The Secrets of The Beginning of the Great Hoax – Part 3

Text copyright © Dec 19, 2012 Dr. Elizabeth A. Garner, All Rights Reserved


The most crucial point to understand about Albrecht Durer’s works was that art in medieval and Renaissance times was not “art” as we know it today.  Paintings commissioned by the Church were for propaganda and “educational” purposes (e.g. keeping the populace in terror of Hell), not for the glorification of the artist’s talent.  Artists weren’t even allowed to sign their Church commissioned works. The paintings commissioned by wealthy patrons were for the purpose of self-glorification; their portraits or commissions were a demonstration of their political power and wealth.  The differences in artistic talent were only a means to an end.


Anton Koberger
Burning of books from the Nuremberg Chronicles, published by the godfather, Anton Koberger, 1493

There were two major censors of information during Dürer’s life, the Catholic Church and the Nuremberg City Council.

The Catholic Church was the official censor of the Holy Roman Empire and the Vatican attempted to control all information, both scientific and artistic, throughout the realm. The Church quickly realized the potential of the printing press as a challenge to its influence. Censorship was introduced into the print shop in 1487, when Pope Innocent VIII required that Church authorities approve all books before publication. The Church had censored books for centuries, though it became much more difficult to do so after the invention of printing. Controlling a dozen painfully copied manuscripts of a forbidden text may have been a manageable task before 1450, but controlling the thousands of copies churning off the presses every year was quite another matter. Bibles and books about the lives of saints were the most abundant types of books printed.  But even in this medium the official sanctions of the Church were widely ignored.

In addition to the Church’s censorship, the Nuremberg City Council, the ruling governmental body of the City of Nuremberg, was also an extremely powerful censor.  To maintain a tight rein over its citizens, the City Council regulated almost every aspect of life, and was specifically concerned with slanderous documents or any information that would cause unrest among the populace or war.  The City Council in particular was extremely concerned with the publication of maps, as the Council believed maps were military intelligence, providing enemies with information about the defenses of the City that was highly secret.  But the torrent of information that was unleashed by Gutenberg’s printing press could not be restrained.  Especially, when there was money to be made by Nuremberg merchants in papermaking, printing, and bookbinding.


One of these forbidden texts was the Bible printed in any other language than Latin.  The Church required that the bibles and the lives of the saints were printed in Latin, and Latin was the international language of the realm, like English is the de facto language of the world today. If a volume was published in Latin in any one particular country, it was easy to sell it in another country, despite what the native language was. But printing in the local language made reading available to people who did not know Latin, including many women. Moreover, spelling started to become standardized. Local languages were strengthened, and translations became common, leading to a decline in the use of Latin, apart from in the Church and universities. Koberger realized there was an untapped market of readers who could not read Latin or found it more difficult to read in Latin.

Anton Koberger's German Bible
One of Anton Koberger’s German bibles

The profit motive was much stronger than the Pope.  Koberger started publishing bibles in German as early as 1479, against the Pope’s prohibition, and was wildly successful.  The stranglehold against information was broken and the pattern to success was laid bare.  Print in the language of the people and sales would rocket.


Gutenberg’s printing technology quickly spread from Mainz to Subiaco in Italy (1465), Paris (1470), and London (1476). By the beginning of the 16th century, there were approximately 240 printing shops in Europe, and Anton Koberger, Dürer’s godfather, controlled 24 commercial presses, employed 100 men and was the most powerful publisher in the Holy Roman Empire.  Hans Frey, Dürer’s father-in-law was the second biggest printer in Nuremberg.  These two men controlled much of the information from Nuremberg and what was circulated in the Germanic part of the Holy Roman Empire.  It is estimated that only 30,000 books existed before Gutenberg brought his press to market in 1450.   By 1500, only fifty years later, 20 million book volumes had been published in the world, equivalent to the same phenomena with smartphones today. Such an explosion of technology indicated that there was much more literacy among the European peoples than is generally recognized.

What is not often recognized is that bound books as we know them were not sold as such.  Books were sold as loose leaves to the customer, who then had to take these pages to the bookbinder of their choice to have them bound into a book.  This way the customer could have their choice of book cover and add their own bookplates if desired. To own a book was a great social achievement and to own many attested to the owner’s high social status.

Paper prints also became a means of implementing public health measures.  Often, the Imperial Free Cities of the Empire printed public health broadsides to circulate in the cities.  Dürer was engaged to create one such broadside when the scourge of syphilis hit Nuremberg in 1496, a picture of which you see here. It was a cheap method of social control

Syphilitic Man by Albrecht Durer
The 1496 Syphilitic Man Broadside

But every mom and pop could own a press, and much surreptitious printing was occurring. Artists were printing artistic images for sale.  Because paper was such a mobile medium, it was passed on constantly, be it image or text.  Everything that could be printed, was printed, and became mobile, spread by travelers riding on carts of straw.  Printed paper became the first tsunami waves of an information superhighway which the censors could not stem.


Trade was the lifeblood of the Holy Roman Empire and most merchants and people who were not farmers were very mobile. Although there were always shooting matches and festivals occurring in cities, the outlets for paper print sales were primarily the medieval city fairs, huge trade markets that occurred usually three times a year in each Imperial city, coinciding with Easter, summer, and the Christmas season. This is the source of the print fair schedules today.

Publishers and artists employed sales agents to peddle their book leaves.  Dürer employed a sales agent as early as 1497 with little stock to sell, a very strange occurrence in his early career, but most of the time had his mother and wife and possibly sisters peddle his wares in Nuremberg and Frankfurt at the city markets.  Pilgrims traipsed through the empire on their way to the Holy Land.  Knights were errant everywhere passing information on with paper.

