Many artists from the 16th and 17th centuries have created paintings with “Death” as the subject of it. But none of them have been as personal as the painting Human Fragility by Salvator Rosa.
The Human Fragility painting or Human Frailty (L’Umana Fragilità) is a painting by Italian painter Salvator Rosa made in 1656 and it is more of an expression of one’s pain than a depiction of a scene.
This painting does something very important which we will discuss later in the article. But first, let’s look at the contents of the painting first.
The Subjects in the Painting
A single glance is enough to make viewers feel a sense of sadness, give a morose feeling, and even a bout of claustrophobia. There is a reason why this painting is painted this way.
The entire scene is constricted to a very small, cramped space. There is no open space and almost all the space is covered with someone or something.
A severe lack of light obscures the background almost entirely and it barely shows the people who are present in the foreground.
Coming to the foreground, another reason why you feel all the negative emotions seeing this painting is because of the presence of Death, or the personification of it.
Death is shown here as a skeleton with wings, sort of like a twisted and dark version of an angel. But the presence of Death is partly responsible for the dark and morose environment.
The main reason why this entire scene is somber is because of what is happening in the painting. The skeleton or Death is making the infant write something as if making him sign a contract.
The woman sitting with the child is the mother of the infant. A disturbing feeling overshadows our mind when we see the passive and unbothered appearance on the mother’s face.
Why is she letting death do what it is doing to the child? Why is she not resisting? Let’s find out what is going on and who are the people in the painting.
The People in the Painting
The woman sitting with heavy eyelids and a powerless posture is Lucrezia, Salvator Rosa’s mistress and the mother of the infant, Rosalvo. The other kid could be the other child of the painter.
From the darkness, this figure of Death grabbed the wrist of the infant and made him write something on the paper. But what?
Conceptio Culpa, Nasci Pena, Labor Vita, Necesse Mori
The sentence above translates to ‘Conception is a sin, Birth is pain, Life is toil, Death a necessity’ in English. It is almost like Death is giving the child a lesson.
Death has come to take the infant away, and the mother knows that there is nothing she could do to save him. So she just sits there in gloom and mourning, watching it in helplessness.
The Story Behind the Painting
The mid-1600s were not a great time for the people of Europe. It was around the 1650s when the “Black Death” or Plague swept its giant scythe with its eyes closed.
Naples was one the places that were hit the worst. Almost everyone died in Naples, and in the life of Salvator Rosa, the painter of this painting.
The painter lost his brother, sister, his sister’s husband, and five of their children. But the biggest loss to him was the death of Rosalvo, his son.
You can imagine the pain and suffering he went through as he lost so many people. In a letter to his friend, he wrote:
In a way, the painting is just showing what the painter imagined had happened, and perhaps the harshest realization of his life; Conception is a sin, Birth is pain, Life is toil, and Death is a necessity.
He realized that no matter how much we try, death always lurks around in the dark corners, waiting for the time to come and take us.
There are many other motifs in the painting that can be found with a closer inspection, but the most important part of this painting is its emotional weight.
The Importance of This Painting
Human Fragility does a very important thing; it shows us the tragedies during the Black Plague in a more emotional, more impressionable form.
When we read about the plague, it is usually just history, and the number of deaths is just a number that might lead to a gasp. But these large numbers are abstract and not something we can grasp.
Rosa shows a different version. There is no death shown here, but just the impact of it. You can see the helplessness in the woman’s body language. You can feel her pain.
Human Fragility brings abstract history to the ground of understanding. You can feel the impact of the horrible plague when you don’t look at a large number, but at a single person and what it did to his life.
The reason why the painter created the scene in such a setting is to show the nature of the tragedy.
There is darkness around, hardly any space to move, and a feeling to just break away to an open place. You want more light to come in, but the darkness is just too powerful.
This close and restricted angle of the scene makes the viewers feel restricted, locked in, and it makes them feel uncomfortable; exactly what the painter wanted us to feel.
Information About the Painting
|Human Fragility (L’Umana Fragilità)
|Oil on Canvas
|199 cm × 134 cm (78 in × 53 in)