Dürer’s Four Books on Human Proportion -Annotated by the architect-theorist Pietro Antonio Barca

Dürer, Albrecht (1471-1528); Gallucci, Giovanni Paolo (1538- ca. 1621)

Della simmetria de i corpi humani, libri Quattro. Nuouamente tradotti dalla lingua Latina nella Italiana, Da M. Gio. Paolo Gallucci Salodiano; et accresciuti del quinto libro, nel quale si tratta, con quai modi possano i Pittori & Scoltori mostrare la diuersità della natura de gli huomini & donne, & con quali le passioni, che sentono per li diuersi accidenti, che li occorrono. Hora di nuouo stampati.

Venice: Presso Domenico Nicolini, 1591


Folio: 32 x 22.5 cm. [6], 143, [1] leaves. Collation: [dagger]6, A-L6, M8, N-P6, Q10, R-Z6

FIRST ITALIAN EDITION, translated by Giovanni Paolo Gallucci, of Dürer’s “Von menschlicher Proportion."

Bound in contemporary limp vellum. An extremely fine, fresh copy with broad margins. Illustrated with 110 full page and four double page diagrams for measurement of the human figure, printed partly as plates, with groups of tables, all included in the foliation. There are 39 additional diagrams in the text. The Venice blocks are close copies of those designed for the first edition of the German text (1528). This edition includes Pirckheimer's important biography of Dürer and a fifth book, written by Gallucci.

A very appealing example of the first Italian edition, first issue, of Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) renowned and copiously illustrated work on human proportion, here in a copy owned by the Milanese architect-theorist Pietro Antonio Barca (d. after 1639) and annotated by him in preparation for his unusual illustrated treatise Avvertimenti e Regole circa L’Architettura Civile, Scultura, Pittura, Prospettiva et Architettura Militare (Milan, P. Malatesta, 1620). Barca comments in the Avvertimenti e Regole that his theories are indebted to “i megliori Autori, antichi e moderni’, but he does not mention Dürer by name. The discovery of the present volume thus confirms what has long been surmised, namely that Barca engaged directly with the Italian edition of Dürer’s treatise, adapting both its illustrations and proportional theories to suit his own purposes (see, e.g., A. Coppa, pp. iii-iv).

Surviving, autograph evidence of this type of art-theoretical reading is rare, and it here provides an intriguing glimpse into how a prominent Italian theorist of art and working architect of the early 17th century engaged with the ideas of the most influential German artist of the 16th century. While both Dürer’s fascination with Italian art and his primary role in importing Italian art theory of the early Cinquecento north across the Alps have always been recognized (and closely studied), the question of his reciprocal impact on Italian art has been more controversial. First published in German in 1528 as the Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion, Dürer’s proportional theories were initially met in Italy with some puzzlement and (in the case of Michelangelo and other Tuscan artists) even contempt (see, Panofsky, pp. 260-84). Barca’s adaptation of Dürer’s proportional ideas therefore offers intriguing evidence concerning the longevity of Dürer’s ideas during a ‘second century’ of influence on Italian art theory and practice.

Barca – who signs his name on the title page of the volume – focuses on Dürer’s more ideally beautiful body types to the exclusion of ‘extreme’ examples. Barca’s notes on the rear flyleaf refer by folio number to six of Dürer’s illustrations, and these are all illustrations that Barca would ultimately reproduce (with some alteration) in his Avvertimenti e Regole. Barca annotates several of Dürer’s woodcuts (ff. 31r, 31v, 35r, 35v, 39v, 40r, 45v, 46r, 51r, 65v, 67v, 89v, 90r), adding in the margin of some of these his own distinct, detailed proportional scale, and these scales appear in the engravings of the Avvertimenti e Regole. In his annotations Barca is also concerned with a figure’s head-to-body ratio (ratios of 1 to 7, 7.5, 8, 9, and 10), and he emphasizes these ratios in the Avvertimenti e Regole, relating male and female body types of varying age and physique both to the classical architectural orders and to Greco-Roman statuary prototypes (Jove, Minerva, Hercules, Mars, colossoi, Venus, and nymphs or Muses).

