Pirckheimer, Willibald

   Member of a promi-nent patrician family of Nuremberg and one of the leading German humanists of the early 16th century. His father pursued a legal career that took the family to Eichstätt, where Willibald was born, and then to Munich, where the father became a councillor to the duke of Bavaria. The boy was privately educated and accompanied his father on diplomatic missions as far afield as Italy. At age 16 he was sent back to Eichstätt for schooling in courtly manners and military affairs. About 1488 he went to Italy, where he studied law at Padua and Pavia but spent much of his effort acquiring a broad humanistic education.
   In 1495 Pirckheimer returned to Nuremberg, married a local patri-cian woman, and was promptly elected to the city council. He served as a captain of Nuremberg troops sent to support the Emperor Max-imilian I in a war against the Swiss (1499), and he wrote a Latin ac-count of that campaign, De bello Helvetico / On the War Against the Swiss (1526; first published in 1610). During the war he became a close friend of the Emperor Maximilian I, who appointed him an im-perial councillor. He served on the city council from 1495 to 1502 and again from 1505 to 1523. His influence was behind the decision to establish lectureships in classical Latin literature at the city's two leading schools (1509). His chief political duty was to represent the city at meetings of the imperial diet and in negotiations and litigation with neighboring aristocrats who encroached on the city's rights.
   Pirckheimer's outstanding humanist learning and his education in the law made him effective in this role, and he formed friend-ships with important political and scholarly figures throughout southern Germany. He was not, however, very popular in his home town, where the dominant mercantile classes found his irascible temper and his outspoken criticisms of the city irritating, and most citizens could not understand why he spent so much effort and money collecting books and trying to found a school of poetry. These same activities made him a heroic figure to humanists throughout Germany, and though they never met in person, he and the leading Northern humanist, Erasmus, became friends through frequent correspondence.
   In his early years, Pirckheimer's fame among humanists rested mostly on the breadth of his interests (and on his high social status and wealth). His own publications came rather late in his career. He wrote a witty and ironic eulogy of gout, a disease from which he suffered, Podagrae laus (1522), and an obituary of the painter Albrecht Dürer, who was his close friend and with whom he collaborated in the plan-ning of two books, Ehrenpforte / The Gate of Honor (1517) and Tri-umphzug / Triumphal Procession (1526) that were originally planned as propaganda glorifying the Emperor Maximilian. He was known principally as an editor and translator (into both Latin and German) of ancient authors, both patristic (Fulgentius, Gregory of Nazianzen) and classical (Plutarch, Lucian, Theophrastus, Xenophon, Ptolemy), as well as some dialogues falsely attributed to Plato and an unpublished translation of the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo.
   Pirckheimer warmly supported Martin Luther in the early years of the Reformation and was suspected of being the author of Ec-cius dedolatus, a cutting satire directed against Luther's antagonist Johann Eck. In 1521 Eck evened scores by including Pirckheimer in the list of those to be excommunicated for supporting Luther, though Pirckheimer promptly took steps to free himself from this condemnation. He had hosted Luther in his own home in 1518 and acquired a large collection of Luther's books. He attempted to play the role of mediator between Luther and church authorities and wrote an open letter to Pope Adrian VI describing the conditions that had led to the upheaval in Germany. He also published a pam-phlet attacking church officials who seemed to be working against a peaceful compromise.
   Eventually, as it became clear that the Reformation would produce a split in the church, Pirckheimer moderated his open support for the Reformation but still retained respect for Luther himself. He was deeply offended (as was Luther) by the symbolic or Sacramentarian interpretation of the Eucharist advanced by Protestant leaders in Switzerland and southwestern Germany, such as Huldrych Zwingli of Zürich and Johannes Oecolampadius of Basel. His treatise against Oecolampadius, De vera Christi carne et vero eius sanguine / On the True Body and Blood of Christ (1526), attacked the Sacramentarían opinion, insisting that the consecrated eucharistic elements are really and truly the body and blood of Christ, yet he carefully refrained from endorsing transubstantiation, the medieval theological explana-tion of that real presence, and he adopted a position that was essen-tially identical to Luther's. Only gradually, in two later tracts against Oecolampadius, did his growing conservatism bring him to an ex-plicit reaffirmation of orthodox eucharistic doctrine.
   Pirckheimer was dismayed by the harsh, controversial tone adopted by all sides to the Reformation debates and also by violent events like the Knights' Rebellion of 1523 and the Peasant War of 1525-1526, as well as by the use of public authority in Protestant cities to suppress traditional religious practices. He blamed extrem-ists on both sides, but gradually his dismay over Protestant radical-ism and his determination to protect the sheltered existence of his sis-ters, including abbess Charitas Pirckheimer, in their nunneries led him back to traditional Catholic doctrine and practice. In 1523 he re-tired from the city council of Nuremberg and spent most of the rest of his life on scholarly work.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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