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Albrecht Durer and the Epistolary Mode of Address

Albrecht Durer and the Epistolary Mode of Address

by Shira Brisman

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Art historians have long looked to letters to secure biographical details; clarify relationships between artists and patrons; and present artists as modern, self-aware individuals. This book takes a novel approach: focusing on Albrecht Dürer, Shira Brisman is the first to argue that the experience of writing, sending, and receiving letters shaped how he


Art historians have long looked to letters to secure biographical details; clarify relationships between artists and patrons; and present artists as modern, self-aware individuals. This book takes a novel approach: focusing on Albrecht Dürer, Shira Brisman is the first to argue that the experience of writing, sending, and receiving letters shaped how he treated the work of art as an agent for communication.

In the early modern period, before the establishment of a reliable postal system, letters faced risks of interception and delay. During the Reformation, the printing press threatened to expose intimate exchanges and blur the line between public and private life. Exploring the complex travel patterns of sixteenth-century missives, Brisman explains how these issues of sending and receiving informed Dürer’s artistic practices. His success, she contends, was due in large part to his development of pictorial strategies—an epistolary mode of address—marked by a direct, intimate appeal to the viewer, an appeal that also acknowledged the distance and delay that defers the message before it can reach its recipient. As images, often in the form of prints, coursed through an open market, and artists lost direct control over the sale and reception of their work, Germany’s chief printmaker navigated the new terrain by creating in his images a balance between legibility and concealment, intimacy and public address.

Editorial Reviews

Larry Silver

“This is a brilliant book. Brisman revives theoretical issues about modernity and its new, self-aware pictorial attentiveness to audiences, while remaining fully engaged with the historical context out of which Dürer emerges in his own pathbreaking ‘moment.’ She ultimately reveals the significance of producing and distributing print culture in the modern world, with Dürer as the initial—essentially as the initiating—courier.”
Jeffrey Chipps Smith

“Brisman’s epistolary approach opens up stimulating new ways of thinking about Dürer and his creations. She provides a framework for understanding how the artist adopts and then adapts contemporary modes of communication used by his literate peers. This is a highly original and extremely well-researched study.”
Mitchell B. Merback

“Today it seems harder than ever to say anything refreshingly new about Albrecht Dürer and his epoch-making art. Yet Brisman has done just that, taking us inside a guiding principle of Renaissance art and culture that had, until now, been hiding in plain sight. An ancient form of connectivity thrust into a new environment around 1500, the letter stands here as a paradigmatic form of address, intimate yet profoundly social, a delivery mode for knowledge and desire suspended between the slow burn of Renaissance discovery and the fast pace of Reformation debate. Gleaming with intelligence on every page, and carried off with a rare verve, this book showcases what is to be gained when the materiality of communication combines with the social history of art.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
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7.40(w) x 10.20(h) x 0.90(d)

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Albrecht Dürer & the Epistolary Mode of Address

By Shira Brisman

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-35475-0


The Body of a Letter

The experience of writing, sending, and receiving letters shaped how Albrecht Dürer conceived of the message-bearing properties of his works of art. In certain passages, his images offer openly communicative gestures, such as declarative text; at other moments, they suggest but withhold, luring the beholder's attention toward contents placed at a distance, tucked within a disappearing device such as a closed container, or a page turned away from view. These calibrations of legibility, proximity, and openness are pictorial devices that share traits with the letter, a mode of correspondence that is predicated on distance, prone to delay, and susceptible to receipt by audiences that may far exceed the named addressee. To position his epistolary activities and the postal conditions of his day at intersections with the making, selling, and distribution of his art is to clarify how Dürer advanced the image's status as an occasion for interpretive reading.

In an example of direct address, Dürer includes a portrait of himself standing amid an imagined gathering that he painted for the Brotherhood of the Rosary, a confraternity of German merchants in Venice (fig. 1.1). Gazing out, he holds a sign, "Exegit quinquemestri spatio Albertus Durer Germanus M.D.VI." The sheet graphically announces his name, place of origin, and the time it took him to complete the commission. In a manner allusive of the cartellini of Italian painters, the upper edge of the page curls forward, threatening to conceal the words, as if their visibility were a privilege of the viewer's timely arrival before the image. Dürer's public announcement is made coy by the suggestion of this contingency.

