Mitchell B. Merback’s most recent book, Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I, argues that this celebrated and much-discussed engraving incites a therapeutic or healing process in the observer. In the introduction to this fascinating and innovative study, Merback diagnoses the misery that he claims the engraving both evokes and remedies as a malady emerging from a frustrated quest for perfection, which, he contends, plagued Dürer as well as Renaissance humanists in general. Indeed, in his incomplete treatise Ein Speis der Malerknaben (Nourishment for Young Painters, c. 1512-13), Dürer stresses that any student who overexerts himself might “fall under the hand of melancholy” (p. 15).
The first chapter of Perfection’s Therapy reviews classic interpretations of the print in a masterful work of historiography that summarizes multiple facets of an intricate history of scholarship in a clear and compelling fashion. The dramatic innovation of Merback’s project lies in his decision to regard the image not merely as allegorical but also as an instrument for countering melancholic anguish. He contends that earlier authors tend to emphasize that the engraving should be understood as an allegory of some particular thematic. By contrast, Merback abandons this search for symbolic closure. He proposes instead that the print’s multivalent nature must be seen as Dürer’s attempt to transmit the experience of melancholic disorientation as well as to deliver therapeutic responses to the melancholic condition. Merback classifies the engraving as an “allegorical-speculative image,” which he describes as “a new genre of Christian ethical art” that invokes cognitive-spiritual practice, not leading to metaphysical knowledge, but assisting instead with the health and care of the observer’s soul (pp. 30 and 74). In short, he is interested less in what the image means and more in what it does.
In Chapter Two, Merback offers a close formal reading of Melencolia I, calling attention to the print’s rejection of visual ductus, or a flow that leads viewers through an itinerary or pathway. Whereas some compositions conduct viewers through consecutive stages, Merback demonstrates that in Melencolia I the eye’s free movement is thwarted. Here I was led to think about how the Meisterstich (and other allegorical-speculative images) might be differentiated from a category of works produced for philosophical instruction, which I have termed elsewhere “plural images.” What makes a plural image “plural,” is not only its plurality of components, but the fact that it must be read in a predetermined order, just like a verbal text (or like a mnemonic structure of places); its experience is more similar to the reading of texts than is the experience of observing an allegorical-speculative image, like the Melencolia I, that undermines visual ductus. Yet if the allegorical-speculative image resists a fixed, singular meaning, attained through a predetermined visual order, Merback does not wish to imply that this new genre of imagery is void of any purpose. To the contrary, Merback demonstrates that the genre harbors the potential to move the spectator’s soul from a condition of ill health to a state of flourishing and balance.
Chapter Three offers a broad overview of therapeutic images both in Dürer’s lifetime and before. His compelling and sweeping discussion of the healing efficacies of crafted objects led me to think about how therapeutic art might relate to images, artefacts, or visual experiences whose effects were understood to be less than salutary, such as the allegedly dangerous sights that were believed to be damaging to the health of pregnant women and their unborn children, as discussed in such works as Georg Bartisch’s Ophthalmodouleia, das ist Augendienst (Ophthalmodouleia, that is, the Treatment of the Eyes, 1583). When and how do images cross the line from therapeutic to threatening? Merback’s fourth chapter returns to the Melencolia I to ask how the engraving leads the observer into a reflexive relationship with its heroine, such that she pertains to the spectator’s lived experience and does not merely function as an allegory of blocked creativity.
Merback explains that Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) helped to counter misery and the imbalance of the soul in De secreto conflictu curarum mearum (On the Private Conflict of my Thoughts, c. 1347-53; also known as the Secretum) and De remediis utriusque fortunae (On the Remedy of Two Kinds of Fortune, c. 1366); in these works, Petrarch introduces a novel method of “rhetorical therapy” designed to strengthen the soul through reason. Although Merback stresses that he is not “positing any direct inspiration from Petrarch’s writings” (p. 175), the Italian poet’s three groups of listeners or readers – that is, himself, his friends and patrons, and humanity as a whole – serve to structure Merback’s consideration of Dürer’s therapeutic audience. Consequently, Chapter Five examines Dürer’s activities in treating and consoling himself, and Chapter Six explores his works in relation to his friends, family, and finally the world at large. By Merback’s account, Melencolia I should be seen as addressing all three distinct categories of therapeutic receivers. Given the importance of Petrarch’s model to Merback’s discussion of Dürer’s ambitions, I was left wanting to know more about how we might understand these parallel concerns that were separated by about a hundred and fifty years. Would Dürer have been surprised that Petrarch is so central to Merback’s account of his artistic practice? If we were to speak to Dürer today, might he point us to other therapeutic models beyond the Italian humanist that were closer to his lifetime and his German origins?
Merback’s compelling study, together with Frances Gages’s fascinating work on the Sienese physician Giulio Mancini (1559-1630) and Sheila Barker’s erudite writings on Poussin (1594-1665) and early modern medicine, reflect the present interest in the cultural history of therapeutic imagery – a topic that scholars are also exploring in relation to more recent times, for instance in Suzanne Hudson’s forthcoming book, Better for the Making: Art, Therapy, Process, an examination of the therapeutic origins of process within American modernism. I have nothing but admiration for Merback’s speculative study, which not only provides a deeply original, engaging, and illuminating account of the function of Dürer’s enigmatic Meisterstich, but also promises to inspire novel lines of inquiry together with methodological experimentation within the discipline of art history as a whole.
University of Southern California
 Susanna Berger, The Art of Philosophy: Visual Thinking in Europe from the Late Renaissance to the Early Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).