For Dürer, this was an unusual incident. Then 50, he had been for some years the most famous artist in northern Europe; but he was not in essence a court painter. He thought of such people as “parasites”, hanging round great men, waiting for a commission to fall from the lordly lips. He, by contrast, was an independent businessman. He made his money not by grovelling, but by selling copies of the woodcuts and engravings printed, since 1495, at his workshop in the centre of Nuremberg. He was not even a member of a guild, for there were no artists’ guilds in the city: he was a free individual, unaffiliated, making money and a reputation purely for himself.
It was easy to meet demand, however high he fanned it. Though the fundamental work, carefully incised in mirror-image with knife or burin on the wood or copper plate, was every bit as laborious as drawing, it could then fly out in hundreds of copies. Dürer or his assistants just inked a wood or copper plate and cranked a lever. Thanks to the printing press he had bought, he was never in thrall to a publisher; his book of extra-large printed woodcuts of the Apocalypse, which had made his fame in Nuremberg, was the first to be both illustrated and published by a great artist.
He could now replicate and communicate his art. In 1520, for example, he sent a whole set of prints to Raphael’s studio in Rome (he had hoped to impress Raphael himself, but the master had just died), and expected prints of Raphael’s work in return. Artists no longer needed to meet, or ship precious works along dangerous roads, to show each other what they could do. Dürer was not the first artist to exploit the joy of the new medium, but he was the most assiduous and influential—and the best.