Albrecht Dürer is well-known as the greatest German printmaker and painter of the German Renaissance. During his lifetime he was equally famous for his significant contributions to the study of mathematics and proportion.
Born in 1471 in Nuremberg, then a center of technological innovation, Dürer apprenticed at an early age in his father’s goldsmith workshop, and later with the church painter Michael Wolgemut, also a print-maker.
From the beginning, the human figure was at the center of Dürer’s painting and engraving. Early portraiture as well as prints and paintings featuring mythological and religious subjects show a reverence for the body and an interest in anatomical form, influenced by the early Italian Masters. A watershed moment in Dürer’s artistic development occurred when he traveled in 1494 to Italy and encountered the work of Mantegna and da Vinci, as well as Jacopo de’ Barbari, a Venetian painter seeking a geometric solution to human proportion.
In the late 1490s, Dürer began his own series of studies in anatomical proportion, obtaining measurements of the bodies of a large sample set of men, women and children. To aid him in his research, Dürer designed his own mechanical tools to measure the human form and dissected cadavers to better understand the human body. Dürer analyzed and defined the distances between like points in relation to height on these bodies in order to obtain typical values.
This 1532 text in Latin contains the first two books of the results of this research, first published in German in 1528 as Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion (Four Books on Human Proportion.) Dürer died shortly after receiving the first proofs of the German edition; the remaining publication details were completed by his friends.
Dürer treats the arithmetic and geometrical constructions of bodies, largely at rest. Numerous woodcuts represent bodies male and female in various sizes and ages, and register their measurements. Motivated by his Italian contemporaries and their classical predecessors Vitruvius and Euclid, who were interested in calculating the ideal form, Dürer bettered them, building on their own experiments and contributing to the cause his own attention to detail and meticulousness in draftsmanship. In these pages, Dürer breaks with Vitruvius by arguing that there are many kinds of beauty, and no one ideal body or facial type. Variety was a good thing, Dürer argued, but not so much variety that a body would seem inhuman. Dürer’s theoretical research and new aesthetic would find early artistic expression in his very beautiful copper engraving Adam and Eve, which he fashioned using a compass and a ruler.
The ideas expressed in the de symmetria and the two complimentary volumes that followed, also on human proportion, were widely influential on artists and anatomists for centuries to come.
Our copy is bound in stamped pigskin, with a front panel illustrating Jacob’s ladder and a back panel depicting the baptism of Christ. The woodcut monogram Dürer developed in 1497 to protect his work from piracy is visible on the title page.
Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama courtesy of George Blumenthal.