Melding Art and Science: Albrecht Dürer in the Collections

Guest post by Nicholas Wojcik

It is, indeed, summer. The sun is out and flexing its muscles, luring dedicated followers and addicts outdoors to bask in its ultra-violet rays while opponents find sanctuary in places of shade and air-conditioning. But an all-too-interesting story relating to the history of the sciences comes to mind as the hottest part of the year here approaches, one that begins with what many of us do (or hope to do) during the summer months: travel and experience nature.

It was the year 1494. At the age of 23, a young artist and theorist highly skilled in the practices of painting, engraving, drawing and printing by the name of Albrecht Dürer left his native Nuremberg headed for Venice. Dürer was certainly not on any vacation (it is believed he had fled Germany alone to escape an outbreak of plague), yet he nevertheless made the trek south through the Alps, absorbing the magnificent sights of the European countryside, in turn producing watercolor sketches of places and scenes – images that remain some of the earliest landscape studies in Western art – before finally reaching his Italian destination.

Venice, which was then the epicenter of both printing and the book trade in Italy, seems a perfect match for an artisan such as Dürer. As a teenager, and with the help of his father, Dürer learned the crafts of goldsmithing and drawing. It is speculated that Dürer may also have been under the influence of his godfather, Anton Koberger, a former goldsmith turned printer and publisher most famously known for the Nuremberg Chronicle – a masterpiece amongst incunabula containing over 1,800 woodcut illustrations. In part from his time as an apprentice at the Wohlgemuth’s studio in Nuremberg in 1486 and that as a book illustrator in Basel up until the time he left for Venice, Dürer was exposed to a medium that would allow him to bring together the competing worlds of religion and science.

Albrect Dürer, The Four Horsmen of the Apocalypse, 1498, woodcut.
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, part of a series of fifteen famous woodcuts published in 1498, quickly, and to much delight, captured the attention of virtually all of Europe. While the theme of the Apocalypse woodcut is essentially theological in subject matter, the prominence of movement, stimulated by galloping, muscular horses and the twisted and contorted bodies of their riders and those being trampled offers a dose of humility and realism to the scene. In essence, it is not only a fine example of Dürer’s understanding of both human and non-human anatomy, an area he would continue to develop in throughout the early sixteenth century, but is one of many images by Dürer to be explored in the History of Science Collections.

The History of Science Collections has a number of current and collectible books on this beloved German artist, including material written and drawn by the man himself! Some titles in the Collections are exclusively about the artist while others associate him with other persons, places, and things; regardless, his direct influence on the history of science and the arts come together in one place. Here is a sampling of some primary and secondary resources you will find:

  • Alpers, Svetlana. 1983. Art of Describing, The: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Braham, Allan. 1965. Dürer. London: Spring Books.
  • Dürer, Albrecht, translated and edited by William Martin Conway. 1958. Writings of Albrecht Dürer, The. New York: Philosophical Library.
  • Dürer, Albrecht. 1966 (reprint of Nuremberg 1525 edition). Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt in Linien, Ebnen und gantzen Corporen durch Albrecht Durer zusamen gezogen, und zu Nutz alle Kunstliebhabenden mit zu gehorigen Figuren, in Truck gebracht im Jahr M.D.XXV. J. Stocker-Schmid.
  • Dürer, Albrecht. 1535. Albertus Durerus Nurembergensis pictor huius aetatis celeberrimus, versus è Germanica lingua in Latinum … Quatuor his suaru[m] Institutionum geometricarum libris … denuo ad scripti exemplaris fidem omnia diligenter recognita, emendatius iam in lucem exeunt. Ex officina Christiani Wecheli.
  • Ford, Brian J. 1993. Images of science: A history of scientific illustration. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Frasca-Spada, Marina and Nick Jardine. 2000. Books and the sciences in history. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Kemp, Martin. 2007. The human animal in western art and science. Chicago: The Univeristy of Chicago Press.
  • Kurth, Willi, ed. 1946. The complete woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer. New York: Bonanza Books.
  • Mason, Peter. 2009. Before disenchantment: Images of exotic animals and plants in the early modern world. London: Reaktion Books.
  • Topsell, Edward. 1658. The history of four-footed beasts and serpents…Collections out of the writings of Conradus Gesner and other authors. London.

