An Adventure in the Life of Salvator Rosa

by L. D. L.

THERE is in the museum at Florence a celebrated painting, which calls to mind a thrilling adventure of Salvator Rosa when quite young.

The scene represents a solitude, very rugged and sublime—mountains upon every side, with their tops covered with snow, while through the dark clouds in the sky a few straggling sunbeams find their way to the valley. Upon the border of an immense cliff stands a group of men whose costume denotes them to be brigands of the Apennines. Upon the very edge of the precipice, erect and calm, is a young man, surrounded by the brigands, who are preparing to throw him into the depths below. The chief is a short distance away, and seemingly about to give the fatal signal. A few paces in advance stands a female, of strange beauty, waving her hand menacingly towards the chief as if commanding that the young man’s life be spared. Her manner, resolute and imperious, the countenance of the chief, the grateful calmness of the prisoner, all seem to indicate that the woman’s order will be obeyed, and that the victim will be saved from the frightful death with which he has been menaced.

This picture, as will be readily guessed, is the work of Salvator Rosa. Born at Arenella, near Naples, in 1615, of poor parents, he was so admirably endowed by nature that, even in his boyhood, he became a spirited painter, a good musician, and an excellent poet. But his tastes led him to give his attention to painting.

Unfortunately, some severe satires which he published in Naples made him many enemies in that city, and he was obliged to fly to Rome, where he took a position at once as a painter. Leaving that city after a while, he went to Florence, and there found a generous encouragement and many friends, and there his talent was appreciated by the world of art.

The environs of Florence afforded him superior advantages in developing his genius. The Apennines, with their dark gorges, their picturesque landscapes, and their snow-clad peaks, pleased his wild imagination. In their vast recesses he found his best inspirations and his most original subjects. Often he wandered for days over the abrupt mountains, infested with  bandits, to find work for his ambitious pencil.

One day he had advanced farther than usual into the profound and dangerous solitudes. He sat down near a torrent, and began to sketch a wild landscape before him. All of a sudden he saw, at the summit of a rock near at hand, a man leaning upon his carbine, and apparently watching him with great curiosity. A large hat, with stained and torn brim, covered his sun-burnt visage; a leather belt bound his dark sack to his body, and gave support to a pistol and hunting-knife, invariably carried by the brigands of the mountains. His black beard, thick and untidy, concealed a portion of his face; but there could be no doubt that his dark glance was fixed upon the stranger who came to invade his domain.

For almost any other but our hero, the sudden apparition of that wild and menacing figure would have been good cause of terror. But Salvator was a painter, and a painter in love with his art; and he had in that strange costume, that forbidding look, something so much in harmony with the aspect of nature about him, that he at once made the man a subject of study.

“I mustn’t lose him,” he said; “he’s an inhabitant of the country. He comes just in the nick of time to complete my landscape; and his position is quite fine.”

And, drawing tranquilly his pencil, he began to transfer the outlines of the brigand to his album, when the stranger, coming a few paces nearer to him, said, in a rough voice,—

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“Well, my good fellow, I come to take your portrait, if you’ll hold still a bit,” responded the painter.

“Ah, you jest with me! Have a care,” said the other, coming still nearer.

“No,” replied Salvator, seriously; “I am a painter; and I wander over these mountains with no other purpose but to admire these beautiful landscapes, and to sketch the most picturesque objects.”

“To sketch!” cried the brigand, with evident anger, hardly knowing what the word meant. “Do you not know that these mountains belong to us? Why do you come here to spy us out?”

At these words he gave a shrill whistle, and three other men, clothed like himself, came towards the spot from different directions.

“Seize this man!” he said to his companions; “he comes to observe us.”

All resistance was useless. And so, after having tried in vain to prove his innocence, the young man was surrounded and seized.

“March!” cried the man who had first met him. “You must talk with our chief.”

The leader of these brigands was a man about forty years of age, named Pietratesta. His great physical strength, his courage, and, more than all the rest, his energy, had made him a favorite among his companions, and given him authority over them. Famous among the mountains for his audacious crimes, condemned many times to an outlaw’s death, pursued in vain by the officers of the law, habituated for years to a life of adventure, pillage, and murder, he treated his prisoners without pity or mercy. All who were unable to purchase their liberty by paying whatever ransom he fixed, were put to death. He looked upon civilized people not as men, but as prizes.

As he saw the captive approach, he asked the usual question,—

“Who are you?”

