Albrecht Durer has been one of my favorite artists for as long as I can remember. As a child, maybe 10 or 12 years old, I became infatuated with a Dürer print that my father inherited from his grandfather, and which hung in our suburban living room outside New York City. We weren't a family of art collectors so I'm sorry to say it wasn't cared for properly. Ravaged and browned and spotted with stains it was fascinating to me for its obvious age, and for what I can only call it's Albrecht Dürer-ness. Something about the intricacy of the linework and delicate touch so evident in his draftsmanship immediately swept me away. I remember taking it to the kitchen table and examining it with a magnifying glass; repeatedly. I tried to copy it. I found myself almost romantically infatuated with his crisp lines and hatching technique. Adoration is not too strong a word for what I feel, to this day, when I consider his artwork. Such a talent.
If you’re unfamiliar with Dürer, he was a German printmaker and painter and the uncontested “king” of the Northern Renaissance. He was born in Nuremberg in 1471 and is widely considered “the Leonardo Da Vinci of the North.” In addition to his artistic pursuits he was also a mathematician and a theorist and an anatomist. He was the direct artistic and stylistic inheritor of Martin Schongauer who was the leading printmaker of the generation just before Albrecht's.
Dürer became famous all over Europe while still in his early 20’s (as did his exact contemporary, Michelangelo) and his fame has never ebbed or waned since. Thanks to his woodcuts and engravings his work was portable and relatively inexpensive and his name traveled far and wide. As a devout supporter of Martin Luther (they knew each other) he became a key propagandist of the reformation. His images brought the concepts and precepts of Protestantism to the masses. Some 3/5ths of his work was religious in nature but not in a ‘boring’ or stale way. He completely revolutionized the fields of illustration, woodcutting and engraving. He was also the first artist to repeatedly paint, sketch, and draw his own image over the course of his lifetime, essentially inventing the genre of self-portraiture. And while he did a lot of commissioned paintings and altarpieces, which are impressive in their own right, it’s his draftsmanship above all for which he is widely revered.
Without Durer there would have been no Rembrandt… the printmaking and self portraits which Rembrandt’s fame largely rests upon were directly appropriated from his hero of the century before, Albrecht.
So, being in Bavaria, I had to make a pilgrimage to his home which has stood for over 500 years. It’s one of the few buildings in Nuremberg that wasn’t destroyed by the Allied bombings in World War II. Some of the building (the stove, sink and oven in the main kitchen) are actually original. The rest was rebuilt in the 19th century. Dürer lived here with his wife Agnes; his mother; several servants; as well as a few exotic animals (including a monkey and a parrot, both of which he drew often).
Unfortunately I found the house itself to be a bit anticlimactic. Probably because I’d wanted to visit for years and years, I had built it up into something more than it was. It’s just an old house with a handful of period rooms. There are no ‘original’ Durer’s there on display; just a bunch of copies of his paintings (very competently executed) by various artists throughout the centuries, as well as several contemporary woodcuts and engravings by contemporary artists using his style. None of his personal effects or belongings are there. They don’t even know, with certainty, which rooms were used for what (except for the kitchen which is still original). I’d hoped for something more but honestly… I’m glad I went.
For a casual fan of his art it may not be worth the visit. But if you’re a Dürer fan it’s a must-see just because you’ll never be closer to the Master. Sitting in what they believed to be his bedroom, and standing in what was (almost definitely) his art studio I felt a hum… a distinct, buzzing energy which I imagine is what the faithful feel in the throes of a good prayer.