The German artist
Albrecht Dürer significantly shaped the developments of the
sixteenth-century Renaissance, especially those in Northern Europe.
He is generally credited with the introduction of the Italian system
of scientific perspective and laws of proportion into Northern Europe.
The wide dissemination of Dürer's graphic works gave impetus
to these new artistic styles. Late in his life he produced scholarly
treatises, including the Treatise on Measurement (1525)
and the posthumously published Vier Bücher von Menschlicher
Proportion (Nüremberg, 1528) (Four Books on Human
Proportion) better known by its Latin title, De Symmetria,
which was translated in the same year by Camerarius. De Symmetria
addresses his investigations into ideal human proportion, showing
the influence of Leonardo da Vinci (as had earlier paintings like
Christ Among the Doctors, ca. 1506). It was published in
various languages, including six Latin editions between 1528 and
1557, and in French, Italian, and Portuguese, indicating the broad
popularity of the book.
In 1494, many years
before the publication of De Symmetria, Dürer made his
first trip to Italy, one that had a marked influence on him. He
was deeply impressed by the higher status enjoyed by Italian painters.
On his return to Nuremberg, Durer discussed Latin and humanist literature
extensively with his friend, the learned humanist, Willibald Pirckheimer.
He completed prolific work in drawing, paingting, and making prints,
while he also pursued his study of geometry and perspective that
he had begin in Italy. He wanted to increase his own stature and
the status of painting in general. His self-portrait
of 1498 reveals much of this concern. In this painting, Dürer
sits before a window with an Italian-like landscape in the background.
He wears elegant clothes and his hair and beard are well groomed,
creating the appearance of high social rank. The image projected
is that of a Florentine gentleman, not of a coarse artisan. This
is the Dürer, the geometer, who compiled the treatises published
posthumously as De Symmetria.
In De Symmetria's
drawings, the human form has been subjected to analysis so that
the artist may better understand how to render perfect proportion
and a natural sense of movement. This illustration from Book Four
Dürer's use of stereometry, the science of measuring volume,
in this case utilizing variations or compounds of spheres, cylinders,
cones, cubes, and pyramids, with the effect of endowing the visible
world with an impersonal clarity. Simplifying the complex structure
of the human form into transparent sections provides Dürer
a means of achieving a sense of idealized human proportion as well
as articulating the body's movements. Showing the body receding
into pictorial space, or projecting forward from that space, requires
manipulation of the proportional representation of the body's parts.
In the illustration, Dürer demonstrates how stereometry can
be used to solve the complex problem of foreshortening. In the frontal
image of the left hand panel, we can see his use of stereometric
construction. Note especially the foreshortened feet of the frontal
model that are seen in the profile of the model at the far left.
California State University at Chico
Durer, Albrecht. Dürer's Record
of Journeys to Venice and the Low Countries. New York: Dover
Publications Inc., 1995.
Durer, Albrecht. "The Human Figure:'The
Complete Dresden Sketchbook" Edited by Walter L. Strauss.
New York: Dover Publications, 1972.
Durer, Albrecht. Treatise on Measurement
(1525) has been reprinted under the title, The Painter's Manual.
New York: Arabis Books, Inc., 1977.
Hutchinson, Jane Campbell. Albrecht
Dürer, a biography. Princeton: Princeton University
Kemp, Martin. The Science of Art.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Panofsky, Erwin. The Life and Art of
Albrecht Dürer. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
Singer, Hans W. Versuch einer
Durer Bibliographie. Strassburg: Heitz, 1928.