In 1506, the year the painting was made, Dürer was not at home and was doing a lot of writing. Of the many missives that he sent from abroad, ten letters to Willibald Pirckheimer are extant. No replies survive. When composing for his friend, Dürer would fill a page from top to bottom in continuous lines of text without paragraph breaks. A gap between the salutation and the "body" of the letter was a mark of hierarchical discrepancy between the author and the recipient. The interval mirrored social distance. Letters to familiars contained no such margin. This convention evokes a rich set of associations for historians of visual art: blank space indicates interpersonal remove, whereas crowded cursive is a mark of intimacy. When he was finished writing, Dürer would tuck the written part inward, allowing the unmarked remainder on the verso to serve as the surface for the address (envelopes did not yet exist). When opened, the exterior markings form the bas-de-page (fig. 1.2).

To read a letter, the recipient had to tear a belted strip that had been woven through slits in the page made with a knife or break the seal that fastened folded parts together. Hans Holbein alludes to the rupture required to access the interior of a letter in his portrait of the Danzig merchant Georg Gisze (fig. 1.3). One of his hands frames the script, while the other rips the page and slips a finger inside. The insignia that sealed Dürer's letters displayed a pair of open doors, an allusion to the origin of his family name in the word Tür. The artist's heraldic emblem lent a visual pun to the experience of prying open a missive by marking the transition to the interior of a letter with the image of a threshold opened for passage inside.

The lines along which a letter creases draw boundaries of protected knowledge. The exterior advertises the name of the reader while concealing the contents to which he has access. Portraits from Dürer's time borrow the analogy of the fold. Gripped in the hands of merchants or kings, letters allow an artist to label his client by subtle means, within the conceits of represented space, at the same time that they hint at the sitter's possession of information contained within the plicated sheet. The portrait of Bernhard von Resten that Dürer would paint on another journey, his visit to the Netherlands in 1520–21, differentiates what the viewer knows and can see (the external appearance of the sitter, the outer casing of the folded letter) from what the person portrayed possesses (access to content that the painting does not disclose; fig. 1.4). The trope of this balance, applied coolly in the work of German portraiture of the early sixteenth century, is pushed to even greater depths in representations that do not necessarily include the motif of the letter, as in the "outward splendor and inner doubt" of Bronzino's pictures.

By fate of their survival over centuries, Dürer's Venetian correspondences have been scrutinized for biographical information about the artist's friendship with a leading Nuremberg humanist, his management of monetary and familial affairs from abroad, his comparative statements about the German and Italian members of his trade, and his documentation of the payments that he received from his patrons. But readers of Dürer's letters have also lamented the paltry offerings that they provide, compared with what historians long to know, such as which works of southern art he saw and admired. In 1876 Moriz Thausing published a Dürer letter from April 25 that had been newly discovered. The letter contains a description of a ring that Dürer had previously sent with a letter and an account of the messengers by whom it traveled. Thausing made only the most modest claims about the document's contribution to Dürer studies. In another essay, Alfred Werner expressed regret that the contents of the artist's letters fail to provide psychological insight: "For nowhere does Dürer talk about himself, about his inner life and feelings, as directly as Vincent van Gogh does [in his letters to his brother]. Unfortunately, too much space is taken up with details about the precious stones and other items Pirckheimer had commissioned Dürer to buy for him at Venice." Instead of lending emotional cadence to his pictures, Dürer's letters give descriptions of how he has navigated the markets to spend Pirckheimer's money on requested goods — jewels, carpets, and feathers — and accounts of the messengers he has sent and the dates of the dispatches of his previous missives.

These record-keeping specifics have much to do with how the artist thought about production and conveyance. Anxiety about the efficacies of communication was a part of Dürer's everyday life. As he wrote, he calculated intervals between transmission and response and expressed concern about receipt when he had not heard back in adequate time. As Pirckheimer's buying agent in Venice, Dürer learned to bargain in an economy not his own. He waited for replies of whether his acquisitions had pleased. Dürer's Italian journey was a lesson in preciousness. At the same time that he was shopping for materials that had unique indexes of value, he was learning how southern artists assessed merit in his trade, and he was experiencing, through the writing, sending, and receiving of letters, what contact with another was worth.

