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What a medieval book would have looked like

 Medieval and Renaissance bookbinding

What most people don’t understand about how books were made once the printing press was invented and allowed rapid multiplication of information and images and propaganda, is that owning a book conferred high prestige on a person. But you couldn’t buy a book in a form that we know it today.  All book pages were printed looseleaf and sold to the person in looseleaf form, and then that person had to take the book to a bookbinder, who bound the loose leaves together and custom made the covers. In the world of glamour, a book was “bespoke.”


If one was really wealthy they would commission an illustrator or artist to make a book plate for this incredibly rare and wondrous show of wealth, which would then be pasted into the book, showing ownership.  Dürer was often commissioned to make bookplates for people but depending upon the person, always encoded the bookplate with Cipher messages.  Sometimes he got found out, and those people who did recognize the nasty encoded messages, didn’t use the bookplates.  One of these people was the man who is credited with making Albrecht Dürer famous,  Willibald Pirkheimer, who in fact Dürer considered his enemy and with whom he was playing a very dangerous game.  Here’s an example of a bookplate Dürer made for Pirkheimer, that Willibald recognized was encoded, and refused to use for his books.

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The encoded Pirkheimer bookplate

Pirkheimer figured it out and refused to use the bookplate once he knew it was encoded


 And owning libraries of books made people famous all across Europe.  If you were wealthy enough to amass enough of these precious books (other than bibles)  you really showed the world you were in the top 1% of society.  So the very rich, as were the Patricians that ruled Nuremberg of Dürer’s time and their descendants who actually still do rule Germany, did their best to amass enough books to be considered to have “a library.”  And that was something of great stature.

The Library that Albrecht Dürer Coveted

When Dürer married Agnes Frey on July 7, 1494, and was strangely immediately made a Master, which should have taken him at least three years to do,  he received 200 gold florins as a dowry for Agnes, which was supposed to be used to buy his own house.  But Dürer didn’t do this because he coveted one house in Nuremberg above all, the house built by the famous mathematician who taught in Nuremberg and actually reorganized their entire time keeping system, Johann Mueller, known as Regiomantanus.  See my previous article WHAT TIME IS IT for more information about this time keeping system.


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The Behrnhard Walthers/Albrecht Durer house as it appears today, almost totally destroyed in WWII


Regiomantanus was also a famous astrologer/astronomer and the house he built was the second observatory ever built in Europe, the first having been built in Grosswardein, from whence Dürer’s father emigrated.  When Regiomantanus left Nuremberg he sold this house to Bernhard Walters, another famous astronomer, who’s wife became a godmother to one of Dürer’s sisters, Christine (Walters wife was a famous women in her own right, Krystina Berhardin hence the reason his sister was named for her). Walters built up a library that was extensive and known to include many esoteric books and many books from the Greeks and many books on math written by famous mathematicians throughout the ages.

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The plaque in Nuremberg at the Regiomantanus house



Then Bernhard Walthers died in 1509 and Albrecht Dürer had his chance and jumped at it.  He immediately bought the house and the entire library in 1509 for 212 gold florins, getting all those “secret books” everyone knew Walters had.  This house IS the Albrecht Dürerhaus that everyone visits when touring Nuremberg today.  It was bombed in WWII but the Nurembergers rebuilt it supposedly to original specifications. The original observatory is where the German tourism business displays what Dürer’s  workshop would have looked like, when in fact the actual printing workshop was on the ground floor, as required by law.   When you enter the tourist Albrecht Dürerhaus, which is the place they collect money for the tour and admission, you are actually entering where the printing workshop originally was.


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The foyer of the Durer Haus today, where the workshop would have been

Dürer’s Book on Human Proportions

Late in life as Dürer’s strength was waning from illness that had started in 1520 after being shipwrecked while going whale watching in Zeeland and was probably the onset of third stage syphilis, Dürer started writing books for publication. He had written a book in 1512 that he called the Painter’s Manual, targeted towards apprentices, but he never published it.  He also published a book known as the Treatise on Fortifications, all about what to build for war.

An original of his book brings big money. And then he published a book on Measurement in 1525 with the long title of A Manual of Measurement of Lines, Areas, and Solids by Means of Compass and Ruler Assembled by Albrecht Dürer For the use of All Lovers of Art with Appropriate Illustrations arranged to be printed in the Year 1525


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The Book on Human Proportions

Dürer died in 1528 before he could he could publish his book on Human Proportions but his “best” friend, Willibald Pirkheimer, published this book posthumously after Dürer’s death in 1528 for him.  Pirkheimer died in 1530. It appears that Pirkheimer left out some interesting stuff that Dürer had in there.  More evidence that Willibald Pirkheimer was actually a villain in Dürer’s life.

After Dürer’s Death

Actually, after Albrecht’s death, Willibald tried to get his widow Agnes to sell him almost everything that Dürer owned, including the library.  But Agnes hated Pirkheimer and refused to sell him anything, which prompted a famous letter Pirkheimer wrote to Johan Tserchte (for whom Dürer had done a book plate) ripping Agnes to shreds in this letter.  It is from this Tscherte letter that researchers have wrongly depicted that Agnes was a bitch in life.  No, Agnes was very shrewd, she knew Pirkheimer’s bad designs.

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Albrecht’s drawing of his future wife-does it show he liked her or not?


Agnes was forced by law to sell off the printing workshop and all it’s contents to Albrecht’s living brother Endres. Agnes died in 1539 and her estate went to her sister, Katarina Zinnerin, which would have included the Walters library. Endres continued to print Dürer’s graphic images until his death in 1560, whereupon the printing shop was inherited by his wife, Ursula Hirnhoffer Dürerin until her death in 1564.  At that point, Ursulas’ uncle, Heinrich Alnpeck bought the workshop and the direct control of Dürer’s workshop left the the Dürer family.


Pirkheimer died 1530 (he had never remarried after his wife Crescentia Rieter Pirkheimerin because he was having too much fun with his sexual exploits) and his possessions went to his famous nun sister Claritas, famous in her own right for her writings, and Pirkheimer’s daughter Barbara, married to Hans Staub. Barbara  died in 1560, the same year that Endres Dürer, who got the workshop stuff. died also and because she died without male issue, this is the reason that Pirkheimer’s effects ends up in the hands of his only non nun sister, Felicitas who married Tucher, the Losunger, or basically the President of the Nuremberg City council, who’s daughter married  Willibald Imhof. Dürer did both of the Tucher’s portraits but only Felicitas’ portrait has survived

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Felicitas Tucher


Pirkheimer never got a chance to get his hands on Dürer’s books or artworks so he left the job to his grandson to do, Willibald Imhof.

The Great Dürer Imhoff Collection

Willibald Imhof fulfilled his grandfather’s wishes and bought everything he could get his hands on that belonged to Albrecht Dürer, establishing the biggest and most famous Albrecht Dürer collection ever assembled.  Imhof started this around 1564, so it’s very probble that Imhof had finally gotten his hands on Dürer’s great library from Bernhard Walters, but if he did, he kept that secret from the world.  So we don’t know where these famous “secret books” actually ended up.

The Real Conspiracy about Secret Books all Engineered by Willibald Pirkheimer

However, the provable conspiracy about dangerous books was happening while Dürer was reapprenticed to Michael Wolgemut, in the 1480’s.


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