Augsburg's importance to the Renaissance
About the exhibition "Holbein and the Renaissance in the North", at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, until 18 February 2024.
No, there's more to the German Renaissance than Dürer and Grünewald! It's funny: the older I get, the more I appreciate taking an interest in ancient art. As if modern and contemporary art weren't enough for me now that I'm getting older and older myself! Is that how you feel too? Unless this new interest is not at all linked to my advancing age, but simply to the inevitable advance of my knowledge of art history over time, through my visits and my reading... It's a mystery! Whatever the case, I'm delighted. And so I've just become fascinated by the German Renaissance, at the "Holbein and the Renaissance in the North" exhibition, not to be missed at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, until 18 February 2024.
Did you know that, until the end of the 19th century, Holbein's son completely overshadowed his father in the history of art, to the extent that all the paintings by Hans Holbein the Elder (c. 1464-1524) were attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543)? That the German city of Augsburg was one of the five largest cities in Europe in 1500? That at the time it was home to "the richest man in the world", the banker and patron Jakob Fugger, and therefore to a remarkable generation of artists, including Holbein father and son, as well as Hans Burgkmair the Elder? That the famous Albrecht Dürer had even left his famous Nuremberg for a time to come and stay here from time to time?
Anyway... I have to admit that, until now, the very mention of the word Renaissance made me think immediately of Florence (the architect Brunelleschi, the sculptor Donatello, the painters Masaccio, Fra Angelico and Botticelli), Rome (Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo) or Venice (Mantegna, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Carpaccio)... Italy, then. Then perhaps the Flemish in Bruges (Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling and Gérard David), Ghent, Antwerp or Brussels... I might even have thought of Germany, mentioning Nuremberg because of Albrecht Dürer's house, or Grünewald's famous Issenheim Altarpiece... But one thing's for sure: I would never have thought of Augsburg! And with good reason... Since I'm telling you everything here, including what allows us to put the human being back at the centre of his inability to know everything: I had no idea that this town in Swabia, a region of south-western Bavaria, where so much has happened, even existed!
When I read Sophie Flouquet's article in the December issue of Beaux Arts Magazine, I was delighted to discover this stronghold of the Northern Renaissance... and even to be able to take a step back from the eternal reproaches of the commodification of art always levelled at the contemporary art market... by those who perhaps imagine that artists don't need to feed themselves or pay the rent. In reality, artists have always painted or sculpted works of art for sale, and it was of course the financially better-off who made it possible for them to get work! In those days, artists mainly worked on commission.
Far be it from me to rejoice that billionaires are needed to support artists... I'd be rather annoyed, in fact. Nevertheless. Without the Medicis in Florence, without the Fuggers in Augsburg, and without the wealthy art collectors of all time, who made their fortunes in finance or elsewhere on the backs of ordinary people, I don't know if many masterpieces would have reached us... That's a fact. As Sophie Flouquet writes about Augsburg and the beginning of the German Renaissance that flourished there so brilliantly, all the artists there found "fertile ground and a solid structure of sponsors and patrons, not without competition (...) An imperial city with Roman origins and the same size as Antwerp, Augsburg was in fact prosperous from the 13th century onwards, as shown by the architectural splendour of its civil buildings and churches. Much of its wealth came from its water: watered by the Wertach and Lech rivers, the city was able to develop a major textile industry from the Middle Ages onwards.
The Imperial House of Habsburg dominated the region and made Augsburg a major centre, regularly hosting the Imperial Diet, the institution responsible for overseeing general affairs at the time. Naturally, the city attracted a host of dignitaries, princes, clerics and councillors who came with their wives, sometimes for several weeks or even months at a time. This boosted not only the local economy, but also orders for works of art. In Augsburg, Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) was "a great patron of the local art scene", as was his adviser, the art, coin and medal collector and humanist Konrad Peutinger, who was even behind the creation of a foundry that produced many busts and bronzes. It has to be said that the emperor had found financiers in Augsburg, the Fuggers (and also, to a lesser extent, the Welser family), who were veritable city magnates". In 1519, it was Jakob Fugger (known as the Rich) who financed the election of Charles V, Maximilian's successor. This dynasty had no shortage of gold, thanks in particular to the silver, mercury and cinnabar mines...
"The Fuggers used art as a political instrument, an investment, a status symbol, an expression of their membership of a social elite and, not least, as a means of promoting their memoria," writes art historian Wolfgang Augustyn in the catalogue of the Frankfurt exhibition. "This voluntarism inevitably trickled down to local artists," adds the journalist from Beaux Arts Magazine. "Another singularity of the city was the perpetuation of its links with the Italian peninsula, partly inherited from its Roman past, but above all facilitated by its proximity to the Alpine passes. This meant that news from northern Italy reached the city more quickly than elsewhere in the Empire, whether in the form of humanist writings or works of art. Artists were not insensitive to this.
The proof: the paintings of Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531) may have remained "glacially lit by a pale Nordic light", but we can already discern Italianate motifs such as pilasters, columns and grotesques (he was even the first to work on this subject). He travelled not only to Italy, but also to the Netherlands and the Upper Rhine region, where he met the painter Martin Shongauer, whose name will be familiar to you if you visit the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar. Holbein the Elder, on the other hand, was a much more austere painter and the author of numerous religious panels clearly influenced by the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. He was a latecomer to portraiture in a Dutch vein, but it was this genre that was brilliantly taken up by Holbein the Younger, who was certainly one of the most brilliant portraitists of the 16th century.
The aim of the exhibition is clear: to illustrate this period of transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, between tradition and Italian contributions, thanks to the role played by the powerful patrons of Augsburg. This objective has been achieved.
Article written by Valibri en Roulotte
Illustration : Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390-1441)
Lucca Madonna, ca. 1437
Mixed technique on oak, 65,7 x 49,6 cm
Städel Museum Frankfurt am Main, Public Domain