The outstanding literary productions of the Empire in this age were the translation of the Bible by the Bohemian Brethren (1588), and the Hungarian epic Zrinyiasz (1644), by Miklós Zrinyi. Germany, and particularly Frankfurt am Main, now (c. 1600) succeeded Italy as the busiest publisher of books. The Frankfurt book fair began in 1598 to issue semiannually a catalogue of publications. Literary societies encouraged poetry and drama, but literature was stifled by civil and ecclesiastical censorship. Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic leaders agreed that works considered injurious to the government, the official faith, or public morals should be forbidden; and, strange to say, the total number of books prohibited by Protestant authorities exceeded the total of those condemned by the Roman Church.32
Scholarship declined as controversy mangled truth. Matthias Flacius Illyricus and his aides compiled in thirteen folio volumes a history of the Christian church; but The Magdeburg Centuries, as their Historia ecclesiae Christi (1559–74) came to be called from its place of composition and its division by centuries, was as one-sided as the Catholic histories of that age, when every book was a weapon; so Gregory VII, to these centurions, was “the most monstrous of all monsters born,” who had compassed the death of several popes before mounting the “Chair of Pestilence.”33 The finest German historiography of its time was Johannes Sleidanus’ story of the Reformation, De statu religionis et reipublicae Carolo V Caesare (1555), so impartial that not even Melanchthon could forgive him.
Next to invective, the most popular literary form was the drama. Both Protestants and Catholics used the stage for propaganda; Protestant plays made much fun of the pope, and usually ended by conducting him to hell. The Catholic cantors of Switzerland produced Passion, Easter, and Last Judgment plays from 1549, in one case with 290 actors. The Passion Play of Oberammergau was first presented in 1634 as the fulfillment of a vow during the plague of 1633, and was repeated every tenth year, lasting from 8:30A.M. to 6 P.M., with a two-hour intermission at midday. Italian actors entered Germany in 1568, and were followed by Dutch, French, and English. These troupes soon replaced private with professional performances, and they evoked many complaints by their remunerative obscenity.
Even more popular was the virile and versatile Alsatian satirist Johann Fischart. Falling gaily into the spirit of the age, he issued a series of anti-Catholic travesties so cleverly devastating that he was soon the most widely read writer in Germany. His Bienenkorb des heiligen romischen Immensschivarms (1579) attacked with passionate caricature the history, doctrine, ceremonies, and clergy of the Church; all Catholic convents were hothouses of debauchery and abortion; the Church had decreed that priests “might have free use of other people’s wives”; six thousand infant heads had been found in a pond near a nunnery; and so on.34 Another satire, Jesuitenhütlein, ridiculed the four-cornered hat of the Jesuits and denounced all their ways and ideas. In 1575, under a rollicking eight-line title, Fischart published a pretended translation, actually an imitation and proliferation, of Rabelais’ Gargantua; here he derided all aspects of German life—the oppression of the poor, the maltreatment of pupils, the gluttony and drunkenness, the fornication and adultery—in a jumble of style and Alsatian dialect, seasoned with obscenity and wit. Fischart died at forty-three, having exhausted his vocabulary.
Almost as lively, and dying in the same year, 1590, at the same age, Nikodemus Frischlin ran through a dozen lives in one. At twenty he was professor of history and poetry at Tübingen; he wrote Latin verse with quasi-Horatian finesse, and scholarly commentaries on Virgil. At thirty-five he was dismissed for satirizing the nobility. Thereafter he lived with rollicking recklessness; he drank heavily, for wine, he said, was necessary to genius, and the verses of teetotalers were worthlessly watery; he was accused of ruining one girl and poisoning another; threatened with criminal prosecution for immorality, he fled from city to city; he dedicated a published lecture to eleven different notables, geographically distributed to provide him asylum anywhere; but he died from a fall when he had still not fully expressed his opinion of his enemies. They called him, in the manner of the time, “a stinking, mangy poet … a lying, roguish abortion of the Devil”;35 but he was the best poet that Germany could produce in that unhappy age.
Art suffered from the Protestant aversion to images, the decline of the Church as patron, the corruption of native styles by uncongenial Italian influence, the deterioration of taste by coarse morals and violent controversy, and, later, the consuming fire of war. The marvel of it is that despite these discouragements German craftsmanship produced, in the six decades before the war, several lordly palaces and stately town halls, a good painter, and some precious minor art. The collections of Emperor Rudolf II and Duke Albert V of Bavaria formed the nuclei of the famous Alte Pinakothek of Munich. Albert himself was a German Medici, making his court a haven for artists, beautifying his capital with architecture, and gathering sculpture into the imposing AntiquariumII—the first museum of ancient statuary north of the Alps.
