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The Renaissance and Early Modern festival book

Renaissance and Early Modern festivals needed a record. Festival entertainments served for the most part as elements in a court’s self-presentation, cementing of alliances, and confirmation in sacred or secular terms of its continuing structures. A city’s festivals offered similar self-projection, and the definition or re-definition of its civic order or its relationship to its overlord.

Such purposes were best served by the making and distribution of printed accounts, thus countering the ephemeral nature of the events themselves. Festival books were produced from the late 15th century, soon after the invention of printing, and ranged from lavishly-produced presentation copies, sometimes with hand-coloured illustrations, to plain and relatively cheap pamphlets. The territories of the Holy Roman Empire, where printing and engraving reached a high level of expertise at an early date, produced particularly elaborate volumes.

The books affected to offer an accurate and detailed account of the festival, with precise documentation of iconography and inscriptions, inclusive lists of participants in order of precedence, and step-by-step unfolding of processions, presentations and shows. Sometimes written and printed before the festival took place, the books can be unreliable as historical record, conveying instead what should have been seen, together with its political significance. Some thousands of different festival books, from courts and cities across Europe, survive in modern collections.

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