by Roderick Conway Morris

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'Dürer and Italy': A master's impact on Renaissance art

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 18 May 2007
Borghese Gallery, Rome
The pose in Caravaggio's
'Self- portrait as Bacchus,'
is taken from a Dürer
woodcut of 'Christ Derided.'



No artist better fits Thomas Carlyle's definition of genius, as the 'transcendent capacity of taking trouble,' than Albrecht Dürer. The industry of the man was breathtaking, his mastery of detail astonishing, yet everything he did seemed fresh and newly minted.

The most intellectual of northern Renaissance artists, but the one who responded most immediately to nature, to the world and the people around him, he was profoundly religious yet supremely open-minded.

Dürer formed a unique bridge between the arts north and south of the Alps, being influenced by Italian art but exerting as much influence on Italian art in return. His prints inspired Italian artists for generations. His manual 'Of Human Proportion,' written in German and translated into Latin and Italian, became a perennial mainstay of Italian art education. (He was working on a sequel, 'On Horses,' when he died in 1528.)

To deal with this vast subject in a single exhibition is a tall order, but 'Dürer and Italy,' at the Scuderie del Quirinale and curated by Kristina Herrman Fiore, triumphantly rises to the challenge. With 20 paintings, 10 watercolors, 33 drawings and nearly 60 original prints by the master himself, juxtaposed with an almost equal number of other works by other hands, Dürer's development and the impact he had on his fellow artists, is laid out as never before. (The exhibition continues until June 10.)

Born in Nuremberg in 1471, Dürer first followed in the footsteps of his goldsmith father (who was Hungarian). But he formed the ambition to be a painter at a very tender age, demonstrating amazing skills as a draftsman. Apprenticed to Michel Wolgemut, a painter and designer of woodcuts for books, Dürer subsequently set out on the customary 'Wanderjahre' ('wandering years') of aspiring craftsmen seeking to broaden their knowledge before creating a suitably accomplished 'masterpiece' that would entitle them to be enlisted in the relevant guild as independent masters. Dürer's peregrinations took him to Colmar, Basel and Strasbourg, and then he headed south.

He crossed the Brenner Pass and appears to have made it at least as far as Venice in 1494-95. The details of this first Italian visit are sketchy, but there is ample evidence in his work that it took place.

Some Italian pictures, such as Mantegna's engravings, could have been seen in Germany, along with ancient Roman coins, carved gems and cameos, which aroused the young Dürer's interest in classical sculpture. But he now became familiar with much else, including the drawings of Gentile Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci.

By the second visit to Italy, in 1505-06, Dürer's name had spread, through the publication of prints of his engravings on wood and copper. He had already established a style unmistakably his own, but this continued to blossom in the light of ancient and modern Italian art. An intriguing example of this process is represented by the equestrian monument of Roberto Malatesta (on loan from the Louvre), then in the old basilica of St. Peter's. Kristina Herrman Fiore plausibly argues that this late 15th-century work was a primary source for one of Dürer's most famous prints, 'Knight, Death and the Devil,' suggesting that the German journeyed as far as Rome.

Popularity in Italy came at a price as Dürer's prints were extensively pirated. In 1506, the engraver and disseminator of Raphael's images, Marcantonio Raimondi, came to Venice from Bologna and, according to his own account, spent almost every penny he had buying up Dürer prints with the purpose of copying them. In a rare and early recognition of artist's copyright, the Venetian Senate later forbade Raimondi from employing Dürer's distinctive 'AD' monogram on his counterfeited sheets.

The Venetians made other efforts to persuade the German to take up residence in the city, and he delighted in his elegant lifestyle there. As he wrote to his humanist friend Willibrand Pirckheimer: 'In Venice I have become a gentleman.' His relationship with Giovanni Bellini, the most venerable of Venetian artists, was one of mutual admiration. Bellini went out of his way to praise the German publicly, and Dürer returned the compliment, also writing to Pirckheimer: 'He is very old, but in painting still the best.'

The second half of the exhibition opens up a fascinating tour d'horizon of the Master of Nuremberg's enormous influence on his Italian colleagues - in paintings, prints, drawings, bronzes, inlays and majolica.

Such was the originality and suggestiveness of their compositions and wealth of detail that even small Dürer prints could form the foundation of large canvases. In Venice none of the major painters remained untouched by him: from Giovanni Bellini, Cima and Vittore Carpaccio to Giorgione, Lorenzo Lotto, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. By the mid-16th century, when Giorgio Vasari published his 'Lives,' Dürer's effect was so ubiquitous as to be impossible to ignore. Normally insisting on the primacy of all things Florentine, Vasari was nonetheless obliged to register Dürer's talents and influence. Andrea del Sarto, Jacopo Pontormo, Domenico Beccafumi and Agnolo Bronzino were but some of the Tuscans who owed a clear debt to the Nuremberger.

Raphael may well have encountered Dürer in Venice, and he continually turned to his prints for inspiration. To take a single case, his frescoes in the Loggia at the Vatican often directly borrowed figures and landscape features - taking elements from three different prints in one scene alone.

To a remarkable degree Dürer's influence cut across schools of painting, as is strikingly demonstrated here. On the one hand Caravaggio took from a Dürer woodcut of 'Christ Derided' the pose and musculature of the seminude figure in his 'Self-portrait as Bacchus' (a somewhat risqué transformation); on the other, Annibale Carracci for his 'Vision of St. Eustace' made equally unabashed use of the German's 'St. Eustace,' one of his most densely textured compositions. Even Lanfranco's 'St. Magdalene Carried to Heaven by Angels,' seemingly so extreme in Baroque gesture and drama, plainly derives from Dürer's woodcut of the same title.

The central position of Dürer for Italian, and indeed Catholic art in general (El Greco, Velazquez and Rubens were in due course to fall under his spell), was unaffected by the Counter-Reformation. The Master of Nuremberg's friendship with Luther and the esteem he expressed for him was never held against him by the Roman Church. Indeed, Dürer's work was endorsed by the Council of Trent.

Dürer's vernacular writings, like Luther's Bible, played an important part in establishing German as an alternative to Latin as a language of academic and scientific discourse. And the rapid translation of the artist's textbooks on art, mathematics, geometry and fortifications into Latin and other vernacular languages was an index of his status as a leading theorist of the age.

He was the first German to deal with art theory, and the breadth of his interests in the arts, science and military engineering placed him firmly in the tradition of Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Leonardo, Michelangelo, the Sangallo family and the other great Italian Renaissance artist-engineers. His 1527 treatise on fortifications was the first printed book of its kind, making groundbreaking use of bird's-eye views and perspective drawings. And innovations he advocated, such as 'caponairs' or bombproof chambers to protect defenders and artillery, were later to become standard features of fortresses.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023