Howard Louthan. The Quest for Compromise: Peacemakers in Counter-Reformation Vienna. New York and Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xvi + 185 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-58082-3.
Reviewed by Louis Reith (Georgetown University)
Published on HABSBURG (February, 1999)
Futile Quest: Peacemakers in Counter-Reformation Vienna
Howard Louthan, an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, has undertaken a daunting interdisciplinary study of the imperial court in late sixteenth-century Vienna and a detailed examination of a fascinating moment of religious moderation. He describes a critical historical era when Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (1564-1576) assembled a remarkable cast of courtiers. Against a backdrop of rising religious and confessional dogmatism, they strove to resist the extremes of Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The author investigates the rise and fall of an irenic movement through four individuals whose work at the imperial court reflected the ideals of religious compromise and moderation: (1) Jacopo Strada (1515-1588), an Italian artist and numismatist; (2) Lazarus von Schwendi (1522-1583), a German soldier and statesman; (3) Johannes Crato [von Crafftheim] (1519-1585), a Silesian physician; and (4) Hugo Blotius(1533-1608), a Dutch librarian. Thus far the summary of the author's focus and purpose from the inside flyleaf of the front cover.
It is Louthan's contention that Maximilian's court, made up of a wide assortment of individuals assembled from the far-flung corners of his empire, provided the nexus for a dramatic confrontation that grew more tense with each passing year, between the champions of Catholic reform and advocates of what such scholars as R.J.W. Evans and Friedrich Heer have called a "third force" at the Austrian court, a euphemism for a tolerant Erasmian spirit that distrusted--and hence avoided--confessional extremes.
At the outset, Louthan explains that his choice of the phrase "quest for compromise" is the result of the imprecise English language and the somewhat fuzzy Austrian via media, even though he admits that irenicism "is the best term I know to describe what was happening at the imperial court ... a peaceful attempt to reconcile theological differences between various confessional parties" (p. 9), even as the middle ground between Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans began to disappear in the second half of the sixteenth century. The remainder of the book attempts to clarify some principal reasons why this noble ideal ultimately failed. The book is divided into three major divisions: (1) the emergence of an irenic court; (2) Maximilian II and the high point of irenicism; and (3) the failure of irenicism, with a conclusion and final epilogue.
In his opening chapter on the conversion of Maximilian's key advisor, Lazarus von Schwendi, from confrontation to conciliation, Louthan demonstrates that this irenicist was not born that way but developed into a convinced opponent of compulsion and force by virtue of certain defining experiences in his life. For Lazarus von Schwendi, the author of numerous influential Denkschriften at the imperial court, this moment of truth came in the course of his mostly successful military ventures against the Schmalkaldian League of Protestant princes early in the 1550s. In approaching the central problem of how the emperor could preserve the integrity of his realm without simultaneously alienating the region's important Protestant princes, von Schwendi gradually became convinced in his own mind that brute force alone would not enable the emperor (at that time Charles V) to retain his prestige and authority within the German lands. Later, as a key advisor to Emperor Maximilian II, von Schwendi advocated a federative system of rule that included both Catholic and Protestant princes. Louthan justifiably refers to the extensive friendly correspondence between Maximilian II and Duke Christoph of Wuerttemberg, and von Schwendi's own friendship with the Protestant Duke Julius of Brunswick-Wolfenbuettel, as corroborating evidence for this change of heart. He cites approvingly a letter addressed by Maximilian's advisor to Duke Julius dated January 20, 1575: "God loves and blesses the one who follows moderate and conciliatory policies. But he will punish the one who in his own arrogance steps out of the middle way, who conceives cruel and bloody schemes, who satisfies an overindulged appetite for vengeance ... who cares little for the shedding of Christian blood and the creation of so much sorrow and misery. God will finally humble him and end his days in distress" (p. 23).
