The painting, made by Giovan Battista Viola in 1613, is one of the many examples of landscape painting with narrative references. The landscape is the main unique protagonist here, and is outlined in beautiful contrasting colours – dominated by blue. It also incorporates characters intent on admiring a citadel, hidden behind a high promontory, surrounded by river waters.
Salvator Rosa, 87 x 111 x 8 cm
Rome, Scipione Borghese Collection, 1613 (Della Pergola 1955, p. 49, no. 79); Inv. 1693, room II, n. 49; Inventario Fidecommissario, 1833, p. 24; purchased by Italian state, 1902.
This painting is first mentioned in the 1693 inventory as a work by Giovan Battista Viola (‘a work by Viola of 4 spans with a landscape with small figures and several villages in the distance: no. 708, with a gilded frame’. The attribution is repeated in the Inventario Fidecommissario of 1833 and was accepted by Xavier Barbier de Montault (1870), Giovanni Piancastelli (1891) and Roberto Longhi (1928). Longhi, however, had reservations and pointed to the style of Giovan Francesco Grimaldi, while rejecting the name of Agostino Tassi, proposed by Adolfo Venturi in 1893.
As Paola della Pergola (1955) correctly surmised – although she tended toward an attribution to a follower of Grimaldi – the painting could be one of the two ‘landscapes’ commissioned to Viola in 1613 by Scipione Borghese, an opinion that has been well received by critics, who have definitively confirmed the attribution to the Bolognese artist. According to Clovis Whitfield (1996), this Landscape and the payment for it – which Della Pergola made known – are two pieces of information whose dates are certain in the biography of this painter, who arrived in Rome in 1601 in the company of Francesco Albani: our sources show that in 1610 they were working together on decorating Palazzo Giustiniani di Bassano in Sutri. In addition, Whitfield maintained that this painting was strongly influenced by the works of Domenichino, with whom Viola collaborated on several occasions; in this case, though, Domenichino did not have a hand in the composition, which is therefore to be considered a work by Viola only.
This painting fully reveals the artist’s mature skills, which are expressed here with a freshness and a certain elegance as well as attention to proportions between people and landscapes and to the rules of perspective. The cold colours and layered composition, achieved by means of parallel bands, are in fact in line with his typical landscapes with small figures, such as the Landscape with Dice Players at Fontainebleau (Spear 1980, fig. 18), without, however, ‘that great passion for study and the stubborn clarity’ of Domenichino, according to critics. Viola’s disinclination for study is also attested to by the words of Giovanni Baglione (1642, p. 173): in his ‘cameo’ biography of the painter, he wrote of Viola’s experience in the role of keeper of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi’s wardrobe, stating that ‘he took ill because of excessive fatigue, not being used to that work, which demanded great effort’. According to the biographer, the artist in fact died from the exertion that the position entailed.