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4. The German illustrated festival book

Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly


Excerpted from Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly, 'The Early Modern Festival Book: Function and Form' in J.R. Mulryne, Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly and Margaret Shewring (eds.), 'Europa Triumphans': Court and Civic Festivals in Early Modern Europe (Aldershot and Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2004) vol. I, pp. 5-18.

Festival books can take many forms, as plain narrative or chronicle, whether in prose or in verse, as fictitious letter or dispatch, as urbane dialogue, as part poetry, or at least as prose with lyric inserts, and as extensive allegory. Festival books can embed the account in a fictional framework (the festival then claiming to be something the narrator saw in a dream) or be couched in the form of a courtly romance. They can take the form of an illustrated libretto, or can be used by the author as the occasion for a series of lengthy moral and philosophical reflections. An important sub-group, found particularly in the German tradition, is the festival book consisting wholly or largely of plates, a development that owes much to the influence of the Emperor Maximilian I.

Maximilian I (born 1459, reigned 1493-1519) came to power just before the ‘Reichsreform’, at a time when the office of Emperor and the Habsburg claim to the Imperial throne needed to be affirmed. With the help of a team of historians, genealogists, writers and artists he set about weaving round himself a myth of power, virtue and culture. His learned image-makers produced works of dynastic history and genealogy, while Maximilian himself stylised his own life as a courtly romance in a series of works that portrayed him as a knight participating in various sorts of chivalric combat. For the execution of these works he drew on the services of the foremost artists of his day and used both manuscript and the new art of printing. A vital element in his self-mythologisation was the series of ideal paper blueprints for festival architecture and floats: Dürer’s 192 woodcuts for the Triumphal Arch (1515), the 136 woodcuts by Burgkmair, Altdorfer, Dürer and others which constitute the Triumphal Procession (1517) and Dürer’s Great Triumphal Car (1522). These ideal (or ‘virtual’) festivals and their representation, as well as the accompanying woodcuts, functioned as models down the centuries both for actual festivals and for their depiction in festival books.

Maximilian also drew on the older manuscript tradition, commissioning an illustrated manuscript tournament book from Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1453-1530), completed in 1555 by his son Hans Burgkmair the Younger (c.1500-c.1560). Based on such manuscript depictions is the famous printed and illustrated compendium of 36 medieval tournaments between 938 and 1487 by the herald Georg Ruexner or Rixner (Simmern, 1530). The pre-existing corpus of tournament books commissioned by Maximilian, and the large quantity and high quality of the illustrations relating to festivals, had a lasting influence on the festival book as a genre and on its illustrations.

This influence helps one to understand why it is that the books emanating from the German-speaking courts far outstrip those produced by the north Italian courts in the quality and number of their illustrations. One would expect it to be the other way around, since Italian festival culture led Europe in its sophistication. But it is the history of printing and the development of book illustration in a particular territory that determine whether a festival book is illustrated or not, and the quality and number of the illustrations, not the level of its festival culture.

So the Germans, who developed the art of the woodcut and of the copper engraving at the same time as they discovered the art of printing with moveable type, who had a number of excellent artists such as Dürer and Cranach the Elder to develop the form, and who had the prestigious works produced by Maximilian as models, were producing beautifully illustrated festival books at a time when this was not at all common elsewhere. One has to wait until the volumes produced by Louis XIV’s Royal Press in Paris in the 1660s and 1670s for an illustrated work of comparable magnificence from France.

The German courts continued to be influenced by this tradition, for most princely libraries in the Empire contained copies both of the Stuttgart festival books and of at least some of the works produced for Maximilian. Thus it is that a court such as Dresden, the capital of Electoral Saxony, which has no tradition of the illustrated festival book up to then, should produce a remarkable example of the genre in 1680. This is Gabriel Tzschimmer’s account of the meeting of Johann Georg II, Elector of Saxony, and his three younger brothers and their families in Dresden in 1678, the so-called ‘Durchlauchtigste Zusammenkunft’.

The actual account - there is a much larger discursive second part - consists of 316 folio pages with 30 huge fold-out plates depicting tournaments, hunts, processions, ballets and theatrical scenes. Such a volume eloquently sums up the tradition of the illustrated festival book as a prime artefact of the early modern, particularly the German, art of printing.

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