Draw Your Weapons: Urs Graf and the Self-Preservation of Drawings

Sarah C. Rosenthal, M.A.

Centering the early-sixteenth-century Swiss artist and mercenary soldier Urs Graf, my dissertation investigates the creation and collecting of art as forms of long-term self-preservation. Working and fighting during the Italian Wars, the Reformation, and a period of general sociopolitical change in Basel, Graf would have been acutely aware of the threats to life and legacy all around him. Creating metal objects, painted glass windows, prints, and designs for coins for patrons from the clergy, the book publishing industry, and the municipal government, he could disseminate proof of his artistic skill. But it was in pen and ink line drawings on paper – many kept in his own collection and surviving in near flawless condition – that he could protect and preserve the signs of his power and ability. Graf was demonstrably aware of the importance of signs of violence and authority, from weapons and battle standards to coats of arms and artistic monograms. Thus, I argue, art was a space to tune the balance between outward displays of power made vulnerable due to the decaying effects of battles, conquest, or simple material processes and private self-protection that might go unwitnessed. A private collection of drawings was here like an armory, kept in wait but ready for action when the opportunity arose.

While at the Hertziana, I am working on my dissertation and concurrently researching an aspect of the material culture linking the papacy as political entity to the Swiss cantons: the so-called Juliusbanner of 1512. These precious presentation banners, variations on the standard cantonal flags, raise important questions about the afterlives of objects made to commemorate mutable allegiances.

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