Nothing is known about his first decades, although Alvise Vivarini has been suggested as his master. He left Venice for Germany in 1500, and thereafter is better documented. There he worked for the Emperor Maximilian I in Nuremberg for a year, then in various places for Frederick the Wise of Saxony in 1503–5, before moving to the court of the Elector Joachim I of Brandenburg for about the years 1506–8. In Germany he was often known as "Jacop Walch", probably from "Wälsch" meaning foreigner, a term especially used for Italians.
He may have returned to Venice with Philip the Handsome of Burgundy, for whom he later worked in the Netherlands. By March of 1510 he was working for Philip's successor Archduchess Margaret in Brussels and Mechelen. In January 1511 he fell ill and made a will, and in March the Archduchess gave him a pension for life, on account of his age and weakness ("debilitation et vieillesse"). By 1516 he had died, leaving the Archduchess in possession of twenty-three engraving plates, which since many of his plates were probably engraved on both sides, means some engravings may not have survived.
Apart from the Map of Venice, he produced two other woodcuts, both of men and satyrs, which were the largest and most impressive figurative woodcuts yet produced, and which established the Italian tradition of fine, large, woodcuts for the following decades. These may have also been produced before 1500; they are clearly strongly influenced by Mantegna.
...I find no one who has written anything about how to make canon of human proportions except for a man named Jacob, born in Venice and a charming painter. He showed me a man and a woman which he had made according to measure, so that I would now rather see what he meant than behold a new kingdom... Jacobus did not want to show his principles to me clearly, that I saw well. (From an unpublished draft of the Introduction to Dürer's own book on human proportions)
Twenty years later Dürer tried unsuccessfully to get the Archduchess Margaret, Hapsburg Regent of the Netherlands, to give him a manuscript book she had on the subject by de' Barberi, by then dead; the book has not survived.
Some of his paintings are dated as: 1500, 1503, 1504, 1508. Documents relating to his employment by Maximilian suggest his work was to include illuminating manuscripts, but no work in this medium has been generally attributed to him. His only generally accepted drawing is a Cleopatra in the British Museum, apparently done as a study for an engraving which has not survived.
The earlier prints show figures with "small heads and somewhat shapeless bodies, with sloping shoulders and thick torsos supported by slender legs" — also seen in his paintings. Probably from a middle period come several nudes, the most famous being Apollo and Diana, St Sebastian and the Three Bound Captives. In these his ability to organise the whole composition has greatly improved.
In a final group, the style becomes more Italianate, and the compositions more complex. These have an enigmatic, haunting atmosphere, and a very refined technique. Levenson has proposed that they date from his period in the Netherlands and were influenced by the young Lucas van Leyden.
His paintings are mostly portraits or half-length groups of religious figures. He painted a live Sparrowhawk(National Gallery, London), which is probably a fragment of a larger work. The very early still-life of a Partridge, gauntlets, and crossbow bolt (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) is often called the first small scale trompe l'oeil painting since antiquity; it may well have been the cover or reverse of a portrait (however a fragmentary panel by another Venetian, Vittorio Carpaccio has a trompe l'oeil letter-rack of about 1490 on the reverse. In the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin there is a Portrait of a German Man and a religious subject. The Louvre has a religious group, and Philadelphia a pair of figures.
A disputed but famous work, the Portrait of Fra Luca Pacioli and his student, (?)Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino is in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. This shows the Franciscan mathmetician and expert on perspective demonstrating geometry at a table on which lie his own Summa and a work by Euclid. His exquisitely dressed pupil ignores this and looks out at the viewer. The work is signed "IACO. BAR VIGEN/NIS 1495".