In 1611–19 a Dutch architect built for Duke Maximilian I at Munich the Residenz,* which for centuries served as the home of Bavaria’s dukes, electors, and kings. Gustavus Adolphus lamented that he could not remove to Stockholm this favorite example of the German late Renaissance. The Jesuits, in their own ornate version of baroque, raised fine churches at Coblenz and Dillingen, and the massive Hofkirche (St. Michael’s)* in Munich. In a plainer and statelier style Santino Solari designed the Salzburg cathedral just a few years before the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War.
As the princes had appropriated most ecclesiastical wealth in Protestant Germany, architecture there ceased to be ecclesiastical and became civic, sometimes palatial. Immense castles were built: the Schloss Heiligenberg at Baden, famous for the ceiling of carved linden wood in its Rittersaal, or Hall of Knights; Aschaffenburg Castle* on the Main; Heidelberg Castle, still one of the major sights of Germany. A sumptuous Rathaus, or town hall, rose to house municipal administration in Lübeck,* Paderborn,* Bremen, Rothenburg, Augsburg,* Nuremberg,* Graz. The textile merchants of Augsburg engaged the city’s leading architect, Elias Holl, to build their Zeughaus, or Cloth Hall. Bremen provided a Kornhaus and Frankfurt a Salzhaus for dealers in grain and salt respectively; but who would have expected vinegar to enshrine itself so tastefully as in Bremen’s Essighaus?
Now, and in the next 150 years, palaces rose everywhere in Germany to shelter the triumphant princes in gay and curlicued baroque. The Margrave of Ansbach-Bayreuth spent 237,000 florins ($30,000,000?) on his Plassenburg Palace, in one of the poorest principalities in the Empire. In better taste was the electoral palace provided for the archbishops of Mainz. The domestic architecture of the period appears fascinatingly picturesque in tradition and illustration, but an angry physician described German houses in 1610 as composed of dark, smelly, filthy rooms seldom breathing fresh air.36 Nevertheless the interior of the burgher’s dwelling was the real home of Germany’s minor arts, rich with adornments made by skilled handicraft: carved panels and ceilings, strong furniture carved and inlaid, railings of wrought iron, locks and bars cast in grandiose forms, figurines of ivory, goblets of silver or gold. The German burgher never had enough of decoration in his home.
Engraving, especially on copper, flourished in Germany even through the wars. Lukas Kilian and his brother Wolfgang began, about 1600, a remarkable dynasty of engravers which continued through the seventeenth century with Wolfgang’s sons Philipp and Bartholomaus, and with Philipp’s great-grandsons till 1781. German sculpture, however, suffered from attempts to imitate classic forms alien to the German mold and mood. When native carvers let themselves go they turned out first-class work, like the central and side altars cut in wood by Hans Degler for the Ulrichskirche in Augsburg, or the seventy figures carved by Michael Hönel for the cathedral of Gurk in Austria. A special feature of the age was the wonderful fountains, inspired by Italian exemplars: the Wittelsbacher Fountain before the Residenz at Munich, and the Tugendbrunnen, or Fountain of Virtue, before the Lorenzkirche in Nuremberg.
When Rubens heard that Adam Elsheimer had just died (1610) at thirty-two, he said, “Such a loss should plunge all our profession into deep mourning. It will not be easy to replace him, and in my opinion he can never be equaled in [painting] small figures, landscapes, and many other things.”37 Born in Frankfurt, Adam left for Italy at twenty and, after a stay in Venice, spent the rest of his life in Rome. Rubens prayed God “to pardon Adam his sin of laziness,” but we do not know if it was laziness that made Elsheimer confine his work to small paintings on copper plates. It could hardly be laziness that made him give to his landscapes such minute finish as in The Flight into Egypt,38 or such unique representations of light and air as made him, on his modest scale, a Rembrandt before Rembrandt. He seems to have been well paid for his work, but not sufficiently to meet his needs and tastes. He became bankrupt, was imprisoned for debt, and died shortly after his release.
Painting on glass was a favorite art in this age, first at Zurich and Basel, then in Munich, Augsburg, and Nuremberg; windows in convents and homes became as colorful as in a medieval church. The carving of glass appeared early in the seventeenth century in Nuremberg and Prague. The Hirschvogel family in Nuremberg was famous for artistic glass and pottery. Cologne and Siegburg warmed the German heart with stone jugs and mugs elegantly carved, and stoves were often housed in color-glazed earthenware. In the working of wood, ivory, iron, gems, and precious metals, the Germans were unsurpassed. Cabinetmakers were so highly esteemed that when one of them was condemned to be hanged for theft he was pardoned because he was so good an “art carpenter.” The iron railing around the tomb of Emperor Maximilian I at Innsbruck is superb. Anton Eisenhut executed in 1588 liturgical vessels in such delicately designed and richly embellished silver that they still stand at the top of their kind. German goldsmiths were sought for everywhere, and their products readily found a European market. Drinking cups, goblets, and jugs of silver were made in a hundred humorous forms; Germans could drink themselves tipsy out of windmills, lanterns, apples, monkeys, horses, pigs, monks, and nuns. Even in their cups they waged the theological war.