Emperor Maximilian I – A Great Habsburg

Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer on the occasion of the death of Maximilian 1519. © Austrian National Library.

With his adept marriage policy, Maximilian I laid the foundations for the later world empire of the House of Habsburg. In the emperor’s circle and partly through his own cooperation, masterpieces of art were created. On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death, the Austrian National Library focuses its new special exhibition “Kaiser Maximilian I. Ein großer Habsburger” (“Emperor Maximilian I: A Great Habsburg”) on the regent, who stands like no other for the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

As the “last knight” and “first gunner”, he waged numerous wars to assert his claims to power. At the same time, he proved to be a clever strategist who tried to use the power of the media, and above all the newly invented printing press, for his purposes early on. The tensions between the Habsburg hereditary lands and the Holy Roman Empire, the discovery and exploration of new worlds, and the Ottoman threat in the East influenced Maximilian both personally and politically.

Title page of the so-called Prunk ABC book of Maximilian. © Austrian National Library.

The exhibition can be seen from 15 March in the State Hall of the Austrian National Library. It showcases the emperor and his time with over 90 valuable objects, including numerous impressive manuscripts, early prints and a woodcut portrait by Albrecht Dürer.

Childhood of an Emperor

His birth in the Burg Wiener Neustadt is said to have been ill-fated – at least he believed that for the rest of his life. Maximilian (22.3.1459 to 12.1.1519) was, together with his younger sister Kunigunde, the only descendant of Frederick III to reach adulthood.

As is appropriate for a later emperor, the learning materials presented to Maximilian were extremely splendid. The exhibition shows a richly decorated ABC book with which the six-year-old heir to the throne was to learn to read and write. The manuscript was decorated by the so-called textbook master and was donated to him by the wealthy Viennese citizen Stephan Heuner. In addition to the alphabet, it contains the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and several other well-known prayer texts. Many initial letters are artistically decorated and gilded.

The birth of Maximilian in the “Weißkunig” under heavenly omens. © Austrian National Library.

The school education of Maximilian, which included reading, writing, Latin, as well as fighting, hunting and dancing, is exceptionally well documented for that time. The later monarch himself made a major contribution to this. In the “Gedechtnus-Werke” commissioned by him, his training is depicted in the most dazzling colours – and often glorified. While language disorders and conflicts with his teacher have been confirmed and the young heir to the throne was more interested in hunting than in the Latin language, he even outdoes his teachers in their own subjects in his autobiographically coloured work “Weißkunig”. The woodcuts and handwritten sketches for this extraordinary book illustrate a culmination of the book art of the time and can be seen in their original form in the exhibition.

The Greek, Latin and Hebrew lineage in Maximilian’s family tree. © Austrian National Library.

The monarch did not exactly stick to the truth with the Habsburg family tree either. Since the House of Habsburg did not produce any important ancestors, the ambitious Maximilian relied on fictitious genealogies to secure his family’s claim to power. He commissioned experts such as Ladislaus Suntaym, who had become famous for his Babenberg lineage in Klosterneuburg. It was the Bregenz lawyer Jakob Mennel, however, who was able to construct a satisfactory line of ancestry that stretched back from Merovingian ancestors to the Trojan hero Hector. In addition, he compiled all the saints from the Habsburg family’s near and distant surroundings for the emperor, thus creating remarkable contemporary documents for Maximilian’s political claims.

Habsburg passion for collecting

Maximilian’s father Frederick III had already expanded the Habsburg book collection with valuable magnificent manuscripts. Maximilian not only added the usual dedicatory copies and purchases, but also left behind numerous volumes related to his own book projects. It was only through detours that treasures from the books owned by his first wife Mary of Burgundy came to Austria, including the famous Book of Hours of Mary of Burgundy, a prayer book with golden letters and rich picture ornaments, which can be seen in its original form at the beginning of the exhibition. Maximilian’s second wife, Bianca Maria Sforza, added other valuable manuscripts to the collection, this time from Italy.

An inventory list from the 1520s provides an overview of the emperor’s book collection. It contains bibles and theological texts as well as historical works and books on sorcery. Archduke Ferdinand II, Maximilian I’s great-grandson, later brought these works to Ambras Castle. Today, they are kept in the Austrian National Library as the so-called Ambras Collection and have been on UNESCO’s “Memory of Austria” list since 2018.

Mary of Burgundy praying. © Austrian National Library.

Maximilian was also interested in archaeological discoveries, which he also writes about in his private notebooks. His advisor, the Augsburg humanist and lawyer Konrad Peutinger, published the first printed collection of these “pagan stones” in 1505, which he gifted to Maximilian as a luxurious edition. This work stands in the exhibition of the rediscovery of classical antiquity, which under Maximilian also became culturally influential north of the Alps.

