Signor Formica, by E. T. A. Hoffmann


The celebrated painter Salvator Rosa comes to Rome, and is attacked by a dangerous illness. What befalls him in this illness.

Celebrated people commonly have many ill things said of them, whether well-founded or not And no exception was made in the case of that admirable painter Salvator Rosa, whose living pictures cannot fail to impart a keen and characteristic delight to those who look upon them.

At the time that Salvator’s fame was ringing through Naples, Rome, and Tuscany — nay, through all Italy, and painters who were desirous of gaining applause were striving to imitate his peculiar and unique style, his malicious and envious rivals were laboring to spread abroad all sorts of evil reports intended to sully with ugly black stains the glorious splendor of his artistic fame. They affirmed that he had at a former period of his life belonged to a company of banditti,1 and that it was to his experiences during this lawless time that he owed all the wild, fierce, fantastically-attired figures which he introduced into his pictures, just as the gloomy fearful wildernesses of his landscapes — the selve selvagge (savage woods)— to use Dante’s expression, were faithful representations of the haunts where they lay hidden. What was worse still, they openly charged him with having been concerned in the atrocious and bloody revolt which had been set on foot by the notorious Masaniello2 in Naples. They even described the share he had taken in it, down to the minutest details.

The rumor ran that Aniello Falcone,3 the painter of battle-pieces, one of the best of Salvator’s masters, had been stung into fury and filled with bloodthirsty vengeance because the Spanish soldiers had slain one of his relatives in a hand-to-hand encounter. Without delay he leagued together a band of daring spirits, mostly young painters, put arms into their hands, and gave them the name of the “Company of Death.” And in truth this band inspired all the fear and consternation suggested by its terrible name. At all hours of the day they traversed the streets of Naples in little companies, and cut down without mercy every Spaniard whom they met. They did more — they forced their way into the holy sanctuaries, and relentlessly murdered their unfortunate foes whom terror had driven to seek refuge there. At night they gathered round their chief, the bloody-minded madman Masaniello,4 and painted him by torchlight, so that in a short time there were hundreds of these little pictures5 circulating in Naples and the neighbourhood.

This is the ferocious band of which Salvator Rosa was alleged to have been a member, working hard at butchering his fellow-men by day, and by night working just as hard at painting. The truth about him has however been stated by a celebrated art-critic, Taillasson,6 I believe. His works are characterised by defiant originality, and by fantastic energy both of conception and of execution. He delighted to study Nature, not in the lovely attractiveness of green meadows, flourishing fields, sweet-smelling groves, murmuring springs, but in the sublime as seen in towering masses of rock, in the wild sea-shore, in savage inhospitable forests; and the voices that he loved to hear were not the whisperings of the evening breeze or the musical rustle of leaves, but the roaring of the hurricane and the thunder of the cataract. To one viewing his desolate landscapes, with the strange savage figures stealthily moving about in them, here singly, there in troops, the uncomfortable thoughts arise unbidden, “Here’s where a fearful murder took place, there’s where the bloody corpse was hurled into the ravine,” etc.

Admitting all this, and even that Taillasson is further right when he maintains that Salvator’s “Plato,” nay, that even his “Holy St. John proclaiming the Advent of the Saviour in the Wilderness,” look just a little like highway robbers — admitting this, I say, it is nevertheless unjust to argue from the character of the works to the character of the artist himself, and to assume that he, who represents with lifelike fidelity what is savage and terrible, must himself have been a savage, terrible man. He who prates most about the sword is often he who wields it the worst; he who feels in the depths of his soul all the horrors of a bloody deed, so that, taking the palette or the pencil or the pen in his hand, he is able to give living form to his feelings, is often the one least capable of practising similar deeds. Enough! I don’t believe a single word of all those evil reports, by which men sought to brand the excellent Salvator an abandoned murderer and robber, and I hope that you, kindly reader, will share my opinion. Otherwise, I see grounds for fearing that you might perhaps entertain some doubts respecting what I am about to tell you of this artist; the Salvator I wish to put before you in this tale — that is, according to my conception of him — is a man bubbling over with the exuberance of life and fiery energy, but at the same time a man endowed with the noblest and most loyal character — a character, which, like that of all men who think and feel deeply, is able even to control that bitter irony which arises from a clear view of the significance of life. I need scarcely add that Salvator was no less renowned as a poet and musician than as a painter. His genius was revealed in magnificent refractions. I repeat again, I do not believe that Salvator had any share in Masaniello’s bloody deeds; on the contrary, I think it was the horrors of that fearful time which drove him from Naples to Rome, where he arrived a poor poverty-stricken fugitive, just at the time that Masaniello fell.

