Five hundred years ago a whale was washed up on the waterlogged fringes of Zeeland. Never, said the people who lived there, had they seen anything so big. It would take six months to butcher it and boil down the blubber. They dreaded the “great stink” that would emanate from its corpse.
Yet where the locals saw only a rotting mountain, a great Renaissance painter spotted a summit of ambition. Albrecht Dürer, by then the most famous artist north of Italy, was entering his fifties. He was at a point of crisis. His patron, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, had just died. His physical strength was failing. Submerged by a melancholy that had lapped at his spirit all his life, Dürer was wandering, driftless, when he heard of the beached whale.