Annette Kranz presents the oeuvre and patrons of Christoph Amberger in a meticulously researched and generously illustrated study that brings the Augsburg portrait painter into the mainstream of German Renaissance art history. Since Amberger focused exclusively on portraiture, and since his skill in the genre has been overshadowed by his contemporary, Hans Holbein the Younger, his reputation has suffered from a lack of serious interest among scholars. Yet Amberger’s portraits, produced over a period of two decades, present a temporal and geographic microcosm of upper-class Augsburg society. From the well-established Fugger banking family with Catholic and imperial loyalties, to the staunchly Protestant and socially ambitious Herbrot family, Amberger’s patrons comprise a multifaceted elite class. Kranz places artist and patrons into the larger context of the many political and religious issues facing Augsburg during some of the most crucial moments of Reformation unrest.
A short introduction invites us to view Christoph Amberger’s career as an opportunity for a social history of Augsburg. Because the sitters sought to impart their best social and moral aspects, the portrait becomes a valuable primary source. Kranz’s promise to use the portrait as a tool for social, economic, political and confessional analysis is delayed, however, by an overly long second chapter on the state of research on Amberger. In sum, there has never been a comprehensive study of the artist who was central to image making in early Reformation Augsburg. This reveals a larger issue in German art history of the sixteenth century: a coherent treatment is still lacking, and period studies still tend to be much biased in favor of Italian and Netherlandish art.
The third chapter consists of the artist’s biography; although necessary, the material reads like a Thieme-Becker entry. In the fourth and fifth chapters Kranz presents an analysis of portraits, then patrons, respectively. Although one could wish for a more integrated approach to these two closely related issues, here Kranz delivers her most intriguing material. In the concluding chapter, she thoughtfully analyzes how these portraits reveal a societal group in the midst of tremendous change and growth. The second half of the book is devoted to catalogue entries with forty-seven full page plates, plus an appendix of reprinted primary sources and bibliography.
Amberger came to Augsburg after training with Hans Maler of Schwatz. Although the city was dominated by Holbein the Elder and Burgkmair neither produced significant portraits. At first, Amberger adhered to an older German style that rejected space and contained the head within a relatively small frame. Augsburg patrons had long looked to Italy for their art collections and fashions, but this trend intensified in the 1530s. Although Amberger never traveled to Italy, he doubtless came into contact with Italian trends during the Reichstag of 1530, when foreign artists flooded the city. Jacob Seisseneger’s portrait of Charles V created an almost immediate response from patrons eager to associate themselves with the emperor. Responding with a more fluid style, the artist integrated background shadows and architectural props in a larger half-length or even three-quarter length format. The sitters, now able to gesture and pose, show off costumes and attributes, exhibited a complex set of social, cultural and political networks.
In her chapter on Amberger’s patrons, Kranz presents the complex background of a city undergoing radical changes. Augsburg sided with the Reformation in 1534 and adopted an official policy of iconoclasm in 1537. In response to a sharp decline in the ruling population since the late 1490s, the patriciate admitted thirty-nine new families in 1538, breaching the strict social hierarchy that had gripped Augsburg since the fourteenth century. As newcomers sought to consolidate and legitimize their positions within an established hierarchy, Amberger’s production continued unabated. When the city was defeated by imperial forces after a disastrous alliance with the Schmalkaldic League, Amberger’s commissions dropped off as as fortunes plummeted and political positions became dangerous and untenable.
Determining the social and political affiliations between the leading families, Kranz identifies the three major families of the Augsburg elite and seeks to differentiate their portrait types. The Herbrot family, strongly Protestant and newly rich, was in the financial elite, but was socially still associated with a merchant middle-class. The Fuggers remained Catholic and loyal to the emperor. The Welser family was confessionally less rigid, but also more difficult to place within Kranz’s system. Yet, she argues convincingly for a visible difference between Herbrot and Fugger representations. While the Herbrot preferred the older German style, the Fuggers’ aristocratic ambitions are subtly relayed in a set of companion portraits commissioned by Hans Jacob and Christoph Fugger. The brothers are shown with their hands on their hips in three-quarter length, wearing elegant black garments, and imperious gazes. Pose, attitude and size recall Seissenegger’s portrait of Charles V. Interestingly, no “professional portraits” single out the many merchants among the sitters. Rather than using weights, coins, or ledger books, Amberger’s subjects represent themselves as the new aristocracy.
Despite the rich documentation, historical background, and analysis of individual works, the elusive goal of a social history remains just out of reach. The lengthy discussion of the portrait of Matthäus Schwarz in the catalogue, for example, reveals his social ambitions, but glosses over attributes such as the prominent background horoscope, by simply stating that he liked to dress up in fancy clothes. The very different portrayal of his wife, Barbara Schwarz, provides the opportunity to explore how wealthy women viewed themselves. Important questions of where portraits hung, how they were viewed, who their audiences were, and how that audience may have reacted to them in these physical contexts, remain unanswered.
All the same, Kranz’s work adds an incredible resource to this understudied area. The questions she leaves unanswered lay solid groundwork for further inquiry about Christoph Amberger’s patrons and the function of portraiture in sixteenth-century German art.
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh