British Library Treasures in full: Renaissance festival books
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What is a festival?

In Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, important events in the life of a princely dynasty, such as marriage, the birth or christening of an heir, a coronation or a funeral, were celebrated by mounting a festival.

Religious festivals took place on saints' days and significant dates in the Church calendars. Festivals also occurred when a prince made a formal entry into a city, either at home or abroad. The term ‘festival’ refers as well to the artistic elements that accompanied these occasions, such as:

  • theatrical, operatic or ballet performances
  • equestrian, aquatic or firework displays
  • temporary architectural constructions.

What is a festival book?

Festival books are printed accounts of these occasions, issued by or with the approval of court, city or religious authorities. They are often customised with the arms of a princely house, hand-coloured illustrations or a fine binding. The books usually offer eye-witness accounts of a festival, sometimes embellished with moral or philosophical reflections - though at their simplest they may just be a list of names.

They range from lavish folios to inconspicuous pamphlets and were published in many languages, including English, French, Italian, German, Spanish and Latin. Thousands of festival books, referring to thousands of festivals, have survived in great collections such as those of the British Library.

What can they tell us?

Festival books were usually published to honour the court or city which hosted the festival. As official publications, they tell us about the image the authorities wanted to project and offer us insights into inter-state alliances, rivalries and other political circumstances. They provide the names and relative standing of prominent courtiers and citizens. They tell us about the artistic styles of the period: its literature, theatre, visual arts and music, and its scenography and architecture. We learn something about economics, social organisation and the luxury trades. But festival books do not always provide an accurate record of events. Sometimes prepared in advance of the occasion, sometimes seen from the limited viewpoint of an eye-witness, their accounts are ideal, and even idealised, rather than strictly factual.

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Fountain of Neptune
Fountain of Neptune (1563-66) by Giovanni da Bologna. Piazza Maggiore, Bologna
Copyright © Colin Wight
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