Not over well dressed, and with a scanty purse containing not more than a few bright sequins7 in his pocket, he crept through the gate just after nightfall. Somehow or other, he didn’t exactly know how, he wandered as far as the Piazza Navona. In better times he had once lived there in a large house near the Pamfili Palace. With an ill-tempered growl, he gazed up at the large plate-glass windows glistening and glimmering in the moonlight “Hm!” he exclaimed peevishly, “it’ll cost me dozens of yards of coloured canvas before I can open my studio up there again.” But all at once he felt as if paralysed in every limb, and at the same moment more weak and feeble than he had ever felt in his life before. “But shall I,” he murmured between his teeth as he sank down upon the stone steps leading up to the house door, “shall I really be able to finish canvas enough in the way the fools want it done? Hm! I have a notion that that will be the end of it!”

A cold cutting night wind blew down the street. Salvator recognised the necessity of seeking a shelter. Rising with difficulty, he staggered on into the Corso,8 and then turned into the Via Bergognona. At length he stopped before a little house with only a couple of windows, inhabited by a poor widow and her two daughters. This women had taken him in for little pay the first time he came to Rome, an unknown stranger noticed of nobody; and so he hoped again to find a lodging with her, such as would be best suited to the sad condition in which he then was.

He knocked confidently at the door, and several times called out his name aloud. At last he heard the old woman slowly and reluctantly wakening up out of her sleep. She shuffled to the window in her slippers, and began to rain down a shower of abuse upon the knave who was come to worry her in this way in the middle of the night; her house was not a wine-shop, &c., &c. Then there ensued a good deal of cross-questioning before she recognised her former lodger’s voice; but on Salvator’s complaining that he had fled from Naples and was unable to find a shelter in Rome, the old dame cried, “By all the blessed saints of Heaven! Is that you, Signor Salvator? Well now, your little room up above, that looks on to the court, is still standing empty, and the old fig-tree has pushed its branches right through the window and into the room, so that you can sit and work like as if you was in a beautiful cool arbour. Ay, and how pleased my girls will be that you have come back again, Signor Salvator. But, d’ye know, my Margarita’s grown a big girl and fine-looking? You won’t give her any more rides on your knee now. And — and your little pussy, just fancy, three months ago she choked herself with a fish-bone. Ah well, we all shall come to the grave at last. But, d’ye know, my fat neighbour, who you so often laughed at and so often painted in such funny ways — d’ye know, she did marry that young fellow, Signor Luigi, after all. Ah well! nozze e magistrati sono da dio destinati (marriages and magistrates are made in heaven) they say.”

“But,” cried Salvator, interrupting the old woman, “but, Signora Caterina, I entreat you by the blessed saints, do, pray, let me in, and then tell me all about your fig-tree and your daughters, your cat and your fat neighbour — I am perishing of weariness and cold.”

“Bless me, how impatient we are,” rejoined the old dame; “Chi va piano va sano, chi va presto more lesto (more haste less speed, take things cool and live longer), I tell you. But you are tired, you are cold; where are the keys? quick with the keys!”

