01 December 2021, The Tablet

On the road with Albrecht Dürer

On the road with Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer’s Christ among the Doctors, 1506
© Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid


From lucre to Luther, Dürer’s obsessions gave him superstar status among Europe’s rich and influential patrons, writes Laura Gascoigne

For the Europeans of the Renaissance, pandemics were a part of life. The bubonic plague would sweep through in waves, and when the wave hit, it was sauve qui peut. If you were able to get away, you did – and that was the action Albrecht Dürer took after the plague struck his home city of Nuremberg in September 1494. And the 23-year-old artist killed two birds with his journey: crossing the Alps to escape disease would give the final polish to his art education, and made him important international contacts in Venice.

Whether he took his new wife Agnes with him, we don’t know; artists’ wives usually stayed behind to mind the studio. We don’t know much about this first trip to Italy, as all he left us are sketches of places passed en route. But his next Venetian trip of 1505, also coinciding with a plague – during which Agnes was certainly left in charge of the studio – is vividly documented in 10 chatty letters home to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer detailing his artistic triumphs and his shopping trips for luxury items – hat feathers and precious stones – on his friend’s behalf.

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