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  • Helen Langdon
  • The Representation of Philosophers in the Art of Salvator Rosa
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  • Salvator Rosa longed to be considered a philosopher-painter, and to win a reputation for his learned representation of novel subjects. This essay traces the development of this kind of subject matter in his art, from the satirical paintings of Cynics and Stoics which date from his years in Florence (1640 – 1649) to philosopher paintings of the 1660s, when he chose instead the pre-Socratics, such as Pythagoras and Empedocles, and natural philosophers and magicians. It sets these paintings in their intellectual contexts, in Florence in the world of the literary academies, in which Rosa played a key role, and in Rome in the scientific world of Athanasius Kircher, Daniello Bartoli and Queen Christina of Sweden. The essay aims to illuminate the strains of contemporary thought and feeling to which these paintings so deeply appealed, and, by studying the treatment of such subjects in contemporary poetry and literature, to suggest how they may have been read. It argues that much of their appeal may have lain in their ambiguity, and in the power that they had to stimulate discussion. Several of Rosa’s subjects are extremely rare in painting, but, as in the case of two paintings of Pythagoras, they are subjects common in literature. They would not have been seen as odd and eccentric, as now they seem, but as subjects central to 17th century philosophical debates.
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