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by anonymous

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“Morality is a venereal disease. It’s primary stage is called virtue, is secondary stage is called boredom, it’s tertiary stage is called syphilis”  Karl Kraus


In 1494 and 1495 when Dürer fled to Venice to escape the Plague in Nuremberg, Italy was at war. Charles VIII, the Dauphin, the heir to the French Throne, had invaded northwestern Italy in the spring of 1494. Charles trampled over the Italians and marched down the coast of Italy, invading Naples by March of 1495. The Republic of Milan, which bordered the Republic of Venice, had sided with Charles VIII. Charles was pitted against the Vatican, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Spain, a world war.  Dürer and anyone who went with him would have been greatly affected by this war during the entire period he was in Venice.


For our purposes, it is most important to know that Charles VIII is credited with spreading syphilis throughout all of Europe because of these Italian Wars.  The scourge of syphilis quickly spread across Europe.  It was called the French Pox because of Charles and his troops but as it invaded each country the disease was known by a new name, the name of the country from whence it came.  By the time it got to Hungary, it was known to those peoples as the German Pox.

Syphilis broke out in  Nuremberg in 1496, subsiding in 1498. Although it claimed many lives, the majority of the victims survived, who continued to infect others, so syphilis remained an on-going scourge.

Often, the Imperial Free Cities of the Empire printed public health broadsides to circulate in the cities.  Dürer was commissioned to create one such broadside when syphilis hit Nuremberg in 1496, a picture of which you see here. It was a cheap method of social control.

But the fact that syphilis swept through Europe so fast is bizarre because syphilis is a very slow growing organism; the exposure time that is needed for infection is very long.  Which gives us a very good idea about how much sex was occurring in those times, which is even odder because anyone who is in the first stage of syphilis is absolutely obvious.  They become covered with disgusting and putrid smelling pus sores, it’s a wonder that anyone could tolerate sex with a person so gross.  Stage one lasted about 12 weeks.  Some people died, many lived.

The second stage of syphilis was the dormant stage, which lasted approximately 20 years.  The person was rarely infectious.  However parts of the body started to fall off as they did with leprosy.  The most conspicuous part of the body that fell off was the nose, so many people were walking around without noses.  But medicine came to the rescue.  Turkish doctors became the first plastic surgeons who figured out how to reconstruct noses (having gotten the experience in the battlefield) and rhinoplasty became a hugely sought out cosmetic procedure.

The hairy wildman represents Zinner and his syphilitic lifestyle.  Katherine Frey, a Dürer relative since 1494, and Martin Zinner married in 1504 or 1505, but Katherine remained childless, like her sister Agnes, Dürer’s wife.  Zinner died in 1526. Katherine died in 1547, extinguishing the lineage of Hans Frey.

To have published such an image about his in-laws would infer that Dürer had little respect for Hans Frey and his family, and  appears to give his commentary on what the Freys would do for money.  In the meantime Dürer was able to sell this print right under the Freys noses, making money as any shrewd businessman would do.

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