When one thinks of the Renaissance, one invariably thinks of the enormous contribution made by poets, scholars, painters, and sculptors in the Italian Peninsula. Major centers, such as Florence and Rome, were at the forefront of intellectual and artistic achievements of the time. Northern Europe had its own Renaissance, influenced by ideas from the south. The north had its own innovations and, in certain respects, outshone Italy. This is especially true for the German Renaissance. It was, after all, the Germans who invented and promoted the movable type printing press, invented the pocket watch, and saw the rise of an entrepreneur richer than Carnegie and Rockefeller — Jacob Fugger (1459–1525). Germany, at the time was not a single polity. It was a geographical expression linked to the language and culture of the people in a multitude of small states called the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. One of the cultural centers of the Northern Renaissance was a Free Imperial City (an independent city-state in the Empire) — an important center of commerce, craftsmanship, politics, and Renaissance humanism. This was the city of Nürnberg. Nürnberg Castle was the site of the Reichstag (Imperial Diet). Crafts from the city were in-demand throughout Europe and the city was home to the most famous artist of the Northern Renaissance — Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528).
Political and Economic Context
Commerce, competition, and political decentralization were all essential elements in what made Renaissance Nürnberg one of the most innovative cities in the history of civilization. Historian Silke Ackermann describes the particular environment in which Nürnberg flourished.
“The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation in the sixteenth century was a huge expanse of land, with any number of courts, all competing with each other to have the finest craftsmen. So Germany was completely different from England, where London was always the centre. In Germany, Nuremberg was where the trade routes came together and it was at the time described as “Quasi Centrum Europae” — more or less the centre of Europe. Every kind of trade passed through Nuremberg, even ivory, everything you could possibly imagine.” -Silke Ackermann, quoted by Neil MacGregory in ‘Germany: Memoirs of a Nation’ p.140.
The importance of political decentralization remained an important aspect in German intellectual and cultural developments. Centuries later, the polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe promoted political decentralization as an essential element to healthy culture.
“Whence is Germany great, but by the admirable culture of the people, which equally pervades all parts of the kingdom? But does not this proceed from various seats of government, and do not these foster and support it? Suppose, for centuries past, we had in Germany only the two capitals, Vienna and Berlin, or only one of these, I should like to see how it would have fared with German culture, or even with that generally diffused opulence which goes hand in had with culture.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, from the Conversations with Eckermann’
Regiomontanus and Astronomy
The Renaissance was the age which gave birth to what later historians call the Scientific revolution. Regiomontanus (1436–1476), or Johannes Müller von Königsberg to give his official name, was perhaps the most important astronomer between the ancient Ptolemy and Nikolaus Coperincus. Before moving to Nürnberg, Regiomontanus traveled to Italy and the court of Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. He studied the ancients, collected their works, built scientific instruments, and connected with important Italian mathematicians of the era. Working with humanist Bernhard Walther, he established the world’s first scientific printing press and becoming among the earliest to popularize science (a role now held by people like Steven Pinker, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Michio Kaku). Regiomontanus and Walther also both observed the comet of 1472, trying to estimate its distance from the Earth.
Regiomontanus wrote one of the first textbooks on trigonometry and was a major influence on Nikolaus Copernicus. He spent the end of his life in Rome. He built a sundial for the pope and contributed to planned calendar reforms. Had he not died soon after he got to Rome, his contributions to the eventual Gregorian calendar might have been more substantial. That project took the Catholic Church another century.
Regiomontanus placed great emphasis on both empirical observation and learning from the ancients.
“ You who wish to study great and wonderful things, who wonder about the movement of the stars, must read these theorems about triangles. Knowing these ideas will open the door to all of astronomy and to certain geometric problems.” -Regiomontanus, ‘On Triangles’ (1464)
Martin Behaim and the Oldest Surviving Globe
Cartography became an increasingly significant area of expertise in the Renaissance as explorers set out to the farthest reaches of the globe. Contrary to popular misconceptions, medieval people knew the world was round (the flat Earth idea was popularized by Washington Irving’s account of Columbus in the nineteenth century). Martin Behaim was a textile merchant and cartographer. He was adviser to the king of Portugal and actually went on a trading voyage to Africa. He created his famous globe (now in the Germanic Museum in Nürnberg) betwen 1490–1492, after returning to Nürnberg from his trip to West Africa. This globe, known as the Erdapfel (or ‘Earth Apple’) depicts the world as Europeans knew it at the time — without the Americas. Intriguingly, this globe would become obsolete soon after it was produced. While Columbus did not realize right away that he landed in the Americas and not Asia, the true extent of the voyage was realized over the following years.