“Salvator Rosa, a Neapolitan painter, now resident of Florence.”

“O, a painter! A poor prize, generally. But you are famous, I hear; the prince is your friend. Your pictures sell  for very large prices. You must pay us ten thousand ducats.”

Sivora, the chief's wife, standing on the cliff edge

“Ten thousand ducats, indeed! Where do you suppose I can get so much?”

“Well, as for that, if you haven’t got the money, your friends must get it for you.”

“But my friends are not rich.”

“Ah, excuse me!” said the chief, smiling. “When one has a prince for a protector, he is always rich.”

“It is true that the prince is my patron; but he owes me nothing.”

“No matter if he don’t. He would not be deprived of such an artist as you for a paltry ten thousand ducats.”

“He pays me for my pictures; but he will not pay my ransom.”

“He must,” said the robber, emphatically; “so no more words. Ask your friends, if you prefer, or whoever you will; but bring me ten thousand ducats, and that within a month; otherwise you must die.”

As the chief uttered these words, he walked away, leaving Salvator in the middle of the ground which formed the camp.

During the short conversation two children came from one of the tents, being attracted by the noise. Their little blond heads, curiously turned towards the captive, their faces, tanned by the sun, but animated by the crimson of health and youth, and their picturesque costume had attracted the attention of the painter. When the chief had gone away, he approached them, and smiled. The children drew away abashed; then, reassured by the air of goodness which the young man wore, they came nearer, and permitted him to embrace them.

“Are you going to live with us?” said the eldest, who was about eight years of age.

 “I don’t know, my little friend.”

“O, I wish you would! It is so nice to stop in these mountains. There are plenty of beautiful flowers, and birds’ nests, too. I have three already; I will show them to you, and then we will go and find some more. But what is that you have got under your arm?”

“It is my sketch-book.”

“A sketch-book? What is a sketch-book?”

“It is what I carry my pictures in.”

“Pictures? O, do let me see them!”

“Yes, indeed; here they are.”

“What pretty pictures! O, mother, come and see! Here are mountains, and men, and goats. Did you make them all?”

Attracted by the call of the child, a lady came out of the principal tent. She was yet young, tall, and covered with a medley of garments from various costumes. Her face sparkled with energy, and might have been called beautiful. She threw a sad glance at Salvator, and approached him haughtily, as if to give an order. But seeing the two children busily looking over the sketch-book, and observing the familiar way with which both treated their new acquaintance, she appeared to change her manner somewhat, and began to look at the pictures herself, and to admire them. At the end of half an hour the mother and the children seemed like old friends of Salvator Rosa.

The woman was the wife of the chief. A daughter of an honorable family, she married a young man at Pisa, her native city, who proved to be captain of this band of robbers. She could not well leave the company into which she had been betrayed; and so, with a noble self-denial, she became resigned to her hard lot. An unwilling witness of the many crimes of her husband and his companions, she suffered cruelly in her resignation. Yet her fidelity, her virtue,—things rarely known, but sometimes respected among these mountain brigands,—had given her a moral power over the men as well as over her husband. More than once she had used this means to temper their ferocity, and obtain pardon for their unfortunate prisoners.

Just then one of the brigands came and brought to the prisoner the order from the chief that he should write to his friends to obtain money for his ransom. The man was going, under a disguise, to the city of Florence; and he offered to deliver any letters intrusted to his care. He indicated the place where the ten thousand ducats must be left, so that Salvator might inform his correspondent.

Our hero had many devoted friends; but nearly all were artists like himself, and without fortune. Nevertheless, he decided to write to one of them. He gave orders that all the pictures in his studio should be sold. He hoped that the money which they would bring, together with what his friends could advance to him, would amount to the sum demanded by the chief.

This done, Salvator easily persuaded himself that he should soon be set at liberty, and the artist recovered his unconcern, and almost his usual good spirits. The country around him was full of romantic studies for his pencil. He had, besides, found in the society of the children of Pietratesta two charming companions. He instructed them in the elements of his art; and his pupils, to both of whom the study was quite new, seemed never to grow tired of their task.

In a moment of good humor, he drew caricatures of each member of the band, which created a great deal of amusement. Then he drew, with great care, the portraits of the two children. This attention profoundly touched the heart of the mother, and her tender sympathy, almost wasting among these unfeeling men, found a secret pleasure in rendering the captivity  of the young painter less unhappy and less hard. She conversed with him familiarly, and it gave her great pleasure to see the care which he took to instruct her children.