But the old woman still had to wake up her daughters and kindle a fire — but oh! she was such a long time about it — such a long, long time. At last she opened the door and let poor Salvator in; but scarcely had he crossed the threshold than, overcome by fatigue and illness, he dropped on the floor as if dead. Happily the widow’s son, who generally lived at Tivoli, chanced to be at his mother’s that night He was at once turned out of his bed to make room for the sick guest, which he willingly submitted to.

The old woman was very fond of Salvator, putting him, as far as his artistic powers went, above all the painters in the world; and in everything that he did she also took the greatest pleasure. She was therefore quite beside herself to see him in this lamentable condition, and wanted to run off to the neighbouring monastery to fetch her father confessor, that he might come and fight against the adverse power of the disease with consecrated candles or some powerful amulet or other. On the other hand, her son thought it would be almost better to see about getting an experienced physician at once, and off he ran there and then to the Spanish Square, where he knew the distinguished Doctor Splendiano Accoramboni dwelt. No sooner did the doctor learn that the painter Salvator Rosa lay ill in the Via Bergognona than he at once declared himself ready to call early and see the patient.

Salvator lay unconscious, struck down by a most severe attack of fever. The old dame had hung up two or three pictures of saints above his bed, and was praying fervently. The girls, though bathed in tears, exerted themselves from time to time to get the sick man to swallow a few drops of the cooling lemonade which they had made, whilst their brother, who had taken his place at the head of the bed, wiped the cold sweat from his brow. And so morning found them, when with a loud creak the door opened, and the distinguished Doctor Splendiano Accoramboni entered the room.

If Salvator had not been so seriously ill that the two girls’ hearts were melted in grief, they would, I think, for they were in general frolicsome and saucy, have enjoyed a hearty laugh at the Doctor’s extraordinary appearance, instead of retiring shyly, as they did, into the corner, greatly alarmed. It will indeed be worth while to describe the outward appearance of the little man who presented himself at Dame Caterina’s in the Via Bergognona in the grey of the morning. In spite of all his excellent capabilities for growth, Doctor Splendiano Accoramboni had not been able to advance beyond the respectable stature of four feet Moreover, in the days of his youth, he had been distinguished for his elegant figure, so that, before his head, always indeed somewhat ill-shaped, and his big cheeks, and his stately double chin had put on too much fat, before his nose had grown bulky and spread owing to overmuch indulgence in Spanish snuff, and before his little belly had assumed the shape of a wine-tub from too much fattening on macaroni, the priestly cut of garments, which he at that time had affected, had suited him down to the ground. He was then in truth a pretty little man, and accordingly the Roman ladies had styled him their caro puppazetto (sweet little pet).

That however was now a thing of the past. A German painter, seeing Doctor Splendiano walking across the Spanish Square, said — and he was perhaps not far wrong — that it looked as if some strapping fellow of six feet or so had walked away from his own head, which had fallen on the shoulders of a little marionette clown, who now had to carry it about as his own. This curious little figure walked about in patchwork — an immense quantity of pieces of Venetian damask of a large flower pattern that had been cut up in making a dressing-gown; high up round his waist he had buckled a broad leather belt, from which an excessively long rapier hung; whilst his snow-white wig was surmounted by a high conical cap, not unlike the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square. Since the said wig, like a piece of texture all tumbled and tangled, spread out thick and wide all over his back, it might very well be taken for the cocoon out of which the fine silkworm had crept.

The worthy Splendiano Accoramboni stared through his big, bright spectacles, with his eyes wide open, first at his patient, then at Dame Caterina. Calling her aside, he croaked with bated breath, “There lies our talented painter Salvator Rosa, and he’s lost if my skill doesn’t save him, Dame Caterina. Pray tell me when he came to lodge with you? Did he bring many beautiful large pictures with him?”

“Ah! my dear Doctor,” replied Dame Caterina, “the poor fellow only came last night. And as for pictures — why, I don’t know nothing about them; but there’s a big box below, and Salvator begged me to take very good care of it, before he became senseless like what he now is. I daresay there’s a fine picture packed in it, as he painted in Naples.”

