Matthias Buchinger: “The Greatest German Living” by Ricky Jay

Tank _summer 16_books _39

Hardback, 160 pages
Publisher: Siglio (February 2016)
ISBN: 9781938221125
Language: English
Selected by Barbara Epler

“Born without legs or arms, Matthias Buchinger is best known as an artist who was just 73 centimetres tall. He was a remarkable calligrapher specialising in micrography – handsome, precise letters almost impossible to view with the naked eye. This book is magician Ricky Jay’s best trick yet: he pulls a pint-sized lost genius out of his hat and records his own peregrinations in the search of the ‘Little Man of Nuremberg’.” 
—Barbara Epler


Matthias Buchinger was a 29-inch tall phocomelic overachiever.
He was a master of micrography, the art of forming perfect, tiny letters with pen and ink. Even the most accomplished calligraphers rarely mastered it. He has been called an “extraordinary microscopic penman”, “the most remarkable micrographist of his day”. His calligraphy, said to be “something marvellous”, was proclaimed “the most wonderful the world has ever seen”.

Buchinger accepted commissions to draw coats of arms, wedding documents, portraits, and family trees, beautifully calligraphed and executed in a variety of styles, or “hands”. These documents often included sections that were too small to be discerned by the naked eye. He travelled widely, and boasted noblemen, kings, and emperors among his satisfied clients.

Although I am a long-time fan of the calligraphic arts, Buchinger’s mastery of them is not what drew me to him. My first love is magic, of the sleight-of-hand variety. Accounts of his prowess at legerdemain1 brought him to my attention, and my interest in unusual entertainments was captured by a performing repertoire that included playing more than a half-dozen musical instruments, trick shots with pistols and swords, and bowling.

What led to his billing as “The Little Man of Nuremberg”, and more hyperbolically, “The Greatest German Living”, however, was not only his mastery of these skills but his unconventional physical condition. He was born without legs or hands. He was by turns lauded and denigrated, celebrated and denied the right to perform, and declared dead long before his actual demise at age 65. He survived three wives and widowed a fourth, and they collectively bore him 14 children. He was the subject of souvenir prints, monographs and elegies, and his art is displayed in the collections of research institutions and major museums. 

Matthias Buchinger has captivated me since I first encountered him in a wonderful volume called the Panorama of Magic. The author was Milbourne Christopher, a Baltimore-bred performer and historian of conjuring, and the book contained hundreds of illustrations from his memorabilia. Although still a teenager, I was already performing professionally when the book appeared, and I had become a casual inquirer into the history of magic. The blend of great graphics and swell stories in Panorama pushed me, oh so pleasantly, to pursue and expand my interests.

Some years later, alternating between a compromised college curriculum and a career in conjuring, I mustered enough courage to give Christopher a call. My late grandfather and Christopher had been friends, and I had known him since I was a boy.

“Mr Christopher,” I said, “It’s Ricky Jay. I have become very interested in the history of magic and especially in Matthias Buchinger. Would it be possible for me to visit your collection?”

“I’m kind of busy this year, Ricky,” he said, abruptly ending my immediate fantasy.

Legerdemain is a skill that uses the hands to perform magical tricks. Buchinger’s stunts included using a bowling ball to knock over a pin while leaving the cup of liquid which stood on its top unspilled.