Tag Archives: Pirkheimer

A half-hearted look at a biography of Albrecht Dürer

We’re going to Germany! Nuremburg. The great keynote tour begins (not mine, you understand, I just tag along). And I found time somehow to read one solitary thing to prepare, and sadly very sadly it was this.I’ve already read Albert Speer, long ago, I am prepared for the massive architecture of awe and power. I’m more excited about Albrecht Dürer, still I’m sad to find there is a whole industry around him. I know I should have re-read Arendt, but instead…

A few fun facts about Nuremburg first.

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, said upon visiting Nuremberg in 1444 in the Imperial train:

What a splendid sight this city presents! What brilliance, what lavish views, what beauties, what culture, what admirable government! … what clean streets, what elegant houses! (6)

Luther called it ‘Germany’s eye and ear.’ I’m not entirely sure I know what that means. But it is the middle point of Europe, at the centre of European trade — amber, furs, salt fish from the Baltic; gold, silver copper, horses from Hungary and Bohemia; spices, silks, luxury goods from Venice, woolen cloth from the Netherlands. I love these ancient lists, the sense of distance and far away lands and precious things. Nuremberg itself made scientific instruments and metalwares — rather a splendid trade for a town.

This was a principal town of the Holy Roman Empire for a while, the city at the foot of the medieval fortress, a ‘free’ city directly under the emperor, the Emperors rarely there though — it wasn’t so comfortable the castle, especially in winter even though the Imperial coronation regalia was kept there. So effectively it was a City State, run by its own city council, and had reciprocal toll-free trade with seventy cities despite a lack of most things needed for a succesful city.

Albrecht Dürer was born here in 1471, his father a goldsmith, his godfather also. Anton Koberger though he shortly became a publisher, the most important in Germany with 24 presses.

At 13 Dürer created this in silverpoint — a process of chemical etching in which nothing can be erased:

I have little sense, though, am failing to understand Dürer here. Maybe because there are sentences like these”

Dürer’s sypathetic portrayal of his father, and his largely positive memories of his childhood are in remarkable contrast to Martin Luther’s recital of brutal beatings at home and at school…There can be little doubt that Albrecht Dürer must have been a more agreeable child that then great Reformer… (21)

We all know children are only beaten because they are not agreeable, they bring it on themselves really. Dürer instead seems a bit spoiled, possibly because almost all of his many siblings have died (and will die). Still, in 1490, his dad sends him off on what the author calls ‘a bachelor’s journey’. She tries to trace his movements, he may have been apprenticed, it is detailed guessing.

He did this, one of my favourite self portraits of all, in Paris. Albrecht Dürer with a pillow, age 22.

From the Met’s description:

Among the masterpieces of European draftsmanship, this iconic self-portrait study evokes the awakening artistic consciousness of the twenty-two-year-old German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. Probably produced with the aid of a mirror, the head and the hand were preparatory for his painted Self-Portrait of 1493 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), considered one of the earliest independent self-portraits in Western painting. Durer’s exploration of self-portraiture in several drawings and paintings is characterized by an arresting directness that was highly unusual at the time. The artist’s calligraphic precision and expressiveness of line is also found in the study of a pillow at the bottom of the sheet, a subject that he continued to explore on the reverse.

It was preparatory for this:

But what the author writes is how it is is:

showing the first tentative half-dozen hairs of what was soon to become Europe’s most famous and anachronistic beard. (Beards were not normally worn by young, or even by middle-age men in Dürer’s day–even the majority of elderly men, as Mark Zucker has shown, were clean-shaven.) (39)

I’m glad that’s been documented. Ever since Mark won my heart with the Engels’ moustache letters I have had a bit of a thing for historical facial hair. Still. I hoped for more.

On his marriage?

Neither the bride nor the groom had a great deal to say about their marriage, which was arranged, as was proper in the fifteenth century, by the two sets of parents to suit their own purposes. Such businesslike arrangements may often have been loveless, at least to begin with, but were in the long run at least as satisfactory in most respects, and a good deal more permanent, than those contracted by modern methods. (40)

No fear feminism will get in the way of the story here, then.

His fatherin-law was Hans Frey:

reported to have been a clever and charming man and the best harp player in town, as well as a good singer, had formerly been the city’s official gauger of honey and nuts. (40)

Within two months of the marriage, Dürer was off again, to Italy this time. Was he called by the Renaissance? Was it the marriage? Was it the plague, that had broken out in 1494? She asks but does not answer, maybe someone who read a different book might have a better idea.

I can’t imagine the plague, I feel like it fills all of his work. Death always seems close, no? Even when it’s not staring at you as a skull or a starving man or the horsemen of the apocalypse. Even then.

But back to the book. It doesn’t really go there.

She  goes on about the guilds, whose provision of increased security could limit an artist’s intellectual and social aspirations…we wouldn’t get on I don’t think, me and this author. Something tells me.

There are some uncomfortable passages on the expulsion of the Jews from Nuremburg in 1499, where Pirkheimer — patron and friend to Dürer, hired an armed escort. She notes it was to protect them as they left but could also be argued it was to ensure they were leaving. People did, of course, benefit from their leaving. Houses suddenly empty and that kind of thing.

Not that there aren’t interesting facts that deserve to be simple asides never to be explored further (unlike the explulsion of a large portion of the city population, the fear, the mob response, the plague). Like the fact that Pirkheimer had to leave law school BEFORE he won his degree, so he could remain eligible for the Nuremburg City Council. Like the fact that he opened a School for Poets, which lasted from 1498-1509. She writes:

Albrecht Dürer’s own authorship of quite a large quantity of truly dreadful poetry, all written in the years 1509-1510, he may perhaps have begun to attend this ill-fated institution, which was the distant ancestor of the more famous Nuremburg School for Poets of the seventeenth century. (55)

She does print some here, and for once we agree, it is truly terrible.

Still, you can see that it’s a bit hard to understand from all this where exactly the four horsemen came from between 1496 and 1498, though she does note some believed 1500 would usher in the end of the world:

The 1496 Prodigal son returning to kneel among the swine.

And look at those buildings… she makes the point that German architecture made these prints exotic in Italy and France, giving them cache on top of the incredible skill and splendour of the art itself. But surely there is more here.

I’d rather just look at his work…he loved his paintings and colours. Me, I confess I love the prints the most. He carried copies of them with him everywhere to sell in the markets, as did his wife. Imagine.

But I think I am going to stop here, because I couldn’t find what I wanted in this particular book. Not like Caravaggio. Maybe one day I’ll have time to read another, maybe the great book remains to be written on Albrecht Dürer. I don’t usually choose so badly. I confess, though, some of those terrible passage are rather enjoyable. Her apoplexies on his dirty letters to Pirkheimer are pretty awesome, but I am too tired to keep going…