The exhibition Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist offered a rare opportunity to travel 500 years back in time. Albrecht Dürer becomes our guide and we follow him on his way from Nuremberg to Venice and the Low Countries, looking at the world through his eyes. Fortunately, the artist had the habit of documenting his journeys (which was untypical for that time), and the majority of his letters and diaries have survived until today. One can read the ipsissima verba of the artist while admiring the artworks he produced during his Wanderjahre (yes, Dürer’s stories and drawings of the places he visited made me think of the famous Goethe’s novels about Wilhelm Meister). But be warned: if you are waiting to see his most famous iconic paintings and his self-portrait, you might be disappointed – they are not there. What is there, are Dürer’s prints, plenty of his drawings, some of his paintings and some paintings and even sculptures demonstrating the influence of Dürer’s works, his findings and inventions that influenced his contemporaries, mostly in the Low Countries.

If the Aachen exhibition focused exclusively on Dürer’s travels in the Low Countries, the display in London is similar in scale, but has a wider focus. In addition to his adventures in the Low Countries, it explores the artist’s three other trips: to the Rhineland (1490-94), Venice (1494-95) and a second visit to Venice (1505-07), which means that the coverage of the Low Countries (1520-21), is not as detailed as it was at the previous exhibition in Aachen.

Dürer was born in 1471 into the family of a Hungarian goldsmith, who had settled in the Imperial city of Nuremberg. Instead of a traditional guild system, it was the city council that regulated the work of craftspeople, encouraging them to follow high standards. This wealthy and prosperous city attracted such people as Albrecht the Elder, father of the artist. Young Albrecht Dürer was first trained by his father and then apprenticed to the painter and woodcut designer Michael Wolgemut. Having completed his studies, the young artist embarked on his usual travels, seeking experience with different masters – a custom that has survived in Germany until today. After the first series of travels to Colmar, Basel and Strasbourg, Dürer returned to Nuremberg and married Agnes Frey. Almost immediately, after an outbreak of plague in 1494, he set out again, travelling across the Alps. His wonderful watercolours captured the landscapes and scenes that he came across on his journey. He crossed the Brenner Pass and finally made it to Venice in 1494-95.

The visit to Italy brought about the first major shift in Dürer’s artistic paradigm. The artist’s early works were influenced by “hübsch Martin” (handsome Martin), or Martin Schongauer, whose engravings Dürer admired and often used as inspiration for his own work. However, after his first journey to Venice, his drawing of St Catherine (about 1494), paintings of Madonna and Child (1496-1499) and Saint Jerome point to a range of influences, from Schongauer’s engravings to Giovanni Bellini’s Madonnas. Curiously, his Madonna and Child made in the wake of the artist’s first Venice journey, traded until the mid-20th century as a Bellini, the Venetian master Dürer much admired. Dürer’s Sea Monster (1498) blends classical and Medieval features and seems to have been inspired by the study of a print by the Italian artist Andrea Mantegna. According to art critic Jonathan Jones, the Sea Monster “takes Ovid’s story of Europa and the Bull, and turns the (literally) horny male creature into a beast straight out of northern forest folklore.” For the same reason, his Four Naked Women (1497) reminds us of the classical sculpted depictions of the Three Graces but were also known as Four Witches in Dürer’s time. The artist’s first and second trip to Venice, where he was patronised by local Germans, had an abiding influence on Dürer’s portraits. His depiction of Burkhard of Speyer and Portrait of a Young Man (both dating to 1506) focus intently on the face and are painted in the manner characteristic of the Venetian school.

The years between 1494-1500 appear as the time when young Albrecht was enthusiastically embracing and assimilating everything he had seen and learnt on his first visit to Italy. The details of that journey are sketchy but Venetian influences in his works provide sufficient evidence that he spent some time in La Serenissima. If Mantegna’s prints might have been available to Dürer in Germany, then in Italy he was able to see the drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and Gentile Bellini, and even work as apprentice to his brother Giovanni, a much respected and admired Venetian master.

Dürer formed a unique bridge between the arts north and south of the Alps. He was among the first to bring the Renaissance to Germany and also to transform it (as the Sea Monster and other his prints demonstrate). He was as much influenced by Italian art as he influenced Italian art in return. His prints inspired Italian artists for generations. For instance, one of Dürer’s earliest engravings, The Prodigal Son (1496), seems to have inspired Dürer’s Venetian mentor, Giovanni Bellini. The latter appears to have copied the curtailed bullock from Dürer’s print in his 1505-1507 painting The Assasination of Saint Peter Martyr – a device Dürer used to suggest space and movement beyond the limitations of the sheet. Not too bad for a young promising artist!

