A new show on Albrecht Durer has been prepared for three years by curator Bernard Aikema in collaboration with Andrew John Martin and promoted by Milan city council's culture department. The exhibition focuses on Dürer's relationship with Italy and the artistic panorama of the cities of Venice, Rome, Mantua and Ferrara.
Featuring a selection including 12 paintings, three watercolors and 60 engravings, graphic works and books, the exhibition shows the mutual impact of Italian and German art in 16th century. It will display more than 100 Renaissance masterworks works by the Nuremberg master alongside those of contemporaries such as Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Altdorfer and Hans Baldung Grien in Germany; and Giorgione, Andrea Mantegna, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Solario, Giovanni Bellini and Titian in Italy.
The painting "Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman" (1505) from Vienna's Kunsthistoriches Museum was chosen by curators as a symbol of the exhibit, because of its highlighting the strong bond connecting German and northern Italian art. Young woman is depicted in loose brushstrokes in a close-up format following Giovanni Bellini - generous décolleté, blond curls and glistening necklace.
1.2. Dürer e il Rinascimento: tra Germania e Italia. Photo: milano.corriere.it
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was the greatest German Renaissance artist. His vast body of work includes altarpieces and religious works, numerous portraits and self-portraits, and copper engravings. Dürer theorized extensively on linear perspective and anatomical proportion, concerns that were articulated in a vast body of written work as well as in his paintings and prints.
He was born in Nuremberg, one of the strongest artistic and commercial centers in Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Dürer revolutionized printmaking, elevating it to the level of an independent art form. He expanded its tonal and dramatic range, and provided the imagery with a new conceptual foundation. Dürer was the first artist who brought the influences of Flemish and Italian aesthetics into Germanic art.
Dürer visited Italy twice, from 1494 to 1495 and again from 1505 to 1507. Later the infleuence of Italian masters can be seen in developing a new interest in the human form, as demonstrated by artist's nude and antique studies.
The artist also cast a bold light on his own image through a number of striking self-portraits—drawn, painted, and printed. They reveal an increasingly successful and self-assured master, eager to assert his creative genius and inherent nobility, while still marked by a clear-eyed, often foreboding outlook.
"His oeuvre formed a unique bridge between the arts of north and south of the Alps, for the artist, being influenced by Italian art, has exerted as much influence on Italian art in return," the exhibition website said.
The exhibition is divided into six sections. The first is dedicated to 'Durer, German art, Venice, Italy' with two 'Venetian' masterworks - Feast of the Rosary and Christ among the Doctors.
Too fragile to move from its home in Prague, “Rose Garlands” is represented here by a fine, early-17th-century copy, juxtaposed with Bellini’s altarpiece “Madonna and Child with Doge Barbarigo” to show the impact of the Venetian’s bright pyramidal composition on Dürer’s theatrical staging and glowing, blended colours. As Dürer said: “I also silenced all the artists who said I was good at engraving but, as a painter, I did not know how to deal with colours. Now everyone says they have never seen more beautiful colours.”
Mary in deep blue is enthroned under a baldachin with Emperor Maximilian I, in red, and the gold-robed Pope — temporal and religious powers united — kneeling either side; an angel plays the lute — a direct appropriation from Bellini — and among over a dozen identifiable figures, Dürer depicts himself with flowing locks at the back, an onlooker holding a sheet which states that the painting took five months.
Left: "Feast of the Rose, Garlands altarpiece" by Durer, 1506. The National Gallery in Prague.
1.2. Giovanni Bellini’s altarpiece “Madonna and Child with Doge Barbarigo”, 1488. San Pietro Martire, Murano.
“Christ among the Doctors” was also painted in Venice in 1506, as a "Feast of the Rose". Its most animating feature is the adolescent Christ’s gesticulating fingers, contrasting with the gnarled hands of the aged doctors. But the composition of heads emerging from a black background arranged around a focal point precisely echoes 16th-century Italian compositions, and one elderly grotesque is based on a Leonardo figure, while another was used by Lorenzo Lotto for his “Madonna with Child” (from the Borghese). Dürer’s expressive “Christ”, says curator Bernard Aikema, “skilfully blends the two Renaissance worlds of northern Europe and Italy”.
