Published: October 15, 2019
By James Balestrieri
NEW YORK CITY – The Duchies of Burgundy and the Low Countries. The Kingdom of Bohemia. The Republic of Venice. Brabant. Flanders. The Holy Roman Empire. Names of places absorbed into history and geography classes, the lines that defined them erased from maps, they are as far from us as the world of armored knights, tapestried courts, chivalry and jousts, shifting alliances and expedient betrayals that sustained them for centuries. But that world, the world of the knights, maintains its grip on our imaginations. “The Last Knight: The Art, Armor and Ambition of Maximilian I,” now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggests that rulers like Maximilian labored long and hard to ensure that their legacies – and legends – would live on after them, reverberating down the centuries. The mirror gleam of their armor, symbol of power and prestige in their lifetimes, survives as a looking glass that takes us back to their world – as it was, and as they wanted us to see it.
I still have my Britains Ltd knights. Toy soldiers to most; military miniatures to the serious. No, sadly, they’re not mint in the box. They are veterans of many campaigns, sieges, tournaments. My kids played with them – and others, new ones, that came at Christmas and on birthdays. I made them a giant castle out of the styrofoam inserts that act as armor for computers, lamps and dishes when they’re shipped. They introduced dragons – naturally – dinosaurs and pirates into the worlds they created, swaddling the knights in the impossibilities that are the very stuff of thousands of books and films. How many times, heading to the Met, did I bribe them – so they would suffer through exhibitions I dragged them there to see – with the promise to end the day in the Arms and Armor wing?
Maximilian certainly played with toy knights and gave them as gifts. Two can be found in the background of a woodcut by Hans Burgkmair in an unpublished 1515 epic titled the Weisskunig (The White King), commissioned and overseen by Maximilian. “Intended to be an autobiography,” the catalog states. “it [the Weisskunig] fictionalizes the characters and takes on the nature of an allegory. The various kings, for example, are designated by colors, based on their heraldry. The White, or “Wise,” King (the pun is close in German) represents Maximilian in a color that denotes purity; his father, Frederick III, is called the Old White King. His nemesis, the French monarch, is the Blue King; Hungary, the Green King; and Venice (in reality, a kingless republic), the Fish King.” In the Weisskunig, dynastic politics becomes a sophisticated board game, multidimensional chess presented in graphic novel form.
Several actual toy knights – rare survivors, perhaps commissioned for Maximilian’s grandsons, made of bronze – can be seen in the exhibition. “Each of these toys has a horse mounted onto a base plate with functioning spoked wheels and a rider riveted to a saddle allowing it to tilt backward when struck by an opponent’s lance.” From these early incarnations of “Rock Em, Sock Em Robots,” Maximilian extrapolated what came to be called Jousts of Peace, light armored contests with blunted lances and spring loaded shields he helped design. Alongside these, tournaments featured fierce, sometimes deadly Jousts of War, with and without tilts – the fences that separate contestants – as well as free tourneys and episodes of foot combat. Each had different rules and required different armor, weaponry and tactics. Toys imitate, prefigure and prepare the young for tournaments; tournaments imitate, prefigure and prepare young knights for war. Play and war. War and play.
Who was Maximilian? Born in Vienna in 1459 to Emperor Frederick III and Eleanor of Portugal, the Holy Roman Empire that had begun with Charlemagne in 800 had become a network of political islands, each with its own local rulers and laws, over which the emperor had little if any actual authority. Maximilian came into his title with no administrative experience and little money of his own. His isn’t quite a rags to riches story, but in terms of the world of the knights, it’s close. His father did make a good match for him, with Mary of Burgundy. Their marriage appears to have been much more than an expedient arrangement and her war chest got Maximilian off to a good start, expanding his brand and power right away. Fighting at the front of his knights; jousting and fighting in tournaments; designing armor, giving armor away, commissioning epic poems and manuals of arms starring thinly veiled versions of himself, Maximilian spent his reign attempting to make a picture out of the empire’s disparate puzzle pieces, pieces scattered from the north of Germany to Italy and from France to the Eastern edge of Eastern Europe.
