Death & Industry: My first day in Basel

I spent the first night in my new city at the Stork Inn, because the permanent lodging provided by my position as Cathedral preacher was not prepared for me.  Early the next morning, I walked about, delighting myself in the simple fact that I was here.

I toured the Fish Market, a great busy square surrounded by inns, public houses, shops, booths, and dwellings.  Though it was early morning, commerce had begun.

Basle Rathaus--thewolfseye

Nearby was the Corn Market, the Marktplatz.  Here stands the brand new center of City Government, the Rathaus, with its three arches and its golden spire.  When trouble arises, the great bell, and the flag, will call every soldier, every guild member and every male above fourteen to his appointed place at the wall in defense of the City.

Location of Dance of DeathWalking eastward along the Rhine, the river meeting me on my left, I could see the University rising in front of me beyond the bridge, and beyond that, the delicate, red sandstone towers of the Cathedral.  Then I passed the wall of the Dominican Cemetery, on which is painted the Dance of Death. This great mural is almost 200 feet long, twice as long as the famous similar painting in Lübeck.  Basel’s Dance of Death was painted around 1440, and so is 20 or 25 years older than Lübeck’s.  It is truly magnificent, with 39 dancing couples of every age and rank, serving to remind all passersby of the inevitability of one’s end, so that wise choices may be made by all.

Basle-Dance of Death--Abbess - Version 2Basle-Dance of Death-Musician - Version 2

Hans Holbein the YoungerA young man of a studious countenance sat on the ground before the painting, with a stack of paper, on which he was sketching with the greatest concentration.

The Rhine divides greater Basel from little Basel (Kleinbasle).  And it was in Kleinbasle, near the river, that Gothic minusculemy friend, Johann Amerbach had settled both his home and his print shop in the house known as “the King’s Seat” or zum Kaiserstuh.  This was barely a decade after he arrived in Basel with only some punches to create a round gothic minuscule type.  But he was already rising in Basel society.  In those early years, he was known as “The Venetian,” because he had studied printing in Venice.

CarthusiansFor both religious and scholarly reasons, Amerbach chose zum Kaiserstuh to be close to the Carthusian monastery, where he could consult the wealth of manuscripts in its excellent library, returning the favor by giving the monastery a copy of every book he printed. On the birth or death of any of his children, and on feast days and other occasions, he made presents to the monastery of money, sugar, pepper, ginger, cloves, parchment, paper, and other such choice items.

Even though I knew that Johann Amerbach was dead, I had not been to Basel during the eighteen months since he died, which was on Christmas Day of 1513.  And even though I knew that I would not sit at the table with him or his genial wife, Barbara, who died the summer before he did, my grief reached new depths when I entered zum Kaiserstuh.  Here the sons,St. Jerome--1513-Bellini Bruno and Basilius live, as the younger, Bonifacius, comes and goes from his studies at Freiburg.  Or rather, here they work and sleep, devoting heart and soul, and, as Bruno sighed, “our youth,” to their father’s dream:  The Complete Works of Jerome from the Amerbach presses.

When I previously visited the Amerbach home to study Hebrew, the house teemed with resident scholars like the Greek expert, Johannes Cono, also recently dead, and the converted Jew, Matthaeus Adrianus, who is in zum sessel 4Heidelberg.  But now, though the presses here are never stilled, the real heart of the vast Jerome project lies across the river at the house known as zum Sessel, “the front seat”.

Amerbach expanded his operations and bought or leased zum Sessel, in greater Basel, to house additional presses.  His younger collaborator, Johann Froben, moved into zum Sessel, which consists of several houses and a yard, in 1507.  It was here Erasmus stayed on his first visit to Basel. But though zum Sessel houses a flurry of scholars, printers, correctors, typesetters and illustrators, I was struck today by just how many women there are about.

zum sessel 3For Froben married  Gertrud Lachner, daughter of a well-to-do book dealer. Gertrud is outspoken, and her mother and several unmarried sisters all live at zum Sessel.  And unlike Barbara Amerbach, whose concerns centered always on her children and her home, these women have opinions on almost every subject.  It was, as Erasmus told the Amerbach sons, a “petticoat government.”

“Poor Froben,” Bruno said to me, as we had our midday meal and tipped a glass at the Flower Inn (zur Blume), the oldest inn in Basel.  “His wife and her father have all the money, and Froben’s lack of education surely embarrasses him when he can’t enter into discussions about the text he is to print.”

Froben12

But as I toured the stacks of folios at zum Sessel, I thought how beautiful they were, and how Froben went patiently ahead, despite criticism from every direction.  Froben insisted on beautiful paper from Lorraine, and he had creative and innovative ideas about fonts and illustrations.  It was said that Erasmus had moved his printing from Paris to Basel because Froben’s books were so beautiful.

After I had taken most of the day traversing my new city and visiting at both zum Kaiserstuh and zum Sessel, I retraced my steps back by the Dance of Death.  The young artist was still there.  He had been joined by one who was older by a few years, perhaps a brother, and they were earnestly discussing the boy’s many sketches.

Holbein brothers

~~~~~

The silverpoint of Ambrosius and Hans Holbein (the younger) by their father was done in 1511, four years before they moved to Basel in 1515, the same year that Capito arrived.  So Hans would have been seventeen rather than around thirteen, as he is in this sketch with Ambrosius.

The Basel Rathaus ©theWolfsEye

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