In his biography of Albrecht Durer, Erwin Panofsky pinpoints the reason for the continuous difficulties between the Nuremberg painter and his wife, Agnes.
Agnes Frey thought that the man she had married was a painter in the late medieval sense, an honest craftsman who produced pictures as a tailor-made coats and suits; but to her misfortune her husband discovered that art was both a divine gift and an intellectual achievement requiring humanistic learning, a knowledge of mathematics and the general attainments of a “liberal culture.”
Durer simply outgrew the intellectual level and social sphere of his wife, and neither of them can be blamed for feeling uncomfortable. He loved the company of scholars and scientists, associated with bishops, patricians, noblemen and princes on terms of almost perfect equality, and generally preferred to domesticity the atmosphere of what might be called clubs (“Stuben”), studios and libraries.
She could not understand why he left her alone in the house and went off to discuss mythology or mathematics with his learned friends, and why he spent hours on end composing treatises on the theory of human proportions or on descriptive geometry instead of doing what she would call practical work.
We are familiar with Diirer’s concept of an artist’s work. However, it is not so easy to understand the professional standing of a “painter in the late medieval sense” — which is how Agnes Durer preferred to regard her husband. Only after considering the situation of craftsmen in medieval Nuremberg, in general, is it possible to comprehend the specific working conditions of an artist in that city at that time.
The young Spanish knight Pero Tafur, returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, stopped in Nuremberg in the fall of 1483 and described the free imperial city, where an Imperial Diet was in progress, thus: “Nuremberg is one of Germany’s largest and richest cities. […] Many craftsmen live there, especially those who specialize in all kinds of bronze work, and it is there that Nuremberg coats of mail are made. The city is very rich, and because of its position in the middle of the continent, its trade routes are many.”
Nuremberg’s reputation for solid craftsmanship resulted, in large part, from working conditions that were unique to the city. The legal organization of the crafts in Nuremberg differed from that of practically every other city: Most importantly, there were no guilds.
The guilds were associations of practitioners of a particular occupation, or craft. Such associations can be documented from about the year 1100 in Germany, while specific guild organizations existed from the mid-thirteenth-century on, evolving along with the economic expansion of the cities.
Obligatory membership was the rule — every craftsman had to belong to a guild, which supervised the activities of its members and the products that they turned out. The guilds’ flexible admissions policies allowed them to protect their members’ livelihoods, depending on the supply and demand in the marketplace.
During the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries, the requirements for admission to the various trades in the cities became more and more rigorous, and a high degree of specialization developed among the crafts in those cities with an extensive trade network, such as Frankfurt am Main, where, in 1440, about 190 different trades were practised.
The guilds possessed full legal powers and judicial authority; their regulations determined artists’ work hours and pay, the length of training periods, the apprenticeship of journeymen, and the requirements for the “masterwork” demanded of a prospective member in order to ensure his admission to the guild.
The guild also had the final say in settling labour disputes. Guilds thus may be described in general terms as economic interest groups, which, in the Middle Ages, sought to exert their influence over municipal governments, as well.
Democratic civic constitutions were established in cities whose economic advantage derived from their immediate surroundings, but in cities involved in long-distance commerce, a handful of families managed to control the government, creating optimal conditions for the export of their products.
Nuremberg was such a city, in which a small patrician upper class kept the craftsmen well in hand, particularly those whose products were made for the lucrative export trade.
Nuremberg’s craftsmen were able to exercise only limited influence when it came to participating in the city’s government, and even in regulating their own affairs. The crafts important to the city’s economic and military interests were subject to strict control by the city council. In the wake of the craftsmen’s rebellion of 1348/49 — which the patricians had been able to put down — the governing upper-class suppressed the craftsmen’s increasing demands for power.
While, in many other cities, at the time, ambitious master craftsmen won a measure of participation in government affairs, the Nuremberg city council obstructed any legal or political independence for craftsmen’s associations, and prohibited the organizing of guilds or any form of self-government.
The patricians permitted the craftsmen eight representatives in the council, but their impact on political issues in the imperial city was nil. The bylaws of any association of craftsmen had to be submitted to the council for approval. In Nuremberg, the trades thus controlled by the council were known as “sworn crafts.”
They reported to a ruling body known as the Rugamt, composed of delegates from the Lesser Council — county representatives, who attended to the business of government. These officials (Rugsherren) nominated the foremen, or “sworn masters,” of the city’s most important trades, who, as officially appointed experts, were primarily responsible for controlling the quality of crafts produced in the city.
The actual power remained in the hands of the Rugsherren, as Christoph Scheurl explained: “[…] in sum, what the guild masters are to other places, the five Rugsherren are to us.”
Certain trades in Nuremberg, however, were not “sworn,” in this manner, but answered directly to the city council: Their members were not subject to regulations governing their education, masterworks, or working conditions, nor to the imposition of a foreman, or “sworn master,” to whom they were responsible.
Among the members of these trades were the painters and sculptors — although, of course, they were also forbidden to form guilds. Their concerns were submitted directly to the city council. The “free arts,” as opposed to the “sworn crafts,” designated the painters’ and sculptors’ trades.
The word “art” was used in a more comprehensive sense than it is today, to describe knowledge as well as skill. Thus, learning, the septem artes liberales, was also an art to the medieval sensibility, while the crafts were called artes mechanicae, for it was understood that architecture, painting, sculpture, book illustration, metal casting, and carpentry required a greater theoretical knowledge than did the other crafts.
Although anyone was permitted to practice the “free arts” — to paint and to sculpt — in Nuremberg, one could make a living only if one’s workmanship were good; one had to be a master craftsman, who had completed his apprenticeship and his stint as a journeyman.
Not until 1 509 did the council, at the request of the painters and sculptors, prohibit foreign masters from practising their trades in rented workshopss or rooms in other quarters of the city, unless they had acquired Nuremberg citizenship.
A formal regulation requiring the painters to produce a “masterpiece” prior to their full acceptance was not put into effect until 1596.
The division of the crafts in Nuremberg into “sworn” and “free” was motivated by commercial and political reasons, to benefit the interests of the patrician families. Yet, the works of artists and sculptors, especially altarpieces, clearly could not be made in the same way as thimbles or brass bowls; their manufacture depended upon the varying wishes of their patrons.
Furthermore, the leading patricians, who were often the donors of works of art, must have had an interest in perpetuating an “open market” for painters and sculptors, as that would attract able masters to the city.
Because demand and the resulting commissions were so strong, there was no need to limit trade in order to protect the livelihoods of individuals. While, in other cities, the first concern of the guilds in regulating the crafts was the protection of the guild members, in Nuremberg the council-controlled the crafts for the greater economic glory of the city.
The patricians in the government were, after all, merchants, not craftsmen, and their policies were calculated to ensure the success of the crafts — and to promote good, inexpensive products, that could readily be sold — not to look after the interests of the workshop foremen.
The twenty-three altarpieces made in Nuremberg workshops between 1488 and 1491 attest to the widespread demand for the services of painters and sculptors.