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Audio guide: L'Umana Fragilità

Audio guide stop: 722

Crowdsourced transcription of the audio file

L'Umana Fragilità
L'Umana Fragilità
Creative Commons Licence

In 1656, a devastating plague swept through Naples, and Rosalvo, the 15-year-old son of Salvator Rosa, perished.

The transience of human life was a recurring theme in seventeenth-century art and thought, but for Rosa, in the year he made this painting, the subject had a tragic immediacy. The tired-looking woman sitting with her baby on her lap closely resembles portraits of Lucrezia, Salvator's mistress and the mother of Rosalvo.

The ring of pale roses around her head might be an allusion to the family name, but it also refers to the fragility of human life. The beauty of the rose is famously short-lived, and the flowers around Lucrezia's head are already losing their freshness and bloom.

The artist's own initials appear at the very bottom of the canvas on a blade of a knife, another death symbol: the ruthless steel that has severed his son from him. But the dominant presence in the painting is undoubtedly the huge, grinning winged skeleton that emerges from the thick nocturnal gloom.

He grasps the infant's wrist and forces him to write 'Conceptio Culpa, Nasci Pena, Labor Vita, Necesse Mori.'

Conception is a sin, birth is pain, life is toil, to die is a necessity.

The Latin words come from a poem by the twelfth-century writer Adam of Saint Victor.

Not that one really need any knowledge of Latin to decipher the painting's bleak message. Mother and child are surrounded by a host of memento moris, symbols that remind the viewer that to be human is to be mortal.

It's rather surprising, when we approach him via these bleak and macabre images, to learn that Salvator Rosa was a distinguished poet and satirist, a composer and a comic actor known for his good humour and practical jokes, whose house was once described as 'an abode of mirth and a marketplace of gaiety'.

In fact, the anecdotal details of this remarkable man's life add to the poignancy and seriousness of this work.

Co-production of this resource

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The transcription of the audio file for this stop was enabled by the AHRC funded crowd-sourcing platform MicroPasts. The below generously gave their time to transcribe the file.

Louisa de Gooijer, Adi Levin, Anonymous, Jennifer Palling

Associated highlight record

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