Germania's Philological Birthplace
In the 15th century, it was probably not easy to regard the countless territories of varying size and constitution which belonged to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation until 1806 as representing a collective national German entity. Indeed, the earliest maps printed at the end of the 15th century did not indicate any territorial boundaries, unless they were defined by coastal areas or rivers. The often already blurred borderlines were also complicated by a complex, centuries-old network of ecclesiastical jurisdictions, which were the cause of on-going tensions between extremely varied interests.1
Other factors, however, also contributed to the highly heterogeneous and rather incomplete basis for the "Germania" narrative: the greatly lamented absence of substantial ancient sources for the Germans' early history;2 the supranational genealogical ties of the ruling European aristocratic families leading back to a shared mytho-biblical early period;3 the universal reference to Rome in all matters of faith over the centuries, before the Reformation; the positing of a "Kingdom of Italy" (Regnum Italicum) that was strongly supported by Maximilian I (1459–1519); and finally, and most particularly, the Italians' Barbaren-Verdikt (verdict of barbarism) with regard to Germany and its inhabitants.
The last three aspects already indicate what is confirmed upon closer inspection: Italy, the county of origin of humanism and the Renaissance, also played a central and varied role in the genesis of the "Model Germania". At first, this was simply due to the fact that the Italian universities of Bologna, Ferrara, Padua and Pavia were among the preferred educational institutions of the early German humanists, a group that can be said to exist since ca. 1450, and was directly involved in the development and dissemination of the "Model Germania".4 At the same time, Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405–1464)5– as Pius II (1458–1464) one of the most learned occupants of the papal throne – travelled in the opposite direction. After his earlier service to Emperor Frederick III (1415–1493), he put a spotlight on pre-medieval early German history, mostly with his edition of Germania, written by Publius Cornelius Tacitus (55–116/120) around 100 AD. Piccolomini's work was based on a manuscript transferred to Rome from Hersfeld Abbey and, although his judgement of the early Germans was not entirely positive, it finally provided useful material for addressing the emerging desire to establish the Germans' national and historical origins.6 After the first edition appeared in 1472 in Bologna, a popular university town among the Germans, Friedrich Kreußner (died 1496) printed the first German edition in Nuremberg, whose textual foundation was likely procured directly from Italy by one of the city's early humanists.
In any case, the historical impact of Germania is due in particular to the new edition conceived by the famous humanist Konrad Celtis (1459–1508). It was published in 1498/1502 in Vienna by Johann Winterburger (1460–1519) as part of a more wide-ranging concept and embellished with Celtis' programmatic poems Germania Generalis and De origine, situ, moribus et institutis Norimbergae libellus.7 To some extent, the ancient text still reads today like a tremendously prescient anticipation – and probably also the foundation – of positive and negative stereotypes concerning a German "national character", whose reception history stretches well into the 20th century. In the land Tacitus considers inhospitable and barren, he also identifies virtues such as modesty, military bravery, bravado, a love of freedom, unconditional loyalty and sincerity, hospitality, a sense of family and monogamy. These positive qualities he contrasts with observations of laziness, carelessness, excessive celebration, an addiction to gaming, drunkenness, a rather primitive agriculture and lifestyle as well as an underdeveloped communal and cultural life.8 Tacitus thus clearly surpasses in clarity and depth the two other main ancient sources regarding "Germania", which were also present during the Middle Ages, but lacked the same pervasive impact. One of these is the so-called German digression of Gaius Iulius Caesar (100–44 BC) from De bello Gallico, written in 52/51 BC. Although this account is shorter than Tacitus' text, it reflects Caesar's personal experiences and has been available in German since 1507.9 The other source is the map of Magna Germania, which depicts the non-Roman part of "Germania" in a way that was regarded as authentically ancient. It was designed by the apparently German-born Donnus Nicolaus Germanus (ca. 1420–ca. 1490) to accompany his edition of Claudius Ptolemy's (ca. 100–ca. 178 AD) Cosmographia which was being printed since 1467.10
In the early 16th century, the above-mentioned texts by Tacitus and Caesar were read with a clearer understanding of certain key points. These included the stark distinction that Caesar made between Germans and Gauls, and the continuity that was seen to exist – well into the 20th century – between the Germani and the early modern Germans.11 This notion was supported by Tacitus' affirmative answer to the question about the nativeness of the Germans, who had purportedly inhabited their homeland from time immemorial and never been expelled from it. This, in turn, made it easy to make the claim that the Germans had also never been vanquished.12
