Dürer's work is dedicated to the proportions of the human body in order to enable artists to  draw features that are as close as possible to nature. It is comprised of four books: Book I teaches the reader how the entire length of a human body can be divided into proportions and then drawn on the basis of the "divider". Book II explains the use of a measuring stick which measures a sixth of the entire length and likewise enables the human figure to be drawn as realistically as possible. Book III demonstrates how the previously determined proportions can be changed to create variations, and Book IV looks at the illustration of movements. Dürer distinguishes between the body masses of men, women and children. 

The work includes around 150 illustrations, including vignettes. The illustrations were created on flat woodcut profiles that Dürer otherwise did not use for artistic work.

Dürer chose the German language and focused on goldsmiths and stone engravers, painters and carpenters. He spent two decades polishing the words as the German language was hardly ever used for publications. Dürer was not able to refer to known terminology for the geometric and anatomical figures and invented a lot of new terms.

The cover page and first pages of the introduction were lost in this copy and were presumably updated by hand in the 18th century under consideration of a second copy.


With this work, Dürer created the first printed instructions for the artistic illustration of humans. Various editions and translations appeared within a short period of time. Dürer's work was reprinted without any changes for a long time. In 1791 Goethe wrote that Dürer's proportional teachings contained "truly wonderful sayings. It would be nice if they were revisited and translated into more recent language." In 2011, an edition was published with an in-depth commentary.

Dürer appeared to be familiar with the manuscript written by Leon Battista Alberti, who also explored the body's proportions. While Alberti viewed art as a medium for creating something beautiful, Dürer explained that everything brought to us by nature, regardless of its aesthetic appeal, is worthy of being illustrated.

He added to the mathematically geometric proportions that he had calculated to provide many different variations. Thus, fat and thin, long-legged and stocky figures were drawn that did not centre around a single standard measurement.

The body proportions reveal a growing interest in anthropometry during the early modern era. Dürer considered the art of measurement to be a science which was available to create a basis for medicine, physiognomy and even racial doctrine, and later for the manufacturing of clothing, too.


Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) revealed a fair amount about himself. The son of a goldsmith, he was born in Nuremberg in 1471, and as a child he worked in his father's workshop. His father recognised Albrecht's immense talent and enabled him to pursue an education in art. Returning home after his travels, he married Agnes Frey, a patrician's daughter from Nuremberg. The couple remained childless. After being widowed, Dürer's mother lived together with them until her death. Dürer's wife worked closely with her husband, sold his works on the market and ran the workshop in his absence.

Dürer travelled to Italy twice and was heavily influenced by the Italian renaissance. Religious pictures dominate his life's work, and through their realistic illustration, they shaped the history of art in the long term. His secular works are still known today. Dürer's teaching of proportions was ground-breaking for the history of art. During his teachings, he discussed the theory of perspectives and object measurements, on which he later went on to write two books.

He spent at least two decades on the work considered here. He died during the printing process, meaning that three out of the four books were typeset as a result of the information he had provided. His wife published all his works.


Die Proportionenlehre steht im Kontext der Kunst und der Anatomie des frühen 16. Jahrhunderts. Dürer verstand seine Messtheorie als wissenschaftliches Instrumentarium, um den menschlichen Körper durch äussere Vermessung zu erforschen. Im Gegensatz zur bisherigen Orientierung an idealen Formen machte seine an der Natur orientierte Methode die grosse Spannbreite unterschiedlicher Proportionen sichtbar.

Mit der Proportionenlehre begründete Dürer eine neue Disziplin. Verschiedene Anatomen, Künstler und Gelehrte ergänzten sie mit eigenen Werken. Die neue Lehre bildete zwar keine Richtschnur, an der sich spätere Handwerker und Künstler orientierten, wohl aber wurde sie zum Ausgangspunkt späterer anthropometrischer Überlegungen.

Albrecht Dürer
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