When the National Gallery announced their spring show Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist more than a year ago, they could not have foreseen just how envious we’d be. Lucky Dürer. Free to travel, to adventure, to marvel at the strangeness of the natural world, to raise an eyebrow at the fashions of abroad, to collect curios. What wouldn’t we give for Wanderjahre – wandering years – of our own?
Dürer’s Journeys is an omnium gatherum sort of show: sketchbooks, letters woodcuts, engravings, landscapes, portraits, altarpieces and nature studies, all arising from the inspiration the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) took from his travels. We see him at his holiest and his worldliest, stirred to spiritual ecstasy and exactingly scientifi c. We join him, silverpoint in hand, on the high roads across the Alps to Italy in the mid-1490s, to Venice in 1505-07 and to the Low Countries in 1520-1. Curator Dr Susan Foister has secured rare and spectacular loans including The Madonna and Child (Washington), Christ Among the Doctors (Madrid) and the Saint Jerome from Lisbon.
Dürer was the son of a goldsmith. He was apprenticed to his father Albrecht Dürer the Elder and then to the Nuremberg painter and woodcut designer Michael Wohlgemut. In April 1490, newly independent, he set off on a grand artistic tour to Frankfurt, Mainz, Cologne, Colmar, Strasbourg and probably Basel. This is an exhibition that calls for a map. In Strasbourg it is thought he painted his Self Portrait Holding a Thistle. In true gap-year style, he has let his hair get long. He affects a ridiculous hat.
In Nuremberg on 7 July 1494, Dürer married Agnes Frey, the daughter of brassmaker. No honeymoon to speak of before Dürer was on the move again: over the Alps to Northern Italy, stopping at Innsbruck, Trent and Venice.
Returning to Nuremberg in 1495, he opened his own workshop and began to publish prints. Five years of prodigious productivity followed. In 1505, in Venice again, Dürer wrote to his great friend, the lawyer and humanist Willibald Pirckheimer: “How shall I long for the sun in the cold. Here I am a gentleman, at home I am a parasite.” In Italy, an artist was a uomo universale, feted, elevated, esteemed. In Germany, he was a mere tradesman. Dürer took dancing lessons (he gave up at the second attempt), bought a new French mantle and shopped at Pirckheimer’s request for oriental rugs, crane feathers, paintings, jewellery and precious stones.
Dürer never lost his wanderlust. In 1520, he was away again, this time with Agnes and her maid Susanna. They went to Bamberg, then by boat along the Main to Frankfurt, to Mainz, then to Cologne, Antwerp and Brussels. Here, Dürer saw the exhibition of gold art and artefacts from Montezuma’s Mexico, sent to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V by Captain Hernando Cortés.
He was a man much-banqueted. No longer a “parasite”, but as the exhibition catalogue has it “the fi rst superstar of art history”. After Aachen, Duren and Cologne, he made for Bergen op Zoom and Zeeland to see a whale that had been washed up on the shore. He was nearly shipwrecked on a tour of the islands and fell ill, perhaps with malaria, in the swampy marshlands. He never saw the whale. In early 1521, he was in Bruges and Ghent which the art historian Erwin Panofsky has called the “Mecca and Medina” of German artists. It was a pilgrimage not of the soul but of the eye. The relics Dürer sought weren’t the remains of the saints but the works of the blessed Bellini, the marvellous Mantegna, the glorious Jan Gossaert and the venerable Jan van Eyck. He paid his devotions en route. There was another motive, too. He took sheaves of prints, which he sold along the way. It was an early form of promotour. Woodcuts were sometimes known as Flugblätter – literally “flying pages”. News and images travelled, even when people could not.
To those of us still stuck at home, Dürer’s itinerary is a sort of torture. It will be a thrill this spring to join Dürer on his journeys and to travel at a brush length’s remove.
Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist is at the National Gallery from 6 March to 13 June 2021