Katherine Crawford Luber. Albrecht Durer and the Venetian Renaissance.
"To see the hand of Durer at work" is the chief concern of this bold study of the greatest German Renaissance artist's vision and technique (9). Ingeniously uniting the art historian's scholarship with a detective's bravura, Luber provides us with a persuasive rebuttal of the commonly held belief that Durer, "a pivotal figure in the interchange of artistic techniques and theories between Italy and the North" (169), traveled to Venice twice. Enthusiastic and erudite, Albrecht Durer and the Venetian Renaissance is a study in influence which calls into question the unwary division of Durer's art into graphic on the one hand, and painterly on the other.
In line with Vasari's "disegno" (Florence's commitment to drawing/ perspective) over "colore" (Venice's engagement with color/light, which Durer experienced in situ, 1-3), criticism has perceived Durer as an accomplished draughtsman and revolutionary engraver, but a poor painter. Luber scrutinizes first the mature Durer's paintings and then his late graphic work--which relies on Venetian colore and is painterly rather than graphic: "Durer drew as if he were painting" (109)--to cast a shadow of doubt upon Durer's putative itineraries. Luber presents her argument for what never was, in her opinion, a first Venetian journey, but rather a convenient instance of post-Goethean criticism to speak of Durer's two Italian journeys instead of one, in order to frame his most prolific phase (1494-1507). It is precisely in these two periods when the Black Death beset Nuremberg--a fact which promoted the mainstream assumption that Durer fled twice from his hometown to travel south. It must be emphasized in this context how profoundly Luber's negative assessment of Durer's 1494 journey to Venice uproots previous presumptions of "dating" and "attribution" (8), especially when it comes to Durer's watercolor landscapes, which Luber dates at the beginning of the 16th, not at the end of the 15th century.
Offering new insights into the artist's technique, Albrecht Durer and the Venetian Renaissance closely examines 25 of Durer's works (with a focus on Feast of the Rose Garlands), gradually disclosing the effects of Durer's apprenticeship in Venice. The book has a pronounced interest in Durer's careful working methods, and assesses "technique" as an "interpretable" (171) entity that defines a work more distinctly than a theme or motif. With 101 color plates and illustrations, this intriguing study presents a wealth of visual material, analyzed with the author's unwavering acumen in reading detail as tell-tale clue. That her commitment to technique as an indicator of time and place simultaneously consolidates a historical outlook is enthralling, even though discussions of cultural implications remain fairly slim. Luber's methods of exploring Durer's hand nonetheless reinforce the cross-disciplinary dimension of her project. Moving beyond the perceptive capacities of the naked eye, her approach includes the laboratory (for analyzing chemical detail), as well as investigative technology (e.g. infrared reflectography). While her claims might seem extravagant, Luber's paradigm is as evidential as her conjectures, inferences, and storytelling are mesmerizing.
In the introductory chapter (1-39), she explains that until 1505, Durer relied on substantial northern underdrawings (17), that his abbreviating these in favor of preparatory drawings on "carta azzurra" (80) coincided with his one Venetian sojourn (18), and that his late work demonstrates how well he combined southern with northern Renaissance technique (19), unfolding how his postVenetian portraits continue to rely on minimal underdrawings (23). These four observations are arranged around one essential outcome: Durer stayed in Venice only once (1505-1507). In chapter two, "Durer's Mythic and Real Presence in Italy: An Argument Against Two Separate Journeys," Luber states: "I do not believe that any scholar will be able to prove that Durer was or was not in Venice during 1494-5. However, my study of technique supposes the position that it is highly unlikely that Durer was in Venice before the turn of the sixteenth century" (76).
Luber does not stand alone in her belief of there having been a single journey. Charles Ephrussi and Daniel Burckhardt, whom she mentions in this context, likewise suggested one as opposed to two journeys, whereas Jacob Burckhardt, Hermann Grimm, Gustav Friedrich Waagen, Heinrich Wofflin, Joseph Meder, and Moritz Thausing presuppose two. Solidified by 20th-century criticism (mainly Erwin Panofsky, who followed Thausing rather than Ephrussi), this latter belief has circulated as "Durerdogma" (69). While the 1505-1507 sojourn is as well documented as Durer's 1520s travels to the Netherlands, the year 1494 lacks "evidence showing an awareness on Durer's part of any Italianate or Venetian painterly techniques before 1505" (38), most criticism nonetheless supported this earlier journey, reading Durer's watercolors as actual vistas seen on his Alpine and Italian travels, while ignoring difficulties in dating (55), as well as the intense mercantile relations and exchanges of art between Nuremberg and Venice. Luber polemically asks why, with regard to Durer's Rhinocerus, "no scholar has supposed that Durer traveled to subSaharan Africa to see such a creature" (59).
When turning to Feast of the Rose Garlands (1505) in chapters three and four, subtitled "Durer's Appropriation of Venetian Painterly Techniques" (77109), and "Durer, Giovanni Bellini, and Eristic Imitation in the Renaissance" (110-25), Luber truly comes into her own. This large altarpiece, as a result of which Durer became famous in Venice, suffered repeated damage. It presents itself in fragmented paint layers, and represents the essential "example of the mutual influence of northern and southern traditions through the vehicle of Durer" (84). Luber completes this central section of the book by mounting a fine comparison between Durer's painting and Bellini's San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1506), including a detailed discussion of competitive imitation as a Renaissance practice.
Chapters five and six, entitled "After Venice: Concordance of Technique and Meaning" (126-48), and "Repetition and the Manipulation of Meaning: Drawings and Paintings After 1512" (149-68), comprise an in-depth examination of the Virgin's human versus Christ's divine flesh in the Virgin with the Pear, as well as a precise parallel reading of the two renderings (the Vienna and the Nuremberg version) of the portrait Maximilian I (160), showing "how Durer's exposure to Venetian painting techniques in 1505-7 resonated throughout the rest of his career" (3). A short Conclusion, two Appendices (The History of the Conditions of the Feast of the Rose Garlands, and Durer's Theoretical Writing on Color), a List of Abbreviations, a Glossary, extensive Notes, a thorough Bibliography, and an Index constitute the last third of this provocative contribution to Durer scholarship (169-258), which addresses a scholarly audience, while equally teaching the general reader the tricks of the trade.
It is a challenge to point to weak spots in this remarkable book. However, committed as Luber is to Durer's representation of spatial depth, it comes as a surprise that she makes no mention of his Treatise on Measurement, in which plasticity is addressed as something Durer was trained in while an apprentice in a goldsmith's workshop. Also, Luber's use of Goethe's journeys as a template will hardly convince the literary scholar, nor will her analysis of etymology and semantics be welcomed by the philologist. Rather, forced passages such as the ones on German "Ding" and Latin "redire" (62-67) simply communicate her eagerness to provide further evidence that Durer was not in Venice in 1494. Be that as it may, while engaging in a Benjaminian psychoanalysis of things in this rewriting of a crucial chapter of art history, Albrecht Durer and the Venetian Renaissance provides the reader with groundbreaking insights into the mature "Durer's painterly vision of space" (93), regardless of whether he was drawing, engraving, or actually painting.
Martina Kolb, The Pennsylvania State University
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
|Previous Article:||Tamar Herzig. Savonarola's Women: Visions and Reform in Renaissance Italy.|
|Next Article:||Irma B. Jaffe with Gernando Colombardo. Zelotti's Epic Frescoes at Cataio: The Obizzi Saga.|