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Taking a bath is a sensuous pleasure, besides basic hygiene. The Roman Empire was famous for its baths and incredible plumbing and sewage engineering. The Japanese culture elevated the bath to an art.

Medieval Bathing.


For some strange reason the myth continues that people in the Renaissance were dirty, slovenly people killed off by plagues because they never bathed. Nothing could be further from the truth in the Germanic part of the Holy Roman Empire, especially in the Imperial City of Nuremberg, were personal cleanliness was highly prized.

The first published image of the City of Nuremberg, from the Nuremberg Chronicles, published in 1493 by Durer's godfather, Anton Koberger.

What will probably come as a huge surprise to most was that in Nuremberg "bathing money" was a regular part of a person's salary, paid weekly, usually on Saturday. Workers got to leave work early to go to the baths, where the prices were kept low by the government so everyone could attend and be clean.


Medieval Bathing

Professional bath attendants, whose apprenticeship was three years long, followed by seven years of journeymanship, were trained in the techniques of sanitary and medicinal bathing, as well as hair cutting, depilation (the fashion for men in Nuremberg was no beards), and simple blood letting. Health inspections were performed on a continual basis. The water was drawn from the local rivers running through the City (although most of that water was filthy!) through wooden pipes, then heated over wooden fires.

Nuremberg had 14 licensed baths. If one paid for the full treatment, it was an elaborate ritual. First a trumpet sounded or a bell was rung to signal the water was hot. Once inside and stripped of clothing, the feet were washed, then the body was scoured and slapped with a sheaf of twigs, next came steam bathing and rubbing to induce perspiration, swatting the skin with wet rags, scratching (for the pleasure of it; employees were required to provide this service), hair washing and cutting, combing, lavendering, blood letting, and finally a nap.


Durer produced two illustrations of the bathing ritual, one a woodcut for sale of a Men's Bath at the beginning of his career, circa 1496, and a drawing of a Woman's Bathhouse, which never got published as a print.

Durer's drawing of the Women's Bath

The Women's Bathhouse drawing was the first work unconnected to a religious theme to show naked humans in various positions.


Please read the amazing story of the recovery of this extraordinary drawing that was stolen from the Bremen Kunstverein when the Red Army stormed a castle north of Berlin in 1945 and looted everything in their path.



Durer's 1496 Men's Bath woodcut print

The Men's Bath is an unusual print for its time (See my article Who Would Buy This Picture?) since this is the only graphic image that was made for sale of naked men in such a scene. Even more odd is the fact that these men are depicted naked in PUBLIC, in a City that religiously regulated clothing down to the number of pearls allowed to be on any garment and where all the inhabitants needed to be fully covered (See my entry All Things Albrecht Durer: The Hidden Secrets in Albrecht Durer's Art and Life).

We have to ask ourselves, why would anyone spend money to buy a print for display in their homes or for addition to their collector's boxes (where people often stored their prints) of naked men cavorting at the bath?

Especially since the majority of the people in the scene were well known! Who wants a picture of Donald Trump naked?


It is believed that the figure in the center playing the flute is Durer himself because he is bearded, with only a risque codpiece covering his genitals. The two men in the foreground are believed to be the very sexually permissive Patrician (the ruling families of Nuremberg) Paumgartner brothers, Stephen and Lucas, who Durer depicted in the Paumgartner Altar

Durer's Paumgartner Altar painting. Stephen and Lucas Paumgartner are depicted on the wings of the altar painting

Stephen Paumgartner was one of Durer's homosexual lovers; Durer's bisexuality, something not uncommon in the Renaissance, is rarely addressed by historians.

The man slugging from the beer stein is believed to be Willibald Pirkheimer, Durer's friend who is credited with making Durer famous, a myth I will dispel. Pirkheimer was also extremely sexually active, probably with Durer also.

Durer's engraving of Willibald Pirkheimer, late in life.

The man on the left leaning on the wooden post is believed to be Michael Wolgemut, Durer's Master, with whom he apprenticed.

Durer's portrait of his Master, Michael Wolgemut, late in life

Who would buy this print? We have to look at the clues Durer put in this print, which are mainly homosexual.


Dur 1496 Men's Bath woodcut

Notice the not so subtle homosexual clues that Durer included. The first is the obvious "cock" spigot coming out of the wooden post on the left. Lucas Paumgartner, foreground right, is holding a flower. Wolgemut, leaning on the post is gazing longingly at Durer. Most of the poses of the figures are very sexually suggestive.

Perhaps Durer only printed this image for his friends? Perhaps he printed this to sell to the gay community as porn? Who WOULD buy this picture?

The inscrutable clues, though, are right in the center of the print on the Durer figure. It is the distinctive knot in the string of Durer's codpiece. Durer uses this knot in other images also as clues.

And if you look close there is a bearded face embedded in Durer's abdomen. Who could this face be?

See if you can decode the remaining mysteries in this print!

Elizabeth Garner website in Nuremberg Bathhouse
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