Albert Dürer, Four books on measurement, 1591


Albert Dürer, Four books on measurement

Published in Italian, Venice 1591


Why a craftsman of course! would have been the answer around 1500. At the times paintings were made in workshops. Supervised by the painter, apprentices and journeymen produced whatever had been commissioned. They stuck to a contract which determined what had to be painted and how. The painter made good money by immortalizing the glory of the rich and famous in his colours.


Today we think about this differently. The artist is a genius, oftentimes scorned by his contemporaries, who creates things so beautiful they survive their epoch and sing their creator’s praise even in far-distant futures. If we ask, when did the painter stop being a craftsman and became an artist, we have to turn to Albrecht Dürer.


Born in 1471 to a respected goldsmith, he learned his trade before marrying the rich Agnes Frey. She brought in a dowry of 200 guldens, a considerable sum for the time, which enabled him to travel to Italy.


In Italy some individuals had managed to make a name for themselves as intellectuals and artists. The young Dürer liked this. He too wanted to dine at the prince’s table and debate with leading thinkers of the time. He was attracted by the reputation but also by material advantages. Receiving annuities from a patron could release painters from having to accept unloved commissions for financial reasons. Dürer climbed the ladder. Emperor Maximilian offered him a life annuity of 100 guldens.


This honour was bestowed on Dürer not only for his paintings, which were a perfect imitation of nature. He had studied, read, and independently written remarkable studies. Dürer was a specialist in measuring, construction, and mathematics. His knowledge worked its way into his paintings, which he may or may not have lectured his clients on.


One of these studies is the four books on measurement and we are looking at an Italian translation from 1591 here. It was published only in 1528, shortly after Dürer’s death. A Latin edition for the international market followed only four years later. And that the latter deemed Dürer’s writings important demonstrates our Italian translation.


Dürer does not want to establish the human body as the golden standard. Rather, he used it to calculate and construct an idealized human as it dominates today’s media thanks to editing techniques and Photoshop.


With his theoretical writings, Dürer the craftsman rose to become Dürer the humanist and artist. His numerous self-portraits show us that the man with whom Erasmus of Rotterdam liked to have discussions was well aware of his elevated status. It was works like these which elevated the craftsman to the artist. 

Ursula Kampmann

Translated by Teresa Teklić

Signet Sunflower Foundation