Scrolling the Emperor’s Life and Triumph

Eva Michel

It is scarcely possible to overestimate the historical significance of Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg. Born in 1459 to Emperor Frederick III and his wife, Eleonore of Portugal, in 1486 Maximilian was elected King of the Romans and seven years later, upon the death of his father, he inherited the vast Holy Roman Empire. Never succeeding in having his emperorship formally confirmed by papal coronation in Rome, he proclaimed himself Emperor in 1508 and oversaw a significant expansion of the Habsburg empire to the Netherlands and to Spain, as well as to Bohemia and Hungary. This was less through war than his own marriage to Mary of Burgundy in 1477, and the skillful arranging of his children’s and grandchildren’s marriages, later giving rise to the motto: ʻBella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nubeʼ (Let others wage war, but thou, O happy Austria, marry). Maximilian’s grandson, Charles V, would expand the Holy Roman Empire even further to include territories in South America, ruling an empire over which ʻthe sun never setʼ. When Maximilian died in 1519, the Habsburgs had become one of the greatest powers in Europe, a dynasty that lasted until the end of First World War in 1918.[1]

Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a dynastically esteemed figure, Maximilian was a master of self-staging; despite his notorious shortage of money, he continuously invested in his eternal memory, his gedechtnus.[2] A concern for posterity dominated Maximilian’s thinking, as expressed in his unfinished autobiographical work Weisskunig (White King), conceived around 151416.[3] Maximilian writes:

He who fails to create his gedechtnus during his lifetime will have none after his death
and will be forgotten with the tolling of the last bell. Therefore the money that I spend
on my gedechtnus will not be lost.[4]

All investments that served the perpetuation of Maximilian’s memory were thus justifiable: he was no purely philanthropic patron of the arts, rather commissioned works that pursued these genealogical, heraldic, and historiographical goals, aimed above all at establishing the remembrance of his person and his family for the future. To this end, he commissioned work from the best artists of his day, led by none other than Albrecht Dürer, whose well-known portrait of Maximilian is preserved today in the Albertina Museum, Vienna (fig. 5.1).

Black chalk, pastels, white chalk highlights artwork
Fig. 5.1 Albrecht Dürer, Emperor Maximilian I (1518). Black chalk, pastels, white chalk highlights, 38.1 x 31.9 cm. Albertina, Vienna, Inv. 4852. Photo: © The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

The imaginary Triumphal Procession—substantially reproduced in scrollable digital form here for the first time—is also one of the largest and most important of Maximilian’s commissions. Two versions of this work were created: one a woodcut, intended for broad distribution, and the other an earlier luxury manuscript edition on parchment, made for Maximilian’s personal possession. Both were executed by the German artist Albrecht Altdorfer and his workshop between 1512–15.

The subject of the Triumph draws upon classical Roman models made to mark ceremonial entries of victorious Roman generals, and in the fifteenth century this tradition was popularized via humanist literary descriptions and its adaptation during the Italian Renaissance.[5] Perhaps the best known of these Italian works, and certainly that most often associated with the revival of classical triumphal processions, is the Triumph of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna (1484–1495), now in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court Palace. This series of nine monumental paintings on canvas probably served either as wall decorations for a great hall in the city of Mantua or as transportable decorations for celebrations, and they were widely distributed in the form of painted and drawn copiesengravings, and woodcuts. The significance of Mantegna’s work as a model for Maximillian’s Triumphal Procession miniatures must not be overestimated, however. Early commentators on the Procession posited that prints after Mantegna’s paintings were in the collection of Albrecht Altdorfer, or that Maximilian himself saw the paintings on canvas during a visit to Mantua. But by 1512 the Emperor had assembled enough humanists with sufficient knowledge of classical writings to design their own triumphal scenarios, and it seems more likely that Maximilian’s advisor Johannes Stabius came to the concept independently, drawing on the classicising writings of Flavio Biondo or Roberto Valturio.[6] After all, whereas Mantegna aimed for the highest possible degree of historical accuracy in his recreation of the classical ritual victory celebration, Altdorfer’s miniatures were instead highly original in their reimagining of the classical scene. No procession in the model of Maximilian’s Triumph ever actually took place: rather it is an idealised vision that offers a fantastical review of the most important persons in Maximilian’s life, intended to serve not the classical past but his eternal memory and to promote the House of Habsburg.

