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5 January 2022

The wonders of Albrecht Dürer’s world

How the Renaissance artist and inveterate traveller journeyed in a permanent state of fascination.

By Michael Prodger

In 1520 Albrecht Dürer was in Brussels when the contents of a treasure ship sent back from the Americas by Hernán Cortés were put on display to celebrate the coronation of Charles V. The cache contained, among other items, obsidian weapons, jaguar pelts, feathered shields, gemstones and mosaic pieces, and gold wrought in innumerable inventive ways. Dürer, the son of a Nuremberg goldsmith, was flabbergasted. “All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things,” he wrote, “for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art.” But then, for him, everything was a work of art – either God-made or man-made. His well-known watercolours of a piece of turf and the iridescent wing of a blue roller bird are themselves marvels of creation that show marvels of creation.

For Dürer, even more than for most artists, the world was a place of wonder. If Leonardo da Vinci, his senior by 19 years, looked longest and deepest at natural phenomena – from the flow of water to the action of veins and sinews – Dürer (1471-1528) was in thrall to materiality, where sight became an extension of touch.

Dürer’s visual omnivorousness is on display everywhere in the National Gallery’s “Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist”, an exhibition that traces the four main trips undertaken by the artist during the course of his life. He was a wide-eyed traveller along the Rhine, to Venice twice and to the Low Countries, and what he saw along the way inevitably emerges in his art.

Almost everything he encountered was a novelty and nothing was beneath his notice. A tumbled mountain hut that gave him respite during his crossing of the Alps is recorded in a small watercolour, each stone and fallen rafter carefully differentiated. The dizzying heights of mountain passes are there in his etching Nemesis, depicting the Greek goddess, which is manic with tiny details of pine tree, crags and villages far below on the valley floor. The outfits worn by Netherlandish women are carefully recorded, down to the smallest fold and nap of fur. The animals he saw in the royal menagerie in Brussels – lion, lynx, baboon – are shown dozy or indolent (he had depicted lions for years before he ever saw a real one, and gave them near-human faces). Even an enema syringe is recorded, peeking out from the folds of the seated angel’s robe in his celebrated Melencolia I etching: its meaning, like so much about the print, is unknown, but he did record that he had an Antwerp apothecary’s wife administer a purge while he was visiting the city.

Of course, his travels were about people too, and the exhibition is also a record of friendships made. In 1492 he headed to Colmar to meet and learn from the printmaker Martin Schongauer, but by the time he arrived Schongauer had just died. He had better luck on his two journeys to Venice, in 1494-95 and 1505-07, where he met numerous painters, growing close to Giovanni Bellini and corresponding with Leonardo and Raphael. “I was amazed by the subtle ingeniousness of people in foreign lands,” he wrote, and said of Bellini that “he is very old yet still the best at painting”. The Venetian returned the admiration in a jokey homage by painting the cropped rump of a cow in his The Assassination of St Peter Martyr, circa 1505-07 (from upstairs in the National Gallery), which he lifted from Dürer’s engraving of The Prodigal Son, circa 1496. Jan Gossaert would do something similar by taking one of the hunting dogs in Dürer’s St Eustace engraving (1500-01) and relocating it to the foreground of his Adoration of the Kings (again in the National’s collection) of 1510-15.

[see also: Hogarth and the Continent]

Not that Dürer always felt at home on his travels. One reason for his second trip to Venice may have been to deal with the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, who had established a lucrative line in counterfeiting Dürer’s prints, complete with the “AD” monogram. And when, in 1506, Dürer won a commission to paint an altarpiece for the republic’s German community, he filled it with colour as a riposte to local artists (“to shut their mouths”) who felt he could only, albeit brilliantly, work in black and white. Nevertheless, he won acceptance and wrote home: “O, how cold I will be away from the sun; here I am a gentleman, at home a parasite.”

The best-documented of his journeys is the tour of the Low Countries he carried out in 1520-21 in an attempt to petition the new Holy Roman Emperor for a continuation of the stipend he had been paid by the previous emperor, Maximilian I. He travelled with his wife Agnes, their maid Susanna, and a sheaf of prints to gift or barter, and he kept a journal of the trip in which he also recorded their expenses (13 porpoise bristle brushes, two parrots in a cage, an ivory skull…). He was feted along the way and the exhibition contains a fabulous selection of the 140 drawings – 47 of them in charcoal – he made on the trip of people he met, including his Antwerp innkeeper. Many of the sitters’ names have been lost, and not all of them paid: “Item: Six people have given me nothing for doing their portraits in Brussels,” he noted. They are nevertheless vivid memorials, with their heads and shoulders set off against dark backgrounds and the handling varying in finesse, from fine to broad, within the same image.

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Two portraits in particular demonstrate his preternatural facility. One is a silverpoint (made using a metal stylus on chemically treated paper – a technique that did not allow for corrections), possibly of the painter Jan Provoost. It is a drawing of the utmost delicacy, composed of hatchings and a seemingly infinite number of lines – flicked, curled, extended, barely there. The other, a painting lent by the Prado in Madrid, shows a stern, middle-aged man with a fur collar and large hat. It has a degree of meticulous detail – downy chin, eyebrow hairs, highlighted curls – that declares how aware Dürer was of the earlier Van Eyckian tradition of Low Countries art and his keenness to show that he too was a master of this miniaturist manner. Both sitters are treated as material as well as men, with their skin and hair offering him fresh textures to add to those of their apparel.

Among these faces, and the many portraits included from artists in his circle such as Quinten Massys, Bernaert van Orley and Lucas van Leyden, the physiognomy that is missing is Dürer’s own. He was one of the most prolific and daring of self-portraitists, depicting himself at least 13 times in different media – one of which, according to Giorgio Vasari, was “painted in watercolour on very fine linen, so that it showed equally on both sides” and was sent as a gift to Raphael. Not one of these is in the exhibition to show what this man, so proud of his golden hair and his abilities (“Why has God given me such magnificent talent? It is a curse as well as a great blessing”), looked like as he criss-crossed Europe. His face would have moored a narrative that sometimes loses focus.

When Dürer returned to Nuremberg in 1521 he brought back something else alongside the gewgaws he had purchased. Somewhere in the Low Countries he contracted an illness, probably malaria, that was to stay with him and that contributed to his death in 1528, at 56. For the inveterate traveller and chronicler of tangible things, it was an invisible but fatal souvenir.

Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist
National Gallery,
London WC2, until 27 February

[see also: How William Hodges captured Captain Cook’s adventures]

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This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance