fig. 1 
Salvator Rosa

The sheet of studies by Salvator Rosa in the National Gallery of Victoria (fig. 1),1Salvator Rosa, A sheet of studies with a sketch for The death of Empedocles, pen and brown ink, 27 x 17.8 cm, colls. F. Abbott (L.970), R. C. Sticht, Felton Bequest 1923 (1278.733-3). includes three separate and apparently unconnected sketches; the principal one, the figure of the falling man at the right margin, is a preparatory study for The death of Empedocles, a painting dated to the last decade of Rosa’s life.2Luigi Salerno, Salvator Rosa, Edizioni per il Club del Libro, Milan, 1963, p. 135; Arts Council of Great Britain, Salvator Rosa, London, 1973 (exh. cat.), no. 44, p. 36 (dated to the late 1660s); Michael Mahoney, The Drawings of Salvator Rosa, Garland, New York & London, 1977, p. 683. The upper left sketch portrays a man armed with a sword, his arms raised as if in astonishment, standing beside an angel who points downward over a precipice. At the lower margin are two naked figures, one viewed from behind, the other frontally, her arms stretched above her head. Neither of these subsidiary sketches have so far been identified. The purpose of this note is to indicate the source and subject of the bottom motif and also to suggest that its inclusion on a sheet with a study for the Empedocles painting need not have been an entirely random one. 

Diogenes Laertius,3Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Engl. transl. by R. D. Hicks, Heinemann, London: Putnam, New York, MCMXXV (Loeb Classical Library 1925), vol. VIII, chapter 2, vs. 51–77. All references are to this edition. Rosa’s most probable literary source for this rare subject, relates the story of Empedocles, a Sicilian philosopher of the 5th century B.C. who attempted to confirm rumours of his divinity by mysteriously vanishing, his chosen method being a leap into Mt Etna. However, while throwing himself into the crater he lost a bronze slipper which was later recovered – proof of his fraudulent claims. Michael Mahoney’s catalogue raisonné of Rosa’s drawings4Michael Mahoney, The Drawings of Salvator Rosa, Garland, New York & London, 1977, pp. 683–88 and cat. nos 80.1–80.43. lists our sheet among a group of twelve surviving preparatory sketches for the painting which he places in the second half of the 1660s. There is, in addition, a smaller version of the subject on wood. 

The drawing style is characteristic of Rosa’s late manner – it is summary, notational, quick, and expressive of movement. The jutting cliff in the upper right corner – like a frozen wave about to shatter – reflects the agitation of Empedocles as he throws himself, one foot still touching the rock, his clothes fluttering about him, the fingers of both hands rigidly splayed out and seeming to emphasise the finality of his action. Here Rosa’s pen darts about the drapery outlines, giving a vivid impression of movement. This almost frenzied retracing of pen strokes is also seen in the upper left sketch where the repeated outlines provide an effective foil for the one stable element, the swiftly but firmly drawn pointing arm of the angel. A similar motif, though with some marked differences in pose, appears on a sheet in Leipzig (Museum der bildenden Künste)5ibid., pp. 687–88, cat. no. 80.12, Leipzig inv. no. 7457.25.24. which is grouped by Mahoney with the Empedocles drawings, a grouping presumably dependent on its resemblance to the Melbourne motif. Mahoney, however, does not give a precise identification of the subject which, despite the directness and purposefulness of pose, remains tantalisingly obscure. 

In spite of its marks of hesitation, the bottom sketch is more fluidly and openly drawn than the other two. It is significant that the repeated contour of the seated woman’s back is more in the nature of a correction than a graphic mannerism but, apart from this, the figure’s pose is firmly established. Physical detail, especially in the figure at left, is depicted with considerable linear economy and, although the sketch is certainly not lacking in liveliness, there is none of that nervous retracing and little of that suggestion of movement which appears elsewhere in the sheet. 

This may perhaps be explained by the fact that, unlike the two other sketches on the sheet, this motif is not Rosa’s invention. Its source is Hans Baldung Grien’s chiaroscuro woodcut The witches of 1510 (Bartsch, vol. VII, no. 55; Hollstein 235) but, since the direction of the figures is reversed, in the guise of one of its reversed copies. Two such copies – both of them Italian – would have been available to him:6Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Hans Baldung Grien Ausstellung, 1959, p. 276, cat. no. 76. The entry also lists two copies in the same direction as the original. a very early chiaroscuro woodcut of similar dimensions by Lucantonio de Uberti, dated 1516 (Passavant, vol. V, p. 64, no. 9) (fig. 2); and an engraving published by G. F. Camoccio, who was active as a publisher in Venice around 1560–70 (fig. 3).7Thieme-Becker, Künstler-Lexikon, vol. V, p. 444. Although it is not possible to say which print was used, Rosa’s pen strokes and the spirited nature of the depiction are closer to the woodcut than to the dry, controlled lines of the engraving.