Fig. 5.2 Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, Triumphal Procession for Emperor Maximilian I, c.1512–1515. Pen drawing with watercolour and gouache, gold heightening, on parchment, 45.8 x 260 cm. Albertina, Vienna.Photo: © The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

Although an imagined scene, Maximilian’s painted procession is a substantial physical object. Rendered in gouache on parchment, it once comprised 109 large-format sheets with a total length of more than one hundred metres. The first half of the procession is now lost, only documented by two copies from the early seventeenth century which reveal that the cycle was at least until then accessible and fully preserved.[7] The entire second part of the Procession has survived in the Albertina, and was presented as a pictorial frieze of fifty-four metres on the occasion of the exhibition ʻEmperor Maximilian and the Age of Dürerʼ in 2012.

The pageant is headed by a Herald mounted on a griffin, and followed by figures of courtly life: musicians, hunters on decorated carriages, and tournament knights. The lost first part was dedicated to courtly pastimes, whilst the second is dedicated to Maximilian’s wars and important historical events, with battle scenes represented by groups of foot soldiers, contemporary lansquenets, and knights (fig. 5.3). The triumph also includes a detailed depiction of Maximilian’s famous artillery, especially contemporary cannon designs (fig. 5.4), and it ends with the picturesque ‘baggage section’ set within a rolling landscape (fig. 5.5). The emperor himself is shown together with his family in a richly decorated carriage (fig. 5.6), further emphasising his personalised claim to the painting’s renewed visual legacy of imperial Rome and its important part in aggrandising and legitimising his own rule.

Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, The Bavarian War and riding standard bearers, Triumphal Procession for Emperor Maximilian I
Fig. 5.3 Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, The Bavarian War and riding standard bearers, Triumphal Procession for Emperor Maximilian I (c. 1512–1515). Pen drawing with watercolour and gouache, gold heightening, on parchment, 45 x 92 cm. Albertina, Vienna, Inv. 25221. Photo: © The Albertina Museum, Vienna.
Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, Maximilian’s famous artillery, Triumphal Procession for Emperor Maximilian I
Fig. 5.4 Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, Maximilian’s famous artillery, Triumphal Procession for Emperor Maximilian I (c. 1512–1515). Pen drawing with watercolour and gouache, gold heightening, on parchment, 45.8 x 260 cm. Albertina, Vienna, Inv. 25230. Photo: © The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

The impressive original length of the Triumphal Procession raises significant questions over its original presentation and storage. Although remaining copies prove that the work must have been preserved in its entirety until at least the early seventeenth century, documentary evidence concerning the function of the original is completely lacking. We may never be able to answer whether the Triumphal Procession was ever displayed in public, nor the manner in which it was presented, however it is evident that in its original form the Triumphal Procession was meant to be read as a continuous sequence, both spatially (along the scroll’s physical length) and temporally (from the procession’s start to its finish). One possibility is that it served as mural decoration for a large hall. At least one other imperial commission was intended to function in this way as wall decoration: theTriumphal Arch,a gigantic woodcut with 195 printing blocks on thirty-six folio sheets. This richly decorated print, conceived in 1515 but printed only in 1517/18, similarly compiles and reimagines classical originals for the sake of Maximilian’s eternal memory, including an illustrious family tree, countless precursors in office since Julius Caesar, coats of arms of the territories that the House of Habsburg owned or claimed, and depictions of Maximilian’s heroic deeds and excellent character qualities.[8] Dürer’s lost wall painting of the Great Triumphal Chariot in Nuremberg Town Hall from 1521 was another aggrandising mural that enjoyed similarly great favour with the Emperor, subsequently reproduced by Dürer himself as a monumental woodcut in 1522 and appearing in seven further editions up until 1600.[9] It does, however, seem unlikely there would have been a room with sufficient wall space to accommodate the one-hundred-metre-long Triumphal Procession, even if presented in multiple short rows. Whilst the Arch and the Chariot present possible parallels in terms of horizontal format, as do architectural details like decorated friezes, the paintings of Maximilian’s Triumph do not match them in scale or decoration. The parchment’s extensive ornamentation in gold ink and numerous small inscriptions would make little sense viewed in this context. Indeed, why would Maximilian’s deeds have been painted onto such an exquisite and comparatively fragile material only then to be displayed on a wall like a tapestry? The parchment itself appears to be well preserved, which seems unlikely if hung for a long period, and does not bear any holes or tears caused by possible fixing to the wall.[10]


