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Melencolia I

Melencolia I
engraving, 1514, on laid paper, without watermark, a very fine, early Meder a impression, the second, final state, printing with great clarity and contrast, with wide margins
Plate 240 x 189 mm.
Sheet 278 x 225 mm.
Private Collection, France.
with Galerie J. H. Bauer, Hannover, Germany,
from whom acquired by the present owner in 2006.
Bartsch 74; Meder, Hollstein 75; Schoch Mende Scherbaum 71

E. Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, New Jersey, 1945, pp. 151-171.
J. Campbell Hutchison, Albrecht Dürer - A Biography, New Jersey, 1990, pp. 104-5, 114, 117-8.
G. Bartrum, Albrecht Dürer and his Legacy, London, 2002, p. 188, no. 128 (another impression illustrated).
P. Doorly, 'Dürer's Melencolia I: Plato's Abandoned Search for the Beautiful', Art Bulletin, June 2004, LXXXVI, pp. 255-276, no. 2 (another impression illustrated).
J. Sander, J. Stumpel, et al., Dürer - His Art in the Context of his Time, exhibition catalogue, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, 2013-2014, pp. 262-263, no. 10.3 (another impression illustrated).
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Lot Essay

Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I is one of the most admired, discussed and interpreted image in the history of western art in any medium. On a medium-sized copper plate, Dürer engraved a scene of such complexity, abounding in symbols and allusions to artistic, scientific and philosophical discourses, that it has provoked intense speculation ever since its creation in 1514. Despite its declared subject – it is the artist’s only engraving inscribed with a title – the full meaning of the work has remained a conundrum and has encouraged countless commentators from all disciplines of academia, including art historians, philosophers, theologians, mathematicians, medical scientists and scholars of other, more esoteric fields of knowledge, to interpret this perplexing image and identify its visual and literary sources. Fascinating as many of these contributions have been, they have - perhaps inevitably - failed in their quest for the ultimate and all-encompassing interpretation.
Melencolia I is dated 1514. Dürer was then in his early forties and at the height of his fame and creative powers. Commercially however, these were not the easiest years for the artist. In 1512 he had been appointed artistic advisor to Emperor Maximilian, an illustrious but not very lucrative position. His main responsibilities were to design and oversee the production of two monumental woodcut projects, the Triumphal Arch and the Triumph of Maximilian, both completed in 1515. His services for the Holy Roman Emperor, however, left him without a wage for three years, as he complained in a letter to Nuremberg’s ambassador to the Imperial Court. Equally, his work as a painter was often poorly remunerated, as his patrons, such as the Frankfurt patrician Jakob Heller, paid reluctantly, little and late. (Hutchison, p. 104-5; 114). On the family side, his life was deeply affected by the death of his mother Barbara, on 16 May 1514.
It was under these circumstances that Dürer threw all his energy into the production of engravings - he made 13 prints in just over 12 months -, in particular the three so-called ‘Meisterstiche’: Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), Saint Jerome in his Study and Melencolia I (both 1514). The three prints, all of similar dimensions, have long been regarded as the culmination of his work as a printmaker – and the pinnacle of the art of engraving. They have justly been revered for their technical virtuosity and innovation, for it was with these prints that Dürer perfected what Erwin Panofsky described as ‘the graphic middle tone’ – his way of treating a print like a painting rather than a line drawing: as a space of lighter and darker areas, with the blank paper as highlights and dense cross-hatching for the deepest shadows, with moderately lit areas in between. Apart from his ability to convincingly depict light and shade and an astonishing spectrum of different textures and surfaces with black ink alone, commentators have praised Dürer’s command of the principles of Italian Renaissance art, perspective and proportion, and the sheer visual and intellectual complexity of these images.
It is generally understood that the three engravings represent three forms of virtuous living: moral (Knight), theological (Jerome), and intellectual (Melencolia I), as outlined in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, a central text of medieval scholasticism, written circa 1265–1274 but first published in its entirety only in 1485. While the interpretation of the other two ‘Meisterstiche’ has attracted some debate, it is Melencolia I that has intrigued and mystified scholars more than any other work of European art.
