Albrecht Dürer: 'Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion'

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The painter, printmaker and theorist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is generally acknowledged to be the most significant figure in the history of European art outside Italy during the period of the Renaissance. Dürer saw himself as a model whereby his contemporaries in Northern Europe could combine their own empirical interest in naturalistic detail with the more theoretical aspects of Italian art. Artists across Europe especially admired and copied his innovative and impressive prints, which ranged from religious and mythological scenes to maps and exotic animals. Technically, Dürer's prints are exemplary for their detail and precision.

After receiving basic training in the arts from his father, a Nuremberg goldsmith, Dürer was apprenticed for three years with the painter Michael Wolgemut. He later made two visits to Venice where he was exposed to the artistic culture of the Italian Renaissance. When Dürer returned from his last visit to Venice in 1507, it was his intention to write a manual on the art of painting. However, his energies were soon concentrated on studies related to the proportions of the human form. From his work on the engraving of 'Adam and Eve' (1504) he had realised that the information given by Vitruvius in 'De architectura' was insufficient to establish universally valid laws of proportion. In order to progress towards a more systematic description of the external appearance of the ideal human body, Dürer began a study of nature using precise measurements of large numbers of men, women and children.

Dürer used two methodologies for his research. In the first instance, the distances between clearly defined points on the human body were measured and expressed mathematically in relation to the model's total height. By analysing the resultant data and eliminating aberrant figures, he was able to obtain typical values. Using the second method, Dürer divided the height of the human figure into six equal parts in order to obtain a mathematical gauge that was then used for all subsequent measurements. This gauge, or unit of measurement, would differ from one model to the next.

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Although Dürer's research was largely completed by 1523 it was not until 1528, the year of his death, that the 'Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion' was published. This work, in four sections or 'books', was the first published attempt to apply the science of human anatomical proportions to aesthetics. The work is also notable for its extraordinary series of over 100 anthropometrical woodcuts.

In the first two books Dürer employs his research methodologies to depict proper proportions of the human form. The third book alters these proportions according to mathematical rules, giving examples of extremely fat and thin figures. The third book also features sections that focus on the construction of the head. In the fourth book Dürer adds a theory of movement. However, his concern is only with the external appearance of the body in motion, as opposed to any attempt to teach anatomy. The woodcuts in the fourth book feature the first employment of cross-hatching to depict shades and shadows in wood engraving.

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The National Library of Scotland owns books one and two from a Latin 1532 edition, and books three and four from a Latin 1534 edition. Both of these editions have been bound together. In addition, 24 Dürer engravings have been included at the end of book four. These include such works as 'Melencolia I' (1514), 'Christ driving moneychangers from the Temple' (1508-9), 'Crucifixion' (1509) and the 'Bagpiper' (1514).

Details of this book

Dürer, Albrecht. 'Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion' (Shelfmark: H.3.a.13(1-2))

'Alberti Dureri clarissimi pictoris et geometrae de sym[m]etria partium in rectis formis hu[m]anorum corporum libri in Latinum conuersi'. [Nuremberg]: Norimbergae excudebatur opus aestate anni a Christo seruatore genito M.D.XXXII. In aedib. viduae Durerianae. [1532]

'Clariss. Pictoris et geometrae Alberti Dureri, De varietate figurarum et flexuris partium ac gestibus imaginum, libri duo, qui priorib. De symmetria quondam editis, nunc primum in Latinum conuersi accesserunt'. [Nuremberg]: Impensis viduae Durerianae, per Hieronymum Formschneyder Norinbergae., Anno M.D.XXXIIII. [1534]

 

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