Albrecht Altdorfer, The baggage section, Triumphal Procession for Emperor Maximilian I
Fig. 5.5 Albrecht Altdorfer, The baggage section, Triumphal Procession for Emperor Maximilian I (c. 1512–1515). Pen drawing with watercolour and gouache on parchment, 45 x 93 cm. Albertina, Vienna, Inv. 25261.Photo: © The Albertina Museum, Vienna.
Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, The Emperor‘s Carriage, Triumphal Procession for Emperor Maximilian I
Fig. 5.6 Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, The Emperor‘s Carriage, Triumphal Procession for Emperor Maximilian I (c. 1512–1515). Pen drawing with watercolour and gouache, gold heightening, on parchment, 45 x 94 cm. Albertina, Vienna, Inv. 25246. Photo: © The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

Looking closely at the Triumphal Procession reveals several other material traces which suggest something of its function. Before its public presentation in 2012, the scroll was carefully conserved and restored by the Albertina’s conservation department.[11] During this work, curators noticed all parchment pieces displayed diagonal folds and evidence of rubbing on the surfaces, both of which seem to have been caused by the rolling up of the complete scroll. Was the object rolled to simply facilitate transportation and storage? For an Emperor who was constantly on the move this must surely have been an important criterion, and the practice of rolling large prints for storage was known at the time, for instance in the contemporary collection of Ferdinand Columbus who owned large religious compositions that were pinned to walls as temporary decoration.[12] Or did the rolling and unrolling of the scroll play a more important part in its conceptual presentation? After all, the performative character of the procession is only truly unlocked when the viewer takes in its images in continuous sequence along its surface, either if one moves alongside it to simulate its narrative sequence, an effect not dissimilar to participating in the Triumphal Procession itself, or if the work itself moves.[13]

This participatory idea led Franz Winzinger to wonder whether the parchment strip was used rather like a Japanese emakimono, viewed manually with one hand unrolling and the other rolling up.[14] By the early sixteenth century the roll format had, as a bearer of text, long-since given way to the handwritten and printed codex, but the scroll as a medium nevertheless lived on in multiple formats.[15] Of particular relevance here is a parchment scroll nearly seven meters long known as the Tabula Peutingeriana, or Peutinger Table, a late medieval copy of an antique Roman road map known to be in the collections of one of Maximilian’s humanist consultants, Konrad Peutinger.[16] The scroll was an ideal format for an unfurling map of this sort, just as it was for a frieze-like composition like the Triumphal Procession, with its long sequence of scenes. Certainly, as a revival of the ancient rotulus, this hand-held presentation would have chimed with the classicising content of the scroll already discussed. As Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann asks, ʻwhat could be a more appropriate than to match the antiquizing content with the antiquizing format of a roll?ʼ.[17] Such a view was clearly shared by Maximilian’s great-grandson, Ferdinand II of Tyrol (1529–1595), who followed his example when ordering a similar painted dynastic pageant from the artist Sigmund Elsässer in 1580 on the occasion of the marriage of his nephew, Johann Kolowrat, albeit a scroll of much smaller size at only two metres long.[18]

An obvious problem remains with this theory of use: Maximilian’s Triumphal Procession is over one hundred metres and would have been extremely large and difficult to handle if rolled. It is possible the scroll might have been divided into several parts, or perhaps set in motion between two standing reels with only a limited pictorial section visible at any one time. Such an idea must remain open to speculation as there is no surviving scroll nor written documentation that attests to such a ʻcinematographicʼ display in the 1510s, although some later sixteenth-century examples do exist, such as the ʻLant’s Rollʼ, a ten-meter-long series of engravings published on the occasion of the funeral of the poet Sir Philip Sidney in London in 1587, rolled up onto two reels.[19] A much later example, a shifting back-cloth with painted views of the Danube region made in 1842 by Theodor Jachimovics for Franz Xaver Told’s play The Magic Veil, now preserved in the Theatre Museum in Vienna, is particularly instructive as to how well such presentation might have worked, with a winding crank handle instantly setting the entire scene into motion. The Triumphal Procession, too, could have impressively unfolded in this manner before the Emperor like an early modern ʻfilmʼ, although again we must remember that the excellent condition of the work and the lack of contemporary witness reports indicate that whatever its original presentation, it was not often displayed. The exquisiteness and sensitivity of the material, as well as the miniscule inscriptions, suggest the precious procession—in contrast to the later woodcut version—remained reserved only for the Emperor and a small group of selected viewers.[20]

