Albrecht Dürer, Renaissance Art, Renaissance Culture, Renaissance Humanism, Renaissance Writing, Social Networking, Twitter
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), prominent mathematician, painter, and master engraver, was one of the most recognizable and influential cultural figures of the late Northern Renaissance. One of the keys to his success was his rapid understanding of what the relatively new technology of mass printing could provide in terms of distributing certain forms of art, such as woodcuts and engravings. While the great master painters of the era (and Dürer was among them) saw their works disappear into the private collections of their wealthy and aristocratic patrons, Dürer was able to produce, sell, and distribute works of art such as his famed engraving Melancolia I, seen here; thus, his influence spread rapidly, bolstered by access to printed copies of his excellent engravings as well as his general, word-of-mouth reputation.
I always find it fascinating to see what a great artist such as Dürer (indeed, his engravings were known throughout Northern Europe as “meisterstiche,” or masterworks, and were largely unrivaled among contemporary works) had to say about general life. To that end, I’d like to highlight an excerpt from his own daily journals of his trip across Northern Europe in 1520, dubbed “A Painter’s Journey” by more recent editors. This is a wonderful little read, and has many moments that underscore the elements I love about reading period journal / diary pieces such as this. The first paragraph reads:
“At Antwerp I went to Jobst Plankfelt’s inn, and the same evening the Fugger’s factor, Bernhard Stecher, invited me and gave me a sumptuous meal. My wife, however, dined at the inn. I paid the driver 3 gold florins to bring us there, and 1 stiver I paid for carrying the goods.”
These two simple sentences offer so much — a brief glimpse into the marriage of one of Europe’s greatest late Renaissance artists and thinkers, his own social life, and a sense of what a trip to Antwerp cost at the time. 3 florins would not have been a fortune by any means, but would have been a considerable sum for someone of the lower classes. Dürer notes that he paid 2 pfenning for bread and ink (each), and as near as my calculations can tell, a florin c. 1520 would have been worth around 312 pfenning (; so, 3 florins would have purchased about 470 loaves of bread. In short, traveling to Antwerp cost Dürer a sum of money that would have gone quite a ways towards supplying a working family with food for a full year. Doubtless, he could afford it; as a prominent artist at the peak of a long career, counting royalty (including Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I) among his patrons, Dürer was decidedly upper middle class. He even paid wages for his wife’s maid to accompany them on the journey.
And indeed, Dürer’s ego seems to stand out in this excerpt. Of his treatment while attending a feast held by the Antwerp painter’s guild on St. Oswald’s day (February 29th — a “leap”-ing saint!), he notes that “as [he] was being led to the table the company stood on both sides as if they were leading some great lord. And there were amongst them men of very high position, who all behaved most respectfully towards me with deep courtesy, and promised to do everything in their power agreeable to me that they knew of.” He goes on to describe various tributes paid to him by the syndic (a member of the guild who represented guild interests in matters of legal interest and municipal government), the town carpenter, and numerous servants.
But Dürer’s ego (and purse) are not the only items of interest in this journal. He also describes the procession following the Sunday of Mary’s Assumption, beginning at the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp and continuing through the town. All of the guilds and noble / wealthy houses are represented, and they follow one-another in order of rank. Dürer’s great eye for detail conveys a wealth of information about rank and hierarchy in this event; the goldsmiths are first, followed by the painters, the masons, and so on. Shopkeepers, merchants, and apprentices follow at the rear of this procession. Soldiers come next, then the magistrates, and then representatives of religious orders and foundations.
At the very end were clergy, scholars, treasures and relics. Masques (elaborately costumed plays depicting crucial scenes from Bible history) were performed on wagons and other structures that accompanied the procession: the Old Testament prophets appeared in chronological order, followed by key moments from the New Testament, “such as the Annunciation, the Three Holy Kings… also how Our Lady fled to Egypt — very devout — and many other things.” The parade was obviously quite extensive and lavish, as he closes his account of the event by writing “so many things were there that I could never write them all in a book, so I let it well alone.” I love this section in particular, because it’s a little glimpse at the world of “community theater” in Dürer’s age; as in England, holy days and festival occasions were often celebrated with a series of plays, performed by guildmen, staged on wagons that traveled in parades around the cities and towns. While many of these have been lost to time, the English literary tradition contains records of quite a number of these; many of them are specific to regions or towns (the Brome Abraham and Isaac, the Wakefield Cycle, which is perhaps the most complete set we have, and a variety of others), where these performances were held well into the 1590s, despite being frowned upon by the ascendant Anglican church.
From here in the excerpt, Dürer goes on to describe different visits to other guildhalls in other cities, where he offers various gifts to other artists and workmen, who likewise celebrate his presence through feasting and more gift-giving. And it is here that I find myself revising my original reading of this piece as largely ego-driven, as I realize that the purpose of Dürer’s trip is not primarily (or at least, solely) to have his ego stroked by fawning guildsmen across Northern Europe. Rather, it’s a trip aimed at self-promotion and self-branding, of advertising his skill, his wit, intelligence, and cultural value via personal appearances. In other words — Renaissance social networking.
Even a great cultural figure such as Dürer had to constantly market himself to stay on top of the game. His work for Maximilian and other aristocrats would earn him praise in the highest social circles, but praise cannot be buttered, dunked in soup, and eaten (unlike the bread he could have purchased with his florins). A trip such as this accomplished many things: it allowed him to visit old friends and patrons, seek out new clients, and visit the guild halls. In turn, the lavish treatment he received during these visits was both a sign of respect for a genuine master of the craft and an attempt to please Dürer, in the hopes that he may decide to pass work on to guild members in Antwerp or elsewhere. Even his presence could be seen as a potential financial boon; a guild member might be able to tell potential clients that the great master had praised his work during a recent visit. Finally, as suggested above, the trip brought Dürer into contact with people who might be able to keep his own reputation afloat, who might be able to offer work or connections to see him through, should a patron’s favor prove fickle.
It’s fun to think that Dürer might have found it wonderful to sit in his own workshop, safe and sound, with a good cup of tea or mug of ale, and simply fling his presence out into the digital world: “Check out my new #meisterstiche, Melancolia I. Academics: You’ll never guess what these symbols mean! #punkinghighered.” But of course, he certainly had no such luxuries available. Instead, he had to put boots on the ground and “make it rain,” as the kids say (or did at one point, anyway). For me, this provides a nice little connection between Dürer / his era and modern-day life. Even a great artist needs to master the art of self-promotion to stay on top (look up Lady Ga-Ga for further examples), and it’s no easier as an academic — conferences, articles, WIP talks, projects… the more I think about it, the more I see the echoes between Dürer’s visit to an Antwerp painter’s guild in 1520 and my own treks to far-flung academic conferences in the 2010’s, although unlike Dürer, I generally have to buy my own dinner 😉