Furthermore, while staying in Venice in 1505-1507, Dürer explored ideas about proportion, and learned to use a blue ground for sketches. His manual "Of Human Proportion," written in German and translated into Latin and Italian, became a perennial mainstay of Italian art education. Perhaps, he wrote that study in an attempt to understand the approach to human proportion practiced by the artist Jacopo de’ Barbari. Dürer met de’ Barbari in Nuremberg in 1500 but the latter “did not want to show his principles” to Dürer and was too vague.

On his second visit to Venice, Dürer was welcomed as a famous artist and innovative engraver. Quite possible that many Italian artists shared the sentiment expressed by Giorgio Vasari, who wrote that if Albrecht Dürer, “so able, so diligent, so versatile, had had Tuscany for his country . . . he would have been the best painter of our land”. It is at that time that Dürer produced The Feast of the Rose Garlands (1606) for the Church of the German merchants in Venice, San Bartolomeo. With this work, he proved to Venetian artists that he was a master of colour as well as black and white lines. The painting is also a tribute to Giovanni Bellini and his style. In a letter to his humanist patron friend Willibrand Pirckheimer Dürer writes: "…but Giambellino (Giovanni Bellini) has praised me highly to many gentlemen. He would willingly have some of mine, and came himself to me and asked me to do something for him, and said that he would pay well for it, and everyone tells me what an upright man he is, so that I am really friendly with him. He is very old and yet he is the best painter of all.” Unfortunately, what we can see at the exhibition in London is a 17th century copy after the damaged original, now in Prague.

It is also at that time that Dürer sought to grasp the new idea of the artist as genius and intellectual, not some obscure artisan. On leaving Venice, he lamented to Pirkheimer in his letter: “How I shall freeze after the sun. In Venice, I have become a gentleman, at home a parasite.”

Although the Italian section of the exhibition gives us some idea of Dürer’s life in Venice, it fails to make a coherent narrative. To someone who, like myself, had been looking forward to the show in hope of gaining an insight into Dürer’s life within the Venetian artistic community, the exhibition will prove a disappointment. It does not highlight the vibrancy of the Venetian artistic community, the friendships and rivalries that must have existed between the Venetian artists and the German master. Perhaps, it is also the pandemic to blame for the fact that the National Gallery did not manage to secure more loans of Italian paintings outside the UK. Whatever the reason, the excitement, the intrigue and the adventure of Dürer’s life in Venice is practically lost on the viewers.

No mentions of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo becoming new celebrity artists while Dürer stayed in Italy, either. It is known that Dürer admired Raphael and they even exchanged works later in 1520, but the exhibition does not explore any possible earlier encounters. During his stay in Venice, Dürer could also have met Giorgione, who painted Laura (Portrait of a Young Bride) in 1506. The German artist must have also heard of Giorgione’s young rival Titian. It is quite possible that they could have met, especially as all three seem to have enjoyed the patronage of the community of German merchants. Dürer painted the Feast of the Rose Garlands for San Bartolomeo in 1506, while Giorgione and Titian frescoed the façade of Fondaco dei Tedeschi (German storehouse) on the Grand Canal around 1508.

What seems to be conspicuously absent from the Italian section of the exhibition, is the incident with Dürer's prints that were extensively pirated in Italy. In 1506, the engraver and disseminator of Raphael's images, Marcantonio Raimondi, came to Venice from Bologna and, according to his own account, spent almost every penny he had on Dürer’s prints with the purpose of copying and counterfeiting them. Raimondi produced whole series of fake Dürers that still exist (in fact, they were exhibited in Moscow in 2021). In a rare and early recognition of artist's copyright, the Venetian Senate forbade Raimondi from employing Dürer's distinctive "AD" monogram on his counterfeited sheets. A story like this can turn any exhibition into a blockbuster, but for some strange reason the National Gallery curators preferred to ignore it. Overall, it is a great pity, that the Italian part of the exhibition does not keep its promise.

Unlike the first part of the exhibition, the one that covers Dürer’s journeys in the Low Countries is more detailed and at times revelatory. Perhaps, it would have been better to stick to the Aachen version of the show.

