Durer's Melencolia I: Plato's Abandoned Search for the Beautiful

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The literature on Melancholia is more extensive than that, on any other engraving by Durer: that statement would probably remain true if the last too words were omitted.-Campbell Doclgson, 1926(1)

Anyone familiar with the history of Western printmaking will find nothing surprising in Campbell Dodgson's statement, except, perhaps, that it predates so much twentieth-century scholarship on the subject. By 1991, Peter-Klaus Schuster required two volumes to survey and engage with the literature in his monograph on Melencolia I. The persistent enigma posed by Albrecht Durer's engraving (Fig. 1) is curious, for its author would appear to have left a sufficient number of clues for us to interpret his unusual subject matter. Not only did he date the engraving and sign it with his monogram, but he also inscribed the wings of the batlike creature flying through the sky with the legend MELENCOLIA i. It is reasonable to suppose that this label, reinforced by the melancholic pose of the female figure seated in the foreground, is the key with which Durer intended the meaning of his image to be unlocked. Furthermore, we can supplement the evidence of the engraving with six preparatory drawings, one of which contains an important inscription.3

One hundred years ago, Karl Giehlow proposed the interpretation of Melencolia I that attracted the widest support throughout the twentieth century.4 His thesis rested on the claim made by Marsilio Ficino in De vita triplici (1489) that outstanding individuals were prone to melancholy and subject to the planetary influence of Saturn. Given his exceptional talent, Durer might have recognized his own temperament in that connection. While it has never been established that Durer had read Ficino's book, a derivative manuscript, De occulta philosophia by Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, was circulating within German humanist circles a few years before the date of the engraving.5

In 1923 Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl published their research into the sources of Durer's image, building on the foundation laid by Giehlow.6 Panofsky incorporated that material into his authoritative book The Life and Art of Albrechl Durer (1943), where he concluded that the engraving "is in a sense a spiritual self-portrait of Albrecht Durer."7 After Saxl's death, and in collaboration with Raymond Klibansky, Panofsky published their last word on the subject in Saturn and Melancholy (1964).8 That immensely learned survey of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance allusions to melancholy, while reaching far beyond Melencolia I, endorsed the earlier interpretation. Panofsky's view of Durer's engraving remains the one most often paraphrased in catalogues of his work, but it has not prevented numerous alternative, or supplementary, explanations of the image from being published during the subsequent forty years.

Giehlow, however, had originally adopted a different approach to the interpretation of an engraving by Durer with an obscure subject. In a brief note of 1902, he had shown how many of the peculiar features of Durer's Nemesis (Bartsch 77, Fig. 2) were explained by a Latin poem written by Angelo Poliziano.9 When holding this text against the engraving, Giehlow observed, Durer emerged as a "very scrupulous illustrator." The goddess "walks aloft, floating in empty air"; her loins were "girded with a cloud"; she resounds with "whirring wings"; and she carries a bridle and bowl, a pairing of attributes in a Nemesis unique to Poliziano. Although this engraving has been revisited by a number of scholars, most notably by Panofsky in 1962,10 the link between image and text has not required major revision.

The source Giehlow hit upon to elucidate Melencolia I, on the other hand, did not supply the visual motifs of the engraving. Giehlow had to cast Durer as a speculative thinker, who drew from De vita triplici the Neoplatonism, theology (both Christian and pagan), astrology, and ancient medicine on which to base his own views, which he then promoted with imagery culled from other sources. …