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Albrecht Dürer Expounds the Aesthetic Anatomy of Human Proportion

From the Internet Archive, reproducing a copy in the Glasgow Institute of Art Library.

From the Internet Archive, reproducing a copy in the Glasgow Institute of Art Library.

A few months after his death, Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion by German artist Albrecht Dürer was published in Nuremberg in 1528. This work, written, illustrated and designed by Dürer, with woodcuts on virtually every page, was the first book to discuss the problems of comparative and differential anthropometry. In his study of the subject Dürer was influenced by the classic aesthetic treatises of Villard de Honnecourt, Vitruvius, Alberti and da Vinci; however, Dürer’s study of the different human physiques—fat, thin, tall, short, baby, child and adult —was entirely original.

Unlike his Italian contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, who published nothing and obscured his manuscripts through mirror-writing, Dürer lived and worked in the world of printing and engraving. The son of a goldsmith, Durer’s godfather was Anton Koberger, who left goldsmithing to become the leading printer and publisher in Nuremberg. At the age of 15 Dürer was apprenticed to the leading artist in Nuremberg, Michael Wolgemut, whose workshop produced a large quantity of woodcuts. Throughout his career Dürer embraced the latest and best reproduction techniques, and may have derived more income from the sale of engravings and woodcuts than from painting.

Toward the end of his life Dürer wrote and illustrated three treatises which he also designed for the press. These included a treatise on fortification, a treatise on mensuration which introduced to Northern Europe techniques of perspective and mathematical proportion in drawing, painting, architecture and letter forms, which Dürer learned in Italy, and a work on the proportion of the human body. The last work, issued shortly after Dürer’s death, was the first work to discuss the problems of comparative and differential anthropometry. Because Dürer copied one of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings of the upper limb into his Dresden Sketchbook we know that on one of his visits to Italy Dürer must have viewed at least some of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings. However, unlike Leonardo who explored both the surface and the interior of the human body, Dürer appears to have limited his interest in the human figure to the surface.

Dürer held that the essence of true form was the primary mathematical figure (e.g., straight line, circle, curve, conic section) constructed arithmetically or geometrically, and made beautiful by the application of a canon of proportion. However, he was also convinced that beauty of form was a relative and not an absolute quality; thus the purpose of his system of anthropometry was to provide the artist with the means to delineate, on the basis of sheer measurement, all possible types of human figures. The first two books of Dürer's work deal with the proper proportions of fat, medium and thin adult figures, as well as those of infants. The third book discusses the changing of proportions according to mathematical rules, applying these rules to both figures and faces. The fourth book treats of the movement of bodies in space, and is of the greatest mathematical interest, as it presents, for the first time, many new, intricate and difficult considerations of descriptive spatial geometry. The whole work is profusely illustrated with Dürer's woodcut diagrams of figures. Choulant states that these include "the first attempts to represent shades and shadows in wood engraving by means of cross-hatching" (p. 145).

Like the Underweysung der Messung (1525), Dürer dedicated his book on human proportion to his friend, the humanist Willibald Pirckheimer. Pirckheimer provided a preface describing Dürer's debt to the Italians, alluding to Dürer’s visits to Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna, and explaining Dürer’s influence on Italian and European art.

Remarkably about 1500 pages of manuscripts by Dürer survive in Dresden, London, Nuremberg and Berlin. These include the manuscript for Book One of the Four Books on Human Proportion. Its pages number 1-89 and on the first page is written:

"1523 at Nuremberg, this is Albrecht Dürer's first book, written by himself. This book I improved and handed to the printer in 1528. Albrecht Dürer."

The so-called Dresden Sketchbook, with 170 pages of drawings, also includes a large  number of preparatory drawings for the treatise on human proportion. Dürer's Sketchbook was published as The Human Figure by Albrecht Dürer. The Complete Dresden Sketchbook. Edited, with an Introduction, Translations and Commentary by Walter L. Strauss (1972). Panofsky, Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (1943), chapter on "Durer as a Theorist of Art."

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