Prominent amongst the Collections’ materials on Dürer are images and analysis pertaining to the story of how Dürer, so-to-speak, brought the rhinoceros to the continent of Europe:

Albrect Dürer, Rhinoceros, 1515, woodcut.
Image from Edward Topsell. 1658. The History of Four Footed Beasts,
Serpents, and Insects.
(You can also find it in the History of Science Collections image gallery here.)

Rhinos were by no means common to Europe; not many people, aside from those who had traveled and seen a rhino in its native lands had ever known what one looked like. And so on May 20, 1515, the first living rhinoceros to be brought to Europe in 1,200 years was scheduled to arrive in Portugal as a present by the Portuguese King, Manuel I, on behalf of Sultan Muzafar II of the kingdom of Gujarat in western India to Pope Leo X. Unfortunately, the animal, along with the ships crew, perished in a shipwreck. Dürer therefore never saw the animal, but instead used a sketch made by another artist and a letter from Lisbon, which provided a detailed description of the scientific make-up of the rhino, as models for the woodcut image he would eventually produce.

Dürer’s image was naturalistic enough to identify that particular rhino as one of Indian descent (single-horned and possessing folded skin unlike African double-horned, smooth-skinned rhinos), though it did receive some speculation due to the small spiral horn located on the shoulders, which has been referred to as the “Dürer-hornlet.” The image was heavily copied and found its way into a multitude of learning tools including zoological, artistic and scientific texts well into the 18th century.

Anatomy and the biological sciences are not the only disciplines that Dürer studied and managed to incorporate into his art. For those interested in the field of mathematics, for example, the History of Science Collections are a great place to discover Dürer’s interest in the realm of geometry. His strict knowledge of and approach to the specificity and complexity of angles, dimension, and distance were the focus of many areas of his writing and art.

Albrect Dürer, Man Drawing a Lute, 1523, woodcut.
Image from Dürer, Albrecht, 1535. 
Albertus Durerus Nurembergensis pictor huius aetatis celeberrimus,
versus è Germanica lingua in Latinum …
Ex officina Christiani Wecheli.
(You can also find it in the History of Science Collections online galleries here.)

In the woodcut titled Man Drawing a Lute, for example, two figures take part in investigating the theory of artistic perspective. The figure on the right examines how light (represented by a string attached to a wall on one end and marked on the edge of a lute on the other end) moves through a wooden frame attached vertically to a long table. The wooden frame is used to model a spectator’s viewscape when looking at an object (in this case a lute) straight on. Through this study, the figures are able to, in turn, produce a relatively accurate drawing of the object, as shown by the image held in the hand of the figure on the left.

Originally produced in 1523 as part of the fourth book of Dürer’s Manual of Measurement (Manual Underweysung der messung, Nuremberg), the woodcut of a Man Drawing a Lute appears again, as regulars to this blog may recall from an earlier post, in a work made and owned by Dürer dating to the year 1535, now proudly housed in the History of Science Collections. The book is a bound with item consisting of two separate books: Albertus Durerus Nurembergensis pictor huius aetatis celeberrimus, versus è Germanica lingua in Latinum … and Alberti Dvreri pictoris et architecti…. A detail of the lute image welcomes every viewer of the Collections blog at the top of its main page.

To explore Albrecht Dürer’s legacy is to shine a light on a number of interelated yet certainly distinct disciplines, namely the arts and sciences. The above description is but a taste of what you will find about Dürer in the History of Science Collections. Find more information on the History of Science Collections here or feel free to contact the office directly at (405)325-2741. While on campus, be sure to use the University Libraries’ online catalog to conduct general and advanced searches to find additional resources on Dürer available online or at a number of locations across the University of Oklahoma including the Fine Arts Library, Architecture Library, Boorstin Collection, Nichols Collection (which holds a first edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle), and Bizzell Library Microforms Area.

Nicholas Wojcik composed this post during a Summer 2010 internship in the OU Masters of Library & Information Studies program. With an undergraduate degree in art history, Nicholas has studied in Europe and Asia as well as OU. He currently works as Microform Technician in the University of Oklahoma Libraries.

About ouhos

Kerry Magruder, Curator; and JoAnn Palmeri, Librarian
This entry was posted in Featured book. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Melding Art and Science: Albrecht Dürer in the Collections

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review | OU History of Science Collections

Comments are closed.