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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Jacopo de' Barbari

A maze of narrow streets and waterways
--even Venice loses much of its charm when it rains.
Imagine, if you will, visiting the city of Venice, Italy, around 1500, and attempting to make your way around this urban Renaissance landscape, on foot, without the aid of a map. Not only is there a veritable maze of narrow waterways zigzagging their way through the city, but overlying it all is a second, equally complex, maze of narrow streets (some barely what we'd call alleys), which cross over the canals via dozens of nearly identical arched stone footbridges (above). The city is divided into two main areas separated by the winding Grand Canal over which there is but one (at the time) bridge--the Rialto. Although there are a plethora of treacherous gondolas at your service, there are times when you might have the feeling you could get where you want to go easier by swimming...assuming you didn't mind taking a dip in an open sewer. Of course, your sojourn is made somewhat easier by the towering campanile of San Marcos which serves as an orienting landmark. But still, frequently getting lost is more the rule than the exception. Asking directions in such an unfamiliar environment is quite acceptable...provided you speak the Venetian dialect of Italian. And traveling about the city at night...forget it. Yes, the streets are dimly lit by torchlight (some of them, anyway), but then, as now, there is always the danger of getting mugged...provided you don't stumble into a canal first.

Virgin and Child Flanked by St John the Baptist and St Anthony Abbot, 1490s, Jacopo de Barbari
Jacopo de Barbari, around 1497, decided to do something about this sorry state of affairs. De Barbari was a consummate woodcut artist and so-so painter (above) as compared to the many other Venetian painters of his day. Virtually nothing is known of de Barbari's early life. Art historians have no idea where he was born and can't seem to come within twenty years as to when he was born (between 1450 and 1470 is a best guess). Some argue he may have, in fact, been a German immigrant. At any rate, he turned up in Venice apparently in the late 1490s, paint, brushes, and woodcutting tools in hand, whereupon he took it upon himself to draw a map of the city for the benefit of the growing tourist trade just starting to become noticeable at the time. This was no small undertaking even for such an experienced artisan. The work required six blocks and the printed map measured about six feet horizontally and some four feet vertically. Moreover it was also exceptional for its time in that it took the form of an aerial perspective. Rather than clutter the work with street names, de Barbari simply drew them in along with detailed views of each and every building in the city (below). It was as if he'd hovered over the city in a hot air balloon to draw his map. Actually its likely he relied on detailed surveys drawn at ground level. In any case, the results, having taken more than three years to create, are stunning in their details and accuracy, especially for a time more than five hundred years ago.

King Neptune is likely just a fanciful decoration.
Although, given its size, the map may have been a bit unwieldy (not to mention expensive) for the city visitors of his day, having been there, done that a few years ago, there were times when I would have welcomed de Barbari's map despite its size and publication date. Just as a contrast, compare the map image and details (above) with a modern-day map similar in details (below).

For orientation purposes, start at San Marcos on this and
Barbari's map in comparing the two.
Portrait of Hendrik
(the peaceful) Graaf
van Mecklenburg,
1507, Jacopo de Barbari.
Perhaps, having seen far more of Venice than he ever wanted, Jacopo de Barbari took the profits from the sale of his maps and departed the city for Nuremberg, Germany, becoming the first artist of the Italian Renaissance to take his talent to the Teutonic tribes to the North. For about a year he worked for the Emperor Maximilian I. He then worked in various places for Frederick the Wise of Saxony in 1503-05, before moving to the court of the Elector Joachim I of Brandenburg during the years 1506-08. He may have returned to Venice with Philip the Handsome of Burgundy, for whom he later worked in the Netherlands. However by 1510 de Barbari was back in Germany, then on to Brussels where he worked for Philip's successor Archduchess Margaret. In January of 1511 de Barbari fell ill and made up a will. In March of that year the Archduchess gave him a generous pension for life, due to his age and infirmities. By 1516 he was dead, leaving the Archduchess in possession of twenty-three engraving plates, some of which have not survived.

Portrait of Luca Pacioli, ca. 1500, Jacopo de' Barbari. The artist's work
fits much more neatly into German traditions of portrait painting than those of the Italians. Notice the cut-glass
Still-Life with Partridge and Gauntlets, 1504,  Jacopo de' Barbari,
considered the first fool-the-eye still-life since the time of
ancient Rome.

Allegory, (verso) Portrait of a Man,
1497-1500, Jacopo de Barbari.
While in Venice, the artist seems
to have had a sideline of erotic
art. The title, for some unknown
reason, seems to ignore the feminine
element of his so-called "Allegory."


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