Tagebuch der Niederländischen Reise (Albrecht Dürer) 1520-21
[Dutch translation: Anne Pries (transl.), Albrecht Dürer. Reis naar de Nederlanden. Uitgeverij Hoogland & Van Klaveren, s.l., 2008, 139 pages]
From 1515 on the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), originating from Nuremberg, received an annual allowance of 100 guilders from the emperor Maximilian I. When Maximilian dies in 1519, Dürer loses his sponsor. On 12th July 1520 Dürer, his wife Agnes and a maid leave for the Netherlands. His most important aim is to ask Maximilian’s grandson and successor Charles V for a continuation of the annual allowance. Only one year later, in July 1521, he returns to Nuremberg. During this journey Dürer made notes in a kind of diary, which functioned as an account book at the same time. This booklet has survived and is now preserved in the Staatliche Bibliothek in Bamberg.
Dürer wrote down where he went, what he did, how much money he spent, what and with whom he ate and drank, how much he won and lost during games of chance, how much he had to pay for barber and public bath, how much his prints yielded and how much he had to pay for others, which souvenirs he bought, which presents he received and what kind of amazing things he saw. All this in a very concise manner. Very rarely he elaborates on personal considerations. The most striking of these occasions is around Pentecost 1521 when he hears the rumour that Luther has been murdered and writes a complaint full of sympathy for the protestant reformer, in which he tries to convince Erasmus (among others) to join ‘our side’ [pp. 89-93].
Dürer first travelled to Antwerp, which would become his place of residence for the next months and where he was accommodated in the inn of Joost Blanckfelt (called Jobst Planckfelt by Dürer). On the Sunday after Assumption he witnesses ‘the big procession’ there [pp. 24-25]. At the end of August he visits Mechelen (Malines) and Brussels (where he sees an exhibition of Mexican objects) and then returns to Antwerp. There he sees ‘the bones of the big giant’ who is said to have governed in Antwerp as is described in detail ‘in an old book’ [p. 41]. In October he travels to Aix-la-Chapelle (where he witnesses the coronation of king Charles as emperor on 23rd October) and Cologne, after which he returns to Antwerp again where on 11th November his wife’s purse is being stolen in the Cathedral of Our Lady [p. 57]. When he hears that a whale has washed ashore in Zierikzee, he travels to Zealand in December. When his ship arrives in Arnemuiden, he narrowly escapes from a big accident: due to a sudden heavy wind the ship, with only Dürer, another man, two old women, the skipper and a little boy aboard, drifts away from the quay, but they succeed in getting back to the shore safely [p. 62]. When Dürer arrives in Zierikzee, the flood has already washed away the whale.
Back in Antwerp the town secretary donates him a little panel painted by ‘master Joachim’ (Patinir), representing Lot and his daughters [p. 77]. In April 1521 he visits Bruges and Ghent. On Thursday 11th April, on his way back to Antwerp, he has breakfast in an inn called The Swan [p. 81]. In Antwerp Dürer learns that he has caught a disease in Zealand that makes him weak and listless and that gives him headache and fever [p. 83] (this disease – malaria – would never leave him the following years and in 1528 it would lead to his death). In May 1521 Dürer is invited by Joachim Patinir, ‘the good painter of landscapes’, at his wedding [p. 84]. In June Dürer pays a visit to Lady Margaret in Mechelen (Malines), without much success: she refuses his portrait of the emperor ‘because she found it horrible’ [p. 99]. Back in Antwerp he furiously jots down in his diary that he has suffered losses during his journey through the Netherlands and that Lady Margaret ‘has given nothing in return for what I gave her and for what I made for her’ [p. 105]. In July 1521 Dürer attends a banquet held by the king of Denmark in honour of the emperor (he paints a portrait of the king) and from there he returns to Germany. The main objective of the journey, the continuation of the annual allowance, had been settled in the meantime. This happened in Cologne in November 1520, after the coronation of Charles V, admittedly ‘after a lot of trouble and efforts’ [p. 51].
This diary does not show any literary aspirations and as a whole the text makes a rather dry and dull impression, although its cultural-historical value can hardly be overestimated. ‘Unfortunately Dürer did not go into detail when describing some of the wonderful things he saw’, Francis Russell justly remarked. This is very unfortunate indeed, especially for those who are interested in Hieronymus Bosch, because of two reasons. One. In November 1520, on his way back from Cologne to Antwerp, Dürer also visited ’s-Hertogenbosch, where works of Bosch must have been on display in the local church of St. John. The only thing Dürer jots down is this: ‘’s-Hertogenbosch is a nice city and it has an extremely beautiful church and a strong fortress. I spent 10 stivers there, although Arnold paid my meal. And the goldsmiths came to visit me and they did me much honour’ [p. 52]. And that’s it.
Two. In August 1520 one of the things Dürer visited in Brussels was ‘the house of the Nassaus (…), which is beautifully built and nicely decorated’ [p. 32]. This house was the palace of Henry III of Nassau where at that moment Bosch’s Garden of Delights triptych was almost certainly situated. About his visit Dürer writes: ‘When I visited the Nassau house, I saw the beautiful painting that master Hugo [Van der Goes] made in its chapel. And I saw the two beautiful large halls and all the precious things that are spread over the house, also the large bed in which fifty people can lie. And I saw the large stone that was cast into the field by the tempest, very close to the Lord of Nassau. This house has a high position and from it the panorama is wonderful, you can be amazed about that. I believe that something similar cannot be found in the German countries’ [p. 33]. The bed for fifty people, a work by Hugo Van der Goes, all the precious objects and a (meteoric?) stone, but no Garden of Delights. Having read the literature about Bosch we already knew about this disappointing harvest (some scholars have claimed that Dürer was jealous of Bosch and that that was the reason why he left him unmentioned) but now we have been able to check this with our own eyes. A letdown, just as well.
[explicit 7th July 2011]