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2. Festivals in the Holy Roman Empire

Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly


Excerpted from Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly, ‘Entries, fireworks and religious festivals in the Empire’, in Pierre Béhar and Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly (eds), Spectaculum Europæum: Theatre and Spectacle in Europe 1580-1750 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1999) pp. 721-742.

The Empire comprised a collection of diverse territories of varying size, importance and religious adherence, each ruled over by its own territorial overlord, who in turn owed allegiance to an elected Emperor.

In its basic form, the entry was ceremonial in character, an event in which the ruler with his retinue entered officially into one of the cities of his realm and was received by the dignitaries of that city with a standard set of ceremonies of obeisance or of feudal contract.

The imperial entry had its origins in Roman, Byzantine and medieval ceremonial. Ancient ceremonial combined with classicising impermanent architecture, above all the triumphal arch, were its characteristics.

The Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519, elected Emperor in 1508) commissioned two works of art which exerted a considerable influence on court festivals generally in the Empire: the set of 192 woodcuts commissioned from Dürer in 1515 which together make up the Triumphal Arch and the series of 136 woodcuts by Burgkmair, Altdorfer, Dürer and others which constitute the Triumphal Procession of 1517.

Maximilian’s grandson, the Emperor Charles V, introduced the Renaissance entry and the triumphal arch to the German-speaking lands. Charles did more than any other single monarch to develop the entry, taking part in and organising entries in the Netherlands in 1515, in Italy between 1529 and 1536, during the progress from Italy to Antwerp with his heir Philip II in 1548-49 and in Nürnberg in 1541, on his way to the Imperial Diet at Regensburg.

View of Frascati
View of Frascati by Matthias Gruetter: Rome, 1620 BL Maps 23836.(1). Larger image

While Renaissance festival culture was known, imitated and developed in the Empire, the imperial entry often remained untouched by the new developments. When the imperial entry does contain an element of spectacle, it is most often limited to the erection of one (rarely more than one) triumphal arch.

Entries by the Emperor or his successor are by far the largest category overall throughout the period. They predominate particularly up to the middle of the 17th century. In the century from the end of the Thirty Years’ War to the middle of the 18th century we see the important princes of the Empire, particularly the Electors, rebuilding their cities, consolidating their power, expanding their courts and in some cases acquiring a royal crown. The increasing power and importance of the three houses of Brandenburg, Saxony and Bavaria in particular were buttressed and publicised by an increasingly lavish festival culture.

Military triumphs, a form of entry recalling Classical triumphs, feature a procession through the streets of a city in which a military victor is honoured by the populace and shows off his spoils: for example, Charles V in Messina after his victory over the Turks, or in his entry into Rome in 1536.

Bridal entries comprise an extremely numerous sub-category of the entry. The marriage can either take place in person in the bridegroom’s capital, in person in the bride’s capital, or by proxy in the bride’s capital. Sooner or later the bride has to travel to her new domain. Every description of a wedding in the Empire throughout the early modern period tells of the bride’s entry into her husband’s capital city and/or her reception at the borders of his kingdom. Throughout the 17th century, the Habsburgs celebrated their bridal entries with considerable pomp - as for example at the wedding in Graz in 1600 of the future Emperor Ferdinand II to Maria Anna of Bavaria.

Firework displays, while often celebrated by a court, were sometimes staged by a town to celebrate an event of national importance. Technical treatises instruct pyrotechnicians in how to make firework figures move by means of mock propulsion, and many displays feature a fiery dragon moving across the sky or angel or dove of peace soaring overhead. Most consist wholly of, or at least embody, a combat on land or sea, or else appear in close conjunction with the tournament.

From the late 17th century, the illumination became the pre-eminent means by which a town marked such events. In an illumination the principal buildings of the town are picked out in lights, special structures such as obelisks and arches are built out of wood and illuminated, and emblematic transparencies are lit from behind.

University festivals celebrate the founding of new universities, the restoration of universities which had been suspended during the Thirty Years’ War, the merger of two universities, or the jubilee of others.

Religious festivals in the Empire fall naturally into two groups: Catholic and Protestant. Catholic festivals are much the most numerous and also the most elaborate and were staged above all in Bavaria and Austria by the religious orders, of which the Jesuits were the most important. The canonisation of a saint, the transfer of a relic, the anniversary of the foundation of a religious order or the observance of a feast day such as Corpus Christi provided appropriate occasions. Protestant festivals were more restricted, being confined in general to the anniversaries of such important Reformation dates as the Peace of Augsburg or the conversion to Protestantism of a particular city.

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Reading list

Festivals in the Empire' in Pierre Béhar and Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly (eds), Spectaculum Europaeum, pp. 721-741

Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly, 'Tournaments in Europe' in Béhar and Watanabe-O'Kelly (eds), Spectaculum Europaeum, pp. 591-639

Sara Smart, 'Ballet in the Empire' in Béhar and Watanabe-O'Kelly (eds), Spectaculum Europaeum, pp. 547-570 (as above)

Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly and Sara Smart, 'Festivals of the Protestant Union' 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. 2, pp. 3-115

Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly, Court Culture in Dresden From Renaissance to Baroque (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2002)

1. Festivals in Italy
2. Festivals in the Holy Roman Empire
3. Habsburg festivals
4. Festivals in Valois France
5. Festivals in Spain
6. Court and civic festivals in Tudor and early Stuart England