ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471-1528)
ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471-1528)

Melencolia I

ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471-1528)
Melencolia I
on laid paper, without watermark
a very fine, atmospheric Meder lla impression
printing with strong contrasts, great clarity and depth
the face printing darkly
trimmed to or just inside the platemark on three sides, trimmed into the subject and restored below
otherwise in good condition
Sheet 239 x 188 mm.
Private Italian Collection; then by descent to the present owner.
Bartsch 74; Meder, Hollstein 75; Schoch Mende Scherbaum 71

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Lot Essay

Although Dürer gave his most famous engraving a rather unambiguous title, it has become the most extensively interpreted work in the history of western art. An allegory of melancholy, the details of its iconography have intrigued and inspired countless art historians and other scholars of all fields, including mathematicians, theologians and astronomers.
In the classic pose of the thinker, her head resting on her hand, sits a female winged figure, holding a pair of compasses and a closed book. Next to her on a millstone sits a winged putto, scribbling on a tablet. Before them lies a sleeping dog. Scattered around the figure is a variety of tools and mysterious objects, including a syringe, an oil lamp, a melting pot, scales, an hour glass, a bell, a numerical table and two geometrical shapes, a sphere and a large multi-faceted rock. On one side of this rock, like a slightly distorted reflection, we faintly see the image of a human skull. A ladder is leaning against the building which, together with the carpenter's tools - a saw, a plane, some nails, a ruler - gives the scene the appearance of a building site. In the background lies a distant coastal landscape beneath a night sky, strangely illuminated by a comet and a rainbow. A bat with the title of the print written across its spread wings hovers above the scene. Some of these objects are familiar symbols, which recur in other prints by Dürer: the sphere as a symbol of chance or fate; the scales as a symbol of justice; and the skull and the hour-glass, which appear as memento mori also in Saint Jerome in his Study (M. 59). The meaning of many of the other objects however is less evident, and attempts to 'solve the riddle' of this highly charged composition by offering one unified interpretation remain unconvincing.
This work is one of the artist’s three so-called Meisterstiche (‘master engravings’), created between 1513-1514, which are widely considered the pinnacle of the artist’s mastery of the graphic medium. It is thought that the three engravings, Melencolia I, Death, Knight and the Devil (see previous lot) and Saint Jerome in his Study each represent one of the three forms of virtuous living: intellectual, moral and theological, as outlined in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (written circa 1265–1274 but published in 1485). In Dürer's time, the nature of a virtuous life, and by extension of the ideal ‘Renaissance man’, was a popular topic of conversation in literary and artistic circles. Dürer himself was surrounded and no doubt inspired by the Nuremberg humanists, above all by his friend Willibald Pirckheimer. Treatises such as Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513) and Castiglione’s The Courtier (1528) give testimony of the intellectual culture and the moral questions of the time. The rich symbolism of Dürer's engraving embodies the complexity of humanist thought in the Renaissance period, and therein may lie the true purpose of the print: it is open to interpretation, deliberately inviting speculation and debate.
In Dürer's time, the melancholic temperament was associated with genius and the pursuit of knowledge. If Saint Jerome in his Study and Melencolia I are indeed companion pieces, and Saint Jerome represents the knowledge of ancient texts, then Melencolia I stands for a different, new kind of knowledge - that of empirical, applied science. The ruler, the scale and the pair of compasses are all measuring devices, instruments for the examination of nature. The building tools and the melting pot on the other hand are symbols of human creativity. For the artists of the Renaissance, with Leonardo and Dürer as prime examples, the observation and comprehension of the natural world was the foundation of their art. They saw themselves as artists as well as scientists, and in this sense Melencolia I could be described as a portrait of the artist in disguise.

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