So Salvator Rosa, to whom the band gave quite a considerable degree of liberty, never dreamed of taking improper advantage of it. Thanks to his fancy and his recklessness as an artist, he almost forgot that he was the prisoner of a cruel master, and that his life was in peril.

But the ransom, which he had sent for, came not. Whether the letters he had written failed to reach their destination, or whether his friends were deaf to his request for assistance, he received no answer. He wrote repeatedly, but always with the same result.

And so the months slipped by, and the chief began to grow impatient at the long delay. His wife had more than once calmed his anger, and prevented any catastrophe. At length several weeks went by, in which the expeditions of the band were unfruitful. The provisions were running low, and Pietratesta saw in his captive one unprofitable mouth. Sivora, his wife, felt her influence to be growing weaker and weaker under the increasing destitution and continued delay.

One day Pietratesta encountered his prisoner, and, addressing him in an irritated voice,—

“Well?” he said, as if his question needed no other explanation.

“Nothing yet,” responded Salvator Rosa, sadly.

“Ah, this is too much!” cried the brigand. “I begin to think you are playing with me. But do you know the price Pietratesta makes those pay who cross him?”

“Alas! I am far from trying to deceive you. You know that I have done all in my power to obtain my ransom. I have written to various persons; your own men have taken my letters. You see that it is not my fault.”

“It is always the fault of prisoners when their ransom is not paid.”

“Wait a little longer. I will write again to-day.”

“Wait! wait! A whole year, month after month, has gone by, and you repeat the same old story. A year—an age for me—I have waited. Do you think I have been making unmeaning threats? Do you expect to abuse my patience with impunity? It has given out at last—the more so as,” added he, now that he felt his anger increasing, “I ought to have settled this affair a long while ago. This is your last day, observe me.”

At a sign from their chief, four bandits seized the young man, and bound him. As Salvator was led away, he cast one sad look at the dwelling where he had passed many happy hours, and from which he was going to his death. For a moment he stopped to say farewell to the children, who were standing at the door crying and stretching out their little naked brown arms towards him.

A few moments later, Sivora, who had been gathering flowers in the mountains, returned home. Observing that her husband, as well as Salvator, was absent, and her children in tears, she guessed the painful truth.

“Where is Salvator?” she asked of the eldest.

“They have bound him, and carried him away,” responded the child, still crying.

“Which way?”

“Down yonder,” was the reply of the child, pointing with its finger in the direction of a rocky cliff already too well known for its horrible scenes.

“Alas, wretched man!” exclaimed Sivora, almost frantically, as she comprehended the new crime her husband was about to commit. She sat down for  a moment, covered her face with her hands—a prey to the most unspeakable anxiety. Then, rising suddenly, her eyes flashing with determination,—

“Come!” she said, resolutely; “come, my children. Perhaps we may yet be in time.”

And, taking the hands of her little ones, who followed her with difficulty, but yet eagerly, she darted away at a rapid pace in the direction taken by the brigands.

While the men were hurrying Salvator along, the chief maintained a profound silence. His band followed him as dumb as slaves who go to execute the will of their master, which they know is law. They soon arrived at the summit of a cliff, which overhung a yawning abyss beneath. After having taken one look over the precipice, and examined the neighborhood rapidly, Pietratesta cried, “Halt!” and the whole body came to a rest.

“There is just a quarter of an hour for you to live,” he said, turning to his prisoner. “You have time to die like a Christian. Make your prayer.”

The young man hesitated for a moment, threw his agitated eyes around, then, kneeling on the rock, he prayed earnestly. The men stood unmoved, as if they had been statues cut from stone.

Salvator rose, with a calm demeanor, and said, addressing the chief in a firm tone,—

“My life is in your hands, I know. You are going to kill me without any cause. I have prayed,” he added, with a voice full of authority, “for the salvation of my soul, and repentance for thine. God will judge us both. I am ready.”

Immediately the brigands seized the young man, and hurried him towards the precipice. Already they waited but the signal of their chief, already Pietratesta had given the fatal command, when a cry was heard not many paces distant, which suspended the preparations.

“Stop!” exclaimed a harsh voice.

