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.”


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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Bruchsal–Part 2

Capito’s pensive mood illustrated by images of St. Jerome.

Today began like any other.  I awoke in bed, dreading to arise, meditating on the lack of progress I have made in my life of scholarship.

Yes, I have taken my Hebrew studies forward, even in the absence of a teacher, but I’ve still not finished the requirements for my doctorate, and I’m in my thirty-seventh year.

Will I live the rest of my life in this backwater of Bruchsal, preaching to these Benedictine canons, who display little interest in reforming their education, their morals, or the Church?  I have no bishop to direct me, for he who hired me has gone to the grave, and his position remains to be filled by a landed noble, who is still training for the priesthood.  Hardly one who can direct me spiritually or professionally.

I debate my options.  I could, perhaps, make a pilgrimage to Rome.  That has launched the church careers of some, but I have no contact to introduce me to anyone of influence.

I could return to the university, but I know all too well the life of a struggling scholar who, without a doctorate, barely makes enough by lecturing to buy food.

When I think of the University of Freiburg, I naturally remember the good friends there, and their pleasant company at the Hog’s Snout.  But, in truth, they are scattered.  Only Zell remains at Freiburg.  The young monk, Michael, has returned to his abbey of St. Peter’s, and Hubmaier, who did get his doctorate, teaches at the University of Ingolstadt.  Fabri, with his pair of doctorates in civil and canon law, has escaped an unhappy situation at Lindau and now serves in the cathedral at Basel.

I am left behind.  A failure.

I try to encourage myself by remembering St. Jerome.  That illustrious scholar lived a meager existence in the wilderness but produced a great output of important work. His correction of the Latin New Testament gave us the Vulgate, the Bible we have used for a thousand years.  His translation of the Hebrew gave us an Old Testament based on the original language rather than Greek.  He also wrote commentaries, theological treatises, and history.  His letters show us a man tortured by temptation and his own volatile temper.

I think of the many paintings and woodcuts of Jerome, often accompanied by his faithful lion, from whose paw, legend says, he removed a thorn.  But I have no loyal lion for company, and I am not producing any valuable work, so the parallel to St. Jerome ends rather quickly.  Nor am I given to extreme penances, and, God forgive me, I am much more troubled by my situation than my sins.

Thoughts of Jerome depress me further, for an important undertaking is now underway in Basel.

The great Erasmus has been working on a definitive edition of Jerome for years.  The Basil printer, Johannes Amerbach, dreamed of producing a beautiful edition of Jerome as the ultimate achievement of his printshop.

Sadly, Amerbach died, but his sons and his partner, Johann Froben, continue the work, and Erasmus has now joined his dream to theirs, so that there is much activity in Basel.  Erasmus visited Basel last summer and met Froben, and now the work proceeds apace, with various scholars assisting on the Hebrew and Greek.

What I would give to be there, too.  Even as a mouse hiding among the stacks of folios.

At last, I sigh, my daily round of discouraging thoughts completed, and drag myself upright to begin the tedious business of legal and administrative correspondence for this poor ungoverned bishopric.

But then, the sound of hoofbeats. . .


The marvelous painting of St. Jerome at Study is by Jason Sorley.  View his gallery here.

Last Week’s Post

Bruchsal–Part 1


Published in: on July 10, 2012 at 6:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Basel and the Amerbachs

April, 1513

By the Muses!  What an exciting time I had in Basel.  I am drunk on the new wine of the city’s energy and the passion of its lettered citizens.

As the Reader recalls, a few weeks ago, I journeyed to Basel to study Hebrew with a converted Jew named Matthew Adrian.  Of the Jew, I have something to say, but much to say of the brilliant family, the Amerbachs, with whom he lives and the exciting atmosphere of the city of Basel.

1492 Edict of Expulsion of Spanish Jews

This Matthaeus Adrianus is a Spanish converso, a medical doctor.  Though Reuchlin and Pellicanus speak highly of him, no one speaks as highly of him as he does, for he calls himself the best Hebrew scholar in Germany, expert in the cabalistic arts.  Considering the state of Hebrew scholarship in Germany, I’d say that’s little praise.  I would wager that, had we not run them to ground, we have better Hebraists right here in Germany among our own Rabbis, and at least we could understand them.  For this Adrianus speaks the crude Latin in use in Spain, without grammatical agreement, and with a Spanish accent.  It is difficult to understand what he is saying in the tongue I know, much less the one I don’t.  He’s arrogant and teaches us with a grudging manner, all the while reminding us what a good Christian he is.

“The Marranos” by Moshe Maimon showing a Spanish family’s secret Seder

Nevertheless, he is what we have, and a hungry dog can not disdain any bone.  I have, in fact, furthered my studies of the language under his frowning eye, and, perhaps even more importantly, been introduced to the fascinating Jewish way of life, for he tells of marriages, funerals, and feasts.  Sadly, with the likes of that ass, Pfefferkorn lurking about, one must be circumspect about one’s interests.

