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Dürer, Measurement, and Uncertainty

Albrecht Dürer, Victoria column, woodcut illustration to Dürer’s Underweysung der messung […] (Nuremberg: Hieronymus Andreae, 1525), ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Rar 5113, sig. Jiv. Public domain mark.

Research Theme

Unzählich: Dürer, Measurement, and Uncertainty explores how measured images came to shape the paradoxical interplay between the knowledge revolutions of early modern Europe and the climate of religious, political, and epistemic incertitude for which that milieu is also famous.

Book in progress

Albrecht Dürer authored the first treatise to codify measurement as a basis for art as well as icons of uncertainty such as Melencolia I. How are we to square the apparent contradiction between the artist's striving for mathematical ideals through measured images and his infamous fascination with epistemic crises? While Dürer has long been understood as a champion of measurement as a means for constructing and even revealing truth in art, my book Unzählich: Dürer, Measurement, and Uncertainty complicates that narrative by proposing that many of the artist's measured images in fact operate as nuanced meditations on uncertainty.


The book considers how Dürer tested measurement as a conduit for forming knowledge while also using his measured images to hone a novel pictorial idiom for exploring religious, political, and philosophical incertitude.  Taking the drafting, presentation, and revision of the artist's Lesson on Measurement and Four Books on Human Proportion; his nature studies, and his watercolor of a nightmare deluge as key evidence, the book reveals how Dürer forged an influential model for thematising the ambiguities and uncertainties of measurement in art and life. 


In challenging the entrenched idea that Dürer approached measurement primarily as a positivist intent on forging relationships between art and truth, I show how measured images and the visuality of hesitation and doubt entered into an inextricable bond, where the authority of the one has continued to both reinforce and temper the power of the other. As a result, Unzählich offers a model for understanding the epistemic status of images during ages of proliferating information and incertitude, from early modernity to the present day. Since 2019, I have presented material from this project in Cambridge, Oxford, and Toronto.

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