However, people were not free to travel on any road they wanted.  Travel was highly regulated by a system of toll roads in every country, which required lots of travel paperwork and tariffs and taxes and planning to get from one place to another.  Those who were passing subversive messages to others needed to take this into account.  Information became funneled through these proscribed channels of movement.


But more than words and text, people clamored for pictures.  They wanted images to look at of any kind.  Humans are visual creatures, the brain desires image more so than written language.  Artists could become rock stars in society now that there was a way for images to be passed on.  Artists no longer needed to beg from patrons or be tied to a patronage system, they just needed to be marketers.  They needed to know what their market segments wanted as pictures, they needed to understand human nature.

Artists were now in control.  The godfather, Anton Koberger, had seen the future, and trained his godson well.  Dürer was poised and positioned politically to grab fame and fortune with artistic images.  Both Dürer’s father-in-law and his godfather had huge publishing operations, whose resources were available to Dürer, especially typeface and lead fonts for printing text on the back of images. Dürer was a socially and economically engineered dynamo, the Steve Jobs of his time. Why would such a politically connected rock star start passing secret messages in his prints before he had fame and fortune?


Medival German Printing Press
Medieval German printing press

Printing was a new technology in the Renaissance.  Gutenberg did not bring the first commercially viable printing press to the market until 1450, and it took twenty more years before the advantages of the printing press was recognized and exploited. By the late 1470’s goldsmiths that had become publishers, like Dürer’s godfather, Anton Koberger, became media moguls. Koberger was the Rupert Murdoch of his day.

Nothing has changed.  For example, look at how many photos and pictures each of us takes and posts on Facebook, and that’s just one forum. A picture was worth a thousand words. By the end of the 1400’s the printing press freed artists from this yoke and artists could become speculative entrepeneurs.


The printing press was the personal computer of the medieval age.  Most people have no idea why the printing press became so important in history. What was so special about the printing press? NO FIRE WAS USED.

The printing press did not require fire to operate and that made all the difference in the world.  Fire was so dangerous in any medieval city, its use was highly regulated at all times.  In Nuremberg all occupations that involved fire had to operate outside, and this was not uncommon in most of the rest of Europe. Fire killed, and fire had to be controlled.

This meant that most occupations could not operate in winter, because it was too cold and too hard to keep fire going, and the firewood was needed to heat homes. The winter hours were short (7 hours of daylight) and not much could be done. Winter was indeed the time of most people’s discontent.  And for the authorities, winter made things very difficult because idle people caused trouble.

But the printing press required no fire.  It could be operated year round, in summer hours and during the dark nights of winter.  It was basically portable and almost anyone could afford one.  Any mom and pop business could buy a press and run a sideline business, making money publishing whatever anyone wanted to say if they paid.  The first internet was born.

Artists could buy a press and make whatever images they thought the market would pay for.  Artists could finally become rich.  Albrecht Dürer was determined to do so.


The beauty of the printing press was replication.  Unlike an oil painting, which was a single image created once that could only be viewed in one place (a church, a palace, City Hall), a graphic print image was created once and printed tens, or hundreds, or thousands of times. They could be sold at the city market fairs to the teeming populaces that came through each city at different seasons, such as pilgrims, traveling salesmen and wandering knights, and these city market fairs were held three times a year in each important city (there were 70 “Free” Cities in Germany at the time that had market fairs).  A printmaker and print dealers had enormous new markets and customer bases.  All they had to do was find themes and images the people wanted to buy.


We are brainwashed today to think of prints as “art,” and therefore we assume it is the complexity of an image or the skill of the artist that caused medieval people to part with their money. While it is true that people perhaps would pay more for talented artists such as Dürer, buyers weren’t rushing out to buy Dürer’s latest and greatest every year, such as what happens at art fairs today like Art Basel Miami or Frieze in London.

The cost of a medieval print was based on the size of the paper the customer bought, and whether the image was printed from a woodblock or copperplate (it cost more to make copperplate engravings and so they sold at premium). Paper sizes were either “quarter sheets,” half sheets,” or “whole sheets,” and it was whole sheets that were cut up, making half sheets or quarter sheets. Prices were always negotiable depending upon the city.  Dürer found he could sell the same print for different prices in different cities at different times of the year.

Despite the fact that there were many monies in use in Europe at the time, and it was bankers and moneylenders who established the worth of each (arbitrage), we have Dürer’s own information about what he sold his prints for. The money system Dürer used was the gulden, also known as the florin, both of which are denoted as Fl.

Dürer sold woodblock prints for ¼ Fl, engravings for ½ Fl. and full sheet engravings normally would sell for 1 Fl.  He had published 5 picture “books” (The Apocalypse, the Life of the Virgin, The Small Passion, The Large Passion, and the Engraved Passion) and these would sell on average for ½ Fl, regardless of how many pictures were in the book.  The Small Passion had 37 pictures, the Apocalypse and the Large Passion had only 16 pictures, but they still sold for the same price.

To put this in perspective, a coat made of rabbit fur only cost ½ Fl, and Dürer was giving tips to porters of less than ¼ Fl, so he priced his prints relatively cheaply.  Dürer was counting on the secrets in his art to make him rich and volume selling.  A lot like internet marketing today.

In the next article, we will explore what the new Meister was really doing in his workshop.



Share the postShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on LinkedInShare on Facebook