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.

From a correspondence that must have been voluminous, for he does write a good letter, only a few dozen sheets survive. But Dürer also left a family chronicle; an intermittent diary, which contains accounts of his parents’ deaths and of the passing of a comet; a log recording a year spent travelling in western Germany and the Low Countries (a similar diary of his Venetian stay seems to have been lost); and a riveting sequence of self-portraits in paint and in pen and ink, including drawings of his left hand and a full-length depiction of himself in the nude. He also wrote several poems of middling quality and copious notes and texts on art theory. Near the end of his life he published three treatises on art and measurement.

Dürer knew that his works would outlive him. In a letter of 1509 he assured a patron that if his painting was kept clean and not handled, and above all was protected from sprinklings with holy water (which was often salted), ‘it will remain bright and fresh for five hundred years. For it is not made the way paintings are usually made.’ But even Dürer would have been surprised by the durability of his fame. He has been ranked among the very greatest of artists for more than five centuries, ever since he published, in 1498, at the age of 27, an edition of the Book of Revelations illustrated with 15 full-page woodcuts: unprecedented displays of technical virtuosity in this most intractable medium.

‘The Monstrous Sow of Landser’ (1496)
‘The Monstrous Sow of Landser’ (1496)

The present volume is an English translation of the catalogue that accompanied a major exhibition dedicated to Dürer’s early career held last year at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, where he was born. The exhibition didn’t travel, but Dürer’s not quite antique style is well known to the Anglophone art maven, thanks to a ceaseless flow of publications and exhibitions – for example, the show of the British Museum’s Dürer holdings in 2003 or the watercolours from the Albertina Museum in Vienna (recently shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington).

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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