Konrad Celtis: Between the "Barbaren-Verdikt" and "Pride Work"
The Italian intellectuals' disparaging views about the Germans' lack of culture, their obscure history, habitual crudeness and lack of education13 had already been given expression at the Council of Constance (1414–1418). These prejudices became a source of even greater displeasure14 to the members of the nationes Germanicae, the communities of German students at the Italian universities, culminating into bona fide political issue by around 1500. Konrad Celtis, the most prominent exponent of a now-flourishing German humanism, led the effort to do "pride work" (Stolzarbeit), i.e. to counter these anti-German biases.15 His influence was felt in particular by those "second generation" humanists from 1490 to 1530, who "construed the Italian verdict of barbarism as intentional defamation" and subsequently resorted to a textual "national defense".16
This approach had already been taken, without any obvious indignation, as early as 1493 with one of the most famous German incunabula ever published, the Liber chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle, better known as Schedelsche Weltchronik) by the Nuremberg physician and humanist Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514).17 Thus, while the long section on Venice is full of admiration for the international trade metropolis, Schedel also does not neglect to mention that the German city of Trier must be regarded as one of the world's oldest cities, founded after Jerusalem, Babel and Nineveh, but long before Rome.18 However, one still looks in vain for evidence of a "national" focus where it might otherwise be expected. The double-sided world map that Schedel supplies for his readers at the beginning merely designates Germany, without any special emphasis, as "Saxonia", synonymous with the at the time largest of the German tribes.
Only the map of Germany that Hieronymus Münzer (1437–1508) appends to the work, with recourse to the work of Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), offers greater clarity.19 Without explicitly mentioning the Italians' Barbaren-Verdikt, he seeks to refute it by presenting a simple yet ultimately unverifiable historical claim: The ennoblement of the Germans in their manners and customs was
... durch nichtz anders denn durch annemung cristenlichen glawbens beschehen. Dann der cristenlich glawb hat von den Teutschen alle barbarische grobheyt vertriben und die Teutschen also gehübscht das yetzo die kriechischen grob und die Teutschen billich lateinisch genent werden.20
Here, then, the process of cultural refinement is not attributed to the advance of spiritual knowledge or current educational reforms (and certainly not to their Italian origins). Instead, the Germans' refinement is ascribed to the mythical and distant process of Christianization and thus endowed with the splendour of an ancient origin.
Konrad Celtis subsequently took up this view by acquiring the help of the famous German artist and theorist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) from Nuremberg who designed the programmatic woodcut Philosophia for Celtis' Quatuor libri amorum (Vier Bücher Liebeselegien; Love Elegies in Four Books). The image condenses to the maximum this legendary and ideologically charged variety of knowledge transfer, which gained importance under the term of translatio studii.21 It is, moreover, one of the few examples in which the direct influence of a humanist on an elaborate illustrative invention can be verified by the sources. Among many other things, Dürer's sketch concisely describes in four medallions the historical path of the transmission of philosophical subject matter: from the ancient Egyptians, via Greeks and Romans to the Germans, who are represented by the famous polymath Albertus Magnus (ca. 1193–1280).22 Because of Magnus' knowledge of alchemy he was considered to be the inventor of gunpowder (another contender for that title was the legendary but fictitious Freiburg Franciscan Berthold Schwarz). Although neither in fact invented gunpowder, its supposed discovery was viewed – along with the invention of movable type printing by Johannes Gutenberg (ca. 1400–1468) in the ancient Roman city of Mainz – to be a revolutionary German contribution to the history of Western culture. This reflects not only political, but also technological linkages to the achievements of antiquity.23
These ideas were depicted also in another woodcut – again in greatly condensed form – which also came about due to a suggestion from Konrad Celtis. Hans Burgkmair's (ca. 1500–before 1562) "Imperial Eagle" woodcut portrays a national education programme under the patronage of the "new Apollo", Emperor Maximilian I.24 However, the picture is not explicitly tailored to portray "Germany" and its inhabitants in the narrow sense, but rather the emperor himself, his University of Vienna and the empire. The national aspect thus ultimately recedes behind a rather abstract notion of statehood.