Regardless of its realisation, the medium of the scroll opens up an array of possibilities for this monumental work. It goes hand in hand, or should that be ‘foot by foot’, with the moving participants of the Triumphal Procession, the scroll itself an active part of Maximillian’s pagentry and at once a celebration and mystification of the Emperor’s life, contributing to his legend. Out of concern for his eternal memory Maximilian commissioned this impressive and enigmatic work, a triumph over both death and time.

Eva Michel is the curator for Early Netherlandish, Dutch, and Flemish drawings and prints at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria. In the course of the exhibition “Emperor Maximilian I. and the Age of Dürer” (2012) she worked on the Triumphal Procession, which was also topic of several of her publications. She is the author of numerous exhibition catalogues and articles on German and Netherlandish drawings of the Renaissance, on twentieth-century Austrian art, and on the history of the collection of the Albertina.


[1] For more on Maximilian’s biography, see: Manfred Hollegger, Maximilian I (1459–1519). Herrscher und Mensch einer Zeitenwende (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2005).
[2] See my discussion of this idea in ‘For Praise and Eternal Memory: Albrecht Altdorfer’s Triumphal Procession for Emperor Maximilian Iʼ, in Eva Michel and Maria Luise Sternath (eds), Emperor Maximilian and the Age of Dürer, exhibition catalogue (Munich, London, and New York: Prestel, 2012), pp. 48–65; and the preface of the same catalogue by Eva Michel and Maria Luise Sternath, pp. 16–17.
[3] The Weisskunig was only published in 1775. See Christine Boßmeyer, Visuelle Geschichte in den Zeichnungen und Holzschnitten zum “Weißkunig” Kaiser Maximilians I., 2 vols. (Ostfildern: Thorbecke, 2015).
[4] ‘Wer in seinem Leben kain Gedächtnus macht, der hat nach seinem Tod kain Gedächtnus und desselben Menschen wird mit dem Glockenton vergessen, und darumb so wird das Gelt, so ich auf die Gedechtnus ausgib, nit verlorenʼ. Heinrich Theodor Musper (ed.), Kaiser Maximilians I. Weißkunig (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1956), vol. 1, chapter 24, pp. 225–226.
[5] Literary descriptions in classical prototypes, for example Appian or Plutarch, had already appeared in print, as had contemporary Italian Renaissance visions of related scenes such as Flavio Biondo’s Roma triumphans (1457/59) or Roberto Valturio’s De re militari (1460), both printed in 1472.
[6] The Schedelsche Weltchronik by Hartman Schedel (1493) also mentions a triumph to be prepared after Maximilian’s victory over Turks. On pageants in the sixteenth century, see the entry by Veronika Sandbichler in Wilfried Seipel (ed.), Wir sind Helden. Habsburgische Feste der Renaissance, exhibition catalogue (Wien: Kunsthistorisches Museum, 2005), p. 46.
[7] Attempts to establish the work’s provenance have revealed considerable gaps. The surviving parchments were acquired from the monastery of St. Florian in Upper Austria in the late nineteenth century, but it is unclear when or how these came into the collection of the monastery.
[8] A second edition was realised in 1526 under Maximilian’s grandson Archduke Ferdinand. A third edition was issued in 1559.
[9] Matthias Mende, Das alte Nürnberger Rathaus. Baugeschichte und Ausstattung des großen Saales und der Ratsstube (Nuremberg: Stadtgeschichtliche Museen, 1979). For a reconstruction of the paintings see ʻNürnbergs historischer Rathaussaal’,, accessed 16 November 2016.
