By the pricking of our thumbs, something wicked this way comes… Blessed Be Los Angeles, it is I, Astor, the hermaphrodite crone of the Speakeasy Tattoo coven, and today on this grim autumn morn we will together cast aside these trappings of rational society and run howling back to our dark mother the untamed wood and perhaps, if time permits, weave a spell of art and ages past.
Story time: back when I was a young hot dummy I went on a field trip to Salem, Massachusetts where we— that is, me and my equally dumb peers— were given a very brief history of the infamous witch trials which basically boiled down to this: ‘in the past people where too foolish to understand the world because they didn’t have reason and science and so they believed in superstition and magic as a way to cope and fueled by fear and religious fervor murdered a whole bunch of women under suspicion of witchcraft’. And like it or not, this brief history informed a lot of how I thought of the past. I know I’m not alone in this; the story that pre-modern people believed in magic as a way to ascribe order to chaos is pretty standard in our collective idea of pre-enlightenment Europe and its colonial descendants. But here’s the thing: I don’t think that’s true anymore.
Firstly, it’s more than a little patronizing to assume that everyone in the past was as uniformly idiotic as your average group of high schoolers on a class trip, mindlessly consuming the worldview of some person in a position of some supposed authority. It is demonstratively apparent that possessing “logic and reason” as we supposedly do today (post-enlightenment and all that) is not a viable shield against believing in conspiracy and fantasy.
Mostly, though, I think this narrative falls short due to what it says about the purpose of magic. Magic, according to this reading, was a way for people to attempt to make sense of the natural world, a way of understanding and quantifying it… but if we were
to look at the function of magic and the practitioners of magic in pre-modern Europe we would see that it served a different social need than that of a pure pre-enlightenment explanation of why things are the way they are. Magic was not ever the simple attempt to explain away the chaos of the natural world, but in fact, an effort to allow access to it, to be the gateway through which harmony could be met between the world of the known and the natural and that of the unknowable and supernatural. Similarly, practitioners of magic (witches) were arbiters of that gateway, women who held knowledge not only of magic but of medicine, midwifery, herbalism, nature—all disciplines that, during the age of witch trials, would be taken out of the domain of women and magic and put into the hands of male doctors and scientists— and in so doing, turn them from modes of living within the natural world to arenas of study, dissection, and eventually, dominance.
Whether it was in opposition to this change, or a response to it, if ever there was an artist who could depict magic as a qualitative natural force, it was Salvatore Rosa. Born in Naples during the tail end of the witch trials this reportedly tempestuous and flamboyant proto-goth icon lived a wild life, and in turn had an equally wild career. From fathering many many children out of wedlock and cohabitating with their (still) married mother (a crime that would punishable by imprisonment or worse by the papal inquisition), to possibly living with a gang of roving bandits as a teenager, Rosa was, in his time, something of a rebel. He was also, by all accounts, a massive egoist obsessed with self-promotion and his reputation as a great painter. He wanted, again by all accounts, to be the kind of artist that shines truth on the world and to paint canvases that depicted the best in contemporary Italian history, philosophy, and morality.
Unfortunately, his rebellious spirit and hustler mentality was constantly restrained by the academically prudish conventions of late 17th century oil painting. To be an artist working at this time meant having your canvases put under constant scrutiny by local magistrates and the church, as painting was not only one of the most dominant artistic forms of the day but a way to visually demonstrate and spread specific cultural values and ethics. For Rosa, this meant constantly restraining himself in his compositions lest he attract the ire of the literal morality police. However, if there was one avenue that gave him the freedom to truly express himself with his paintings it was landscape. Throughout western art history, landscape painting has been regularly considered a less lofty or important pursuit, compared to other types of painting. Because this hierarchy held true in Rosa’s time, landscape painters were subject to less magisterial or ecclesiastical restrictions than the more ‘noble’ and/or austere genres of history paintings, religious paintings, and portraiture. Today, somewhat ironically, Rosa is most fondly remembered for his wild moody landscapes, as opposed to his more ‘serious’ canvases. His landscapes depict worlds beyond the familiarity of the road and pasture. Drenched in dark shadows, they are lands packed with gnarled, decaying trees, jagged cliffs, and turbulent skies. Yet landscape wasn’t the only topic in which he excelled oh no— to inhabit his feral forests, Rosa also painted lots and lots of witches.
Throughout his career Rosa returned to the subject of witches again and again, spurred by a reinvigorated public demand for images of the occult following the closure of the most recent series of European witch trials. In his paintings, drawings, and etchings, Rosa gave people a glimpse betwixt the trees into a shadow world; one where witches dance with devils and share in their unholy communion. The witches of Rosa’s paintings move and behave much like his trees, bent over and twisted or otherwise hunched and seated, refusing to engage with the viewer who is merely an interloper on their private rites. Like the beasts that inhabit these twilight woods, Rosa’s witches are almost always depicted naked— yet their nakedness does not function as a typical artistic nude might. Their bodies are not meant for sexual enticement or a humorous taboo, nor are they an indication of some sort of prelapsarian state of naked purity; his witches clearly have lived and sinned and his woods remain far too treacherous to be an Eden. They are naked because the wood to which they belong is naked and the wood lives within them just as much as they in it. Similarly Rosa’s witches aren’t painted to look grotesquely ugly or sublimely beautiful. More than anything they are typical in appearance. His witches might exist amongst the greater human population, possibly as the viewer’s friends and neighbors, until the sun sets and they are once again called to the forest.
The renewed interest in paintings of witches at the end of the 17th century marked a decline in witch trials all over Western Europe, but they would serve a similar cautionary purpose. Europeans would no longer need to bear witness to the bonfires with the artists’ rendering of the witch burned into their mind’s eye. Yet for as much as people were repelled by the prospect of witchcraft and the realm of the supernatural, they were clearly hungry for it. Like I said above, Rosa wanted to be known as a great painter, and that lead him to seek his own path and play ball with patrons in equal measure. Case in point, he painted the series Scenes of Witchcraft (below) whilst at the Medici court in Florence.
Salvatore Rosa was widely regarded in his time and continued to be so for centuries following his death. It wouldn’t be until the 19th century when an exhibition of his works caused a well-known critic of the day to remark that his paintings contained “unmitigated falsehoods” and showcased "laws of nature set at open defiance” that his popularity would fade. For the record this was the painting.
He would languish in semi-obscurity until the 1970’s when public interest in his paintings would begin to resurface, perhaps due in part to the subsequent rise in the popularity of the horror genre and the formation of the goth subculture. We may all be the proverbial decedents of witch hunters but it would seem that some of us are always going to have a predisposition to return to the woods and follow the chanting into the dark. So, until next time friends, continue to live deliciously.