British Library logoTreasures in Full: Renaissance Festival Books
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1. Who was a festival book aimed at?

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.

This question can be answered if one knows who commissioned the festival and whom it was designed to honour.

When a city such as Paris puts on a firework display in honour of Louis XIII in 1628, the festival book is directed at the King, and its aim is to remind him of the city’s homage after the fireworks themselves have vanished. In contrast, the account of the entry of the Cardinal Infante of Spain into Genoa in 1633 has a wider audience and is written in Spanish, so that it can be read in Spain and demonstrate to the Spanish king the goodwill and desire for peace of the Republic of Genoa.

Apart from the festivals organised by a city for a prince, most festivals are either ceremonies, such as coronations or baptisms, or they are spectacles organised by the ruler in and for the court. The books recording these festivals were aimed at other courts: that is, the ruler and his entourage, his government and advisers. It was, for instance, vital for Friedrich August I, Elector of Saxony, that his fellow German princes and his own people in Saxony should see that his coronation as King of Poland in 1697 (as August II) had taken place in the approved manner, precisely because his election as King was in dispute. That account is therefore in German. There are another two accounts in German, one in Italian and one in Polish. Only the last can have been destined to be read by the Polish nobility. The others are addressed to other princes throughout Europe.

Image of Louis XIII
Louis XIII (1601-1643), King of France. Paris, Baltasar Moncornet, 1650-60.
BL 1762.a.1 vol. 1. Larger image

But while the necessity of putting important events in the life of a court or the history of a dynasty on record may be a sufficient justification for the many plain factual accounts extant, it does not explain the sizeable minority of festival books that are published in a much more lavish way. The court which issued such books must first have the printing tradition and the necessary artists in order to produce an illustrated festival book at all. It is clear that a lavishly-illustrated book gives permanence to the evanescent festival.

It is also possible to give it permanence by means of a manuscript that no one outside the court itself and its guests will ever see. Manuscript depictions of festivals continued to be produced at some courts well into the 18th century. Giovanni Tommaso Borgogno’s 12-volume manuscript record of festivities held at the court of Savoy in Turin between 1640 and 1681, and the tournament book of Karl Albrecht of Württemberg recording tournaments held in Munich between 1717 and 1734, are examples of manuscript records of festivals designed for the consumption of the home court.

Splendid printed accounts, because of their cost, can only be purchased by the wealthy. The ruler’s ordinary subjects, even if they could read, would not have been able to afford these accounts, though members of the home court may have purchased them. But in general it is clear that they are meant to impress other courts, whether they be allies or rivals. Princes saw to it that their ambassadors disseminated copies of the festival book at the courts to which they were accredited, and it is clear from the inventories of princely libraries that princes collected accounts from other courts.

Again, the language in which the festival book is written gives an indication of the addressees. The multiple accounts of the festivals of Charles V and the range of languages they were written in show the international public Charles had in mind.

In 1670, Louis XIV had an account of the running at the ring and at the head (a mounted chivalric exercise), staged in Paris in 1662 to mark the birth of his son, published by the Royal Press in a magnificent volume illustrated with 97 engravings designed by Israel Silvestre and François Chauveau. One version of the text is in French (the author is Charles Perrault) but, since French was not yet the internationally understood language of the court, the book was also produced in Latin, with Perrault’s text in a translation by S. Fléchier.

Thereby, the audience of the festival book varied in accordance with the book’s social and political aims, and the book itself was written and produced in such a way as to accord best with those aims.

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