Truth and Bizzarria in an Engraving of Lo stregozzo.

Author:Emison, Patricia

It really must be admitted that things seen in sleep are, as it were, painted images, which could have been produced only in the likeness of true things.--Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy [1]

Fowl take flight as an unearthly entourage of powerful male nudes, infant victims, an old crone, goats, and strange skeletal yet animate creatures rush along to the sound of a horn, perhaps also wind and wailing. A solitary witch squats amid the hindquarters of a Leviathan-like skeleton, [2] directly above a crouching male nude, the bottoms of his feet thrust toward the viewer (not to mention his buttocks), whereas four fully extended nudes, three of them so youthful as to be yet unbearded, propel themselves forward through the pictorial space like stallions at a canter.

Lo stregozzo, or the procession to a witches' Sabbath, [3] is a large engraving (almost 12 by about 25 inches) of debatable but early sixteenth-century date, whose inventor and engraver are uncertain (Fig. 1). The existing scholarly consensus that the print be classified as essentially Roman and basically High Renaissance in design is reconsidered here. Such a conception of this work, at the very least, fails to do justice to the complexity of its reference. But I hope to establish more than a dismantling of this engraving's usual classification: I believe this object documents a very rare intersection between heretical and artistic instances of fantasia. By addressing a pressing dispute about the manifestations of demonic power, which hinged on determining the boundary between imagination and fact, this work of art--relatively little known today--was intended to play an unusually critical role in molding opinion about extra-artistic matters in early modern northern and central Italy. The crux of Lo stregozz o lies less in simply recognizing the subject, which is not learned, than in answering the following question: Does it represent this nocturnal cavalcade as fact or fiction? Even the learned held differing opinions about this question.

By presenting a sight that a faithful Christian would never otherwise confront, and that was for many of the faithful incredible, and furthermore, by doing so in a medium that made the image widely accessible, Lo stregozzo fundamentally violated most of the contemporary theory and much of the practice of art according to which images displayed virtue for the sake of promoting it. Our task now is to understand how and why this violation was possible.

I will attempt to establish that when this engraving was first printed, the dominant orthodoxy insisted that the testimonies of the witches about their night travels referred to corporeal events, and that the engraving was intended as convincing evidence not of the engraver's or inventor's imagination but of the basic veracity of the witches' descriptions of their own misdeeds. The fundamental situation is not dissimilar from that of a painter of early icons: the artist's task was to persuade a public of the physical reality of what was portrayed, leaving the task of defining the spiritual aspects of the subject to theologians. In this sense Lo stregozzo may be understood as a more traditional image than it might appear, but it is also less so, in that it associates the Michelangelesque nude with witchcraft--thereby demonizing the male nude in place of the sexually powerful, bewitching woman. [4]

The question of whether witches actually traversed large distances by extraordinary means in order to congregate and make obeisance to the devil was a matter of prickly theological dispute, destined to become across the sixteenth century a long and complicated disagreement. Late in the century, Paulus Grillandus commented on the difficulty of deciding whether the witches were removed bodily or only spiritually, deeming the issue "difficult" and "notorious."[5] Despite the gravity accorded this topic at the time, scholars have neglected to explore the role the visual arts might have played in such an important and divisive issue. Partly because witchery and magic were topics that slid easily into literary and poetic realms, they have often been treated--both then and since--with the frivolity appropriate to Ariostan romance rather than with the dignity due to matters of life and death. Nevertheless, the role of the visual arts was pivotal: the artist, as master of fantasia, was virtually a practitioner of whi te magic. Like Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's human poised between the divine and the damnable, the artist stood on the fulcrum between sense and reason, the point at which imagination operated. When he allied himself with virtue he legitimated the imagination, but he also had the capacity to defame art, should he cast his spells of illusion in unapproved directions. Such images as Dosso Dossi's powerful yet at least vaguely mischievous Melissa, or Lorenzo Lotto's Apollo Asleep on Parnassus, in which the Muses have disrobed, the better to frolic in the landscape, hint at artists' awareness of the shared interstices of human imagination, sexual allure, and an illusionistic art.

