Emblematic of the Lost Art of Nürnberg

For centuries, beautiful allegorical paintings decorated the Great Hall in the Nürnberg Town Hall. Unfortunately, the paintings were destroyed during World War II; and though the Old Town Hall was reconstructed after the war, the decorative allegories were never restored.

Evidence of the Great Hall’s original art lies in an emblem book published in 1617, soon after the lost paintings were first added to the civic landmark. Newberry fellow Mara Wade, an expert on emblems, had been familiar with this book. But she was thrilled when on just her second day in residence at the Newberry this past fall, she discovered a previously unknown manuscript copy that can tell us more about the complex cultural and historical context of the Nürnberg art.

The paintings originated as emblems by Georg Rem, who designed these combinations of symbolic imagery, poetic epigrams, and mottos for the Great Hall. Emblems typically illustrated virtuous ideals for individuals to emulate and discuss; Rem’s focused on civic virtues, depicting Nürnberg and its place within the Holy Roman Empire. Visitors to the Great Hall would see these images, promoting the glory of Nürnberg, just as visitors to modern-day city halls often see art and sayings reflecting the prestige of their own municipality. Engraver Peter Isselburg considered the emblems so important that he quickly engraved and published them as Emblematica Politica.

The book Wade discovered while at the Newberry is in fact Georg Rem’s personal copy of Emblematica Politica. Rem had the engravings re-bound with additional pages for his own extensive commentary, which fills in many other details concerning the long trajectory of art and empire in Nürnberg.

Through discussion of triumphal architecture, civic monuments, commemorative coins, and public institutions, Rem’s manuscript places his emblems for the Great Hall in a complex narrative of civic pride and accomplishment. He also describes the other decorative schemes within the Great Hall. This includes a detailed description of Albrecht Dürer and Willibald Pirckheimer’s work, “The Triumphal Chariot of the Emperor Maximilian,” which had originally covered an entire wall! This new information paints a more complete visual and political picture of the Great Hall as it was in 1617.

Periodically, public debates in Nürnberg center on restoring the paintings of the Great Hall. The Newberry manuscript is important not only because it describes the decorative scheme of this historic space, but also because it situates these decorations in a much larger historical, artistic, and political context. It may even move some of these public debates in new directions.