Albrecht Dürer was born in Nuremburg and apprenticed to the painter Michel Wolgemut. He travelled widely from 1492 to 1494, visiting Schongauer, the leading German painter and engraver at the time, in his workshop in Colmar. From 1494-5 he visited northern Italy, where the works of artists such as Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini had a powerful influence on him.
A painter, printmaker and theorist
In 1495 Dürer set up his own workshop in Nuremberg, specializing in the production of paintings and innovative, high quality prints, such as the Apocalypse series of 1498. From 1505 to 1507 he revisited Venice, where he painted the Feast of the Garlands for the German merchants (National Gallery, Prague). Dürer’s revitalization of print-making techniques attracted the attention of many Nuremberg scholars and patrons. They informed Dürer about the intellectual studies of the Italian Renaissance and advised him on subjects for his art. He later published his ideas on art theory.
His woodcuts inspired the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, to use the medium for colossal commemorative projects, in which Dürer played a leading part. Dürer excelled at a variety of drawing, painting and printing techniques. His Europe-wide fame rested on his graphic art. The Renaissance scholar and writer, Erasmus (1469-1536), called him “the Apelles of black lines,” a reference to the most famous ancient Greek artist. The British Museum’s collection of Dürer’s prints and drawings is one of the world’s finest and is representative of his entire career. The Museum also houses some of the blocks for his woodcuts.
The Triumphal Arch
The Triumphal Arch (top of page) is one of the largest prints ever produced. It was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519). The program was devised by the court historian and mathematician, Johann Stabius, who explains underneath that it was constructed after the model of ‘the ancient triumphal arches of the Roman Emperors’.
Above the central arch, entitled “Honor and Might,” is a genealogy of Maximilian in the form of a family tree (above). Above the left arch, “Praise,” and the right arch, “Nobility,” are represented events from his life. These are flanked by busts of emperors and kings on the left (image, left), and a column of Maximilian’s ancestors on the right. The outermost towers on either side show scenes from the private life of Maximilian.
The architect and painter Jörg Kölderer designed the overall appearance of the structure, and Dürer designed the individual scenes and architectural elements, some of which he sub-contracted to his pupils Hans Springinklee and Wolf Traut, and Albrecht Altdorfer of Regensburg.
The date 1515, which appears on the Arch, refers to the completion of the designs; the blocks were cut by Hieronymus Andreae of Nuremberg between 1515 and 1517. This impression belongs to the first edition of 1517-18 when about seven hundred sets were printed, but they are today very rare. It is undecorated apart from the word Halt in the German Halt Mass (“Keep to moderation”) which is gilded.
G. Bartrum (ed.), Albrecht Dürer and his legacy (London and N.J., The British Museum Press and Princeton University Press, 2002).
E. Panofsky, The life and art of Albrecht Dürer (Princeton University Press, 1945, 1971).
G. Bartrum, German Renaissance prints (London, The British Museum Press, 1995).
© Trustees of the British Museum