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Something Wicked This Way Comes in Agostino Veneziano’s "The Witches’ Procession"

Read more from Caroline Giddis as she shares hauntingly good details and inspirations in Veneziano’s work.

By Caroline Giddis, Curatorial Research Associate, High Museum of Art

Agostino Veneziano (Italian, ca. 1490–after 1536) and/or Marcantonio Raimondi (Italian, ca. 1475/80–before 1534), The Witches’ Procession (Lo Stregozzo) or The Carcass, ca. 1520, copper engraving on ivory-colored paper, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from the Estate of Barbara Dunbar Stewart and European Art Acquisition Fund, 2011.117.

What better way to celebrate October than with this spooky print from the High Museum of Art’s collection? This unsettling scene of skeletal beasts and magical beings, titled The Witches’ Procession (Lo Stregozzo) or The Carcass, is cloaked in more than one layer of mystery. Previously attributed to Marcantonio Raimondi (ca. 1475/80–before 1534), this print has since been filed under the work of Raimondi’s assistant, Agostino Veneziano (ca. 1490–after 1536), a talented engraver with a knack for composing whirling scenes of the macabre. Veneziano’s hand is noticeably present, and so, too, could be those of possible collaborators such as Michelangelo, Giulio Romano, Raphael, or Marco Dente da Ravenna. While Veneziano likely took inspiration from each of these fellow artists, there is still speculation that this print was the work of more than one creator. Equally, the scene itself eludes complete understanding. A dynamic procession of Michelangelesque male figures and wicked, skeletal beasts surrounds a muscular, aged character riding on the back of a monstrous skeleton, displaying thematic similarities to the Furious Horde of Germanic folklore.[1] The scene is overflowing with witchcraft iconography that recalls depictions in the previous decade.

Iconography

The uppermost figure, identifiable as a witch by her muscular but sagging body and grotesque face with exaggerated features, is a direct allusion to Albrecht Dürer’s The Witch (ca. 1500), one of the most iconic depictions of witchcraft that permeated art and material culture throughout the sixteenth century. While Dürer’s witch holds a broom or spindle with one hand and grabs the horn of a goat with the other, the witch in Veneziano’s scene holds a pot with billowing steam while grabbing the head of a cherubic child in front of her, presumably to terrify it or throw it in her brew. The bursting pot recalls iconography from Hans Baldung Grien’s The Witches (1510), which captures a coven of witches conducting a sabbath ritual in a hellish clearing.

Left: Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528), The Witch, ca. 1500, engraving print on paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1919, 19.73.75. Right: Hans Baldung (called Hans Baldung Grien) (German, 1484/85–1545), The Witches, 1510, chiaroscuro woodcut in two blocks, printed in gray and black; second of two states, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Felix M. Warburg and his family, 1941, 41.1.201.

The way the hair on Veneziano’s witch blows forcefully behind her, paired with the bent stalks around the hoard, indicates that the parade is rapidly moving through windy, rugged terrain. The monster she rides appears lifeless, unlike the animated creatures that run alongside, explaining the piece’s alternate title, The Carcass. It is unclear if the crew escorting her are also witches, fallen angels, or men she has bewitched. The dense landscape is alive and whipping around the procession; with their kinetic energy, the stalks progressing from left to right in the composition slowly begin to resemble flames rising around the group. Ahead, a small boy clears the path on the back of a goat to announce the procession’s journey with a trumpet tune. Goats have a long history with visualizations of Satan, often mythologized as the form he takes while on earth, and they are frequently depicted in scenes of witchcraft from the sixteenth century and beyond.

Sources of Inspiration

While most artists who captured the frightening spirit of witchcraft hailed from Germany, Veneziano, an Italian artist born in Venice, clearly felt the resonance of the “witch craze” from Rome in 1520. It is possible that one of the inspirations for this work was the 1487 publication Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer) by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, which had been reprinted fourteen times before 1520 and likely reached Italy in its wide circulation from Speier, Germany. In Malleus Maleficarum, Kramer, a Dominican monk, preaches about the devil’s new tool to destroy Christians, which takes the form of an evil woman. He notes that widows, spinsters, or young unmarried women are the most susceptible to falling into this evil partnership, an overall theory that scholar Linda Hults describes as “apocalyptic misogyny.”[2]

The reason for the creation of these graphic and shocking images of witchcraft is widely speculated. Prints like The Witches’ Procession perhaps served as a metaphor for many of sixteenth-century society’s deepest horrors and fears: inversions of power dynamics, instability and chaos, violence, and the existence of witches and demons fighting for human souls. Literature like Malleus Maleficarum proves that these beliefs and fears existed and permeated popular culture.

Whether intentional or not, prints may have acted as fuel for the fire of the witch craze in early modern Europe. Occurring between 1400 and the late 1700s, as many as 100,000 people, eighty percent of whom were women, were executed for witchcraft.[3] If printed and distributed alongside anti-witchcraft pamphlets, these scenes served as no less than a form of propaganda. Alternatively, artists like Veneziano, Dürer, and Baldung Grien may have simply recognized that fantastical scenes allowed for creative freedom and artistic exploration, unlike religious or historical subject matter, which have stricter expectations of displaying a narrative or capturing a realistic event. Visions of witchcraft may have served as an outlet of play, despite taking form in a medium meant for producing multiples.

Engraving Process

Engraving is one of the most delicate forms of printing. Using a copper or zinc plate, the artist employs an intaglio process by cutting lines into the plate to create layers of depth and shadow.[4] This process calls for an incredible amount of patience and dexterity to create smooth, seamless lines, especially those with a curve. Raimondi and Veneziano shared a similar crosshatching technique, which is how scholars were originally able to identify the potential makers of The Witches’ Procession, but the engraving also shows mastery through whipping, curvilinear strokes. Veneziano’s prodigious skill is clear with every blade of grass, curling lock of hair, and definitive muscle group.

While The Witches’ Procession is not currently on view, it represents a very important subsection of the High’s European Art collection: prints. Acquired in 2011, it was the first Italian Renaissance print to enter the High’s collection alongside engravings and woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer and fellow German printmaker Hans Sebald Beham. Feast your eyes on this dynamic, magical scene, and imagine how you would capture the witches, ghosts, and ghouls you see this Halloween in print as a modern engraver.

To learn more about The Witches’ Procession (Lo Stregozzo) or The Carcass, visit our website, or stop by the European Art galleries for more fascinating works on paper.

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[1] Charles Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Europe (New York: Routledge, 2007), 30.

[2] Linda C. Hults, The Witch as Muse: Art, Gender, and Power in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 67–69.

[3] E. William Monter, “The Historiography of European Witchcraft: Progress and Prospects,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 2, no. 4 (Spring 1972): 449–451.

[4] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Engraving,” n.d., https://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met/Collection-Areas/drawings-and-prints/materials-and-techniques/printmaking/engraving.

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