In the classic pose of the thinker, the head resting on the hand, sits a 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 a tower-like 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, whose wings serve as a banner for the title of the print, hovers above the scene.
Some of these objects are familiar symbols, which also occur 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 as memento mori. Yet the scales and the hour-glass, as well as the ruler and the pair of compasses are also measuring devices, instruments for the examination of nature, while the various tools and the melting pot may stand for the practical application of the rules of nature. The numerical table is a demonstration of mathematical and scientific understanding: on Dürer’s tablet, any row of numbers, horizontal, vertical, or diagonal, adds up to thirty-four.
If knowledge is one of the over-arching themes of the print, and the state of melancholy as personified in the winged figure another, then the question arises as to the relation between these two concepts. In his classic text The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (1946), Erwin Panofsky offered one interpretation and attempted to find the textual sources for the print. According to him, Dürer’s inspiration for his allegory of melancholy, the least desirable of the four temperaments and rarely depicted before him, is to be found in Marsilio Ficino’s De triplici vita (1489). The Neo-Platonist from Florence claimed that exceptional individuals were prone to melancholy and the influence of the god Saturn. Another source, perhaps more readily available to Dürer, was Agrippa von Nettesheim’s De Occulta Philosophia. Although first published in 1531, a more concise manuscript version of the book circulated in German humanist circles from 1509⁄10 onwards, and it seems plausible that Dürer’s friend and mentor Willibald Pirckheimer knew this text. Largely based on Ficino, Agrippa develops a theory of melancholy genius, of inspiration ‘through the furor melancholicus induced by Saturn’. (Panofsky, p. 169) Melancholy and genius are thus related, yet in Dürer’s print it seems that the limitations of knowledge are causing the state of melancholic unrest: ‘This is precisely what Dürer’s Melancholia seems to experience. Winged, yet cowering on the ground… equipped with the tools of art and science, yet brooding in idleness, she gives the impression of a creative being reduced to despair by an awareness of insurmountable barriers which separate her from a higher realm of thought.’ (Panofsky, p. 168)
For Patrick Doorly (2004), in his late riposte to Panofsky, not the limits of scientific knowledge but the inability to define beauty is the origin of melancholy. He argues that Dürer, in the artist’s own words ‘an untaught man of little learning’, had access to classical philosophy and science through Willibald Pirckheimer and Aldo Manutius’s editions of Vitruvius, Pliny, Euclid, and above all Plato, as well as the contemporary mathematician Luca Pacioli. Without the need of the Neo-Platonists’ reinterpretation, Melencolia I was thus directly inspired by the ancient texts, in particular by one of Plato’s early dialogues, the Greater Hippias (390 BC), in which Socrates and the Sophist Hippias engage in a futile conversation to find a definition of beauty. The dialogue ends with the two respondents succumbing to their inability to find an answer and accepting their ignorance.
The fact that after more than 500 years new interpretations of Melencolia I are still being offered, may reveal the true purpose of the print: it is open to interpretation, deliberately inviting speculation and debate. The rich symbolism of Dürer's engraving embodies the complexity of humanist thought in the Renaissance period, and manifests the intellectual and artistic culture in Southern Germany in the early 16th century, which this engraving perhaps more than any other work of art came to symbolise.
The present impression is a particularly fine example, printing with intense contrasts of bright highlights and deep shadows, such as the glowing eyes in her dark face. Unusually, the print is on a large sheet with wide margins and inky plate edges. Presumably, it was pasted to an album sheet and hence doesn’t bear any inscriptions on the reverse and was never trimmed to the subject, as became the custom among collectors in the 18th century. Few prints of this size and importance have survived in such an uncompromised state of preservation.

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