The aim of this chapter is to explain the relationship of these ideas and events and, in doing so, to establish the interpretive method that this book as a whole puts forth. In what follows, I propose five examples of how Dürer's uses of the conventions of letter writing provide a language for describing how his works of art communicate with their audiences.

First Proposal: The Afterlife of an Epistle

Dürer's private letters initiate acts of communication that will follow the preliminary contact between author and recipient. Through Pirckheimer, he sends letters to be passed on to his mother, as well as tidings to be delivered verbally to other residents of Nuremberg. The communicative role of the letter was not restricted to a dialogical model. Rather, letters operated simultaneously to establish intimacy with the named addressee while also launching a series of message transmissions to other parties. Thus, what is often characterized as a literary conceit of humanists' correspondences — that the address to an individual belied the letter's true ambition to construct a community of readers — may also apply to epistles in the vernacular that seem to modern readers classifiable as "private."

While Dürer was in Venice, Pirckheimer took care of his friend's family. After Dürer's return to Nuremberg, the two continued to act as each other's proxies. A letter composed by Cornelius Grapheus in Antwerp on February 23, 1524, is addressed to Dürer "or in his absence to Willibald Pirckheimer." When the author of a letter wanted to prohibit the circulation of a message, he might entrust the discreet contents to oral recitation by the messenger. Grapheus leaves his news unwritten and says that the bearers of the letter will supply the information that he wishes to convey. The distribution of contents between the written portion of a letter and the speaking duties of its courier was a consequence of the proneness of letters to interception during travel and dissemination after arrival.

The interconnectedness of intimacy and repercussive contact provides a context for understanding certain works of art that may seem both to offer a public statement and to serve a restricted audience. The double address can be detected most clearly in Dürer's printed portraits, where he announces his personal connection to the sitter as well as the image's commemorative function. A large woodcut of Ulrich Varnbüler juxtaposes in Roman capitals the sitter's name and the date with a message written in a Fraktur that calls attention to its authorship: "Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg wishes to preserve by this likeness Ulrich surnamed Varnbüler, Chancellor of the Supreme Court of the Roman Empire, and at the same time a distinguished scholar of language, because of his singular affection for him, and also to honor him by rendering this image for posterity" (fig. 1.5). This announcement of Dürer's affections and his declaration of Varnbüler's public title are presented as if pasted to the background wall on a torn and curling page. A blank space down the middle of the text erases a column of alphabetic characters. The indication that the text could be filled in with the insertion of a strip of paper with the correct letters alludes to the cryptographic methods by which messages with private content were transmitted between intimates who shared secret knowledge.

The tension between the public statement of the lettering and the omission by which it neglects fully to spell out its message is indicative of an ambivalence that orchestrates the image as a whole. Varnbüler is massive; he fills and exceeds the frame. The artist renders his features precisely but requires writing to disclose what the image cannot show. This piece of parchment is cropped by the image's boundary. Presentation and the limits of representation hold each other in check. The balancing of the intimate with the public, the momentary contact between artist and sitter against the image's more general address, is one of the means by which Dürer's pictures adopt epistolary intimacy to ensure more wide-reaching communicative success.

Second Proposal: Ellipses

The German word for "letter" is Brief, a cognate of the Latin brevis, meaning "short." Concision distinguishes the letter from other literary formats. In writing, one way to truncate but imply the continuation of a list, pattern, or idea is by the use of the Latin et cetera, which means "and the rest." Electors or authors addressing them often used the abbreviation "etc." in epistolary signatures or greetings to shorten a lengthy enumeration of titles. In his letter to Albrecht of Brandenburg, dated September 4, 1523, Dürer uses the contraction three times on the exterior address.