What Dame Caterina said was, however, a falsehood; but we shall soon see that she had good reasons for imposing upon the Doctor in this way.

“Good! Very good!” said the Doctor, simpering and stroking his beard; then, with as much solemnity as his long rapier, which kept catching in all the chairs and tables he came near, would allow, he approached the sick man and felt his pulse, snorting and wheezing, so that it had a most curious effect in the midst of the reverential silence which had fallen upon all the rest. Then he ran over in Greek and Latin the names of a hundred and twenty diseases that Salvator had not, then almost as many which he might have had, and concluded by saying that on the spur of the moment he didn’t recollect the name of his disease, but that he would within a short time find a suitable one for it, and along therewith, the proper remedies as well. Then he took his departure with the same solemnity with which he had entered, leaving them all full of trouble and anxiety.

At the bottom of the steps the Doctor requested to see Salvator’s box; Dame Caterina showed him one — in which were two or three of her deceased husband’s cloaks now laid aside, and some old worn-out shoes. The Doctor smilingly tapped the box, on this side and on that, and remarked in a tone of satisfaction “We shall see! we shall see!” Some hours later he returned with a very beautiful name for his patient’s disease, and brought with him some big bottles of an evil-smelling potion, which he directed to be given to the patient constantly. This was a work of no little trouble, for Salvator showed the greatest aversion for — utter loathing of the stuff, which looked, and smelt, and tasted, as if it had been concocted from Acheron itself. Whether it was that the disease, since it had now received a name, and in consequence really signified something, had only just begun to put forth its virulence, or whether it was that Splendiano’s potion made too much of a disturbance inside the patient — it is at any rate certain that the poor painter grew weaker and weaker from day to day, from hour to hour. And notwithstanding Doctor Splendiano Accoramboni’s assurance that, after the vital process had reached a state of perfect equilibrium, he would give it a new start like the pendulum of a clock, they were all very doubtful as to Salvator’s recovery, and thought that the Doctor had perhaps already given the pendulum such a violent start that the mechanism was quite impaired.

Now it happened one day that when Salvator seemed scarcely able to move a finger he was suddenly seized with the paroxysm of fever; in a momentary accession of fictitious strength he leapt out of bed, seized the full medicine bottles, and hurled them fiercely out of the window. Just at this moment Doctor Splendiano Accoramboni was entering the house, when two or three bottles came bang upon his head, smashing all to pieces, whilst the brown liquid ran in streams all down his face, and wig, and ruff. Hastily rushing into the house, he screamed like a madman, “Signer Salvator has gone out of his mind, he’s become insane; no skill can save him now, he’ll be dead in ten minutes. Give me the picture, Dame Caterina, give me the picture — it’s mine, the scanty reward of all my trouble. Give me the picture, I say.”

But when Dame Caterina opened the box, and Doctor Splendiano saw nothing but the old cloaks and torn shoes, his eyes spun round in his head like a pair of fire-wheels; he gnashed his teeth; he stamped; he consigned poor Salvator, the widow, and all the family to the devil; then he rushed out of the house like an arrow from a bow, or as if he had been shot from a cannon.

After the violence of the paroxysm had spent itself, Salvator again relapsed into a death-like condition. Dame Caterina was fully persuaded that his end was really come, and away she sped as fast as she could to the monastery, to fetch Father Boniface, that he might come and administer the sacrament to the dying man. Father Boniface came and looked at the sick man; he said he was well acquainted with the peculiar signs which approaching death is wont to stamp upon the human countenance, but that for the present there were no indications of them on the face of the insensible Salvator. Something might still be done, and he would procure help at once, only Doctor Splendiano Accoramboni with his Greek names and infernal medicines was not to be allowed to cross the threshold again. The good Father set out at once, and we shall see later that he kept his word about sending the promised help.