Jacopo Strada, an avid numismatist and patron of the arts and of artists, entered into Maximilian's inner circle and served as architect of the court from 1560 until his death in 1588. Strada first came to the attention of the Viennese court as the result of a highly visible artistic quarrel with a Viennese court historian, Wolfgang Lazius, that began as a dispute over the symbolism of coins. Louthan here turns art historian and chooses a unique way to illustrate what was at stake between the two men by comparing the great Italian painter Titian's portrait of Strada from 1566 with Hans Lautensack's 1554 engraving of Lazius: "Titian's magnificent portrait, a monument of the late Italian Renaissance, reflects the cosmopolitan and urbane circles in which Strada moved." (p. 31) In Louthan's chapter on Strada, the two portraits are shown on opposite pages, enabling the reader to judge for him or herself the validity of his argument. Lazius constructed three triumphal entry points into the city of Vienna for Maximilian in 1563, following the latter's election as Holy Roman Emperor in Frankfurt, which focused attention backward to the glorious religious heritage of the past. Strada, in his design for Maximilian's new summer palace, the so-called Neugebaeude, erected a visible symbol that linked the Vienna of the Habsburgs with the Rome of the Caesars, symbolic of an eternal empire "which had existed before the Christian age and one which would survive the confessional controversies of early modern Europe" (p. 46).
The third important figure in Louthan's cast of characters is Hugo Blotius, a Dutch-born Calvinist who rose to become the first official curator of the imperial library in March 1575 and who, according to Louthan, provided "the essential intellectual underpinnings of the Habsburg via media." A product of Johannes Sturm's prestigious humanistic Strassburg Gymnasium, Blotius had traveled to Venice to meet Aldus Manutius the Younger, head of the famous Aldine Press, before serving as the tutor for the son of an important Hungarian bishop, Janos Liszti. Despite his embrace of Neostoicism and a cultivated confessional ambiguity, Blotius managed to land the coveted title of imperial librarian with a mandate to bring order to a "forest of books" that became a symbol for the broader ordering of a chaotic world.
In a superb chapter on "the reformation of the imperial library," Louthan describes how Blotius took the parochial, disorganized repository of traditional manuscripts and books that the Habsburg family had amassed since the thirteenth century and "converted it into an ordered and well-regulated imperial institution oriented toward a public audience. For Blotius, the imperial collection was more than a mere repository of medieval Austrian manuscripts. It was an all-encompassing institution that preserved and presented a unified cultural heritage" (p. 69). Modern library curators can only weep over Louthan's depiction of the collection as the new Calvinist librarian found it: "Over 1,000 volumes lay in a serious state of disrepair with no binding. There was insufficient storage space, and bookworms and moths had done their job destroying many prized manuscripts. What the insects had left undone, the damp air of the room had completed. Lack of proper ventilation contributed to the growth of mildew and the further deterioration of the library's holdings. Spiders had added their webs, the final touch of neglect and decay" (p. 69). Yet out of this mess, Blotius constructed an imperial library whose detailed catalogs of the Turkish collection became "a very practical tool in the campaign against the Turks" and "an intellectual arsenal where one could learn the ways and tactics of the enemy. He was the humanist quartermaster of an army of scholars formed to fight against the Ottomans" (p. 75). According to Louthan, the librarian articulated a series of universal ideals that were "designed to work together, presenting the librarian's view of a unified world" (p. 78), a world where "alchemy and the hermetic arts were as valid arbiters of truth as astronomy and mathematics" (p. 79). In turn, Blotius compared his library to a pharmacy, an arsenal, and finally, a garden that was to be "a peaceful haven in a chaotic world" (p. 80).
The final member of Louthan's hardy band of irenicists was Johannes Crato, a student of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon who became Maximilian II's personal physician despite his fine Protestant pedigree. So close was Crato's relationship with the emperor that he accompanied him almost everywhere for twelve years, wore a specially engraved medal as a gift from Maximilian, and was appointed to the Privy Council and granted an honorary title of nobility. Utilizing Czech and Hungarian sources, Louthan makes a convincing case for Crato's influence in persuading the emperor to seek religious reconciliation in his Eastern European lands.
And yet the irenicists' search for religious tolerance in the Habsburg Empire was ultimately a futile quest that ended in disaster. In the third part of his investigation, "The Failure of Irenicism," Louthan seeks to explain the movement's failure. One suggestion is that the irenicists' persistent efforts to avoid taking a confessional position one way or the other put them on the defensive against their Jesuit and Catholic opponents in the imperial court, where an opposing Catholic party crystallized around several important families of the old nobility. In another striking literary vignette, Louthan portrays the rival funeral sermons Johannes Crato and Bishop Lambert Gruter preached at Maximilian's funeral in 1576, concluding that another reason for the irenicists' failure was that "Austrian irenicism was an elite movement. Its message was never successfully communicated to the broader populace" (p. 140). A third possible explanation that Louthan offers for the irenicists' ultimate defeat is that the vital new Catholic forces, supported by baroque Jesuit drama, understood the power and appeal of images far better than Maximilian's scholarly courtiers were ever able to do: "While Crato's humanist encomium was appreciated by a select circle of scholars, Lambert Gruter's oration, firmly embedded in a series of elaborate rituals, targeted a larger audience. The broader popular appeal of the baroque would ultimately win the soul of central Europe" (p. 142).