During his journey around the Low Countries, the 49-year-old artist kept journals, which were part diaries and part account books. Dürer was astonishingly productive for someone who was travelling and engaged in other activities. From his records we know that in October 1520 he even attended the coronation of Charles V in Aachen. Also, King Christian II invited Dürer to a banquet in Brussels along with his brother-in-law Charles V. Unfortunately, Dürer ‘s portrait of Christian does not survive. We also know that the artist dined at the house of the court painter Bernaert van Orley in Brussels in August 1520. In June 1521, he visited Margaret of Austria, widowed daughter of Emperor Maximilian I, in Mechelen. She was a patron of arts, and Dürer admired ‘all her beautiful things.’ It is also possible that van Orley facilitated the meeting with Margaret.

Throughout his journey, Dürer completed at least 120 surviving sheets (many double-sided) of silver-point drawings and five paintings. Even if many works were lost, numerous sketches and drawings still survive. All these documents show us how Dürer lived, who Dürer met, and what amazed and inspired him. We even know how much he sold his works for and how much his dinner cost him at the tavern. Although the original July 1520-July 1521 journal is lost (other than a single sheet, now in the British Museum), two transcriptions survive. The earliest one dates from around 1570 and is kept in the Nuremberg City Archives. The 1620 copy, now in the Bamberg State Library, is currently on display at the National Gallery in London.

Among other highly meaningful encounters was Dürer’s meeting with Raphael’s associate Tommaso Vincidor. It is possible that Vincidor showed him some of Raphael’s drawings. It was, in fact, Vincidor who requested to see Dürer in Antwerp and presented the latter with a valuable antique gold ring. Dürer also mentioned that Vincidor had drawn his portrait to take to Rome. Unfortunately, the original has not survived and what we see at the exhibition is a later copy.

Dürer’s interest in painting waned almost as soon as he returned from Italy. The artist felt frustrated at the slowness of the process which resulted only in a single work, whereas printmaking allowed his images to reach a much wider audience. The section dedicated to Dürer’s travels in the Low Countries demonstrate the extent of his influence upon his many contemporaries. These include Quinten Massys, Joos van Cleve, Lucas van Leyden, Jan Gossart, Dirk Vellert, Jan Mostaert, Conrad Meit, Hans Hoffmann, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Holbein the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder and others. Some of their paintings emulated Dürer ‘s prints almost line for line, borrowing figures, landscapes, compositions. Dirk Vellert’s stained-glass roundel the Flight into Egypt (1532- 1540) is based on the eponymous, but earlier Dürer ‘s engraving (1504) that was first published in a book of 20 woodcuts of the Life of the Virgin, completed in 1511. Vellert was also master of the painters’ guild in Antwerp and in 1521 he organised a feast to welcome Dürer to the city. The artist also recollected that he acquired a new pigment from Vellert: “the red colour that one finds in Antwerp in the new bricks”.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Dürer never spurned a young artist, even if she was a woman. He greatly admired the works by Susanna Horenbout, a daughter of the artist Gerard Horenbout. In June 1521, he made a diary entry about purchasing a single illuminated leaf of Christ, Saviour of the World, from the 18-year-old Susanna.

In autumn 1520, when he visited Cologne, Dürer recorded to have bought a pamphlet of Luther’s. The list of Luther’s works (now in the collection of the British Library) that were in the artist’s possession challenged the practices of the Catholic Church, such as selling the indulgences to shorten time spent in Purgatory.

The exhibition also features two arresting portraits of the humanist scholar Erasmus and his fellow colleague, Pieter Gillis, holding a letter from his friend, a humanist from England, Sir Thomas More. Both works were painted by the Flemish artist Quinten Massys and were initially joined together as a diptych, but the portrait of Gillis was later enlarged.

Finally, the most important loan at the exhibition is certainly Saint Jerome (1521), from Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. Dürer based this painting on a drawing of an elderly man he met in Antwerp. On the sketch he wrote that his model was “ninety-three years old and still sane and healthy”.

Dürer was open to all manner of new experiences and thirsting for the unseen, the exotic. For instance, he took a difficult trip to Zeeland to see a stranded whale (washed away into the sea before the artist arrived). He drew lions, lynx and a baboon in the zoos at Brussels and Ghent. The artist was also commissioned to represent indigenous peoples from the Americas and incorporated weapons and clothing in his drawings from Maximilian’s prayerbook. No wonder, he gazed in amazement at the treasures (clothing and gold artefacts) of Moctezuma, sent by Cortés to the Emperor Charles V. He wrote in the journal about the experience: “I had never in my life seen anything that gave my heart such delight as these things… and was amazed at the subtle ingeniousness of the craftsmen of distant lands.” Eventually, what never fails to amaze throughout the exhibition, is Dürer’s tireless and restless spirit, his alert and observant eye, inventiveness and curiosity.