The Neapolitan artist Salvator Rosa painted perhaps the most moving of all memento mori, entitled simply L’umana fragilita (Human Frailty). It was inspired by an outbreak of bubonic plague that had struck his native Naples in 1655, claiming the life of his infant son, Rosalvo, as well as carrying off Salvator’s brother, his sister, her husband, and five of their children. Grinning hideously, a winged skeleton reaches out of the darkness behind Rosa’s mistress, Lucrezia, to claim their son, even as he makes his first attempt to write.
The mood of the heartbroken artist is immortally summed up in the eight Latin words the baby, guided by the skeletal figure, has inscribed on the canvas:
‘Conception is sin, birth is pain, life is toil, death is inevitable’. I remember being thunderstruck when, on my first vsit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge, I read those words. Here was the human condition, stripped down to its bleak essentials. By all accounts, Rosa was a lighthearted man, who also wrote and acted in satirical plays and masques. At around the time of his son’s death, however, he wrote to a friend, ‘This time heaven has stuck me in such a way that shows me that all human rememdies are useless and the least pain I feel is when I tell you that I weep as I write’.
-Doom, the politics of catastrophe. Ferguson, Neil. Allen Lane, 2021
[Jo] I always quite enjoy Neil Ferguson. Yes (weirdly) you can like someone and still not agree with all of their positions and personal ideology*. I imagine Neil and his wife (Ayaan Hirsi Ali) might be interesting people to invite to that imaginary dinner party I’ve always conceptualized. Assuming I’m into substance over style… which now that I think about it, maybe I’m not. I’d probably just invite beautiful people… and Teddy Roosevelt (Who I’d end up stick fighting on the lawn with)
*He is probably a little too Ra-Ra-Great-Britain for me and definitely far too much of a military-interventionist. (Joey says while being acutely aware that his own sometimes not very nuanced views make him difficult to get on with, ha!)
In any event, Neil book has these little bonne bouches scattered throughout… which I like to believe (having now written them down) I will be able to retain and then be able to misquote around the barbeque one day (thereby seeming like even more of a douchebag than I really am)