The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I Pierre Terjanian, ed. (New York: Metropolitan Museum, 2019)
I asked for three things for Christmas – new work gloves, brown earrings, and this book. I’ve been interested in Maximilian von Habsburg for a while, and seeing the wonder exhibition of his art and books in the imperial library in Vienna this past summer just stoked the flames. This is the 500th anniversary of his life, and so the Met Museum in New York, in conjunction with the Prado, the Spanish Military Museum, the Kunsthistorischesmuseum in Vienna, and a few other places, had a very large show of his armor, art, and weapons. For those who don’t know, the Met has one of the largest collections of medieval and Renaissance armor in the world. This book is the catalogue of that exhibition.
The title comes from how a later German historian described Maximilian. He straddled the worlds of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, was a knight in the medieval sense, and a Renaissance prince, and shaped a lot of European history. His grandson, Charles I of Spain, V of the Holy Roman Empire, owned half of the planet, because of Grandfather’s alliances and marriages.
The book is an art book, meaning large with lots and lots of illustrations. It is a museum catalogue, after all, with essays about various topics, and pictures of the different things in the exhibition. A lot of it is about how Maximilian had himself represented, in books, armor, and official events. We forget that the medieval and Renaissance worlds were visual – the physical image of monarchs and princes meant a lot, and how they presented themselves shaped their political and social power. Thus much of the first third of the book is about image, imagination, and what we would think of as Maximilian’s PR efforts.
Maximilian never had as much money as he needed for his plans, so you will read a lot about how he had trouble paying for things, or got dunned by his artists and armorers. Back in those days, governments tried not to run a deficit.
The photos are excellent, as is the technical information. The authors assume that if you bought the book 1) you have a basic knowledge of medieval warfare and jousting, and 2) you are interested in technical terms and details. There is a glossary, but it helps if you know some armor vocabulary (sallet, sabaton, paudron, things like that.) Otherwise you can figure out most of what is being described.
The book is not entirely armor, but mostly. Other chapters include woodcuts and engravings of Max in armor, descriptions of his religious-military associations, his background, and his grand dreams. You might want a magnifying glass for some things, if you are that interested in symbolism or the details of the armor. It is all beautiful as well as practical, and by the time you are half-way through the book, your admiration for the men who could imagine, engineer, and make that sort of thing in metal will grow. A lot of the armor came from Augsburg, with some from Nuremberg and Italy, a few pieces from Austria, and some from Burgundy. Maximilian had no qualms about mixing and matching different styles of armor, depending on what he was doing and how technology developed. He helped design some of the armor himself, and was about as hands-on as a monarch could be.
I don’t know if there is an e-book edition. If there is, you will need a larger e-reader or tablet, because of the illustrations.
The down side of this book is that it is very specialized, and it is very heavy. It is a lap-full. It’s not quite a coffee table book, but close.
I enjoyed it greatly, and will go back to it on a regular basis because of personal interest and because of teaching about Maximilian. The Met does have a smaller, paperback with fewer pictures that is sort of a “greatest hits” from the exhibition, if you just want to see a little of Maximilian’s world.
FTC notice: I was given this book as a gift and received no remuneration from the publisher or editor for this review.