Les Voyages de Dürer LRB January 6, 2022

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‘St Jerome in his office’ (1521)

Albrecht Last arrived in Antwerp in August 1520. The trip from his home in Nuremberg had taken a little less than a month and he had noted it in his journal. His main concern was to detail his expenses. No expense was too small to be noted: “Ten pence for a roast chicken… I paid a student for a pair of short socks. The thoroughness we associate with Dürer’s art also extended to his personal record keeping.

In Antwerp, he rubbed shoulders with a cosmopolitan crowd. An early entry registers a dinner with “the Portuguese”: João Brandão, postman of the King of Portugal in Antwerp, and his principal secretary, Rodrigo Fernandes de Almada. They have become regular dinner companions; gifts followed. Less than a month after their meeting, de Almada sent Dürer “a cask of confectionery… barley sugar, marzipan… and quite a bit of sugar cane, as it was harvested”. There were other tokens, including feathers imported from Kozhikode in Kerala, off-season peaches, silk, “six Indian nuts” (coconut) and “a little green parakeet” for Dürer’s wife, Agnes. . These were the tastes and pitfalls of world trade – the sugar probably came from the slave plantations of Madeira.

In return, Dürer gave de Almada books of his woodcuts and some of his most famous prints, including Adam and eve, Melancholy I and St Jerome in his office. It was a successful strategy: de Almada commissioned Dürer to paint his portrait. At one point in March or April 1521, as he was preparing to return home, Dürer gave de Almada his most generous gift: “I painted a Jerome in oils, taking care of him, and I gave it to Rodrigo the Portuguese. The painting is usually found at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, but is currently on display at Dürer’s Travels: Travels of a Renaissance Artist at the National Gallery (until February 27). Dürer has represented Jerome several times throughout his career and across different media, but his painting for de Almada was a departure. Previous images show Jerome at work in his office, or as a penitent in the desert, hitting his chest with a stone. In a panel from around 1495, owned by the National and included in the show, Jérôme is a small figure in a rocky and wooded landscape. In the foreground, a pair of finches appear amidst carefully individualized plants. The famous engraving of St Jerome in his office from 1514 (also on display) shows Dürer at the height of his powers, performing a kind of alchemy on the copper plate: he causes it to produce a golden light, streaming through a mullioned window; grainy wood; fluffy lion fur. Jérôme is – again – a small figure, his head bent over his work. His study is a delight for anyone with a stationery fetish. Neatly folded letters and a pair of scissors are stored in a rack pinned to the wall behind him. It is a portrait of Jerome’s office as much as a portrait of Jerome.

In the picture of Lisbon, however, we are coming together. In his preparatory sketch, for which Dürer used a 93-year-old model, Jerome was again shown looking down. But in the painting, he looks at the viewer with an expression somewhere between fatigue and mistrust. The open book on the reading stand has a soft fabric cover, which has been tucked into the pages to mark a spot. Jerome’s index finger points to a skull, turned to the side. There is dirt under the nail. Dürer is the master of the minute: the filth of the nails has rarely been so convincing. I wonder if it’s the inky dirt of scholar’s work or the dirt of the desert. Or maybe the dirt from stroking the lion’s fur? It is a more fleshy and more human portrait of Jerome: wrinkled, bearded and with grimy fingers. Jerome was an icon and example for Renaissance humanists, and the elements of the painting nod to humanist ideas (the skull, for example, might symbolize Erasmus’s concept of self-knowledge). The painting was a gift to a Roman Catholic and can be, as the catalog suggests, “a painted argument in their intellectual exchange of ideas.”

The volume of Dürer’s diaries which describes his trip to Antwerp in 1520 is the only one that remains (in two copies from the 17th century). We do not know if there were other volumes. But in any case, it is more of a register and Dürer rarely records his feelings, except in broken terms: “I saw on the bridge where the criminals are executed the two commemorative figures erected to mark the place where a son cut off his father’s head. Ghent is an attractive and remarkable city. Four great rivers flow there. His feelings about things he has seen and people he has met can only be guessed. We cannot know if he considered de Almada a friend or just a business contact. And we don’t know if they corresponded after Dürer left Antwerp. De Almada’s last appearance in the diary records the “gift of one of the parrots they bring back from Malacca”.

Dürer’s painting remained in Antwerp until 1548, when it was celebrated and much imitated. In the National Gallery exhibition, he appears alongside several paintings made in his image. It’s easy to see why he was popular – Dürer asks us to look the Father of the Church in the eyes, near death, contemplating his life and works. But behind her are the remnants of a relationship, measured in the exchange of peaches, feathers, prints, sugar, silk, and ideas.


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