Della simmetria de i corpi humani, libri quattro is arranged in five books (Gallucci the translator has added the fifth book drawing on Italian poets to discusses matters of emotion, facial expression and temperament in art.) In Books One and Two Dürer presents his geometrical theory of bodily proportion, giving numerous examples of the male and female anatomy (young and old, and of various physiques) drawn according to strict mathematical ratios. “Dürer proposed a system of constructing a wide range of physiognomies through what he called Verkherung (conversion) by means of horizontal and vertical lines” (W. Krul, p. 241). This flexible grid system is taken up in Book Three, by far the most controversial book, which contains “the final statement of what may be called Dürer’s philosophy of art.” (Panofsky) Here Dürer argues – contrary to the theories of Alberti and the practice of Michelangelo – for a true realism over a sort of idealism which requires the artist always to embellish or ‘emend’ the reality of human bodies. For Dürer, there was no objective norm for beauty: The crude, the ugly, the fantastic and even the monstrous, being encountered in life, accordingly had their legitimate place in art. At the time, such a view was almost heretical, especially as presented as written theory; but according to Choulant (p.145), such a theory was noteworthy for embodying “the first application of anthropometry to aesthetics.” Book Four deals with bodies in motion and foreshortening and includes 60 full-page woodcut illustrations of the human anatomy.

In addition to treating fundamental proportional matters, this Italian edition also contains Pirckheimer’s “Life of Albrecht Dürer,” originally appearing in the first German edition, which notes the artist’s relationships with Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna and his controversial influence on Italian art.

The present volume carries the bookplate of Ladislao Reti (1901-73), a notable book collector and prominent scholar of Renaissance art and technology who today is primarily remembered for his role in authenticating and publishing the Codex Madrid of Leonardo da Vinci at its (sensational) rediscovery by Jules Piccus in 1965.

“Dürer produced dozens of manuscripts on the subject of proportion. Through the efforts of his wife, Agnes, and friend Willibald Pirckheimer, these treatises were published posthumously as Four Books on Human Proportion. The treatise attests to Dürer's changing attitude toward the body over time. He came to believe that artists should not strive for a single standard of beauty but instead embrace a variety of forms, writing, ‘If you wish to make a beautiful human figure, it is necessary that you probe the nature and proportions of many people: a head from one; a breast, arm, leg from another. . . .’ In this folio, Dürer depicted figures, accompanied by a corresponding list of body parts, superimposed on a diagram using a single unit of measurement indicated by symbols.”(Morgan Library)

Unlike his Italian contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, who published nothing, Dürer lived and worked in the world of printing and engraving. The son of a goldsmith, Dürer's godfather was Anton Koberger, who left goldsmithing to become the leading printer and publisher in Nuremberg. At the age of 15 Dürer was apprenticed to the leading artist in Nuremberg, Michael Wolgemut, whose workshop produced a large quantity of woodcuts. Throughout his career Dürer embraced the latest and best reproduction techniques, and may have derived more income from the sale of engravings and woodcuts than from painting.

Toward the end of his life Dürer wrote and illustrated three treatises which he also designed for the press. These included a treatise on fortification, a treatise on mensuration which introduced to Northern Europe techniques of perspective and mathematical proportion in drawing, painting, architecture and letter forms, which Dürer learned in Italy, and a work on the proportion of the human body. The last work, issued shortly after Dürer's death, was the first work to discuss the problems of comparative and differential anthropometry. Because Dürer copied one of Leonardo's anatomical drawings of the upper limb into his Dresden Sketchbook we know that on one of his visits to Italy Dürer must have viewed at least some of Leonardo's anatomical drawings. However, unlike Leonardo who explored both the surface and the interior of the human body, Dürer appears to have limited his interest in the human figure to the surface.

Dürer held that the essence of true form was the primary mathematical figure (e.g., straight line, circle, curve, conic section) constructed arithmetically or geometrically, and made beautiful by the application of a canon of proportion. However, he was also convinced that beauty of form was a relative and not an absolute quality; thus the purpose of his system of anthropometry was to provide the artist with the means to delineate, on the basis of sheer measurement, all possible types of human figures. The first two books of Dürer's work deal with the proper proportions of fat, medium and thin adult figures, as well as those of infants. The third book discusses the changing of proportions according to mathematical rules, applying these rules to both figures and faces. The fourth book treats the movement of bodies in space, and is of the greatest mathematical interest, as it presents, for the first time, many new, intricate and difficult considerations of descriptive spatial geometry. The whole work is profusely illustrated with Dürer's woodcut diagrams of figures. Choulant-Frank states that these include "the first attempts to represent shades and shadows in wood engraving by means of cross-hatching" (p. 145).

Like the Underweysung der Messung (1525), Dürer dedicated his book on human proportion to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer. Pirckheimer provided a preface describing Dürer's debt to the Italians, alluding to Dürer's visits to Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna, and explaining Dürer's influence on Italian and European art. Dürer's original drawings for this work are still preserved in his Dresden Sketchbook. These and Leonardo's anatomical drawings at Windsor are the only large collections of anatomical drawings by major Renaissance artists which remain extant.

Mortimer 169; Bohatta, Bibliographie… Albrecht Dürers, no. 28; Meder, Dürer-Katalog, p. 289; Adams D 1055; Brunet II. 914; Erwin Panofsky, "The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer", Vol I, Princeton, 1945, pp. 260-284