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Detail of “Christ among the doctors”, 1506, by Dürer


“An influential artist should not devote himself to one style only, but should practise all manners and styles.” So wrote Albrecht Dürer, the greatest of all German Renaissance artists, and the quotation captures the theme of the monumental exhibition in the Palazzo Reale, Milan, Dürer e il Rinascimento tra Germania e Italia, which runs to June 24.

There is an 1828 painting by Friedrich Overbeck, to which this title alludes: it shows the symbolic embrace of two young women, each representing and set against the contrasting landscapes of their national cultures. Whereas it was traditionally the Germans who looked southwards to the land where the lemon trees blossomed, this show more unusually seeks to claim Dürer’s place among the Italians, and to demonstrate that there are innumerable influences across the Alps in both directions.

The artist paid a long visit to Italy in 1505-1507, and almost certainly made an earlier one too. These trips south in some way mirror the ventures at least some way north conjectured as having been made by Antonello da Messina, as a result of which he came under the influence of van Eyck and imported into Italy the Flemish model of portraiture.

What the Milan exhibition points up is the degree to which Dürer’s style was modified by the influence of the Italian masters, not least Giovanni Bellini whom he met in Venice (“very old, but still the best in painting”). The impression with which one is left is of two almost completely contrasting outputs in Dürer’s work, and sometimes a barely integrated combination of the two. Typical of the pre-Italian phase is the 1490 portrait of the artist’s father from the Uffizi, whose piercing realism — the stubble, the wrinkles, the arthritic hands — is purely Northern European.

The softening of the artist’s technique, which is already apparent in some of the portraits of 1505, is most striking in Christ among the Doctors (1506), a work which he boasted to have completed in five days. Unlike his immediate models, Carpaccio and Alvise Vivarini, Dürer does not make Jesus’s head the focal point, but rather places centre stage the complex interplay of four hands. Though our attention is certainly arrested by the painting's remarkable composition, one can understand why Wölfflin described it as a “mere curiosity”. What the curator Bernard Aikema refers to as a “skilful blend” might strike others as an uneasy amalgam of different traditions. Christ’s head appears to be neither one thing nor the other; the surrounding figures on our right veer from a Boschian grotesque to a deeply-bearded saint redolent of Bellini’s meditative divines in the church of San Zaccharia, while the figure to the extreme right anticipates the energy of the youthful Titian. 

Similar thoughts recur as one walks through the succeeding rooms of the exhibition. When, for example, one compares the portrait of a young man from 1506 (Genoa) with the clergyman Dürer painted ten years later (Washington DC), here placed side by side, it is as if one is looking at the work of two different artists. Very fine though the earlier painting is, the later work reflects a homecoming in more ways than one. It is, of course, impossible to wish away the existence of any creation of the master, but it is hard to see the productions which came from the period of his deep immersion in the art of the Italian Renaissance as anything other than a compromise — a diversion of the main current — of his extraordinary genius.
 
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