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8 Oct 2020

All is vanity

Written by Vikki Duncan, Curator North
Oil painting of an open-mouthed skull with a musical score in the background
Vanitas, oil on panel, Salvator Rosa, mid-17th century
Haddo House is home to an important macabre vanitas by Baroque artist Salvator Rosa, which may hold a musical secret.

A vanitas painting is a type of still life that was popular in Europe from the early 17th century. The style often includes objects that suggest the fast-fleeting nature of time such as books, wine, glasses and fruit. Sometimes, a skull or bones are placed within the still life and the intent is to remind the viewer of their own mortality and the futility of worldly obsession or pursuits.

The second verse of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament of the Bible begins with the words:

‘Vanitas vanitatum, dixit Ecclesiastes; Vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas.’ (Translated in the King James Bible: Vanity of vanities says the Preacher; Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.)

So, this verse cautions the reader that the acquisition of wealth and worldly possessions is mere vanity. Vanitas paintings were created to remind us that our vanity or material possessions and pursuits do not preclude us from the inevitability of death.

The beautiful and luxurious objects that sometimes feature in these still life paintings symbolise the various types of worldly pursuits and earthly pleasures that might prove a temptation to mankind. There are often references to secular knowledge of the arts and sciences depicted by books, maps or, as in this painting from Haddo, a musical score.

Driveway leading to a grand Palladian mansion, Haddo House
Haddo House

The skull depicts impermanence and is a reference to time and the passing of it. Decaying flowers or blown fruits would serve the same purpose. In some paintings, there might be a reference to the Resurrection in the form of sprigs of ivy, laurel or ears of corn.

Salvatore Rosa, the artist, was an Italian Baroque painter and enjoyed a reputation as ‘unorthodox and extravagant’ as well as being a ‘perpetual rebel’ according to contemporary sources. Typically unorthodox, Rosa has added a humorous element to the macabre scene, showing the skull open-mouthed, as if singing along to the music shown written in the scores propped up behind it.

Close up of a musical score in a book depicted in an oil painting
Detail of the musical notes in the vanitas painting

Roger Williams, Honorary Advisor in Music to the Trust, has kindly attempted to identify the music on the sheet. He believes it to form the inner part of an ensemble piece from around the time of Roman-born composer Giacomo Carissimi (1605–74), who adapted Monteverdi’s operatic style to sacred dramas. The melodic line is often encountered in word painting (where actual musical notes are painted correctly on the canvas) in both sacred and secular music, which would fit with a composer of Carissimi’s period.

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