No other illustrated book from the German Renaissance has been more deeply studied, or bears the same weight of fame, than the enigmatic and controversial Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I's hero's journey, the magnificent Theuerdank. We can add nothing to the steep corpus of scholarship, but we can synopsize it, and add a few remarks about our copy, an odd variant of the second printing of the second edition, which was once owned by the Queen of Spain, Mary Amalia of Saxony. Maximilian I's self-styled "hero book" recounts the adventures of its protagonist, Theuerdank, on his harrowing journey to meet his betrothed, Princess Ehrenreich. Theuerdank is of course the personification of Maximilian, and the princess represents Mary of Burgundy, whom Maximilan wed at age 18 in 1477 in one of the most significant and powerful of all diplomatic marriages in early modern Europe. The story is told in rhyming couplets, and each of the 118 verses (or chapters) is illustrated with a narrative woodcut specifically designed for the scene. The arresting typeface, based on a German chancery hand, was designed for this book and took years to develop; it is a triumph of holistic typographic harmony, and launched the enduring Fraktur tradition. Theuerdank was certainly based on Maximilian's adventures, and he may have written the story, but it was formally rendered into verse by Melchior Pfintzing, provost of St. Alban's Abbey at Mainz, and Maximilian's chaplain and confessor. The first edition, a private printing, appeared in 1517 in a limitation of 300 copies, 40 of which were on vellum and given as gifts to friends, dignitaries, and members of the select collaboration of artists and craftspeople that contributed to the production of Theuerdank. The remaining 260 copies were stored away and eventually put on sale in 1526. The second edition—and the first official, public appearance—was in 1519, and bore corrections and emendations to the 1517 edition. (A second printing appeared the same year, with a few insignificant orthographic changes to the text—our book is an exemplar from this line.) The 1517 and 1519 editions together form the initial appearance of Theuerdank, which was reprinted in a smaller and more economical format in 1553, and in numerous editions of variable quality through the end of the 17th century. Maximilian was, by every contemporary, post-contemporary, and modern account, a polarizing and almost uncharacterizable figure. An art historian writing in the early twentieth century remarked that of the dozens of surviving images of Maximilian, in no two does he look like the same person. We know he was acquainted with emerging science and technology; that he was acquainted with the New World discoveries; that he loved the outdoors and was preoccupied with hunting and fishing. (At the same time he spearheaded early conservation efforts to limit overfishing and protections against certain species.) He was the personification of the bridge between the culture of late medieval and early modern Europe, with all that this entailed. Maximilian used the printing press to his personal and political advantage, and to secure a place in posterity. Theuerdank was his last, and greatest expression of this. The feature which distinguishes the book is the series of extraordinarily lively narrative woodcuts designed by the leading artists of the day, including Leonhard Beck, Hans Schäufelein, and Hans Burgkmair. Each cut illustrates a scenario in which Theuerdank overcomes an obstacle. Enormous lions, snarling bears, thundering avalanches, lightning strikes, spitting cannon, hostile armies. In Verse 67, Theuerdank even overcomes medical malpractice. Beset on all sides by adversaries, double agents, and the forces of nature, Theuerdank defeats more than 90 challenges to his authority and manhood, before finally reaching his true love Ehrenreich, who then sends him off to the Holy Land on a fresh crusade before she consents to marry him. The book concludes with an eight-page key to the characters (missing in many copies), which eager readers may consult if they lose track of who is supposed to be who. The 1519 edition was prefixed with a royal privilege to print granted to Hans Schoensperger, and a warning that anyone who tried to pirate any portion of the grand book would be prosecuted. Our copy of Theuerdank is an unusual variant. The standard edition has 290 leaves, one of which (P5) is an internal blank, usually missing, through present in some copies. It is also wanting in this copy (the stub is visible). But the book is also bound with two extra blank leaves, one after P8 and the other at end. They are not later additions—both are the same paper stock as the main text, and both bear faint offsetting from adjacent pages. No other copies known bear these extra blank leaves. Apart from the intrinsic majesty of any copy of an original edition, ours has a most extrordinary provenance: the covers bear the supralibros cipher of Maria Amalia of Saxony, the Queen of Naples and Sicily until 1759, then Queen of Spain until her death in 1760, and one of the most powerful women in Europe for half of the 36 years she was alive. Very few books from her library are known—a handful in the Polish National Library, and a French almanac in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Our is the first that we know of to have reached the trade. Withal a fine copy with exceptional provenance of the foundational illustrated book of the German Renaissance.
Full title: Die geuerlicheiten und eins teils | der geſchichten des lobliche[n] ſtreit- | baren und hochberumbten Helds | und Ritters Tewrdannckhs. [Colophon Aa8v]: Gedruckt in der Kayſerlichen | Stat Augſpurg durch | den Eltern Hanſen | Schoenſperger | im Jar Tau- | ſent fünffhun | dert und im |Neüntze | nden.
Augsburg: Hans Schoensperger, 1519.
Folio, 344 x 243 x 64 mm (binding), 340 x 240 x 58 mm (text block); a-c8 d6 e-h8 i6 k-n8 o6 p-q8 r6 s-t8 v6 x-y8 z6 A-B8 C6 D-E8 F6 G-H8 I6 K-L8 M6 N8 O6 P8 π1 A8 χi1 (wanting P5, a blank, but with two extra blanks, π1and χ1); 291 [of 292] ff. Mid-eighteenth century German calf over thick ropeboard, Italian dominoté endpapers, green silk bookmarker, A.E.G. Slight wear and scuffing to extremities, upper joint a bit rubbed. Interior: Scattered staining and finger-soiling; head margin trimmed, affecting swashes; a3 marginal closed tear, mended at an early date, same at n4, neither affecting text; some foxing to gatherings y and z; témoin at head fore-corner of s7, revealing that the binder trimmed approximately 3 mm off the head margin and 4 mm off the fore margin before gilding the edges. A very good copy on stout paper stock, never washed, and in a sturdy, functional binding.
Once in the library of Maria Amalia Christina Franziska Xaveria Flora Walburga (1724-1760), with her gilt cipher supralibros to both boards. Custodial inscription to head margin of a2r: In usum Monasterij S. Pauli 1683.
VD16 M1651; Brunet IV cols 767-8; Fairfax Murray German 330; Müller, Jan-Dirk & Ziegeler, Hans-Joachim (eds.), Tennant, Elaine C. "Productive Reception: Theuerdank in the Sixteenth Century," Maximilians Ruhmeswerk: Künste und Wissenschaften im Umkreis Kaiser Maximilians I, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter 2015, pp. 295-348; Muther, Richard, German Book Illustration of the Gothic Period and the Early Renaissance (1460-1530), Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1972; Benecke, Gerhard, Maximilian I (1459-1519): An Analytical Biography, London: Routledge, 2019, intro & passim; Wright, Edith, "The Teuerdank of Emperor Maximilian," BPL Quarterly Vol X, 1958, pp. 131-140; Louthan, Howard (intro.), Green, Jonathan (tr.), Theuerdank, The Illustrated Epic of a Renaissance Knight, London: Routledge, 2022, pp. i-xxiii & passim.