If asked to name European cities that were major hotbeds of Renaissance culture, not many Americans would find “Augsburg” leaping to the tip of their tongue. That’s not because the ancient Bavarian city doesn’t rate such high regard, but simply because most of us don’t know about it. Exhibitions of its art haven’t made the rounds in this country until a couple of years ago, when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC decided to pull together “Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475-1540” from its substantial holdings from that time and place. In fact, it’s the first-ever US exhibition to explore Augsburg’s artistic achievements in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
According to National Gallery director Earl A. Powell III, “The rich and varied history of works on paper in Renaissance Augsburg can be told almost entirely through the National Gallery’s extensive collection of German prints, drawings and illustrated books.” Happily, the US tour of this remarkable exhibition – curated by Gregory Jecmen of the National Gallery and Freyda Spira of the Metropolitan Museum of Art – is making its last stop right in our back yard, so we can now familiarize ourselves with Augsburg’s fantastic cultural legacy. It’s opening this week at Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center with a lecture and live performance of German Renaissance music.
Situated at a strategically important confluence of river valleys that served as a gateway through Alpine passes from Germany to Italy, Augsburg was a coveted prize from the time of its founding as Augusta Vindelicorum in 15 BCE by Drusus and Tiberius in the name of their stepfather, Augustus Caesar. This crossroads of major European trade routes bounced back from sackings by the Huns, Charlemagne and Duke Welf I of Bavaria to become a Free Imperial City of the Holy Roman Empire: a privilege that lasted for 500 years. Textile manufacturing, metalworking and banking generated great wealth for the city, enabling the arts to flourish. Painters Hans Holbein the Elder and Younger, during the period covered by this exhibition, and later Leopold Mozart and Bertolt Brecht, all hailed from Augsburg.
It was under the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1493-1519), who commissioned his prints and armor there, that the city reached the height of its artistic florescence. “As Augsburg’s artists benefited from the patronage of the Habsburg court, they also created works for the city’s thriving art market,” says Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus curator of Prints and Drawings at the Lehman Loeb.
Out of this well-funded arts community arose significant breakthroughs in printmaking technology. Color printing was pioneered there by Erhard Ratdolt (1447-1528) through his use of multiple carved wooden blocks, one for each color, in imitation of illuminated manuscripts, and further developed by his apprentice Hans Burgkmair I (1472-1531). One highlight of the National Gallery show is The Lovers Surprised by Death (1510), by Burgkmair and Jost de Negker, which is described as “the first true chiaroscuro woodcut.”
Burgkmair and Leonhard Beck (1480-1542) provided most of the woodcut illustrations for Emperor Maximilian’s book projects, largely intended to glorify his deeds and legitimize his lineage as successor to the Roman emperors. Examples of these are the focus of one of the Lehman Loeb’s galleries in this exhibition, along with ornamental metal-etching techniques for armor that were adapted to printmaking in Augsburg by Daniel Hopfer (1470-1536). Imitating the florid decorative style of the Italian Renaissance, Augsburg’s artists etched exuberant likenesses of mythical beasts and rich foliage patterns on metal and paper alike. One etched set of armor and a collection of medals are included in the exhibition, along with more than 100 works on paper.
Emperor Maximilian wasn’t the only aristocrat of the period who could afford to have his likeness preserved by artists. A gallery of the exhibit is devoted to portraits on paper and metal of famous citizens of and visitors to Augsburg, along with a collection depicting soldiers and knights that will appeal to all who enjoy the romance of the late Middle Ages.
Reflecting the city’s pivotal role in central Europe’s transition from the Roman Catholic Church to predominantly Protestant beliefs – the Augsburg Confession of 1530 was a key component of the codification of Lutheran theology and practice – one gallery focuses on devotional prints and illustrated books representing the Christian contemplative life. Others focus on images depicting “exemplary men undone by alluring women” as well as common vices and virtues as illustrated through biblical, chivalric and mythological tales.
Vassar’s opening event for the exhibition is a lecture by curators Jecmen and Spira titled “Imperial Augsburg: A Flourishing Market for Innovative Prints,” which begins at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, September 19 in Taylor Hall, Room 102. It will be followed at 6:45 p.m. by a reception in the Atrium of the Art Center, with music of the German Renaissance performed by the St. John’s Recorder Ensemble.
The Vassar Libraries and Department of Music will also present major activities in conjunction with the “Imperial Augsburg” exhibit. The early-music vocal ensemble Pomerium will perform a program of “Music for Imperial Augsburg, 1518-1548” at Skinner Hall on Sunday, September 21 at 3 p.m. And a four-month exhibit already open at the Thompson Memorial Library, “Never Before Has Your Like Been Printed: The Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493,” examines the most heavily illustrated book of the 15th century, printed in another culturally significant Bavarian city. Actual leaves and editions of the Nuremberg Chronicle will be on display, marking the 500th anniversary of the death of the book’s author, Hartmann Schedel. This exhibition runs through December 10.
Finally, for kids aged 4 to 10 who love knights in armor, dragons and griffins and unicorns, the Art Center will host a Family Day the following Saturday, September 27 from 1:30 to 4 p.m. This afternoon of fun Renaissance-flavored activities inspired by the “Imperial Augsburg” exhibition will feature artmaking activities and interactive, kid-friendly tours of the galleries. No reservations are needed; participants can just drop in.
“Imperial Augsburg” will remain on view through December 14. Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free, and all galleries are wheelchair-accessible. The exhibition is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursdays and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. For more information call (845) 437-5632 or visit https://fllac.vassar.edu.
“Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints & Drawings, 1475-1540” opening lecture, Friday, Sept. 19, 5:30 p.m., Taylor Hall, Rm.102, reception/concert, 6:45 p.m., Atrium, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, free, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie; (845) 437-5632, https://fllac.vassar.edu.