Surface is illusion, but so is depth

Durer 1493

Albrecht Dürer: Self-portrait at 22, 1493. Oil on linen, 57 x 45 cm. The Louvre, Paris.

PERHAPS the finest engraver, painter and art theorist of the early Northern Renaissance was the Nuremberger, Albrecht Dürer. The range and diversity of his work is astonishing. His woodcuts made him famous across Europe, his engravings unparalleled. As a painter, he was equally successful – commissions for religious icons and portraits for the rich, powerful and cultured were abundant and diverse. He was naturally curious and well-traveled, too. In a time when the vast majority of people traveled less than 70 kilometres from home, Dürer set off on a trip over ten times that distance to Venice, in 1494. The objective was to develop both his professional networks and his artistic practice – he wanted to see, first hand, what these famed and talented Italians that he’d heard of were up to.

Dürer appears to have been fascinated by Italy. In a time where German artists were often influenced by innovation and developments in the Netherlands, Dürer was to use Italian advances in colour theory, perspective, choice of subject and composition to huge artistic effect. He was so taken with their practice that he would make two trips to Italy during his life. In this, the first trip, he spent time with the Bellini brothers, Gentile and Giovanni, and through them met Andrea Mantegna – the artist who revolutionised the use of perspective in art to create pictures with monumental and dramatic effect. He studied the work of Leonardo da Vinci and talked with Vittore Carpaccio, a new and important talent and past student of the Bellinis. The Bellinis and Carpaccio were renown for their use of colour to define form and volume – and as for Leonardo, well, da Vinci was da Vinci, even then. All this points to a serious professional, one who wishes to develop his skill and influence; an artist on a mission. And so, it turns out, he would be. Which makes one small watercolour that’s now in the Louvre, so interesting.

After spending time with the great and good in Venice, Dürer set out on the return journey to Nuremberg. This would not be trip to take lightly, nor easily, as it would involve several weeks’ trekking though northern Italy, then tackling the Alps via the Brenner Pass to get back to what is now Innsbruck and then on to Bavaria, Franconia and finally Nuremberg. He set out in early spring with a view to arriving home before summer set in. On the way, he made a number of drawings and watercolours. Sometime in May in 1495, he stopped at a small town called Arco in one of the most beautiful parts of Northern Italy. Dominated (then and now) by a large limestone hill, the town was guarded by a large fortress built into the rock on the hill’s summit. The lookout commands a view of the surrounding countryside that is magnificent and makes the site a strategic prize for any army. It was a sight that begged to be captured.

Arco-Albrecht-Durer

Albrecht Dürer: View of Arco, 1495. (Inscribed upper right, Venetian Fortress). Watercolour, 22 x 22cm. Cabinet des Dessins, The Louvre, Paris.

Although much changed, the view is still recognisable today and makes for an interesting comparison with Dürer’s record.

Arco 2

The fortress at Arco, circa 2015.

Dürer carefully arranged his picture and manipulated the geography to suit his needs, rather than faithfully record the topography. His is a pyramid composition, the spread of the folds of the fields and the lower landscape compress in perspective and direct the eye up the cliffs to the focus of the picture – the fortress tower at the summit. He uses other features to amplify this flow. The carefully drawn walls around the town snake up towards the summit, the road in the lower centre of the picture points directly to the hill; the marks denoting the early growth vineyard stop the eye from wandering off-topic; the olive trees on the right of the lower part of the hill march determinedly upwards towards the peak. Much of this still exists, as can be seen from the photo. The surrounding hills have been under-played and somewhat reduced in height – which increases the drama of the view and the importance of the fortress and its position. The escarpment on the extreme left margin doesn’t exist – or at least, not where he’s placed it – features similar to this are common in the region, but couldn’t be seen in this way from this perspective.

Other aspects of note are his choice of time – he’s painted this in the early morning, with the sun rising. Heavy and long shadows lie under the copses of trees in the left foreground of his painting; the left-hand face of the mount (as the viewer sees it) is also in dark shadow. In addition, he’s chosen to present a view looking from a point that’s to the west of the town; the viewer is therefore looking roughly east, with the imagined escarpment on the left hand margin in the north. The road on the right-hand margin snakes away south-east (and remember, Venice, Dürer’s starting point for this return journey home).

It’s important to note that this is not a commissioned or major work. Dürer has painted this because it pleases him – it’s a postcard to himself, a record of the journey and an aid-memoir for future use (a similar view is included in the background of a very major work, The Adoration of the Magi, which he would paint under commission for Frederick the Wise in 1504; his Lamentation for Christ of 1500 also features a fortress hill and background scenery similar to the geography around Arco). It is, therefore, somewhat light-hearted, expressive and an image with which he feels free to play with, rather than conform to the requirements of a commission brief and the taste and visual preferences of a paying customer. And this is where it gets interesting – perhaps this record of the journey is more than just a snapshot of a striking view in a beautiful part of the world.

Contained in the cliff face of the fortress hill is the profile of an old man, head bowed and with a somewhat unhappy, even scowling countenance. He’s located, looking towards the left-hand margin, just to the left of centre of the hill; his pointed nose is quite prominent, emerging as lighter rock from the dark northern slopes of the hill. If you look at the imaginary escarpment on the left margin, you may see another face – this time a younger, confident, leonine image that seems to contain all the arrogance and power of youth, an indomitable surety of  immortality. It seems here, in this early morning light of a new day, the old man of the south, cloaked in shadow, is bowing (even if somewhat grudgingly) to the younger man of the north, bathed in bright sunlight. Is this a visual pun – a statement of Dürer’s confidence? Is he recording his belief in the future and his talent that has grown though his recent experiences? Is this a self-congratulation for a well-executed trip that has yielded much in terms of knowledge, development and networks of influence? Is he stating the inevitable – that the old will give way to the new – and that progress is powered by the vigor and confidence of youth like his?

Perhaps. I hope he also noted that even the young get old. And even if those of advancing years may not be as nimble of hand or mind as they might once have been, that they still have worth and meaningful contributions to make. I hope he pondered on that whatever advances he would make in the future, they would be built on the work and ideas of those who had shown him the way, those gone before him. Perhaps he pondered too that those younger than he would, one day, build on and eclipse even his brilliance.

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