Many people are familiar with Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks and how they are filled with wonderful drawings and diagrams about art and science. But not nearly so many are aware of the notebooks of 16th-century German artist, Albrecht Dürer. Yet Dürer was equally passionate about science and art, and perhaps more compassionate about humanity.
Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) was a younger contemporary of Leonardo (1452-1519). Durer’s notebooks are available today in the form of a book he called “The Painter’s Manual,” published by Abaris Books. This volume pulls together his various notes on geometry, architecture, typography, proportion, and perspective. It is one of my favorite books.
Both Leonardo and Dürer had a thirst for knowledge and spent much of their careers learning from others or studying on their own. They both took extensive notes and left dozens of notebooks. But Dürer was the one who managed to see his work published and made public in his lifetime.
Dürer not only managed to publish his writing but left hundreds of woodcuts, engravings, and paintings for posterity. He was prolific like Picasso in that sense. Leonardo, by comparison, left illustrated notebooks in secret handwriting and relatively few paintings.
Dürer is underappreciated. Italian Renaissance artists like Leonardo, Raphael, and Michaelangelo overshadow northern artists such as Dürer, Jan Van Eyck, and Hans Holbein the Younger, who were living at more or less the same time in what is now the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. It is clear from their work that these northern artists were exploring the same visual and scientific questions as were their artistic colleagues to the south. And they created many truly magnificent works of art. Why are they overlooked?
The notebooks left by Albrecht Dürer reflect how leading artists in the Renaissance, north, and south, wanted to understand more about our world. Although both Leonardo and Dürer left written legacies. Leonardo has received more attention for his work.
Perhaps Leonardo surpassed Dürer in his scientific researches. Perhaps he surpassed Dürer as an artist as well, although that would be a close race. Where Dürer surpassed Leonardo, however, was in his ability to reach out, publish and interact with people.
Where Leonardo was secretive, Dürer was outspoken. He wore his intentions on his sleeve. He wanted humanity to benefit from his work in a big way. Dürer wrote:
“If I can spark something toward the increase and improvement of art, in time it may become a great beacon that will illumine the entire world.”
Perhaps Dürer is a better model for artists today. We need artists who can look at the big picture and help humanity meet today’s big challenges. We need more artists like Dürer. He was an artist for all time.