Left: Albrecht Durer. “Christ among the Doctors”, 1506. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Another room focuses on 'Geometry, measure, architecture' as Durer was not only a painter and engraver bur also a scholar. Hundreds of surviving drawings, letters, and diary entries document Dürer’s travels through Italy and the Netherlands (1520–21), attesting to his insistently scientific perspective and demanding artistic judgment.
Albrecht Dürer was famous of his large format compositions, where however the artist focuses on details, and this constant focus on the surrounding landscape, simultaneously on the big and small, on the near and far, on the actual subject and on what surrounds it, is in line with the artistic development of the time, both in the North and in the South of the Alps. Next to the landscape in all its manifestations, the artists studied the flora and fauna, up to the individual threads of grass and insects.
The exhibition continues with a vision of how, around the sixteenth century, the "discovery of the individual" develops through portraiture. The demand for individual portraits began to increase enormously from the second half of the fifteenth century: first reserved for nobles and wealthy patrons, the desire to be portrayed subsequently involved a much wider band of society. During the sixteenth century, portraiture became more and more popular and diversified, so much so that many artists began to define themselves as portraitists - a completely new specialization.
The first modern portraiture, in spite of all its pictorial formulas and conventions, ultimately has to do with the construction of its image. Subject and artist, at various levels of collaboration, build an artifice that reflects the appearance of the subject at the time of the execution of the portrait.
The androgynous, provocative “Girl in a Red Beret” (1507) — sometimes described as a boy — from Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie is a narrow-cut typical Venetian composition suffused with a serene play of light and shade. Rich, warm and painterly, these look like Italian works, yet they are full of the incisive clarity of detail and heightened textural accuracy — smiling lips, pellucid skin, the drama of black velvet ribbon falling just below a bare shoulder or a ruby dangling from a crumpled cap — built on Dürer’s virtuosity as master draughtsman.
A separate area showcases parts of his Apocalypse, a famous series of scenes from the Book of Revelation, likely the first book that was illustrated and published by the artist, and the series on the Large Passion, exhibited together with Melancholia, Durer's most famous engraving, on loan from the National Gallery.
1.2. Albrecht Durer. Melencolia symbol I, 1514.
Dürer’s first crossing of the Alps, probably in 1496-97, is undocumented; he was young and obscure. He became famous through the most extensive work he made on his return: the “Apocalypse” woodcuts of seething dragons and cataclysmic riders of doom, published in 1498 as illustrations for the Book of Revelation, which struck a chord with apocalyptic fears as the half-millennium approached.
Dürer revolutionized printmaking, elevating it to the level of an independent art form. He expanded its tonal and dramatic range, and provided the imagery with a new conceptual foundation. By the age of thirty, Dürer had completed or begun three of his most famous series of woodcuts on religious subjects: The Apocalypse, small, self-contained groups of images, such as the so-called Meisterstiche (master engravings) featuring Knight, Death, and the Devil, Melencolia I, which were intended more for connoisseurs and collectors than for popular devotion.
The last section is on Classicism and its alternatives.
1.2. Leonardo’s ‘St Jerome in the Wilderness’ (c1490) © Vatican City Directorate of Museums
The exhibition turned out to be very diverse. It is impossible to define a dominant theme: exquisite watercolor of a landscape, a crab, a dead duck; later likenesses of male dignitaries, notably “Portrait of a Clergyman” borrowed from Washington.
Albrecht Durer's retrospective will be on show at Milan's Palazzo Reale to June 24.
Title illustration: "Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman" by Albrecht Durer at Milan's Palazzo Reale.
Based on materials from ANSA, theMET, Financial Times. Photo: milano.corriere.it