The bandits, astonished at the interruption, turned to see whence it came. A woman ran towards them, her hair in disorder, her countenance pale and agitated, her dark eyes flashing with determination. She held by their hands two children, who, with weeping eyes, were hastening, with all the speed their young limbs could carry them, towards the precipice.

It was Sivora.

As she came forward the chief uttered an exclamation of disappointment and anger.

“Why do you come here?” he asked, in an irritated voice.

“You know well enough,” responded Sivora, without any sign of intimidation. “What are you about to do? What is the crime of this young man? What is the wrong he has committed? You know he is innocent, and that it is not his fault that the price of his ransom has not been paid. Why commit a useless crime? You have too many on your soul already,” she added, in a low, sad voice. “Since it is not too late, let the young man go. His ransom is not absolutely necessary. If it was, would his death bring it to you? Remember with what care and solicitude he has treated your children! with what patience he has instructed them in his art! See, they weep, as if their hearts would break, at the wrong you would do their friend! It is they—it is I—who ask clemency. You will not kill Salvator; you will pardon him for the love you bear your children.”

As she said these words she pushed the two little blond heads into the arms of their father.

The brigands, hesitating, touched, without knowing why, struck with an involuntary respect for the woman, remained immovable, with their eyes fixed upon  their chief, as if waiting to ascertain his wishes. He stood, brooding, nervous, his eyes bent upon the ground, hardly daring to look upon Sivora, at once his suppliant and accuser, a prey to violent emotions. The authority of that respected voice, and the irritation at being deprived of his revenge,—the invincible love he had for the woman, and the shame of giving way before his men,—all these warring considerations, the effects of which were plainly to be seen on his swarthy face, spoke of the severe contest going on within.

At length his evil genius got the control.

“What do I care for his solicitude and his tenderness?” he said, in a coarse voice. “He would forget all as soon as he should get out of our hands; and he would, no doubt, send the police after us if we should let him go. I know what the promises of captives are worth. Besides, I command here, I alone, and I will be obeyed. Take away these children; and you, comrades, despatch your your prisoner.”

“Ah! is it so?” exclaimed Sivora, in a piercing voice, throwing herself before the bandits, who were pushing their victim towards the chasm. “Then I will beg no more; I command now. Listen to me well, for these are my last words. You know with what devotion, with what resignation, I have supported this bitter life which you brought me to among these mountains. The isolation, the sorrow, the shame, I have endured for thee. I have never complained. I hoped, after such sacrifices, you would at length listen to my words, and renounce your bad life. But since you do not care for my devotion, since I am nothing to you, listen well to my words, Pietratesta. If you dare to commit this odious crime, look for a mother for your children, for, with your victim, you will slay your wife!”

So saying, she advanced close to the brink of the cliff, over which she could spring at the signal from her husband.

Salvator, motionless and rooted to the spot, in silence, full of anxiety, observed this strange scene. The robbers, hardened by crime, for the first time hesitated at the command of their chief, and fixed their eyes upon the beautiful woman to whom despair added a new charm. They quailed before her authority, and stood as motionless as statues.

Pietratesta, overwhelmed by the recollections which the woman’s words awakened, alarmed at her threats and her resolution, hung his head, like a guilty wretch before a just judge, while Sivora, with wild countenance, piercing voice, and imperial manner, her long black hair loosely falling upon her shoulders, with her arms extended towards the abyss, almost resembled an ancient goddess, who suddenly appears at the moment of crime, arrests the homicidal arm, and subjects the criminal to punishment. There was in her figure an imposing grandeur, before which the rude men, for an instant recalled to themselves, felt humiliated and condemned.

Astounded by that firmness and devotion, ashamed of his violence towards the woman who was living a life of outrage, the chief, after some moments of moody silence, said, in an altered voice,—

“You wish it! He is free!”

Salvator threw himself upon his knees before his preserver, covered her hand with kisses and tears, and pressed, with transport, the two children in his arms. Completely wild with happiness and gratitude, he abandoned himself to the buoyancy of his generous nature, when Sivora said to him, in a whisper,—

“Go! go quickly! The tiger is only sleeping!”

They put a bandage over the eyes of the young man, so that he might not see  the path by which he descended from the mountains, and two of the brigands then conducted him to the highway which led to the city.

Hardly had he entered Florence, yet sad from the recollection of the scene in which he came near being a victim, when the young painter hastily sketched the principal details; and, some time after, the picture of which we have spoken was composed, and hangs this day in the museum at Naples, admired and pointed out to all visitors.