From Lucantonio’s version we see that Rosa has freely but unmistakably copied the central figure with stridently outstretched arms and the seated figure at her right. The contrast of fleshiness and gauntness has been retained but the compositional relationship of the figures has been adjusted, the central figure being placed higher up. The flowing hair has been left out altogether. The stream of infested smoke which issues from the witches’ vessel is omitted, although the billowing shapes which indicate Etna’s fiery vapours beneath Empedocles may well be a summary reminder of that curling smoke motif. Rosa had made use of it in the 1640s in a drawing of a witches’ sabbath, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where, in addition, he had depicted a figure whose pose closely resembles that of the figure with arms stretched over her head (fig. 4).8Witches’ sabbath (Florence, c.1640–49), pen and brown ink, pale brown and a little grey wash, 27.2 x 18.4 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 12.56.13. Mahoney, op. cit., cat. no. 28.4. In the Melbourne sheet, on the other hand, Rosa has excluded all those attributes which would identify the figures as witches. They are set in a neutral space. The frontal woman’s arms cut off just below the wrists and her legs – largely hidden by smoke in the original and its copies – are conversely indicated in the most summary manner. Indeed, the left leg, the only one to be seen in the Lucantonio, is also the most ‘finished’ in the drawing. The seated woman’s left arm stops at her wrist, much as in the print, but is bent slightly at the elbow. Her feet are omitted altogether. It would seem that only the formal aspects of the image interested Rosa. Scenes of witchcraft belong to his early years, notably to the period spent in Florence (1640–49). Amongst the late drawings only one independent stregoneria is known.9Mahoney, op. cit., cat. no. 82.12, coll. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (later half of the 1660s). 

However, Rosa’s literary source for the principal sketch of Empedocles contains evidence which suggests that his choice of a witchcraft motif for the subject in the lower half of the sheet was not an entirely fanciful one. According to Diogenes Laertius it was Empedocles’s natural arrogance, combined with the popular acclaim of his powers of divination, magical healing and of raising the dead which fanned his pride, leading him finally to boast: ‘all hail! I go about you an immortal god, no more a mortal …’10Diogenes Laertius, op. cit., p. 377. Diogenes cites varying early accounts of Empedocles’s death, but those which give it as leaping into Mt Etna invariably associate it with a description of some magical feat. 

Heraclides describes how, after bringing to life a woman dead for thirty days, Empedocles mysteriously vanished, thereby prompting a belief in his divinity.11ibid., p. 383. Hippobotus relates that, after curing a woman given up by her physicians, he ‘plunged into the fiery waters and disappeared, his intention being to confirm the report that he had become a god. Afterwards the truth was known because one of his slippers was thrown up in the flames; it had been his custom to wear slippers of bronze’.12ibid., pp. 383–85. Again, according to Diodorus of Ephesus,13ibid., p. 385. Empedocles suicides after being thanked and worshipped as a god by the inhabitants of a town which he had saved from pestilence. That this feat entailed engineering a diversion of rivers did not diminish the miraculous effect, Empedocles’s acclaim, his ultimate deception and fiery death. 

In the quest to prove his divinity Empedocles can be seen to have invoked those same magical powers later used by witches in their sabbath rituals – preparations for meetings with the devil himself. One account quoted by Diogenes claims finally that ‘his soul went down to Hades’.14ibid., p. 389. 

It is this aspect of Empedocles’s life that may have prompted the association of the two motifs at a time when Rosa was still working on the final designs for his painting. In the end it was the sublimity of nature, not supernatural spectacle that Rosa chose to depict. The real theme of The death of Empedocles, as Helen Langdon has observed, is ‘man’s desire to lose himself in the immensity and violence of natural forces’.15Arts Council of Great Britain, 1973, op. cit., p. 36, no. 44 (the painting entries in this catalogue were prepared by Helen Langdon). However, in referring briefly to a subject from his youth, Rosa also returned directly to a source which had then so impressed him – 16th-century northern European scenes of witchcraft, and especially Baldung Grien’s influential woodcut. 

Irena Zdanowicz, Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1980). 

Notes

1          Salvator Rosa, A sheet of studies with a sketch for The death of Empedocles, pen and brown ink, 27 x 17.8 cm, colls. F. Abbott (L.970), R. C. Sticht, Felton Bequest 1923 (1278.733-3).

2          Luigi Salerno, Salvator Rosa, Edizioni per il Club del Libro, Milan, 1963, p. 135; Arts Council of Great Britain, Salvator Rosa, London, 1973 (exh. cat.), no. 44, p. 36 (dated to the late 1660s); Michael Mahoney, The Drawings of Salvator Rosa, Garland, New York & London, 1977, p. 683. 

3          Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Engl. transl. by R. D. Hicks, Heinemann, London: Putnam, New York, MCMXXV (Loeb Classical Library 1925), vol. VIII, chapter 2, vs. 51–77. All references are to this edition. 

4          Michael Mahoney, The Drawings of Salvator Rosa, Garland, New York & London, 1977, pp. 683–88 and cat. nos 80.1–80.43. 

5          ibid., pp. 687–88, cat. no. 80.12, Leipzig inv. no. 7457.25.24. 

6          Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Hans Baldung Grien Ausstellung, 1959, p. 276, cat. no. 76. The entry also lists two copies in the same direction as the original. 

7          Thieme-Becker, Künstler-Lexikon, vol. V, p. 444. 

8          Witches’ sabbath (Florence, c.1640–49), pen and brown ink, pale brown and a little grey wash, 27.2 x 18.4 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 12.56.13. Mahoney, op. cit., cat. no. 28.4. 

9          Mahoney, op. cit., cat. no. 82.12, coll. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (later half of the 1660s). 

10         Diogenes Laertius, op. cit., p. 377. 

11         ibid., p. 383. 

12         ibid., pp. 383–85. 

13         ibid., p. 385. 

14         ibid., p. 389. 

15         Arts Council of Great Britain, 1973, op. cit., p. 36, no. 44 (the painting entries in this catalogue were prepared by Helen Langdon).