[10] Intriguingly, some parts of the scroll were translated into a monumental mural shortly after its completion in a gallery, on top of the arcade surrounding the Ladies’ Courtyard of Jakob Fugger’s House in Augsburg. This decorated frieze showed various battles and historical scenes from the Triumphal Procession. See the reconstruction drawings by Julius Groeschel, ʻDie ersten Renaissancebauten in Deutschlandʼ, Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaften 11 (1888): 240–55, figs 1 and 2. Unfortunately the wall-paintings were lost 1761. The owner of the house, Jakob Fugger, financed many of Maximillian’s campaigns and must have been familiar with the project of the Triumphal Procession.
[11] Elisabeth Thobois, ʻConservation Treatment of the Triumphal Procession Miniatures by Albrecht Altdorfer and his Workshopʼ, in Michel and Sternath, Maximilian, pp. 66–79. All parchment pieces were cleaned of surface dirt and mounted.
[12] See Mark P. McDonald, Ferdinand Columbus. Renaissance Collector (1488–1539) (London, British Museum Press, 2005), pp. 29–31, 55.
[13] See Hans Rudolf Velten, ʻTriumphzug und Ehrenpforte im Werk Kaiser Maximilians I. Intermediale Konstellationen zwischen Aufführung und “gedechtnus”ʼ, in Katja Gvozdeva and Hans Rudolf Velten (eds.), Medialität der Prozession. Performanz ritueller Bewegung in Texten und Bildern der Vormoderne/Médialité de la procession. Performance du mouvement rituel en textes et en images à l’époque pré-moderne (Heidelberg, Universitätsverlag Winter GmbH, 2011), pp. 247–69 ; Jan-Dirk Müller, Gedechtnus. Literatur und Hofgesellschaft um Maximilian I. (Munich, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1982), p. 272.
[14] Franz Winzinger, Die Miniaturen zum Triumphzug Kaiser Maximilians I (facsimile) (Graz and Vienna, Akademische Druck- u. Verlag-Anstalt, 1972/73), p. 39. For more on emakimono, see Kristopher Kersey
[15] See Stacy Boldrick and Katherine Hindley in chapters 6 and 9 of this book.
[16] Peutinger acquired it from Conrad Celtis in 1507. See R.W.B. Salway, ‘The Nature and Genesis of the Peutinger Map’, Imago Mundi 57 (2005): pp. 119–135; Tabula Peutingeriana. Codex Vindobonensis 324, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (facsimile), comments by Ekkehard Weber (Graz, Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1976).
[17] Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, ʻHand-Colored Prints and ‟Pseudo-manuscriptsˮ: the curious case of Codex 7906 of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Wienʼ, in Codices manuscripti, 2, 1976, pp. 26–31, p. 30. For more on ʻrolledʼ pageants of the sixteenth century, see Wilfried Seipel (ed.), Wir sind Helden. Habsburgische Feste der Renaissance, exhibition catalogue (Vienna, KHM-Museumsverband 2005, p. 46). See also Christopher S. Wood, ʻMaximilian I. as Archaeologistʼ, Renaissance Quarterly, 58:4 (2005): pp. 1128–1174.
[18] Veronika Sandbichler, ʻDer Hochzeitskodex Erzherzog Ferdinands II.: eine Bildreportageʼ, in Sabine Haag (ed.), Die Hochzeit Erzherzog Ferdinands II. Eine Bildreportage des 16. Jahrhunderts, exhibition catalogue (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, 2010), pp. 31–89, esp. pp. 32–3.
[19] Sander Bos, Marianne Lange-Meyers, Jeanine Six, ʻSidney’s Funeral portrayedʼ, in Jan van Dorsten, Dominic Baker-Smith, Arthur F. Kinney (eds.), Sir Philip Sidney 1586 and the Creation of a Legend (Leiden, E. J. Brill, Leiden University Press, 1986) pp. 38–61.
[20] On the connections between the Triumph and the obsequies, see Thomas Schauerte, Die Ehrenpforte für Maximilian I. Dürer und Altdorfer im Dienst des Herrschers. Kunstwissenschaftliche Studien 95 (Berlin and Munich, Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2001), pp. 58–64.

DOI: 10.33999/2019.07