- Albrecht Dürer and the Venetian Renaissance
In Albrecht Dürer and the Venetian Renaissance Katherine Crawford Luber evaluates the influence of Venetian painting on the art of Albrecht Dürer after his 1505–07 journey to Italy. Responding both to the scholarly tendency to celebrate Dürer primarily as a graphic artist, and to other technical studies that do not connect their conclusions to actual interpretations of works of art, Luber uses [End Page 581] infrared reflectography and formal analysis to demonstrate the significance of Dürer's appropriation of Venetian technique.
Armed with the findings of her technical research and careful reading of the literature, Luber advances unorthodox theories, most provocatively that Dürer traveled to Venice only once, in 1505–07, and not twice, as most scholars accept. Whereas the evidence of Dürer's later trip is overwhelming, evidence for the 1494–95 trip is less secure. Luber argues that the Venetian influence in Dürer's art from after 1495 derived from prints Dürer could have seen while still in Nuremberg. Textual evidence includes a letter written to his friend Pirckheimer in Nuremberg, where the artist seems to refer to an earlier journey, and Christoph Scheurl's 1508 allusion to two separate journeys. These two passages are ambiguous, unlike the letters Dürer himself penned from Venice in the sixteenth century. Later scholarly acceptance of such questionable evidence depends on the Burckhardtian notion of Italy as the epicenter of the Renaissance and the destination of German travelers, and on conventions of biographical narrative, for example, the paradigm of Goethe's two trips to Italy.
Oddly, Luber disregards pictorial evidence for Dürer's earlier trip to Italy, specifically his 1498 self-portrait. She writes that Dürer's self-portraits, "spring directly out of Dürer's Northern, gothic sensibility without recourse to typically Italian prototypes" (54). But how do we account for the artist's Venetian attire in the 1498 picture, or the Alpine landscapes visible through the window? And what exactly is a "gothic sensibility"?
The centerpiece of Luber's book is the Feast of the Rose Garlands. Before the trip to Venice, Dürer typically used detailed underdrawings for his paintings. After his trip to Venice, Dürer also relied on preparatory drawings. The underdrawings in the Rose Garlands are abbreviated compared to those in his earlier work, and they are supplemented by more detailed studies on blue paper, the favored medium for preparatory drawings in Venice. Because these preparatory drawings privilege experiments in color over graphic detail, they challenge the received notion that Dürer was primarily a draftsman, even in his painted works. The use of atmospheric perspective in the townscape in the background of the Rose Garlands epitomizes Dürer's painterly approach.
Dürer did not abandon his earlier graphic approach, but continued to move fluently between Northern and Venetian modes. Luber argues forcefully for the confluence of form and meaning in her interpretation of the Virgin with the Pear. Infrared reflectography reveals Northern building-up of thin layers of oil glazes over a precise underdrawing in the Virgin's face, and thickly applied glazes over a generalized underdrawing in the figure of Christ, in the manner of Italo-Byzantine painting. These two techniques contrast the humanity of the Virgin with the divinity of Christ, in keeping with medieval glosses on biblical texts associating the promise of the Old Testament with underdrawing, and the fulfillment of that promise in the New Testament with painting.
This elegant argument connects style and content, but nonetheless remains implausible. First, as Luber herself admits, Dürer's familiarity with these texts [End Page 582] remains speculative. Second, a beholder seeing the picture with the naked eye could not perceive the presence or absence of underdrawing. What any beholder surely would notice is the Christ's strikingly muscular body. How might this compare with Jan Gossaert's Prado Madonna, where the Virgin is as muscular and...