It was also Celtis who went beyond any tangible sources with his project of a poetic description of Germany, which ran through his entire oeuvre like a leitmotif.25 His love elegies symbolically invoked this geographical entity and thus paved the way to a more elevated interpretation: According to Celtis, Germania consists of four parts, and right in the middle lies the mountain Fichtelberg, from which the four major rivers of Germany flow in all directions.26 By exalting elegiacally his fictitious lovers throughout the country, he also indirectly emotionalizes his relationship to the areas themselves. He pays homage to something that before seemed hardly praiseworthy: the "country" in which he was born, where he lived, where he often wandered and where he hoped to have a beneficial impact. If it is possible to identify something like the birth of a love of country – a love that exceeds the subjective, emotional and immediate "homeland" of one's birth and childhood – then it can probably be found in Celtis' Quatuor libri.
Maximilian I, the "Holy Roman Empire" and "Germania"
Unlike in Italy, where contents and forms of antiquity went hand in hand – especially in architecture and the visual arts – humanism and the reception of antiquity in Germany were more philological, as well as political, in nature. Whenever the Roman heyday under Caesar or Augustus (63 BC–14 AD) were allegorically evoked in the Holy Roman Empire, they served also as an allusion to the high expectations associated with the reign of Emperor Maximilian I. These concerned the awaited flourishing of the arts and sciences and the German-Roman emperor's primacy among all Christian rulers. During all of his life Maximilian was thus the preferred figure for representing the national and patriotic hopes of his immediate and wider intellectual environment. Already before 1500, a dedicatory broadsheet from the Regensburg humanist Janus Tolophus (1429–1503) portrayed him as "Hercules Germanicus".27
Like his erudite circle, the Emperor also had an extremely ambivalent relationship with Italy, which owed much to conflicting experiences. Despite many failures, he vehemently fought to exert his influence and the influence of his empire in Italy. Even if the so-called Regnum Italicum or "Kingdom of Italy" – that is, the part of Italy that was claimed by the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire – was a more pressing political issue in the High Middle Ages,28 it remained a focal point for Emperor Maximilian, particularly after his wedding to the daughter of the Milanese Duke, Bianca Maria Sforza (1472–1510), which took place in 1494. The claim on Italia, quae mea est ("my Italy") chiefly came to light in the struggle with the papacy and Venice concerning Maximilian's hoped-for coronation in Rome, a hope that was finally abandoned in 1508, and in the battles for the imperial fiefdom of Milan.29
It should be emphasized that Maximilian inextricably merged the interests of the House of Habsburg with those of the empire, often to the detriment of the latter. He by no means followed a recognizable, stringent ideology – certainly none that could be called national. Rather, the representation of his own superiority stemmed from the dignity of his office, established by Iulius Caesar, and – often closely interwoven with this – from the perceived primeval origin of the House of Habsburg. For this reason, he had his secretaries, poets and artists give his political, dynastic and military objectives the most expedient ideological lustre possible.30
A decisive impetus in this regard came from Alsace. A region where the emperor's dynastic interests were more or less aligned with those of the empire, Maximilian had reigned there since 1490 as "Landgrave of Alsace".31 Unlike the border territories of the Habsburg Netherlands, the Electorate of Bohemia or Switzerland, which had loose and increasingly weak relations with the empire, Alsace was an area that was presented as decidedly "reichisch" (belonging to the core territories of the empire) as a result of constant threats from Burgundian, and later French, claims. Alsace was also the "patria" of known historians and writers such as Jakob Wimpfeling (1450–1528) or Sebastian Brant (1457/1458–1521).32 Wimpfeling is worth highlighting in particular: his Germania, which appeared in Latin and German as part of an anthology in 1501 in Strasbourg,33 was an early standard work of national historiography, whose thrust was primarily anti-French.34
Dürer and Hutten: A Comparative View