Dürer employs "etc." ten times in the ten letters to Pirckheimer. Often the word has been written so quickly that its three letters are barely discernible; in shorthand, it looks like a horizontal loop that ends in a downstroke (fig. 1.6). Sometimes the implied chain is obvious, as when Dürer writes, "Es mag einer gar leicht ein emmechtix steinle haben, er achtz vm 20 oder 25 dugaten etz." (It is easy for anyone to get a small amethyst if he thinks it worth 20 or 25 ducats, etc.). Here the abbreviation indicates that in this hypothetical situation, the amethyst could be any number of ducats, which Dürer counts in increments of five. But on other occasions when Dürer inserts the abridgment, as if to say to the reader, "you can supply further examples of what I mean here," it is hard for the historian to imagine what the "etc." is standing in for.

Dürer's less conventional uses of the abbreviation have been omitted from translations of the letters. On February 28, 1506, he writes, "Pitt ewch, habtt gedult, pis mir gott heim hÿlft, so will jch ewch erberlich beczalen, etc. ... last mich wisen, ob vch libs gestorben sey etc." (Have patience, I pray, till God helps me home when I will honorably repay you, etc. ... Let me know if any of your loves are dead [etc.]). It may be that William Conway, in his translation of the line, chose to retain the first "etc." because he could understand the logic of its placement. Here the elision might mean that Dürer will more than repay the financial debt that he owes to Pirckheimer, who has lent him money and has facilitated Dürer's correspondence with his mother. Less clear is the meaning behind the "etc." that Conway omits: "Let me know if any of your loves are dead [etc.]." The abbreviation may be a call for Pirckheimer to divulge any information about his personal affairs — not only the one that Dürer has asked about. The "etc." could also mean here "or otherwise." But the "etc." might also operate ironically, an abbreviation where there remains nothing else to be supplied, as where Dürer requests of Pirckheimer, "Vnd schreibt mir schir wider etc." (Write to me again soon [etc.]), when there is nothing more that his friend could do to bridge their geographical distance.

It is not surprising that Dürer's letters to Pirckheimer include a few sentences whose laconic clipping of information renders their meaning ungraspable to modern-day readers. The lines that have been most scrutinized are from Dürer's epistle of February 7, 1506: "Vnd daz ding, daz mir vor eilff joren so woll hatt gefallen, daz gefelt mir jcz nüt mer. Vnd wen jchs nit sels sech, so hett jchs keim anderen gelwabt" (And that thing, that pleased me eleven years ago, that pleases me now no more, if I had not seen it for myself I should not have believed anyone who told me). As early as 1872, Thausing interpreted the wordding in Dürer's description as referring to a group of artworks that he and Pirckheimer had formerly exchanged ideas about. Dürer's use of ding earlier in this same letter refers to his own works of art that are copied in Italy. What is, in fact, an elision in the text has been converted into proof of his first contact with Italian art.

Rather than parse these lines for biographical information, I wish to focus on the circumlocution in Dürer's language to consider how the indeterminacy of meaning might relate to an aspect of Dürer's representational strategies in his visual images. The lines abbreviate by alluding to something that Pirckheimer already knows. They follow a generous detailing on Dürer's part of the different types of artists that he has met in Venice — some are honest friends, and others are duplicitous thieves. On certain visual occasions, Dürer resists listing, spelling out, or showing what is inside. The trope of abbreviation, an inherent component of a letter (Brief), is an aesthetic element in Dürer's work: brevity is the locus of pictorial intrigue. A picture invites attention by making perceptual and cognitive demands that the viewer supply something that has not been given.

Thus, for Alois Riegl, the most mature phase of the trope of attentiveness — the term that Riegl uses to describe both a state of consciousness represented by the characters within the picture and a mode of engagement that the picture elicits from the beholder — develops when the beholder must imagine the unseen source of the depicted person's thoughtful concentration. But before seventeenth-century painting would nurture an empathic relationship between the picture's subject and the subjectivity of the picture's viewer, the most cunning of sixteenth-century composers lured the mind of the one who looks by the positioning of contracted props. These presentations of the indiscernible take the form of folded pages, truncated text, figures shown from the rear, or the overlapping of forms to compress space. Another gesture of elusiveness is the inclusion of a pouch whose contents are obscured. Such a pocket may be positioned within a composition that is elsewhere dedicated to showing and telling.


Excerpted from Albrecht Dürer & the Epistolary Mode of Address by Shira Brisman. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Shira Brisman is assistant professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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