November 15, 2005

A Fine, Useful Booklet

In 1525, Albrecht Dürer published his manual Underweysung der Messung (‘Instruction in Measurement’), a pioneering German-language treatise on geometry and perspective. Dürer’s target audience were young, well-educated artists, but, as the use of perspective became more widespread, a need arose to instruct less well-educated artisans in the rudiments of the technique. The incipient market for a Persepective for Dummies was recognised by one Hieronymus Rodler, who, in 1531 published Eyn schön nützlich büchlin und underweisung der kunst des Messens, (‘A Fine, Useful Booklet and Instruction in the Art of Measurement’).

Detail of the woodcut illustration on the title-page of Rodler's 'schön nützlich büchlin.'

In the preface to his booklet, Rodler wrote that Dürer's work on perspective was too difficult for most people to understand, although he acknowledged the great merits of the work. Rodler’s treatise, ‘written in an easy vernacular and illustrated with a simple elegance,’ was a shorter and a more practical one, and was written for the benefit of ‘painters, sculptors, goldsmiths, embroiderers, masons and carpenters,’ to better enable them to master what would still have been, to many, a novel technique. In simplifying Dürer's system, alas, Rodler broke it, such that it could only be used for certain types of simple composition, being ‘dominated by converging orthogonals, with little sense of measured control over scaled distances into the space.’

Detail of a woodcut illustration in Rodler's 'schön nützlich büchlin.'


Detail of a woodcut illustration in Rodler's 'schön nützlich büchlin.'

Rodler was employed as a secretary by Johann II, Pfalzgraf und Herzog von der Pfalz-Simmern-Sponheim, (apparently anglicizable as ‘Landgrave of Simmern,’ or ‘Duke of Pfalz-Simmern’), the head of a junior branch of the Wittelsbachs: Simmern being the town where he kept court. The schön nützlich büchlin was one of the first productions of a private press that Rodler had established for his employer. It is not known who designed the book’s woodcuts: Rodler could have made them himself, or, as another theory has it, Johann II. could have been their author, as it is known that he recieved training in the art of woodcutting some time around 1530.

Detail of a woodcut illustration in Rodler's 'schön nützlich büchlin.'


Detail of a woodcut illustration in Rodler's 'schön nützlich büchlin.'

Some of the woodcuts in the book are purely technical, but others incorporate scenes from life at Simmern’s court: the woodcut on the title page (the first one shown above) shows a workshop wherein a painter, an embroiderer and other craftsmen and their assistants are hard at work. Another (the last one below) shows ‘an artist at work in a room with a grid iron window which permits an easy transfer of the landscape seen through it on a drawing board.’ The present images are details of scans from a reprint edition of the book published in 1970 by Akademische Druck-u. Verlagsansalt, (ADEVA for short), of Graz, Austria: the fourth volume of their Instrumentaria Artium series (of which I have mentioned the second volume before) .

Detail of a woodcut illustration in Rodler's 'schön nützlich büchlin.'

I was unable to find much information about Rodler beyond that he was born in Bamberg, and that he died in 1539. I have quoted and paraphrased most from what I found at these pages, advertising copies of the ‘fine useful booklet’ for sale. There is one other image from the book reproduced here.

Posted by misteraitch at November 15, 2005 10:17 AM

i admire durer very much. always impresses me. would love to get my grubby mitts on Underweysung der Messung.

imagine how fascinating it must have been to be coming out of a non-perspective world, all those crazy bunched up picture plains, the false perspectives! achieving more natural perspectives must, at that time, have been a very impressive and i'd imagine even protected trade secret for a while. would certainly give an artist the leg up stylistically. when these manuals were printed it must have been pretty exciting for young artists. being handed a key to better represent reality... you don't get that every day. not sure i can think of a corollary today... perhaps game designers jumping from 2d to 3d? or web designers buying their first "flash for dummies" book?

anyhow, thanks aitch. fascinating.

Posted by: jmorrison on November 15, 2005 03:07 PM

I just stumbled across the complete Dürer manual at Biblioteca Complutense. (at least, I think it's complete)

Actually that comes from this search page - I haven't looked but presume they are different editions.

Posted by: peacay on November 21, 2005 12:40 AM

Peacay—Thanks for the links: the first of them is to a 1594 Italian translation of Dürer’s ‘Four Books on Human Proportions,’ which may perhaps also include a rendering of Underweysung der Messung (I didn’t look through the whole thing to check). The list behind your second link leads to a French version of the ‘four books,’ and to a shorter Latin volume, perhaps containing just one of the same four.

Posted by: misteraitch on November 21, 2005 10:20 AM

You have said about everything there is to say about Rodler; actually, very few things are known about him. To my knowledge, there is only one extensive essay about his background and the printing press he operated, a short abstract can be found here (in German).

It seems that the press didn't exist for very long, only a handful of books have survived, most of them containing poetical works or translations by Johann II. It's likely that Johann also illustrated at least one more book that Rodler printed, a sort of pictorial history of medieval tournaments.

The picture you linked to seems to be the most popular of the pictures in the Büchlin: I've seen it cropping up in all kinds of text books on art history and architecture.

Posted by: claus moser on November 23, 2005 09:34 PM

Commenting your post dated 10th of may 2003 "How I Found the Codex" (it seems comments are not working for the archive)

I just discovered the existence of the Codex by cheer chance today, through a Wikipedia article on the Voynich Manuscript.

I can't say I am suprised to find you in the fist page of Google results for a "codex seraphianus" search, but I can't help to wonder...Is there anything you have not read or read on yet?

There has been a reprint of the book which in now ever available on... Amazon. So much for destiny...

Posted by: Abie on November 24, 2005 10:41 PM

I am trying to reconcile two dates: Durer's 'Artist Drawing a Nude Woman' (1538) and his Introduction to Measurement dated 1525 which contains a woodcut of the above 1538 work. Can anyone help explain the variance of dates? I would be most grateful.


Posted by: Cassandra Fusco on February 7, 2006 07:34 AM
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