The Last Knight. Just the romance of the sound of it makes you think it has to be some sort of fictional construct, a legend, a story passed down in a Game of Thrones game of telephone. And it is. Two examples will suffice. Maximilian recognized the genius of Albrecht Durer and enlisted him to design a monumental arch that would become a print composed of 36 folio-sized sheets requiring 195 different woodblocks. The print, a portable Arch of Constantine or Arc de Triomphe, stands 11 feet tall. Three portals – Honor and Power, Nobility and Praise – connect the emperor to Rome, to his ancestors and to his allies. His own deeds weave through the complex, emblematic iconography, rising to a mysterium, in which “hieroglyphic animals that surround Maximilian form a rebus that express the ideas communicated throughout the work regarding the emperor’s ancient lineage, courage, power and desire for lasting fame.” Then, consider the painted sandstone reliefs that adorned the Golden Roof, an ornate loggia overlooking a square in Innsbruck, Austria, where Maximilian and his family could observe tournaments, pageants and ceremonies in the square below. In these reliefs, among the coats of arms and contorted dancers, Maximilian himself appears, with Mary of Burgundy, who passed away in 1482, and with his second wife, Bianca Maria Sforza, who became his wife in 1494. Like Mary, she brought a sizable dowry and furthered Maximilian’s aims in Italy. Like Mary, Maximilian seems genuinely to have cared for her. But in the reliefs, they appear as if they are there, watching some spectacle below. Maximilian asserts his presence even when he is not physically there.
Evolution selected human beings to have no armor, no shell nor carapace nor exoskeleton; we are not lobsters, tortoises, beetles or ankylosaurs. We are made to be quick and light. Early on, though, once we learned to smelt and shape metal, we fashioned it for offense and defense. We made projectile points and swords, but also metal shields and suits. We made metal suit us – and then adorned it.
There are many orders of armor, and Maximilian made sure his were in perfect order. There are armors of reputation, of lineage, of respect for one’s elders, of love for one’s family, of deference, generosity, friendship, bravery, leadership: Maximilian seems to have possessed all of these, in spades. Because of him, Hapsburg blood ran through Spain, Italy, France, England, Russia and all of Eastern Europe and the Low Countries for centuries. As the Holy Roman Empire shifted and transformed into what became the Austro-Hungarian Empire – whose final ruin and dissolution would come after defeat in World War I – the Hapsburg line ruled. Just as he had splendid suits of armor made for disparate roles, he also had himself painted on his deathbed as a wizened, mortal man who had given his all for God and had his body flayed to prove his humility and mortality, even as his divinity as a monarch lived on.
Perhaps the most honest object in the exhibition is the Sword of Maximilian. Despite the symbols that cover it, especially the “fire steels, flaming flints and the raguly crosses of Saint Andrew, all of which are badges of the Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece,” a society of monarchs and nobles that Maximilian revived, led and sought to fashion into a Sixteenth Century version of NATO, this sword’s “deep cuts and nicks on the edges of the guard that face the point of the blade prove that the weapon saw active service in combat… Although the majority of his surviving armors were designed for tournaments, this sword is among the few extant battle swords known to have belonged to him.”
H.G. Wells was a toy soldier enthusiast who devised games and wrote two books on carpet battles. A committed pacifist, he saw no contradiction between his beliefs and his love of toy soldiers. Written just as World War I – the Great War – was grinding men in trenches and bringing the Hapsburg line to its end, Wells wrote in a book called Little Wars: “You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be. Great War is at present, I am convinced, not only the most expensive game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion. Not only are the masses of men and material and suffering and inconvenience too monstrously big for reason, but – the available heads we have for it, are too small. That, I think, is the most pacific realisation conceivable, and Little War brings you to it as nothing else but Great War can do.”
Here’s the point. All mythmaking aside, Maximilian seems to have gone to great lengths to avoid war whenever he could. Not only did he know defeat, he knew that – win or lose – war exacted a heavy toll. Perhaps the toys and tournaments helped him see this and negotiate wherever he could while projecting an image of invincibility. Hard to say, but worth thinking about.
In my house, we’ve played them all: Stratego, Axis and Allies, Dragonwood – a new game – and sturdy old Battleship. Once in awhile the knights and castle come out – or perhaps the armies of the American Revolution, or the Napoleonic Era. We roll dice sometimes, following rules or making them up, knocking the poor chaps over before removing them from play. But sometimes we just spend the afternoon setting everything up: terrain, buildings, hills, forests, regiments of cavalry and infantry and just leave it and look at it, taking in the diorama suspended there on the dining room table or floor in our moment of creativity. I can imagine Maximilian surveying the field in the still silence before the armies began to clash. It’s the same feeling I get looking at a suit of empty armor on a museum mannequin, imagining who made it, who wore it – and why – a suit that I am happy to find empty, devoid of its sanguine utility, transformed by time from war into art.
The exhibition will continue through January 5, 2020 at the Met Fifth Avenue, located at 1000 5th Avenue. For more information, www.metmuseum.org or 212-535-7710.
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