Art historical publications in English are paying increasing attention to artists active in what is called Germany today. Life and works of the most famous early modern artists in Germany, especially Dürer, have of course always been studied. For several decades artists at the court of Rudolf II have also received attention, but the main concern of scholars of northern art is still focused on the Netherlands. One main reason surely is that until the middle of the twentieth century most research on lesser German artists was published in German and that the German archival documents require painstaking reading.
Susan Maxwell’s carefully laid out volume deserves praise as the first English monograph to focus on the multi-talented Friedrich Sustris, although an unpublished (but accessible) German dissertation by Manfred Hock on Sustris was completed in 1952. Moreover, an earlier publication in English gives a comprehensive impression of the craftmanship of Sustris and his team in Munich: the bilingual catalogue, “Citizens of Europe: Dutch and Flemish Artists in Munich c.1600” – quoted by Susan Maxwell merely with its German title “In Europa zu Hause.” It shows a similar structure and duplicates many of the figures of this monograph. The attractive book by Susan Maxwell, however, will surely prompt more scholars and art lovers to investigate the art of the Munich court in the last quarter of the sixteenth century.
Building on the historical insights of the last three decades, Maxwell’s monograph emphasizes the international – especially Italian – character of the art at the Wittelsbach court – in Landshut as well as in Munich. To be able to see this court art as one facet of a variously shaped international cultural landscape is an achievement of more recent research. In earlier publications the court art in Bavaria was usually dealt with as an isolated local phenomenon.
The monograph takes the reader through the various stages of Sustris’s life. An introductory chapter gives a general review of Bavarian ducal patronage in the sixteenth century (its tradition, the relationship between art and finances, and the relationship of the court to artists from abroad). It is followed by an elaborate essay on Sustris’s training and his stay in Florence as well as his service to the Fugger family in Augsburg – a period not appropriately studied in his biographical context before now.
The book culminates in the employment of Sustris and his assistants by Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria; they were charged to transform the medieval castle Trausnitz, atop of the hill of the ducal residential city of Landshut, into a “Lustschloss.” This chapter on the reorganization of the building’s artistic decoration for the young ducal heir is one of the centerpieces of the book. Here, as in the following chapters, Maxwell’s admirable diligence is apparent; she has worked through the complete German secondary literature on this period and on this subject. The pre-war photographs of the frescoes and oil paintings (now mostly lost) in the halls and rooms of Trausnitz Castle are valuable documents of its fascinating iconography. It still is a desideratum, however, to grasp more stringently the iconography of the single halls and rooms and to interpret the decoration of the castle as an intellectual ensemble. The question remains: who conceived the program for the decoration? For Susan Maxwell there is no doubt that the programmer, the brain behind the stories, was the multi-talented Sustris himself. But this inventiveness seems hardly likely, since in the archival sources Sustris never is referred to as a humanistic and intellectual painter – in contrast to other painters, especially at the Rudolfine court.
The same question arises in relation to the iconographic program of the Grottenhof (Courtyard of the Grotto) of the Munich Residence, with its unique early mannerist decoration, where every part of painting, sculpture, and handicraft has its distinct place. The “Grottenhof”, joining the Antiquarium, built by Wilhelm’s predecessor Albrecht V, is one of the most fascinating monuments of this period, and Maxwell pays to it the attention it deserves, with text, preparatory drawings, and pre-war-photographs. Unfortunately, the present condition of the frescoes – those still preserved – hardly gives any idea of their former splendor.
For Wilhelm V, later called “the Pious,” the foundation and the construction of St. Michael’s, the Jesuit church, became the main monument to memorialize God, the Roman Catholic religion, and – himself. An elaborate essay on this topic, well explored in Germany, crowns the monograph. Additionally, Susan Maxwell does not confine herself to these three monuments: Trausnitz, Munich Residenz, and St. Michael’s Church; she also discusses important archival documents, such as the “Malbuch” (ledger) of Wolfgang Pronner (cf. Ursula Haller, 2005 annotated facsimile edition) as well as the list of books borrowed from the ducal library, a rich source of information also regarding other painters.
Susan Maxwell’s publication thus assembles a tremendous amount of carefully studied material and demonstrates thorough knowledge of the historical context. Her book, moreover, is very readable and well illustrated. For the English-speaking reader it stresses the importance of the Bavarian court at the end of the sixteenth century and its significance alongside the Prague court of Rudolf II. Concerning Sustris, it might be the first publication to evaluate the comprehensive archive of Heinrich Geissler – a specialist on Christoph Schwarz as well as Sustris – at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.