Italy, that beautiful enchantress, whose irresistible charms have caused many of Germany's greatest men to forget their native land, and array themselves beneath her colours, did not fail to exercise over Dürer, in the course of the year and more that he spent beyond the Alps, that subtle influence which elevates the understanding and expands the mind. He thought, as did Goethe after him, with a sort of shudder, of his return to cloudy skies, and of the less easy nature of the life which awaited him at home. But, though he enjoyed himself very much at Venice, and gave in willingly in many external things to the prevailing taste there, the essential nature of his art remained untouched by foreign influences, and he returned to Nuremberg unitalianized, and true to his original principles. The fame which his works enjoyed in Italy only encouraged him to continue in the path he had already chosen. Perhaps the exuberance of life displayed in Venetian painting inspired him, even under the altered circumstances of his home life, with the determination to devote all his energies to large easel pictures. To the Adoration of the Magi in 1504, and the Feast of the Rosary in 1506, succeeded the Adam and Eve in 1507, the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand Saints in 1508, the Assumption of the Virgin in 1509, and the All Saints picture or Adoration of the Trinity of 1511. Dürer was at the height of his power when he created these masterpieces, small, indeed, in number, but remarkable for their conception, composition, and entire execution by his own hand. To complete a large picture to his satisfaction, Dürer required the same time as Schiller did for a tragedy, viz., a whole year....

Adoration of the Magi. Dürer.

Adoration of the Magi.

It was in the year 1504 that Dürer finished the first great picture, which, from its excellent state of preservation, must have been entirely executed with the greatest care by his own hand, even to the most minute detail. This picture is the Adoration of the Magi, now in the Tribune of the Uffizi at Florence. Mary sits on the left, looking like the happiest of German mothers, with the enchantingly naïve Infant on her knees; the three Wise Men from the East, in magnificent dresses glittering with gold, approach, deeply moved, and with various emotions depicted on their countenances, while the whole creation around seems to share their joyous greeting, even to the flowers and herbs, and to the great stag-beetle and two white butterflies, which are introduced after the manner of Wolgemut. The sunny green on copse and mountain throws up the group better than the conventional nimbus could have done. The fair-haired Virgin, draped entirely in blue with a white veil, recalls vividly the same figure in the Paumgärtner altarpiece. Aërial and linear perspective are still imperfect, but the technical treatment of the figures is as finished as in Dürer's best pictures of the later period. The outlines are sharp, the colours very liquid, laid on without doubt in tempera, and covered with oil glazes; the whole tone exceedingly fresh, clear, and brilliant. If it was Barbari's fine work which incited Dürer to this delicate and careful method of execution, he has certainly far surpassed the Venetian, not only in form and ideas, but also in the solidity of his technique. This technique is undoubtedly of Northern origin, as is also the harmony of colour, which Dürer here realizes, and does not soon again abandon. It must not be forgotten, however, that the difference between this technique and that practised by Giovanni Bellini is one of degree and not of principle; judging at least by the unfinished painting of Giovanni's in the Uffizi, in which the design is sketched either with the pencil or brush, and the colours then laid on in tempera, and afterwards repeatedly covered with oil glazes. Dürer appears to have owed the opportunity of producing this his first masterpiece in painting to a commission from the Elector Frederick of Saxony. Christian II. presented it to the Emperor Rudolph II. in 1603, and in the last century it was sent from the imperial gallery, in exchange for the Presentation in the Temple, by Fra Bartolomeo, to Florence, where it now shines as a gem of German art amongst the renowned pictures in the Tribune of the Uffizi.

The Life and Works of Albert Dürer, translated from the German and edited by Fred. A. Eaton (London, 1882).