Salvator recovered consciousness again; he fancied he was lying in a beautiful flower-scented arbour, for green boughs and leaves were interlacing above his head. He felt a salutary warmth glowing in his veins, but it seemed to him as if somehow his left arm was bound fast “Where am I?” he asked in a faint voice. Then a handsome young man, who had stood at his bedside, but whom he had not noticed until just now, threw himself upon his knees, and grasping Salvator’s right hand, kissed it and bathed it with tears, as he cried again and again, “Oh! my dear sir! my noble master! now it’s all right; you are saved, you’ll get better.”

“But do tell me”— began Salvator, when the young man begged him not to exert himself, for he was too weak to talk; he would tell him all that had happened. “You see, my esteemed and excellent sir,” began the young man, “you see, you were very ill when you came from Naples, but your condition was not, I warrant, by any means so dangerous but that a few simple remedies would soon have set you, with your strong constitution, on your legs again, had you not through Carlos’s well-intentioned blunder in running off for the nearest physician fallen into the hands of the redoubtable Pyramid Doctor, who was making all preparations for bringing you to your grave.”

“What do you say?” exclaimed Salvator, laughing heartily, notwithstanding the feeble state he was in. “What do you say? — the Pyramid Doctor? Ay, ay, although I was very ill, I saw that the little knave in damask patchwork, who condemned me to drink his horrid, loathsome devil’s brew, wore on his head the obelisk from St. Peter’s Square — and so that’s why you call him the Pyramid Doctor?”

“Why, good heavens!” said the young man, likewise laughing, “why, Doctor Splendiano Accoramboni must have come to see you in his ominous conical nightcap; and, do you know, you may see it flashing every morning from his window in the Spanish Square like a portentous meteor. But it’s not by any means owing to this cap that he’s called the Pyramid Doctor; for that there’s quite another reason. Doctor Splendiano is a great lover of pictures, and possesses in truth quite a choice collection, which he has gained by a practice of a peculiar nature. With eager cunning he lies in wait for painters and their illnesses. More especially he loves to get foreign artists into his toils; let them but eat an ounce or two of macaroni too much, or drink a glass more Syracuse than is altogether good for them, he will afflict them with first one and then the other disease, designating it by a formidable name, and proceeding at once to cure them of it. He generally bargains for a picture as the price of his attendance; and as it is only specially obstinate constitutions which are able to withstand his powerful remedies, it generally happens that he gets his picture out of the chattels left by the poor foreigner, who meanwhile has been carried to the Pyramid of Cestius, and buried there. It need hardly be said that Signor Splendiano always picks out the best of the pictures the painter has finished, and also does not forget to bid the men take several others along with it. The cemetery near the Pyramid of Cestius is Doctor Splendiano Accoramboni’s corn-field, which he diligently cultivates, and for that reason he is called the Pyramid Doctor. Dame Caterina had taken great pains, of course with the best intentions, to make the Doctor believe that you had brought a fine picture with you; you may imagine therefore with what eagerness he concocted his potions for you. It was a fortunate thing that in the paroxysm of fever you threw the Doctor’s bottles at his head, it was also a fortunate thing that he left you in anger, and no less fortunate was it that Dame Caterina, who believed you were in the agonies of death, fetched Father Boniface to come and administer to you the sacrament. Father Boniface understands something of the art of healing; he formed a correct diagnosis of your condition and fetched me”——

“Then you also are a doctor?” asked Salvator in a faint whining tone.

“No,” replied the young man, a deep blush mantling his cheeks, “no, my estimable and worthy sir, I am not in the least a doctor like Signor Splendiano Accoramboni; I am however a chirurgeon. I felt as if I should sink into the earth with fear — with joy — when Father Boniface came and told me that Salvator Rosa lay sick unto death in the Via Bergognona, and required my help. I hastened here, opened a vein in your left arm, and you were saved. Then we brought you up into this cool airy room that you formerly occupied. Look, there’s the easel which you left behind you; yonder are a few sketches which Dame Caterina has treasured up as if they were relics. The virulence of your disease is subdued; simple remedies such as Father Boniface can prepare is all that you want, except good nursing, to bring back your strength again. And now permit me once more to kiss this hand — this creative hand that charms from Nature her deepest secrets and clothes them in living form. Permit poor Antonio Scacciati to pour out all the gratitude and immeasurable joy of his heart that Heaven has granted him to save the life of our great and noble painter, Salvator Rosa.” Therewith the young surgeon threw himself on his knees again, and, seizing Salvator’s hand, kissed it and bathed it in tears as before.