This globe depicts more than 2,000 locations, is heavily influenced by the ideas of Ptolemy, and includes various monsters as well.
Hartmann Schedel and the Nürnberg Chronicle
The Nürnberg Chronicle was devised to be a comprehensive history of humanity from the legendary Biblical origin to the present. The text is over 300 pages and contains over 1,800 woodcut illustrations (though many were reused for different representations in different parts of the text). It was designed to be a world history, made up of seven ages: I. from creation to the Deluge, II. from the Deluge to the birth of Abraham, III. from the birth of Abraham to King David, IV. from King David to the Babylonian Captivity, V. from the Babylonian Captivity to the birth of Jesus, VI. from Jesus to the present, and VII. covering the Last Judgment. Over 2,000 copies were printed. Two different versions were created, one in Latin and one in German. For the printing industry, Latin dominated publications in all areas of Europe in these early centuries. It was only much later that the various vernacular languages surpassed Latin in terms of number of publications. With that being said, hundreds of copies of the German edition of the Nürnberg Chronicle were printed and sold.
The chronicle contains mythology, history, and some rather peculiar creatures, such as the half-man, half-horse (top) and umbrella foot (bottom):
Albrecht Dürer — Greatest German Artist
Painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) ranks as perhaps the greatest German painter and the city of Nürnberg’s favorite son. He was the artist who knew how to create a brand around his work. He put his ‘AD’ monogram on his various paintings and prints. He produced several self-portraits, numerous woodcuts, watercolors, and wrote books on measurement and proportion. He was the dominant eye of the German Renaissance. In short, Albrecht Dürer was the ideal entrepreneurial artist — he knew how to market himself, was incredibly talented, connected with major successful artists in his two trips to Italy (this included meeting Raphael), branded himself through the comprehensive use of his ‘AD’ monogram (in effect, signing his works far more comprehensively than any other artist before the nineteenth century), and utilized new technology (printing) to spread his reputation far and wide. He was far more conscientious than Leonardo da Vinci and had a more appealing personality than the obsessive Michelangelo. Check out a few of his most famous engravings below (look for the signature ‘AD’).
Albrecht Dürer’s works are truly a fest for the eyes. In addition to taking advantage of new technology, he also pioneered the depiction of landscapes and animals as significant artistic subjects, not merely as background or symbolism.
“The new art must be based upon science — in particular, upon mathematics, as the most exact, logical, and graphically constructive of the sciences.” -Albrecht Dürer
Peter Henlein and the Watch
“Every day they (the craftsmen of Nuremberg) invent finer things. For example, Peter Hele (Henlein), still a young man, fashions works that even the most learned mathematicians admire: for from only a little bit of iron he makes clocks with many wheels, which, no matter how one might turn them, show and chime the hours for forty hours without any weight, even when carried hat the breast or in a handbag (purse).” -Johannes Cochläus (1511)
The earliest ornamental watches date to the sixteenth century. Locksmith Peter Henlein (1485–1542) invented the watch in 1505, after acquiring knowledge of clock-making and mathematics. These small, ornamental watches were often worn as pendants. The popular ornamental watches called Nürnberg eggs date to the later part of the century, though were influenced by Henlein’s innovation.
Nürnberg — A Splendid Renaissance City
Various urban centers contributed to the vibrant cultural, intellectual, political, religious, and commercial developments of Renaissance Europe. For the Italian Renaissance, Florence, Venice, Rome, Milan, and Siena each offered unique contributions. For Northern Europe, there was just as much geographic diversity: Bruges, Antwerp, London, Mainz, Augsburg, Rotterdam, and Nürnberg. The city of Nürnberg was one of the most important centers of innovation due to the contributions of various craftsmen, intellectuals, and traders. Though much of the city was destroyed and rebuilt in the twentieth century, the spirit of Renaissance Nürnberg survives. The vision of Albrecht Dürer survives as well. Nürnberg was, and remains, a splendid Renaissance city whose legacy can be seen in Dürer’s popular woodcuts, the high standards of traditional German craftsmanship, the eventual development of the heliocentric model of the solar system, and the popular usage of timepieces.