It is easy nowadays to dismiss early modern panegyric as insincere flattery and empty phrase-making. This is to misunderstand an essential element both of festivals and of festival books. The praise of the prince was a central branch of early modern (as of classical) rhetoric and presents the artist with one of his most important tasks. In the thinking of the period, the prince is not an individual human being but a representative figure, playing a vital role within the divinely-ordained system of the universe. Praise of the prince, therefore, is only one step below praise of God and just as much of a duty.
If the prince is admirable, this demonstrates that God’s plan for his people is working as it should. It is common in festival books (and festivals), therefore, to present the ruler as the perfect Christian prince. He is, thereby, being put forward as a model for others, on the lines of the ‘mirrors for princes’ so prevalent in the age.
We see this in Johann Oettinger’s account of the wedding in Stuttgart of Johann Friedrich, Duke of Württemberg and Teck (1582-1628), and Barbara Sophia, Margravine of Brandenburg (1584-1636) in 1609. Oettinger details the countries through which Johann Friedrich travelled and what he learned in each of them - among them, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, various (Protestant) German territories, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia and Moravia. This has made him into the perfect Christian prince and has equipped him to enter into the holy state of matrimony. Princely marriages are not occasions for mere frivolous rejoicing, says Oettinger, for through them the prince is carrying out God’s divinely-ordained plan for the better functioning of the state. Johann Friedrich has found the bride God has chosen for him, is now ready to enter into matrimony and, since his father has died the year before, to take up the task of ruling. He is put forward, that is to say, as the ideal Protestant prince for others to emulate.
Another example of the ideal prince is given in the account of the entry of the Cardinal Infante into Genoa in 1633. The triumphal arch erected in his honour stressed that he represented the union of noble blood and high standing with virtue, like two jewels set in gold, and that valour was another of his qualities. Of course, the inhabitants of Genoa are hoping that the (Spanish) prince will behave in the virtuous and peaceable way that is necessary for their survival. Panegyric often has the aim of praising the prince for a quality that one hopes he will develop.
Panegyric is also subject to the general development of style perceptible in all the vernacular languages from the beginning of the 16th century to the end of the 17th - that is, in stylistic terms from the Renaissance to the High Baroque. This linguistic development manifests itself in all kinds of texts, both literary and non-literary, in a greater degree of rhetorical elaboration and in the more intense use of metaphor and conceit.
Such a technique can be seen operating at its highest literary level in the account by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz of the triumphal arch to welcome the Spanish Viceroy to Mexico City in 1680. Extra piquancy is given to this account by the fact that Sor Juana Inés has designed the arch herself. The emblems on it, the designs for the paintings, the inscriptions, constitute a panegyric in themselves, requiring learning, taste, discrimination and a sense of theatrical effectiveness. Sor Juana Inés’s literary description is a structure of words built round, and embellishing, the physical structure of the arch, a further, verbal, panegyric to add to the physical one.
The festival book is an artistic product, a literary work which can be read in its own right. We should marvel at it in the same way we marvel at a painting. As such it forms part of the festival rather than being simply an account of it.
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