Ask Rufus: Connecting art and local history


Rufus Ward



It is amazing how people and places are so interconnected. Recently I was discussing Salvator Rosa, a father of the romantic and picturesque art movement, with a friend. A few days later the subject of early French exploration of the Tombigbee River Valley arose. That made me think of all of the unexpected connections of history. 


One of the most interesting characters to ever wander our region was Henri de Tonti (1649-1704), who became known as "Iron Hand" because of his replacement of a severed hand with an iron hook. Tonti became noted as a close associate of La Salle and accompanied La Salle on his 1682 voyage down the Mississippi River. 


In 1702, Tonti was sent north from French Mobile to establish peaceful relations with the Chickasaw Indians. He met with the Chickasaws in March 1702 at a village that was probably located north west of present-day West Point. 


Now, that probably begs the question of "What does this have to do with the origins of the Romantic Art Movement?"  


Salvator Rosa (1615-1673), according to the Uffizi Gallery of Florence, Italy, was "indisputably a leader in that tendency towards the romantic and picturesque, called a proto-romantic." In his art, Rosa painted unconventional landscapes in which he often depicted bandits in rocky scenes with storm-tossed trees. He also engraved romantic figures of soldiers and mythological scenes. He was a poet, a satirist and is considered the inspiration of the 18th century picturesque movement in England. 


Rosa''s life was as different as his art and therein is the tie to our own history. In addition to his unconventional art and literature, Rosa acquired a reputation for having a very rebellious nature. During the Spanish revolt of Masaniello (a late 1640s uprising of the people of Naples against the Spanish viceroy), Rosa was associated in the insurrection with Lorenzo Tonti. As a result of that uprising, Tonti, whose son Henri had recently been born, was forced to flee to France. Henri de Tonti, though born in Italy, was raised a Frenchman and devoted his life to the French exploration of North America including the Tombigbee River Valley. 


So, the association of Salvator Rosa and Lorenzo Tonti during a 1640s insurrection in Naples resulted in Henri de Tonti being raised French and stepping into Mississippi history.  


Rufus Ward is a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to him at [email protected]


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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