A scene of persons unrepentently dedicated to the devil was unprecedented. Devils had been shown before in Italian art, but they had generally appeared as little black silhouetted demons issuing out of the possessed, hovering around the heretical, or stirring up hell. Vicious persons not contained in hell had been shown in Andrea Mantegna's Battle of the Sea Monsters (Hind 5, 6), which comparably features a hag in combination with "heroic" male nudes. Itself a distant spinoff of the psychomachia between the vices and virtues, [6] its moralizing theme might easily have been overlooked because of its blatantly comic aspect. In both engravings frenzied lateral motion has been situated in shallow and open-ended relief reminiscent of sarcophagi; both Lo stregozzo and the Battle of the Sea Monsters suggest comparable derivations, a frenzied maenad on a Dionysiac marble transformed into a shrieking old witch in the whites and grays of engraving. It is worth noting that the literature on witchcraft acknowledges the continuity of the problem back to antiquity, invoking Diana, Hecate, and other pagan examples, though at least one source makes the distinction that the devil has had less power on earth since the Incarnation. [7]

The sole sixteenth-century mention of the engraving occurred long after its making. In 1584, Gian Paolo Lomazzo cited Lo stregozzo in a chapter entitled "On the Form of the Three Hellish Furies." He listed prints that show spirits associated with Satan, whose function, he claimed, is to make us fearful: [8] Martin Schongauer's Temptation of Saint Anthony, Albrecht Durer's Knight, Death and the Devil, Mantegna's Descent into Hell, Michelangelo's Last Judgment (presumably he is thinking of an engraving after it), Lucas van Leyden's Temptation of Christ, along with another of the same subject by Hans Sebald Beham (unidentified), and a book illustration showing the flagellation of Job (Fig. 2). In the next paragraph he cited Durer's Apocalypse, crediting the Beast with seven heads as outdoing the Hydra of Hercules, as well as Lo stregozzo (that "enormous creature [smisuarto animalaccio]"), and all other monsters, ancient and modern, including those of the poets. [9] For Lomazzo, Lo stregozzo fell into a genre sh ared between ancients and moderns, fiction and Bible, of incredible creatures of the imagination. But Lomazzo was writing during a time when the witch-hunt was being actively pursued in northern Italy, [10] suggesting perhaps a studied ignorance in his comments, which assimilate an image of witchcraft to the general project of portraying evil. Every other example in Lomazzo's catalogue shows evil confronted, ultimately to be subdued, by good. Lo stregozzo, arguably the weirdest and most curious of the monsters, is the sole depiction of unameliorated evil. It seems disingenuous to group it with more obviously abrogated devils, each of them branded by their monstrosity. Moreover, Lomazzo's own vocabulary ("bi-zarre," "imaginary") undercuts his claim that these images produce fear, as does his pairing of romance poetry with the Bible. We may well wonder whether it is more nearly admiration for artistic invention than awe for religious truth that prompted his comments.

Modern commentaries on the engraving divide into two camps: Adam von Bartsch, writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, followed Lomazzo in preferring to see the fantastical in Lo stregozzo. Calling it La carcasse, he catalogued it under the somewhat miscellaneous heading "Subjects of Fantasy," which includes, among other things, several engravings directly after the Battle of Cascina (Bartsch XIV, 423, 472, 487, 488). Twentieth-century writers have generally used it instead as documentary evidence, illustrating the lore of the witch-hunt. They point to the numerous correspondences between accounts of witchcraft and the iconography of the engraving. [11]

Our Italian engraving unabashedly borrows its most important figure, iconographically speaking, from the German tradition. This has been generally recognized, though seemingly without consequence for the engraving's significance. The witch in Lo stregozzo, considerably enlarged and equipped with a slightly more malevolent and crazed visage, tongue now protruding, is copied from Durer's goat-riding hag of about 1501 (Fig. 4), itself based in turn on the figure of Invidia in Mantegna's engraving the Battle of the Sea Monsters. This German witch imagery, however, seems neither documentary in tenor nor particularly fantastical, being instead a matter of barely veiled misogyny leavened with earthy humor. There may, accordingly, be no direct parallel in the significance of Durer's Witch and its most prominent Italian derivative.

The subject of witchcraft has a longer history in German than in Italian art, beginning in...

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