Consider this scenario: during the second decade of a new century, a vainglorious man with largely inherited wealth is elected to govern one of the most powerful countries in the world. He calls for a massive building in a desperate attempt to secure a lasting legacy, but it stays on paper only. In the meantime, while he is beset with internal dissension and external conflict from erstwhile allies, an acute political observer publishes a book about the politics of fear which criticizes his lack of communication even with his closest advisors and his habit of changing his views based on the last person to whom he talked.
I am, of course, referring to Maximilian I, Habsburg ruler and Holy Roman Emperor (a formally elected title) from 1508 to 1519. Some of you may recall the June 2 post ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, in which I noted Voltaire’s famous quip that this loose confederacy of German states was not holy, not Roman, and not really an empire. In a futile bid to make the Holy Roman Empire great again, Maximilian sent the Habsburg army to fight the French while defending Austrian territories from the Hungarians and the Turks. While he ensured Habsburg rule over Spain and the Americas, as well as over Bohemia and Hungary, through carefully orchestrated dynastic marriages, the German princes and cities successfully resisted his attempts at centralizing his rule over the lands of the Holy Roman Empire. He was also forced to recognise Swiss independence in 1499, which only underscored the ‘holeyness’ of the Germanic empire (and commemorated by holey Swiss cheese; the independence ceremony must have been a Swiss ‘fun do’).
As consolation for his at-best mediocre reign, Maximilian–as described in this recent piece in The Public Domain Review–commissioned an ‘extraordinary, grandiose triumphal arch in around 1515 to glorify himself and his ancestors’ (pictured above and in the article). The odd thing about the arch is that it was never intended to be built in stone, but instead would take the form of giant posters plastered at ‘town halls and ducal palaces throughout the Empire’. The Roman-style arch has gates devoted to Praise, Honour, and Nobility and illustrations of Maximilian’s family tree, ancestors, significant events during his reign, other rulers, and even episodes from his private life. Seven hundred copies were made from woodcuts designed largely by Albrecht Dürer and his pupils. One could say that those aspects of the arch glorifying the riches of his empire were intended to show off his ‘Maxi-millions’, while the posters as a whole were meant to create an en-Dürer-ing legacy. Researchers at Early Modern Times’ Department of Holy Roman Imperial Propaganda Posters have uncovered evidence that the slogan shouted at campaigns drumming up support for this triumphal arch around the Empire was (in subdued caps-lock) ‘BUILD THE WALLPAPER!’
Students in my fourth-year core course Conceptions of State, Society, and Revolution in the Early Modern Period, as well as those taking Dr. Jannette Vusich’s fabulous study-abroad course on Early Modern Art, Politics, and Literature in Florence (concerning which an information session will be held on Oct. 25 at 4-6 pm in the Wilson Common Room), may recall that Maximilian I is mentioned unfavourably in works by the Italian political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli. In the Discourses on Livy, Book 2, Chapter 12, Machiavelli adduces the example of rulers placing their trust in the Emperor Maximilian to demonstrate the folly of forming a relationship with a prince who has more prestige than power. In other words, Machiavelli regarded Maximilian’s power as ‘paper thin’.
Even more damningly, Maximilian is criticized in chapter 23 of The Prince for his ineptitude in dealing with flatterers and untrustworthy advisors. Machiavelli writes: ‘Because the Emperor is a secretive man, he communicates his plans to no one, nor does he take their advice. However, when he is carrying out his plans and they begin to be recognized and uncovered, they begin to be criticized by those around him; and he, just as if it were a simple matter, lets himself be diverted. From this results the fact that those things he does one day, he undoes the next; and that no one ever understands what he wants or what plans he is making, and that no one can rely on his decisions’ (p. 81; trans. Peter Bondanella, Oxford University Press, 2005). Fortunately, in 2018, we should be thankful that this sort of chaotic and incompetent leadership in conjunction with deluded grandiosity is a thing of the past.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Arch-ed Eyebrow Studies Program