Chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks, orange/black
only known impression
inscriptions: “la*” and “1516” in the line block
One of the most celebrated prints by Hans Baldung (1484/85–1545), The Witches (1510, chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks, B.VII.319.55) counts among his earliest single-leaf woodcuts as an independent artist in Strasbourg, where he had settled in the preceding year. Although Baldung is recognized as one of the first artists to adopt the chiaroscuro woodcut technique, how he learned the process is not known. By the time The Witches was published, the technique had already gained some currency. In Germany, other practitioners included Baldung's compatriot Hans Wechtlin; the two artists, however, took distinctly different approaches to their block design.
The production of calligraphic pen drawings on colored paper with white heightening encouraged the development of the chiaroscuro woodcut north of the Alps. Indeed, Baldung, who was a virtuoso draftsman in this manner, exploited the same aesthetic in The Witches (see Marrow and Shestack 1981 and Bartrum 1995). The independent compositional block in the print is predominantly linear, demonstrating the artist's command of line through a combination of fluid contours, long sweeping strokes, and supple, energetic modeling marks. At the same time, in depicting the black night sky, Baldung also makes effective use of the woodcut's capacity to print a solid plane. The tone block highlights, cut as thinly hatched reserves that occasionally expand into small pools, enhance the plasticity of the figures and the swell of the vapor clouds, which emerge in relief from the dark ground and express the surface texture of the decaying tree. Typically printed in either gray or orange, the colored ground of The Witches e ectively heightens the ominous mood of the subject.
Baldung applied the chiaroscuro technique to great dramatic ends in this novel and arresting depiction of a gathering of witches in a nocturnal landscape. At center, the eldest witch has dropped to her knees. Her mouth agape and arms outstretched, she holds aloft a tray with the carcasses of fowls and a length of a shroud-like cloth. To the left, a second witch, who is seen from behind, holds a goblet in her upraised hand. A third witch lifts the lid of an ointment jar, releasing a thick, vermin-filled vapor into the sky. Behind them, in the middle distance, a fourth naked figure bears a flaming torch. In the sky, a youthful witch sits backward on a flying goat, her long, streaming hair ending in elegant tendril ourishes. To the left of her, vapor clouds conceal the body of yet another figure. This densely detailed yet rigorously composed image, rich with symbolic references and iconographic complexity, testifies to Baldung's remarkable powers of invention and his ability to give physical form to the fantastic. For over a decade, the artist returned frequently to depicting scenes of witchcraft, especially in drawings but also in paintings and in prints.
The Witches inspired four copies in print (these are listed in Lauts 1959), including one in chiaroscuro by Lucantonio degli Uberti (fl. 1503–57), dated 1516 and inscribed with his monogram. The Florentine Lucantonio is recorded as a printer in Verona around 1503–4 and subsequently appears in Venice. On August 2, 1513, the Venetian Council of Ten accused Lucantonio of blasphemy and counterfeiting money. Their indictment describes him as a florentinus stampatore (Florentine printer), who resides in the contrada San Moisé in Venice, an area of the city occupied by booksellers, cartolai (stationers), and printers (Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Criminale, lza 2 e reg. 2, c. 45; Callegari 2005). Five months later, on January 7, 1514 (1513 according to the Venetian calendar), Lucantonio was sentenced to exile from Venice for a period of one year (Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Criminale, lza 2 e reg. 2, c. 57; Rosand and Muraro interpreted the sentence that Lucantonio received as a three-year ban from Venice, Tiziano e la silografia veneziana del Cinquecento p. 35; this has been newly clarified by Callegari 2005, p. 61. See also Landau 2016, p. 131). His return to Venice is confirmed by the woodcut Virgin and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Gregory the Great, published by Gregorio de' Gregoris and dated 1517 (Tiziano e la silografia veneziana del Cinquecento, n. 11, p. 106). Active in the city until at least 1526, Lucantonio was one of the most prolific blockcutters of the period, producing both woodcut book illustrations in large numbers and single-leaf prints (Callegari 2005, pp. 60–61).
Among Lucantonio's best-known woodcuts are his copies of other prints, including the Triumph of Christ in ten woodblocks after Titian and Pollaiuolo's engraved Battle of the Nudes. In these two instances, Lucantonio did not create deceptively close, slavish copies of the models but rather adaptations with many compositional details freely interpreted. By contrast, his same-size copy of The Witches is extremely faithful to the original, both in the complex patterns of lines and the placement of the highlights, suggesting that the Italian printmaker used a mechanical process to transfer Baldung's design onto his blocks.
The fact that his is a mirror-image copy indicates that the design was not reversed prior to tracing. The only substantial modifications Lucantonio introduced to The Witches involved the inscription: he replaced Baldung's “HBG” monogram with his own “La*” (one of seventeen different forms of his monogram) and changed the date from 1510 to 1516. However, he did not remove or modify the grape leaf above the date, perhaps unaware that it was Baldung's emblematic signature.
Although a copy of Baldung's work, Lucantonio's The Witches was an extraordinary print for Italy at the time. For one, in contrast to the North, Italy had yet to establish a tradition of representing this subject in art (notably, Lo Stregozzo, the great Italian contribution to printed imagery of witchcraft, did not appear until the early 1530s). Further, Lucantonio's version was exceptional in its use of the nascent chiaroscuro woodcut technique, representing the earliest dated example by an Italian printmaker. While the exact date of Ugo's Saint Jerome after Titian is not known, it was likely produced before the printmaker applied for his privilege on July 24, 1516. It is tempting to postulate that the appearance of Lucantonio's print is what prompted Ugo to seek the Venetian Senate's protection of his “discovery” of the new method. The extreme rarity of Lucantonio's The Witches, known only in this impression, might be taken as proof that the privilege granted to Ugo was successful in curtailing the circulation of the print (Landau 1983 identified the British Museum impression as a print by Lucantonio, which was described as anonymous in B.VII.447.1; Passavant as Luc'Antonio de Giunta and Hind as Lucantonio degli Uberti; see also Savage 2015, p. 340). Lucantonio does not appear to have taken up the technique again. While it is not possible to conform the chronology of these events, Lucantonio's print testifies to the availability of a Northern chiaroscuro woodcut in Italy by 1516.
Naoko Takahatake, The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June-September 2018, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C, October 2018-January 2019, DelMonico Books/Prestel, Munich-London-New York, 2018, pp. 66-68.
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