Virtually nothing is known about the early life of Jacopo de’ Barbari. He may have been born as early as 1450 or as late as 1470, probably in Venice but possibly in Nuremburg. He may have studied under the Italian painter Alvise Vivarini, or maybe not. The first thing we know for certain is that he met Albrecht Dürer during Dürer’s Wanderjahre in 1495.
Not much more is known about Anton Kolb. He was a merchant from Nuremburg who ended up in Venice as a member of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (Guild of German Merchants), where, according to later records, he was trying to sell Latin copies of Schedel’s Weltchronik.
Sometime around 1497 Kolb approached Barbari with a proposal to prepare a large-scale bird’s-eye view of Venice. The result – the Venetie M.D. or Pianta di Venezia or Plan of Venice – simply had no precedent in the history of cartography or printmaking. It was also, somewhat suprisingly, Barbari’s first attributed work.
Kolb never stated exactly how Barbari composed the view, but as Juergen Schultz points out in his classic analysis, it must have been prepared from dozens, perhaps hundreds of bell tower sightings:
“... Jacapo’s view is neither a giant landscape drawing made in the field, nor a carefully compiled, foreshortened plan, it can only be a studio fabrication. It must have been assembled mosaic-fashion at the drawing table from a myriad of small view details made from heights throughout the city.” 2
The final plan, which took Barbari at least two years to complete, shows the city from a vantage point somewhere above San Giorgio Maggiore. It sweeps outward and upward in a great curve to the horizon – a perspective that was designed to be best viewed horizontally, perhaps unrolled across a great table.
Every step in the map’s production was unprecedented. Kolb obtained six of the largest (as large as 684 × 1000 mm) fine-grained woodblocks ever prepared. Barbari traced his plan on them and they were then cut by master engravers in Venice or Nuremburg. The final printing required six sheets of specially commissioned paper twice the size of an imperial folio, then the largest sheets produced by any Venetian paper maker. The result was a monstrous 1.3 × 2.8 m (or nearly 13 ft2) map. Kolb’s capital outlay for the project must have been enormous.
Kolb stated that he was issuing his map “principally for the fama (glory) of this illustrious city of Venice” and in Oct 1500 he appealed to the Venetian government for a copyright as well as the right to recoup his costs by selling the print for the shocking price of three ducats.3 The Collegio must have known the nature of the map well in advance; although it wasn’t cartographically rigorous by modern standards, it was still accurate enough to aid an invading army. Perhaps out of civic pride – after all the city was at the height of it’s imperial power – they gave him a four-year copyright and a tax-free export license:
Although Barberi played fast-and-loose with cartographic conventions like perspective and scale he, nevertheless, included an amount of detail that would literally take years of close reading to fully appreciate. He included several hundred place names, several thousand buildings and, as one commenter wrote, tens of thousands of windows and chimney pots. As the major sea power of the day he, of course, included every imaginable type of Venetian ship – from the ever-present gondolas to the Doge’s 1462 Bucintoro. He even went so far as to include – perhaps as a cautionary tale – the former Senate Secretary Antonio Landi, hanging by his neck in Canal de San Secondo. It was a stunning achievement and the largest woodblock image for more than a century.
By the time the plan was offered for sale in the autumn of 1500 Barbari had already moved to Nuremburg to work as a portrait painter and miniaturist for Emperor Maximillian I. In 1503 he was reported in Wittenburg working for the Great Duke Frederick of Saxony. In 1504 he again met Dürer where they apparently discussed drawing human proportion. By Mar of 1510 he was in the employ of Archduchess Margaret in Brussels. In Jan 1511 he became ill and in Mar of the same year, the Archduchess gave him a pension for life on account of his age and weakness. He died sometime around 1516.
The plan was reprinted, with minor corrections and updates in 1514 (the example presented here) and again in the late 16th century.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all the images here are from the ca.1514 second-state copy at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin (online).
2. Schulz, Juergen. Jacopo de’ Barbari’s View of Venice: Map Making, City Views, and Moralized Geography before the Year 1500. The Art Bulletin. 1978 Sep; 60(3): 425–474 (Jstor). For another analysis see: Howard, Deborah. Venice as a Dolphin: Further Investigations into Jacopo de’ Barbari’s View. Artibus et Historiae. 1997 18(35): 101–111 (Jstor).
3. For reference: in 1500 the Venetian professional class’ salary was about one ducat/month; Crasso’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, bound, was priced at one ducat and in 1504 the Opera del Duomo paid Michelangelo 400 ducats for the completed David.
4. The orignal woodblocks (as well as three of the first-state maps) are now in the collection of the Museo Correr. They were last used to print sheets of the plan in the 1830s.
1 Jul 2015 ‧ Cartography