But I must tell you now of the Amerbach family with whom I stayed, where also the Jew is staying.  It was as if I were suddenly plopped down in the midst of a house where the very air were permeated with scholarship, with languages, with talk of types and exemplars and bookseller intrigues.

The father, Johann Amerbach, studied in Rome and worked in the printing arts in Venice.  He settled in Basel and, discovering that the Carthusian monastery there had an excellent collection of manuscripts, he resolved to publish the collected works of the four doctors of the church: Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory, and Augustine.  Amerbach wishes his books to be beautiful and gave me a lesson at the dinner table of  the advantages of Latin type over Gothic or Italian.

The work of Jerome, which Amerbach expects to run to ten volumes, is now his passion, though he says that he fears he will not live long enough to finish it.  It is this endeavor that has drawn the Jew to him.  That, and the further education Amerbach wishes his sons to receive in Hebrew.  These sons are a most remarkable trio, scholars all, though their progress has not always lived up to the standards of their serious father.


The eldest, Bruno, has around thirty years.  He returned from Paris without his degree, but with a solid knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.  His father murmured that his oldest son’s studies were hampered by adventurous and amorous distractions.  Indeed, he is a fun-loving fellow.  Then there is Basilius, whom I knew at Freiburg, though not well.  He studied law and lived with Zasius, but he is very quiet and reserved.  Indeed, Bruno teases him that women terrify him.  Youngest is Bonifacius, who recently received his MA from the University here in Basel.  Perhaps the father felt that after Bruno’s unremarkable progress at Paris, he would keep his son and his money at home.

I also met the daughter, Margarete, whom the brothers whispered had once been disowned by her father.  She wanted to marry a young spice merchant, who was from a good family, but was rumored to be engaged to another.  Her father forbade the marriage, threatened to send Margarete to a convent, and so she eloped with the man.  Through the efforts of Bruno and family friends, she was reconciled.  She came to visit  with her young son, though I never met her husband.

Johann Froben

Another man, who is present so much at the Amerbach home that he seems part of the family, is another printer, Johann Froben.  Froben once worked in Nuremberg for the printer and publisher, Anton Koberger, whom I met at the Frankfurt Bookfair, (along with his famous Godson, Albrecht Durer.)  Koberger is good friends with the elder Amerbach, and Froben came to Basel as an assistant to Amerbach, before starting his own press, though the men remain friends and collaborators.

Froben’s Printer’s Device: As Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents, gentle as doves”

The commercial side of Froben’s press is managed by his father-in-law, who has close ties with an international bookseller named Birckmann.  This Birckmann does business in England, where Erasmus now resides, and it is rumored that Birckmann might bring the latest edition of Erasmus’ Adages to Froben’s press, rather than taking it to Paris, as was planned.  If this happens, it will highly elevate Froben and all of Basel, especially if it brings Erasmus to the city.

What grand days I had in Basel, studying Hebrew, watching the Amerbach and Froben presses at work, playing cards and drinking a little with the Amerbach sons.

But now, I am back at Bruchsal—I cannot bear to call it home.  What a desert it is.  I have no real friends, no meaningful work, and even no Bishop, for he who summoned me here has died.  It is said that his position will go to one who is not even a priest, and so must be trained and ordained before he may become Bishop. That could take two years.  In the meantime, though I value the benefice that keeps the wolf from the latchstring, I long–oh how I long–for Basel.


Capito directs the Reader to:  

The correspondence of Johann Amerbach : early printing in its social context / selected, translated, edited, with commentary by Barbara C. Halporn and digitized by the University of Michigan Press.

The Printers of Basle in the XV & XVI Centuries: Their Biographies, Printed Books, and Devices by Charles William Heckethorn

Contemporaries of Erasmus : a biographical register of the Renaissance and Reformation by Peter G Bietenholz
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In Praise of Letters

Boniface Amerbach by Hobein

Capito has derived great joy in recent days from two sources.  One is the collected letters of the Amerbach family of Basel.  I worked some with the father, drank a little with the sons, and relied on Bruno to bring me books from the Frankfurt fair.  You shall have to give the site your email and a password, but that is a pittance for the excellent scholarship which stands behind these translations.

The other study to which I wish to direct you, Gentle Reader, is an article on the painter, Hans Holbein.  The author discusses Holbein’s relationship to the English Court.  I always felt pity for Holbein’s wife, left behind.  But one values a thing according to one’s perception.  Visit this delightful site often to live among the peaks of art.

The Artist's Family by Hans Holbein the Younger

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Published in: on March 4, 2011 at 12:04 pm  Comments (1)  
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