“I don’t understand,” said the artist, raising himself up a little, though with considerable difficulty, “I don’t understand, my dear Antonio, what it is that is so especially urging you to show me all this respect. You are, you say, a chirurgeon, and we don’t in a general way find this trade going hand in hand with art ——”

“As soon,” replied the young man, casting down his eyes, “as soon as you have picked up your strength again, my dear sir, I have a good deal to tell you that now lies heavy on my heart.”

“Do so,” said Salvator; “you may have every confidence in me — that you may, for I don’t know that any man’s face has made a more direct appeal to my heart than yours. The more I look at you the more plainly I seem to trace in your features a resemblance to that incomparable young painter — I mean Sanzio.”9 Antonio’s eyes were lit up with a proud, radiant light — he vainly struggled for words with which to express his feelings.

At this moment Dame Caterina appeared, followed by Father Boniface, who brought Salvator a medicine which he had mixed scientifically according to prescription, and which the patient swallowed with more relish and felt to have a more beneficial effect upon him than the Acheronian waters of the Pyramid Doctor Splendiano Accoramboni.

1 Respecting the facts of Salvator Rosa’s life there exists more than one disputed statement; and of these perhaps the most disputed is his share of complicity (if any) in the evil doings of Calabrian banditti. Poor, and of a wild and self-willed disposition, but with a strong and independent character, he was unable to find a suitable master in Naples, so, at the age of eighteen, he set out to study the lineaments of nature face to face, and spent some time amidst the grand and savage scenery of Calabria. Here it is certain that he came into contact with the banditti who haunted those wild regions. He is alleged to have been taken prisoner by a band, and to have become a member of the troop. Accepting this as true, we may perhaps charitably believe that he was prompted not so much by a regard for his own safety, as by the wish to secure a rare opportunity for studying his art unhindered, and also charitably hope that the accusations of his enemies, that he actively participated in the deeds of his companions, are unfounded, or, at any rate, exaggerations. It may be remarked that the “Life and Times of Salvator Rosa” by Lady Morgan (1824) is admittedly a romance rather than an accurate and faithful biography.

2 Masaniello, a poor fisherman of Naples, was for a week in July, 1647, absolute king of his native city. At that time Naples was subject to the crown of Spain. The people, provoked by the exasperating rapacity and extortion of the Viceroy of the King of Spain, rose in rebellion, choosing Masaniello as their captain and leader.

3 Aniello Falcone (1600–65), teacher of Salvator Rosa and founder of the Compagnia della Morte, painted battle-pieces which bear a high reputation. His works are said to be scarce and much sought after.

4 At first the young fisherman administered stern but impartial justice; but afterwards his mind seems to have reeled under the intense excitement and strain of his position, and he began to act the part of an arbitrary and cruel tyrant. Several hundreds of persons are said to have been put to death by his order during the few days he held power.

5 Amongst them more than one by Salvator himself.

6 A French painter and writer on painting; was born near Bordeaux in 1746, and died at Paris in 1809. Besides other works he wrote Observations sur quelques grands peintres (1807).

7 The sequin was a gold coin of Venice and Tuscany, worth about 9s. 3d. It is sometimes used as equivalent to ducat (see note p. 98).

8 The Corso is a wide thoroughfare running almost north and south from the Piazza del Popolo, a square on the north side of Rome, to the centre of the city. It is in the Corso that the horse-races used to take place during the Carnival.

9 The great painter Sanzio Raphael.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55