Conservation Austria

At the movies with Maximilian I

A newly conserved 50m frieze on show in Vienna painted for the Holy Roman Emperor

“The Great Venetian War” from the Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I, around 1512-15

Boasting a royal carriage designed by Dürer, followed by a phalanx of servants, knights, courtiers and family members past, present and future (there is even space reserved for a future, third wife), the fantastic yet fictitious Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I, around 1512 to 1515, is regarded as one of the jewels in the collection of the Albertina Museum in Vienna. The work underwent treatment and analysis before going on show in the museum’s “Emperor Maximilian I and the Age of Dürer” (until 6 January 2013). It is the first time the work has been shown in its entirety, as a frieze.

The work on paper, by the artist Albrecht Altdorfer, was originally more than 100m long; around 50m survives. How could such a large-scale work be used? One possibility is that it may have been a “performance” piece, in which the work was unrolled in front of the seated Maximilian (1459-1519), like a film.

“The 59 sheets were in good condition,” says Elisabeth Thobois, a conservator at the museum. The treatment, which lasted 18 months, consisted of consolidating the paint layers, dry-cleaning the paper’s surface, removing adhesive residue and creating bespoke storage boxes. One of the more “tricky” aspects was finding a work space large enough to fit together the sheets of parchment. Another issue was lining up the pieces. “They are not the same size, so finding the right [horizontal] line [to create a coherent] frieze was difficult,” says Eva Michel, the show’s curator.

The parade depicted in the Triumphal Procession, which shows important events in Maximilian’s life, never took place. It was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor as one of his “memory” projects to ensure his reign would not be forgotten. Little is known about how the work was used. Some scholars believe it was a private piece, seen only by the emperor and close confidants. The piece is in good condition, suggesting that it was not displayed as a tapestry for any great length of time, and rub marks suggest that it was rolled up for either storage or presentation. “Maybe the roll was put on some type of construction and moved in front of the emperor, perhaps like a film,” Michel says, stressing that this is just a theory and that there is no documentary evidence to support her hypothesis.

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