Printing and Self-Promotion

Shortly before Maximilian’s birth, Johannes Gutenberg invented modern letterpress printing with movable metal letters, a media revolution that shaped mankind until the invention of the Internet. The emperor recognized the importance of this innovation early on. The autobiographically influenced works in which he was involved were prepared for distribution in print and combined the text with magnificent woodcuts. Through them, he created an ideal image of his person, which he wanted to spread among his contemporaries and capture for posterity, true to the final sentence of the “Weißkunig”: “Whoever does not set up a monument to himself during his life enjoys no memory after his death. Such a man is forgotten as soon as the bell ceases to toll.”

This idea was also adopted by one of the best-known artists of the time, Albrecht Dürer, whose woodcut portrait of Maximilian, to be seen in the exhibition, was published posthumously.

The authors from the emperor’s surroundings also worked on the glorification of Maximilian, dedicating their works to him: They often mixed historical events with fictitious elements all the way to the ancient world of the gods; or they described Maximilian’s procession to Rome for the imperial coronation, which never took place. They did so for glory and honour and to gain the favour of the emperor, for Maximilian, chronically indebted by his numerous wars, could not pay them.

Ottomans in the East, America in the West

In 1453, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and thereby marked the end of the Byzantine Empire – which was a shock for Europe. Maximilian I thus found himself in the field of tension between the knightly ideal of a new crusade against the pagans, which he regarded as his Christian duty, and pragmatic considerations according to which the Ottomans were ordinary war opponents and perhaps even allies. A personal meeting with a delegation of Sultan Bayezid II in Stams Abbey in 1497 gave him a comprehensive idea of his opponent. This encounter was reflected in an illustration in Maximilian’s “Tyrolean Fishing Book” from 1504, which depicts a hunting scene with an Ottoman in the Tyrolean mountains.

World map with the Brazilian coastline, Geographia, Claudius Ptolemy [Strasbourg, 1513]. © Austrian National Library.

However, the emperor was not only interested in the changes at the borders of his empire, but also in the geographical innovations and great voyages of discovery in the West and East: After all, America and the sea route to India were discovered during his reign. Maximilian wanted to get a clear picture of the world and made political decisions using, among other things, extensive land and sea maps. Even one of the most famous maps of the time has connections to Maximilian: The scholars Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann first named the newly discovered continent “America” in their world map of 1507, the accompanying description “Cosmographiae Introductio” was dedicated to Maximilian I and can be seen in the exhibition.

Astronomy and a Star of Bethlehem

In addition to exploring the earth through discovery expeditions, Maximilian’s reign also saw the exploration of the heavens progress. Already in the early 15th century, a mathematical-astronomical school was established at the University of Vienna, the work of which prepared the transition from the geocentric to the heliocentric world view. In 1501, the Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum, initiated by Maximilian’s advisor Konrad Celtis, was founded. It provided chairs for poetry and rhetoric as well as for mathematics – a pioneering act for the institutionalization of humanism in Vienna.

The fact that there was no sharp separation between scientific astronomy and speculative astrology at that time is demonstrated by Maximilian’s personal physician Georg Tannstetter, who was also active as an astrologer. In addition, it was the famous astronomer Regiomontanus who created Maximilian’s birth chart. The emperor himself took such prophecies very seriously and also used cosmic phenomena for propaganda purposes: He reinterpreted the comet appearing in the sky at his birth from a dark omen into a sign of good luck. In a rather daring recourse to the Bible he even connected it with the Star of Bethlehem.

Comments on the exhibition

“Maximilian I was not only a dazzling personality on the threshold from the Middle Ages to modern times, he also had a great influence on the imperial library. It is thanks to him that some of the most important works of European book art can be found in the Austrian National Library today. At the same time, he was the first media emperor to use the new technology of book printing specifically for the purpose of self-stylization and the design of his image in public and for posterity,” says Dr. Johanna Rachinger, Director General of the Austrian National Library.

“The fact that we still remember Emperor Maximilian I so vividly today, 500 years after his death, shows how much he shaped his time and Austrian history,” emphasizes Dr. Günter Geyer, Chairman of the Board of the Wiener Städtische Versicherungsverein. “I am particularly pleased that the Wiener Städtische Versicherungsverein has been able to support the Austrian National Library in realising this large exhibition in the State Hall, and thus provide all interested parties with a comprehensive overview of this exceptional phenomenon.”

Here you can find further information about the exhibition.

Those who would like to take a look at the Weißkunig in advance can do so here.

If you would like to learn more about the Habsburgs, here is the first part of a video documentary about The World of the Habsburgs.

In addition, the website www.habsburger.net provides a virtual exhibition.

Exhibition poster. © Austrian National Library.