham sale by the 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1850 through his agent, Samuel Mawson.
Tuesday 7 and Tuesday 21 August at 1pm with Dr Lucy Davis, Curator of Old Master Paintings
Stephen Duffy and Jo Hedley: The Wallace Collection’s Pictures, London 2004, p. 376 – 377.
A. Stolzenburg: Salvator Rosa Genie der Zeichnungen. Catalogue by A. Stolzenbrug et al., Cologne, 1999, pp. 25, 35.
John Ingamells: The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Pictures I: British, German, Italian, Spanish, London 1985, p. 278 - 280.