This Strange Speech

Christopher S. Wood

I have plenty of good friends among the Italians who warn me not to eat and drink with their painters. Many of the painters are my enemies, and they copy my work in the churches and wherever else they can find it. Then they criticise it, saying it is not in the ‘antique’ style and therefore not good. But Giovanni Bellini praised me highly in front of some gentlemen.

This is Albrecht Dürer writing to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer in February 1506. After only six months in Venice he is already embroiled in local professional rivalries. Few letters written by artists survive from this period; most that do are pleas addressed to patrons. It isn’t often that we overhear the unedited voice of a premodern European artist. Dürer in his letter is fretful, paranoid, hungry for praise, confused about whether it was the judgments of other artists or of the wealthy that mattered.

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