Larry Silver’s new book delights even before the reader opens it. Exactly the right size, slender but heavy, it is wrapped in a dust jacket designed by Tracy Baldwin to play cleverly with a 1519 woodcut of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I by Albrecht Dürer. Printed in black on dark, greenish beige, Dürer’s Maximilian looks toward the right edge of the volume, pointing his prominent nose toward the very spot where the reader will grasp the book to open it. White letters like the highlights of a chiaroscuro woodcut replace the original print’s pseudo-Roman inscription, speaking the plain language of the twenty-first century, when Imperator Caesar Divus Maximilianus Pius Felix Augustus, dead almost 500 years, has become the man who marketed himself. The recycled portrait by Dürer on the jacket demonstrates just how marketable Maximilian was. Based on a drawing made when Maximilian had little more than six months to live, the woodcut was the mass-market version of painted portraits. All of these likenesses by the celebrated Nuremberg master were commemorative works. As Silver pointed out in an earlier meditation on his subject, the print in particular breathes the emperor’s spirit. Maximilian would have appreciated, not simply the proof that his gedechtnus (memory) was secure, but also that someone was enterprising enough to sell it to quite a large audience.
Unlike the serene Maximilian that Dürer sold, Larry Silver’s Maximilian is a busy C.E.O. Silver draws this Maximilian in clear lines at the beginning of the book, after referring briefly, but explicitly and with conscious anachronism, to the Sun King and to the Great Communicator. The absolute rule of Louis XIV surpassed anything Maximilian could have dreamed of, and Ronald Reagan was elected far more freely than any Holy Roman emperor. The unassailable power that both later men held would have made Maximilian’s life easier as he ruled over a large stretch of Europe and dealt at varying times with a gathering Ottoman storm in the east, an entirely too militarily inclined pope, and recalcitrant subjects, all the while negotiating numerous strategic marriages for several generations of his family. And yet, precisely because of the peculiar nature of his position, Maximilian needed to head up something like the advertising-cum-construction firm that Silver describes.
What the firm constructed is clear: the image of the emperor, and Silver’s succeeding chapters investigate the themes that the image encompassed. Among them were Maximilian’s lineage, imaginatively projected into the darkest depths of time; the emperor’s profound Christian faith and military prowess; and his princely pastimes. Silver structures the presentation of these themes so that the reader understands how closely they are tied to each other. An image of a ruler, because it is, after all, a projection of a real person, possesses multiple facets. As a marketing project, the success of a constructed image may be judged by its imitations and adaptations, which Silver discusses in his conclusion.
It was not simply in the metaphorical sense that Maximilian’s image was created. Some of the constructions were his famous print projects, like the Arch of Honor, and the sculptures planned for the emperor’s gigantic, elaborate tomb. As Silver’s useful appendix to his first chapter makes clear, either visually or thematically linked to those programs were text constructions assigned to humanist authors and to calligraphers; in branding, even the look of letters is important. Especially the authors were upper-level managers in Maximilian’s firm, one that literally sprawled across the German-speaking landscape, because he ruled over such loosely defined territory that he did not have one, permanent headquarters, but many branch offices. His managers designed, organized, hired, demoted, fired, and subcontracted work, always under the watchful eye of their boss. It was a very watchful eye, indeed. Despite the other distractions of rule, Maximilian took time to scribble corrections in margins and even to fire off angry memos to contractors who, thinking they knew better what was needed, had overstepped their limits.
This Maximilian could almost be a character in some postmodern film, were it not for the powerful evidence that Silver marshals. Some of this is in Maximilian’s own, dictated words, to which Silver plainly enjoys lending his voice. For instance, he translates from Weisskunig, a key text still too little known in English, “‘Whichever king puts his trust in one person and allows him dealings with his beautiful speech, then he will reign and not the king.’ [The young White King] let no letter go out, on great or small matters, before he relinquished the letter he subscribed all letters with his own hand” (pp. 31-32). So much for the temptations of delegating to secretaries; Maximilian had difficulty delegating to anyone. Directly across from the quotation in Silver’s book is the woodcut by Hans Burgkmair in which Maximilian supervises a court painter. He stands behind the man, pointing his right hand at him, probably giving advice on how to depict the halberd the artist is adding to a sheet already filled with studies of weaponry and animals. Those include a little lion that gazes comically out at the viewer, so that one wonders if the humor of the print is involuntary. If an artist ever dropped his brush in the presence of this emperor, would Maximilian only have picked it up to use himself?
Silver has been asking and answering more important questions about Maximilian for many years, and his affection for and deep study of his subject are manifest in this book. His reading is vast and goes well beyond the borders of biography and art history. The consequently re-envisioned emperor is one gift Silver has handed to us with Marketing Maximilian. The other, greater gift is that, between the covers of this single volume, a wholly new, international audience receives access to Maximilian and the huge body of German-language literature on him. Maximilian’s gedechtnus is still alive and now available to numbers that would make Dürer sick with envy. The emperor would be well pleased.
University of North Alabama