Book Reviews -- the Last Descendant of Aeneas: The Hapsburgs and the Mythic Image of the Emperor by Marie Tanner

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The Last Descendant of Aeneas: The Hapsburgs and the Mythic Image of the Emperor

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. 333 pp.; 141 b/w ills. $45.00

When Dame Frances Yates, back in the 1950s, studied the Renaissance revival of universal imperialism in the reign of Charles V, she did so with reference to the famous emblem of the emperor, which featured the pillars of Hercules and the motto Plus ultra--for the Hapsburg empire then extended beyond Gibraltar to the New World of America. Dangling between the pillars in this imperial device was the clearly recognizable ovine form of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Marie Tanner, in The Last Descendant of Aeneas: The Hapsburgs and the Mythic Image of the Emperor, focuses on the little fleece, left dangling in Hapsburg historiography, and excitedly pursues its significance for imperial ideology in intellectual history. One cannot consider Tanner's book without reference to Yates, for it was Yates who staked out this particular terrain of Renaissance imperialism, with reference to Virgil's fourth Eclogue, the prophecy of the Cumaean Sibyl, and the return of Astraea--which figure prominently in Tanner's work as well. Furthermore, Yates, who was surely one of the most dazzlingly erudite and brilliantly interesting of intellectual historians, pursued a highly distinctive historiographical strategy in her most important work, and Tanner sands close to her in this as well, in mode as well as matter.

The methodological magnificence of Yates involved seizing upon a figure or image--such as Astraea or Hermes Trismegistus--whose significance was supposed to be decorative, rhetorical, incidental, or eccentric, and, by relentless scholarly pursuit, revealing its profound and pervasive presence in crucial aspects of Renaissance culture. Her book Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, beginning with the frontispiece of Hermes Trismegistus in the pavement of the Duomo of Siena, reevaluated the emphases and priorities of humanism with such erudition that the Renaissance as a whole appeared radically --and magically--revised.(1) Tanner, in her pursuit of the Golden Fleece, proposes a similar sort of reconception, in which a hitherto neglected cluster of images is discovered in complex affiliation, so as to revise the rhetorical balance of Renaissance imperialism. The mythological figures of Jason and Aeneas preside--in person or by allusion--over this reconceived rhetoric, woven into every tapestry, inscribed in every emblem, and rooted in every genealogical tree. Tanner insists that they be taken in tandem as Trojan figures--for Jason stopped at Troy (to destroy the city) on his way to Colchis--and that together they constitute a Trojan key to the Holy Roman Empire of the Renaissance. The Penates of Aeneas, like Jason's fleece, were not simple scraps or props of remote mythology, but meaningful treasure and trophies for the Hapsburg emperors, who claimed them--like so much else--for the family inheritance, and deployed them ideologically on behalf of dynastic pretensions.

"All the monarchs of Europe sought Trojan ancestors," wrote Yates, "through whom to link their destinies and origins with imperial Rome."(2) Yates was especially interested in the celebration of Elizabeth Tudor's Trojan descent, as well as in the claims of the French Valois kings, so it is hardly surprising to learn from Tanner that the Hapsburgs were also keen to make their case. Yet surely no one has ever dedicated to this Trojan theme such weighty erudition and comprehensive attention as Tanner does, when she studies it in relation to medieval antecedents, from the Carolingians to the Hohenstaufen, and within a Renaissance context of intricately related thematic concerns. She begins with Virgil, for the Aeneid is fundamental as a future reference for things Trojan, and the fourth Eclogue is perhaps still more important with its prophetic allusions to Argonauts and Trojans. Homer, on the other hand, appears to have played a rather lesser role even in the Renaissance revaluation of Troy. …