(b. 1615, Arenella, d. 1673, Roma)
A Friar Tempted by Demons1660-65
Oil on canvas 65 x 83 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome
The two paintings, A Friar Tempted by Demons and Anchorites Tempted by Demons, were acquired by the National Gallery with an attribution to Magnasco. This attribution was maintained by the Gallery until 1997, even though the quality of the paint surface and the brushstrokes - larger than the brief and nervous strokes of Magnasco - lead to questions about it. The discovery of the monogram signature "SR", made during a recent restoration, has enabled the attribution of the painting to Rosa.
The theme of desert hermits is a recurring motif in Rosa's work during the first half of the 1660's. In 1661 he painted the altarpieces of St Paul the Hermit for the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Milan; while a 1662 letter from the artist to Giovanni Battista Ricciardi recounts how impressed he had been by seeing real hermitages in the wild landscape of the Apennine mountains during a trip to Loreto.
In the backgrounds of the National Gallery's two oval canvases, savage nature devours the remains of classical buildings. In such pictures, Rosa anticipated the eighteenth century trend for pictures of ruins. Conversely, the later taste for such romantic expressions explains why Rosa's pictures were particularly prized by connoisseurs of the following centuries. Rosa's written satire Babylonia against the Court of Rome, composed in 1657-58, is a literary reflection of the same themes. The subject of the tormented monk also connects to the demon and witch pictures that appear in Rosa's work as early as the late 1640's when the artist, at the end of his Florentine sojourn, wrote the poem The Witch. Another recurring motif is the arched opening through which a luminous background is visible. The contrast between this background luminosity and foreground grimness has parallels in numerous works of Rosa, stretching back to the very beginning of his career (for example the Landscape with Waterfall at the Palazzo Pitti).