Opposition to Maximilian II's irenical court accelerated with the growth of Counter-Reformation activity at the courts of Rudolf II, culminating in the bloody Thirty Years War that followed. Louthan highlights this transition in the Habsburg court with another artistic comparison, between Titian's elegant 1566 portrait of Jacopo Strada and Jan van Kessel's Europa, a 1664 painting of an artist's studio in Rome. The latter depicts a Roman collector in the exact same guise as that of Strada in the Titian portrait from the previous century. In Louthan's opinion, "the irenic courtier of Maximilian's world has been coopted by the Catholic Reformation. Though still urbane and sophisticated, the connoisseur is no longer confessionally neutral. He is now working under the aegis of the resurgent Roman church. The vision of universal empire is intact, but now it has a distinct Catholic and baroque hue" (p. 162).
Special credit should accrue to the Cambridge University Press for the professional appearance and usefulness of the accompanying scholarly apparatus. Especially apt are the fourteen illustrations that are positioned to coincide with their mention in the text and then fully identified (including the original source for each illustration) in a list at the front of the book. A single-page political and cultural chronology and a list of the abbreviations used in the footnotes, as well as a comprehensive person and subject index in the back, greatly increase the reader's understanding of the historical context. The select bibliography includes both monographic and periodical literature. One recent monograph that should have been included is Carl C. Christensen's Art and the Reformation in Germany, which discusses the numismatic evidence from the Saxon Protestant courts parallel to Jacopo Strada's activity at the Habsburg court. Scholarly footnotes are usually ignored, but in the case of Louthan's book they add to the discussion by enabling the reader to follow threads that would otherwise clutter the organization of the text.
Was the irenicists' program ultimately successful or futile? The answer probably depends upon how long a timeline one uses to view the matter. Professor Louthan concludes that, in the short run, irenicism inspired a profound spurt of creativity in imperial Vienna, as various alternatives were proposed to diffuse the ticking religious time bomb. In his own words: "Though their mission failed in their own generation, their irenic legacy survived the cataclysm of the Thirty Years War. Their work to reduce credal tension and 'deconfessionalize' the world of the late sixteenth century was a small step in the long process of European secularization" (p. 166). In the longer view of history, this study reveals the unwritten but immutable law that perceptive historians ignore at their peril: the law of unintended consequences. The secularized world that emerged from the wreckage of the confessional wars of the seventeenth century probably was one neither the irenicists nor their ecclesiastical opponents--whether Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist--would have desired or wanted. The irenicists sought a kinder and gentler theological environment, only to usher in a more dogmatic and intolerant baroque future; the members of the theologically convinced classes sought to impose a lasting theological settlement, only to usher in the Enlightenment in strongly secularized (and often anti-religious) dress. As Professor Louthan has ably demonstrated in this elegantly crafted book, history has a way of playing strange tricks on people.
. See R.J.W. Evans, Rudolf II and his World (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), and Friedrich Heer, Die dritte Kraft (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1960), especially pp. 429-433.
. Hilda Lietzmann, Herzog Heinrich Julius zu Braunschweig und Lueneburg, 1564-1613: Persoenlichkeit und Wirken fuer Kaiser und Reich (Braunschweig: Selbstverlag des Braunschweigischen Geschichtsvereins, 1993), and "Briefwechsel zwischen dem Herzog Christoff zu Wirtenberg und Maximilian II," ed. Johann Friedrich Le Bret, Magazin zum Gebrauch der Staats- und Kirchengeschichte, 9 (1785), pp. 1-262.
. Carl C. Christensen, Art and the Reformation in Germany (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979).
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Louis Reith. Review of Louthan, Howard, The Quest for Compromise: Peacemakers in Counter-Reformation Vienna.
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