Salvator Rosa, 1615 - 1673
L'Umana Fragilita (Human Frailty), c.1656
Oil on canvas
In 1655 a devastating plague swept Naples. Salvator Rosa's son, Rosalvo, his brother, his sister, her husband and five of their children, all died. The transience of human life was a recurring theme in 17th century painting and thought, but for Rosa, in the year he made this painting, the subject had a tragic immediacy. A letter to his friend Ricciardi makes clear the effect this multiple bereavement had upon him: "This time heaven has struck me in such a way that shows me that all human remedies are useless and the least pain I feel is when I tell you that I weep as I write."
One can imagine him weeping as he painted L'Umana Fragilita.
The viewer does not however really need any knowledge of Latin to decipher this bleak message. For mother and child are surrounded by a host of mementos mori, symbols that remind the viewer that to be human is to be mortal.
The two faces at the top, that of a child and an old man, are straightforward references to the human life span. Beneath the old man, is a falcon that, Valeriano tells us, represents the vitality of life. Significantly, in Rosa's painting this is obscured by the wing of the skeleton. The fish beneath this is a symbol of hatred and death. The dog-like creature at the bottom is in fact a hippopotamus and represents "the violence and discord with which man ends his days."
It is rather surprising, when we approach him via this bleak and macabre image, to learn that Salvator Rosa was in fact a distinguished comic actor, a satirist and poet, a composer and a bon viveur known for his good humour and practical jokes, whose house had been described as "an abode of mirth and the marketplace of gaiety."
In fact the anecdotal details of this remarkable man's life add to the poignancy and seriousness of this work.