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The Last Descendant of Aeneas.

Scholars have long noted that the Habsburg rulers of early modern Europe developed complex and sophisticated iconographic schemes to celebrate the illustrious heritage of their family. Marie Tanner embarks on a close examination of the symbols of empire employed by the Habsburgs and their imperial predecessors. Her story begins with Augustus Caesar as she chronicles the tradition of dynastic mythmaking through Byzantium, the Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne, the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance culminating with the Spanish king Philip II. Tanner explores a wide range of literary and art historical sources to chart the fascinating process by which pagan symbols of classical antiquity were adopted and Christianized by successive generations of European monarchs.

Tanner claims that it was Vergil who fashioned the initial myth of empire for Rome. By conflating the legends of Aeneas and the Argonauts, he helped create a stockpile of images which could be used to bolster the authority and prestige of the Roman Empire. The Latin poet Prudentius (348-405 A.D.) revised Vergil and infused these pagan symbols with a new Christian meaning. The rulers of Byzantium followed his lead and soon employed an iconography which merged secular and sacred themes. In the West, Clovis and then Charlemagne revived the legacy of Rome and touted their then Charlemagne revived the legacy of Rome and touted their imperial pretensions in the art of the church and literature of the court.

Moving through the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, Tanner investigates two intriguing aspects of imperial propaganda. Court genealogists sought to elucidate the connection between the early Caesars of Rome and the medieval rulers of Western Christendom. The most dramatic expression of these fabrications was the Ehrenpforte of Emperor Maximilian I (1493-1519), a stunning visualization of the dynastic continuity between the sovereigns of antiquity and those of the sixteenth century. A prophetic tradition also played an important part in the development of imperial mystique. Apocalyptic prophecies and astrological calculations were effectively manipulated to champion the divine mission of the Habsburg house.

Tanner concludes her study with a detailed analysis of Emperor Maximilian's great grandson, Philip II of Spain. Philip's iconographic arsenal included the Order of the Golden Fleece, a chivalric honor which recycled the myth of the Argonauts. The clearest expression of the Spanish amalgam of spiritual and secular authority was the Escorial, an imposing palace/monastery complex commemorating a decisive victory over the French in 1557. Planned in part as a replica of the temple of Solomon, the Escorial spoke to Philip's claims as Christian Europe's true leader. Indeed, the Habsburg cult of the Eucharist and veneration of the cross helped cement the concept of sacred kingship which Philip trumpeted across the continent.

Tanner's project to chart the development of imperial iconography from antiquity to the sixteenth century is an ambitious undertaking. For this enterprise she has gathered an impressive collection of illustrations that chronicle the transformation of the images of empire. To cover 1500 years in such cursory fashion, however, is a venture fraught with peril. Patristic scholars, Byzantinists and medievalists will all have their small quibbles. The strongest portion of the book is certainly the close analysis of Philip II, but even here her arguments are vitiated by an occasional exaggeration and a critical lack of contrast. It was the Austrian Habsburgs and not Philip who retained the imperial title. Recent scholarship has highlighted their apologists who cast the image of empire in a somewhat different fashion. The distinctives of the Spanish celebration of imperial heritage could also have been highlighted in contrast to the rival ideologies of the Tudor and Valois. Nevertheless, Tanner's important study opens up new vistas for the scholar tracking the power of myth and image in early modern Europe.

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Author:Louthan, Howard
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1995
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