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Nuremberg: master artist Durer, Wagner's 'Meistersinger', and Nazi master race

Nuremberg was home to Germany's greatest master artist, Albrecht Dürer, and the setting for Richard Wagner's opera "Die Meistersinger von Nüremberg", although the city is better known for the Nazi "master race", their rallies, and the war crimes trials.

Albrecht Dürer, 'Praying Hands', brush and gray wash heightened with white on blue prepared paper. Dürer's 15th century home and studio in Nuremberg's walled old city can be toured.
Albrecht Dürer, 'Praying Hands', 1508. Albertina Museum, Vienna
Nuremberg is home to Wagner's 'Die Meistersinger', and master artist Albrecht Dürer
Richard Wagner, unidentified artist. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nüremberg" (The Mastersinger of Nuremberg) deals with a far different judgment there -- a song competition.

It's based on an actual 16th century poet and cobbler, Hans Sachs, a member of the town's guild of master singers and master craftsmen. The ancient city is still renowned for its crafts, especially toys.

You'll recognize the opera's prelude with its "Prize Song", whether or not you agree with Mark Twain's opinion, "Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

You'll also recognize its "Awake!", used by Leni Riefenstahl in her infamous film of Nuremberg's Nazi rallies, "Triumph of the Will". And, as everyone knows, Wagner's four-part "Der Ring des Nibelungen" (Ring Cycle) also was appropriated by the Nazis, plus Francis Ford Coppola in "Apocalypse Now".

The city atones for its infamous past by preserving the gigantic rally site, establishing a Nazi Documentation Center near it, and enshrining the Nuremberg War Criminal Trials courtroom as museums.

Ach, all that's out of the way, so back to Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), who created some of the greatest Renaissance masterpieces.

His half-timbered home and studio, built in 1420 within Nuremberg's walled medieval Altstadt Old Town, can be toured. It's been restored to look as it did when he lived there from 1509 to 1528.

His father and grandfather were goldsmiths, and the young Albrecht apprenticed with them.

"Self-Portrait at Thirteen", an astoundingly precocious work in silverpoint, was the first of his many self-portraits -- and thought to be the earliest self-portrait drawing by any artist.

"I drew this myself using a mirror ... in 1484...when I was still a child," wrote young Albrecht, the third of 18 children.

When he went on to painting and printmaking, his father, Albrecht Dürer the elder, rued in the family chronicle "the lost time" his namesake son "had spent learning gold work."

That "loss" was actually gaining the foundation of his skill that led him to become one of the greatest engravers in history -- and also be ranked alongside another Renaissance master, Leonardo da Vinci.

Dürer "even depicts what cannot be depicted...all sensory impressions and emotions, in short, the entire human spirit..." wrote the 16th century philosopher Erasmus.

Alas, the Dürer House has only copies of his works, including "Praying Hands" and the "Young Hare", two of the most frequently reproduced images in art history. To view several others, click here.

Most of his works, some 400, are in Vienna at the Albertina Museum. When I was there during another stop on a Viking River Cruise along the Danube, only a few Dürer masterpieces were on display, due to the fragility of the six-century-old works. (Fortunately, I had the privilege of seeing many last year in Washington's National Gallery of Art exhibition, Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina.)

Also in Vienna, at its Academy of Fine Arts, is a lock of his hair.

Vienna and Nuremberg were two key highlights of the masterful Viking River Cruises' "Romantic Danube" trip.

Nuremberg was described by Martin Luther -- a lifelong admirer of Dürer's art -- as a city that shined "throughout Germany like a sun among the moon and stars."

For more info: Albrecht Dürer House. Nuremberg. German National Tourist Office, Viking River Cruises,, 800-706-1483.

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