It would be overly simplistic to draw a direct line from the decades around 1500 to the hypernationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries.35 This is because the Reformation soon created at least two opposing value systems, in which the spirit of nationalism was exploited mainly on the Protestant side. Many individual motives and narratives, however, can be identified through all historical and cultural transformations. This phenomenon is best illustrated by the figure of the artist and theorist Albrecht Dürer, for also in his case – for Dürer himself as well as for his later admirers – Italy represented a main point of friction. This was mainly due to the fact that in the visual arts Italian forms were generally adopted very reluctantly in Germany and usually made to fit stylistically with what might be referred to as the local "diffraction pattern". This pattern, however, was thought to reflect a synthesis and enhancement of what had been discovered, and can also be interpreted as a conscious rejection of the influence of the Italian Renaissance.36
Such an observation is certainly plausible for the time leading up to the mid-16th century. However, it must be qualified with regard to the next few decades, for the "Renaissance model" of the Italian painter and writer Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) became a master narrative from 1550 that extended far beyond art history. With great success (which has only been critically examined in recent years), this model propagated the notion that the cultural tradition of the ancient world had been interrupted by the sinister "Gothic" Middle Ages and told of its glorious, and in all respects superior, revival in Florence.37 In point of fact, however, neither Dürer himself, nor the German artists of his generation had ever been to Florence or Rome. And precisely in Dürer's case, the influences on his art were less formal than theoretical in nature; influences which he absorbed mainly during his second sojourn in Venice (1505–1507). It was here – and only here – that he actually once employed the signature Albertus durer germanus,38 thereby underlining his German heritage, as defined by his humanist friends Brant and Celtis. At the same time, however, and this was probably the more important matter to him, he demonstrated his active participation in the contemporary intellectual discourse.39
Quite astonishingly, then, before Martin Luther (1483–1546) would rise to become a national figure and role model (at least for the Protestants), his precursor in this regard was not a ruler, poet or theologian, but rather the artist Albrecht Dürer. A sense of national superiority had already crystallized around his person and his work around 1500, when Celtis had elevated him to the "German Apelles". And after Dürer's visit to the Netherlands in 1520/1521, he was idealized there as Germanorum decus (the glory of Germany). This designation could be read until 1852 as part of the inscription of his bust, made around 1563, on the former façade of the Antwerp painters' guild.40 Dürer's elevation to a representative of "Germania" is, however, not surprising, considering that he was known to, or friends with, all of the literary protagonists of "Germania", including Celtis, Brant, Wimpfeling and Schedel.
Dürer was therefore no less of an inspiration than his contemporaries Martin Luther, Hans Sachs (1494–1576) or Ulrich von Hutten (1488–1523) to the Romantic nationalism that began to emerge in Germany at the beginning of the 19th century. Although the figure of Dürer has not played a significant role, at least since the 1970s, in the increasing national efforts in Germany to come to terms with the past, the reputation of his contemporary Hutten experienced a late bloom in the German Democratic Republic as a patriotic champion of the Reformation, an aristocratic revolutionary and a friend of the peasants.41 After the end of the German Democratic Republic in 1990 one of Germany's last patriotic narratives, whose earliest proponents had lived at the time of the first edition of Tacitus' Germania, became obsolete.
As a rather ironic epilogue, "Hermann der Cherusker", one of the most important champions of German national pride, owed his own literary revival well into the 20th century to Hutten. In Hutten's Arminius (probably written around 1517, but first published posthumously together with Tacitus' Germania in 1528), Hermann (ca. 18 BC–21 AD) is celebrated in dialogue form as the conqueror of the Roman legions, a freedom fighter and the epitome of German invincibility. Recent research, though, has found evidence that the hero's portrayal, done in the tradition of the ancient satirist Lucian (120–180), contains many ironic distortions.42