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Renaissance Wrestling Matches and Colorful Codpieces

In early 16th-century Germany, the elite youth turned to wrestling coaches for necessary life skills including lessons in dexterity, elegance, and sportsmanship, not to mention the helpful ability to break arms when actual weapons weren't at hand. A recent gift to the Art Institute of Chicago from the drawing, book, and print collector Dorothy Edinburg celebrates all these things, and you can page through it in its entirety online here! The book will eventually be on permanent display near the arms and armor in our upcoming reinstallation of the Medieval and Renaissance galleries.

Wrestling Book

Lucas Cranach the Younger’s masterful woodcuts from 1539 delight in showing grappling bodies in motion in this exceedingly rare Renaissance wrestling handbook, Ringerkunst, or The Art of Wrestling. Fabian von Auerswald, the then seventy-five year old wrestling master of the Duke of Saxony (whose arms appear on the title page) wrote the text. He refers to the images as "artistic and amusing paintings," and presumably oversaw the production of these designs for the woodcuts of the eighty-five different wrestling holds, given their specificity and accompanying step-by-step instructions. Even at his advanced age, Auerswald is shown subduing significantly younger opponents through his superior footwork and knowledge of advanced techniques. An ode to the nobility of unarmed combat, the aristocratic youths seeking to learn this art appear well-heeled and expensively garbed. None appear to have suffered the last resort Auerswald described on the verso of page D1, the “not very companionable” option of stressing or even breaking the occasional limb to get out of a stranglehold (such as the one seen on the verso of page C6). Indeed, he reasserts at the end of the introduction that the book (and the wrestling moves it teaches) are guaranteed to please, stating, "A good fellow who ventures to wrestle boldly and well cannot fail." This particular copy was bound later in seventeenth-century leather, but is otherwise almost unblemished, a pristine (if not heavily consulted) and beautifully printed testament to Auerswald’s art.

In contrast, at least one copy of the book survives in resplendent color (Walker Library, Connecticut), though it is not known whether the color was applied by the seller or the purchaser.  Given the sumptuous outfits the wrestlers sport in each successive contortion, it seems only fitting to imagine their doublets, leggings, and even codpieces arrayed in jewel tones.  Indeed, amateur colorists were rampant in the early sixteenth century.  A didactic woodcut showing ways to measure distances on foot in an example of Peter Apian's Cosmographia of 1524, which now resides here in Chicago at the Newberry Library, demonstrates the care with which the book's owner colored in the codpiece and other details:

Apian step diagram

While the Art Institute's gift shop is unlikely to offer an Art of Wrestling reprint as a coloring book to a new generation, screenshots of the digital version can serve in a pinch.  If you can stay within the lines, send us a picture.  Or even better, have fun recreating some of the poses, bearing in mind the immortal words of the girl who “Cain't Say No” in Oklahoma!:  “Every time I lose a wrestling match, I get a funny feeling that I've won!”

Colorful codpieces optional.

Image Credit: Courtesy The Newberry Library, Chicago. Call # Vault 7 .A7 1524.