Katherine Crawford Luber begins her ground-breaking book on Dürer and Venice by showing that the present art historical emphasis on Dürer’s prints, rather than his paintings, and the related division between invention and color effects (disegno and colore ) originated with Erasmus and Vasari in the sixteenth century. Luber sets out to remedy this lop-sided emphasis on Dürer’s prints by focusing on the paintings he made in Venice during his second trip to Italy in 1505-1507 and those painted in his hometown of Nuremberg in the following years. Luber convincingly makes the case that no real evidence exists to support Dürer’s first trip to Italy in 1494-1495.
In Chapter 2 Luber explores the first trip to Italy and how it was constructed in the literature. In Chapter 3 she explores the Feast of the Rose Garlands and Dürer’s appropriation of Venetian painting techniques for color, light and perspective there and in his mature works, both paintings and prints. Luber thereby expands the view of Dürer to involve more than artificial mathematical perspective. In Chapter 4 the same painting is the focus for ideas about the competitive, or eristic, aspect of artistic relationships between Dürer and Giovanni Bellini. Chapter 5 explores Dürer’s works after Venice, and Chapter 6 his use of preparatory drawings, rather than underdrawings, as learned in Venice in 1505-1507. She links these ideas with various portraits of Emperor Maximilian I, both painted and printed, and shows how Dürer traced lines from one drawing. Two appendices explore the history of the condition of the Feast of the Rose Garlands and Dürer’s theoretical writing on color.
Luber argues that both Dürer’s manner of painting and his sense of illusionistic space were influenced by his Italian trip of 1505 as based on over two dozen paintings by Dürer and his shop, for which technical examination was employed via infrared reflectography and other scientific tools. Luber calls for a revision of the art historical idea that Dürer was not gifted in painting and argues that Dürer was deeply affected by Venetian painting and its traditions. She makes the case that the underdrawing seen via scientific tools needs interpreting, not just describing, by art historians and can be used to support the study of other aspects of paintings, including subjects and attributions.
Luber includes helpful overviews of both the technical investigation of paintings, the technical literature on Dürer’s paintings, and the technical methods she used in her study, including infrared reflectography and X-radiography, and what, or what not, these methods make visible. She reached five hypotheses concerning underdrawings in Dürer’s paintings: his early use (before his trip to Venice in 1505) of fully worked-up underdrawings for form and volume with dense hatching and cross-hatching. Once in Venice Dürer’s use of underdrawing is minimized to contours or done away with altogether as he begins using blue-dyed Venetian paper. Dürer’s late paintings appear to make use of both his pre- and post-Venetian approaches to underdrawings while his portraits seem generally to have employed little if any underdrawing with the exception of his Self-Portrait of 1500 in Munich.
Luber links the existence of Dürer’s two trips to Italy in the literature with Goethe’s two well-documented trips, the first of which took place in 1786. She indicates the construction by nineteenth-century German scholars of a similar pair of Italian trips for Dürer. She also investigates the evidence offered in the literature for Dürer’s early trip including the visual (paintings, drawings, watercolors, and prints) and the documentary and the scholarly response to it. She focuses on four early paintings, which pre-date Dürer’s documented trip to Venice and have been attributed to Dürer in the literature as showing Italian influence. She convincingly dismisses them from the unquestioned attributions to Dürer, to whom Roberto Longhi linked them in the 1960s, because they either lack Dürer’s invention of “powerful and unified” compositions that are “fully realized” or show no first-hand knowledge of Italian painting or painting techniques, rather than from prints that traveled. The result is questioning the attribution to Dürer of St. Jerome in London and Lot and his Daughters , the verso of the Haller Madonnain Washington.
Luber’s doubting Dürer’s first Italian trip offers much food for thought and is a major contribution to the field of Northern studies. In reviewing and refuting evidence indicating an earlier trip, including letters by contemporary humanists Willibald Pirckheimer and Christoph Scheurl, and questioning the dating of Dürer’s watercolors showing Innsbruck, Italian Mountains , and Italian Castle , Luber uses varied art historical approaches that together burst the entrenched bubble constituting Dürer’s early travels to Italy. Luber also raises some very interesting questions including how Dürer might have afforded such a trip to Venice a few months after he returned from his journeyman travels and marriage – and setting up household and workshop – and whether Dürer had time to design and produce hisApocalypse book if he had traveled to Italy.
This review barely touches the surface of Luber’s rich study, which convincingly re-thinks Dürer’s art in several important ways. It offers fascinating information, including Dürer’s often blending his pigments on the painting with his fingers, and it insists that we should consider the artist’s presumed earlier Italian trip only if tangible artistic influence and evidence were left behind. It will be left to future scholars to examine this assumption and explore where Dürer went early in his career, and what he was involved in, when he might have been in Italy.
This book deserves a larger size allowing easier integration of illustrations within the text (see 19-38) closer to their discussion. Better-quality illustrations would make Luber’s impressive research all the clearer. These reservations aside, this reader is most pleased that Cambridge published this book when it appears, alas, to be leaving Northern Renaissance art history altogether.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln