Bartłomiej Czarski

I.1. A birth of the book of emblems

What is the origin story of this unusual phenomenon called the book of emblems? What was the driving force behind its immense commercial
success? An exhaustive answer to these questions alone requires the space of a sizeable book. For the purposes of this inquiry, some preliminary aspects call for explanation. It is commonly assumed that Andrea Alciato authored the first book of emblems.25 First published in 1531, this hitherto unknown collection of verbal-visual artworks was available under the rather unimpressive title Emblematum libellus [A Small Book of Emblems] (fig. 1). It is widely believed that this publication was issued by the Augsburg printer Heinrich Steyner without the author’s permission.26

The question of the origin of the plates included in the work is also rather uncertain. Many scholars posit that they must have been attached
by the printer himself, who supplemented the textual part with allegorical illustrations. Under suspicion was also Conrad Peutinger, an imperial
counsellor and a high-profile official in Augsburg, to whom the titular small book was dedicated. Others claimed that Alciato was anything but
surprised by the attached illustrations, and had known about Steyner’s editorial plans to illustrate his poems.27

What he would not have approved of was ultimately the quality of the woodcuts. Regardless of the origin of the illustrations, the form of the emblem crystallised in the Augsburg edition. Works representing the genre were now to consist of three parts: allegorical, including a motto as its title; symbolic illustration, a representation and depiction of the titular concept; textual part, usually an epigram, which explains both the title and the illustration. This pattern was preserved in the ensuing editions of Alciato’s book, as well as other books of emblems compiled by the newly emergent imitators of the genre. 

By way of a disclaimer, Alciato did not pioneer the concept of allegorical compositions represented in a verbal and visual form. In fact, the works that preceded Emblematum libellus, and hence foreran the genre, were plenty. Alciato’s pioneering insight lies in two aspects: the compilation and publication of collected works in a concise book form, and the invention of the name of the genre – the emblem. This word, of Greek provenance, denotes a thing added, attached, pinned. What Alciato probably had in mind was a type of broche available in miscellaneous, often symbolic, forms, which were customarily pinned on hats or other garments. Such sophisticated ornaments were highly fashionable at the imperial court of the Habsburgs.28
This particular meaning of the word emblem was pointed at by the early commentators of the Italian jurist’s book.29 Although this term had already appeared in a related context before 1531, it was never meant to denote a fixed genre.30 Crediting Alciato with pioneering the genre won him the honourable moniker of princeps emblematum. Although in fact he did not devise the first emblem, but authored the first collected book of emblems. 

The study of emblems would never have emerged had it not been for a series of events that took place in 15th and 16th European culture. The
readership had been prepared for the emergence of this phenomenon since at least 1419, when then the Italian merchant and traveller Cristoforo Buondelmonti had discovered the manuscript of the so-called Hieroglyphica [Hieroglyphs], by the mysterious Horapollo on the Greek island of Andros.31 This work can be classified as a sort of grammatical treatise in which many symbols, called hieroglyphs, are clarified allegorically, that is, not as written signs but rather as concepts standing for fixed ideas.

As this work galvanised the 15th century Italian scholars, especially from the Neo-Platonic circles, it circulated as a manuscript, only to be printed later in 1505 by Aldus Manutius.32 Soon rendered into Latin – first translated by Filippo Fasanini in 1517 – this work undoubtedly popularised the treatise and won him new readership. Many works from Emblematum libellus were largely inspired by the symbols discussed by Horapollo.33 The popularity of the treatise is attested by the fact that at the end of the 16th century, it had been republished over thirty times.
As set out in Hieroglyphica, the concept of a universal language based on visual representations of ideas was adopted by Renaissance artists and writers. The most prominent and widely known example was Hypnerotomachia Poliphili [Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream] by Francesco Colonna.34 This work helped expand the range of symbols and motifs previously used by Horapollo. The author would not limit his work to hieroglyphs alone, and veered towards mythological themes, plots of fables as well as, central for the purposes of this study, numismatic iconography. Colonna was the first one to refer to the motif of the anchor ensnared by a dolphin,35 with the variously phrased motto Festina lente [Make haste slowly], otherwise known from the reverse of a coin minted by Vespasian for his son Titus (fig. 2). Inspired by his work, Aldus Manutius espoused this sign as his printer’s mark.36 Likewise, other printers chose various symbolic patterns for their marks, by which they expressed the ideas that inspired their work, or other beliefs and maxims.37 These symbols were a defining feature of not only the masters of “the black arts”, but also publishers and authors. There is a legendary example of the motif of Terminus, exploited by none other than Erasmus in his texts.38 This pictorial symbol, much like the anchor with a dolphin, was in use in Roman  coinage,39 and later employed by Alciato – the emblem Nulli cedo [I yield before no one] (fig. 3).


As a result of the commercial success of emblems, printer’s marks were often supplemented with poems, by which they began
to resemble emblems. And yet, this phenomenon followed the publication of Alciato’s book.

As stated above, allegorical compositions – in fact no different from the classic tripartite emblem – predated the first 1531 edition of the book of
emblems. They usually complemented the proper content of the book, consisting in so-called preliminaries and back matters. An early example
of this art form was a poem combined with a woodcut engraving that can be found at the end of Amores [Amours] by Conrad Celtes, published in Nuremberg in 1502 (fig. 4). The author of this composition was Celtes’s acquaintance and a member of the fellowship that funded the publication, Willibald Pirckheimer (who signed as V.P.). The visual part of the work shows Apollo in pursuit of Daphne, who is metamorphosing into a laurel. Above the illustration there is a title in Greek: ΔΑΦΝΙΦIΛOIΣ, which translates as “To laurel lovers”. The illustration is complemented by a Latin poem that explains the allegorical component of the illustration:



Per iuga, per scopulos perque alta cacumina silvae
    Hic sequitur Lauram nudus Apollo suam.
Sic quicumque cupit lauri de fronde coronam
    Dulcisonaeque suae tangere fila lyrae
Currat, sub placida tandem requiescat ut umbra,
   Claudens felici tempora cuncta die.40

[Amongst the mountains, hills and towering peaks of trees, the naked Apollo is chasing his Daphne. In like manner, may one who yearns for a laurel wreath hasten to strike the cords of his sweet-sounding lyre. Only then can he rest in a blissful shade and imprison his remaining days in a single day.]

25 The Italian counterpart of this name is also Andrea, the surname is referred to twofold, as Alciato and Alciati. The version Andrea Alciato will be used consistently throughout this book.

26 B.F. Scholz, “The 1531 Augsburg Edition of Alciato’s Emblemata: A Survey of Research”, Emblematica 5 (1991), pp. 213–254. See also H. Miedema, The Term Emblema in Alciati, “Journal of the Warburg and Courtlaut Institutes” 31 (1968), pp. 234–250; E. Klecker, “Des signes muets aux emblems chanteurs: les “Emblemata” d’Alciat et l’emblématique”, Littérature 1/2007 (No 145), pp. 23–52.
27 This question was explored by Agnes Kusler at the conference: The Society For Emblem Studies Tenth International Conference, see: 10th International Conference Society for Emblem Studies. Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel 27 July – 1 August 2014, ed. L. Walew et al.,
Kiel 2014, pp. 119–121.
28 D.L. Drysdall, Occurrences of the word emblema in printed works before Alciato, “Emblematica” 14 (2005), pp. 299–325; idem, Devices as “Emblems” before 1531, “Emblematica” 16 (2008), pp. 253–269.
29 See A. Alciato, Emblemata 1618, fol. b5v.

30 D.L. Drysdall, “Préhistoire de l’emblème: commentaires et emplois du terme avant Alciat”, Nouvelle Revue du XVIe Siècle 6 (1988), pp. 29–44.
31 See The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo, transl. G. Boas, with a new foreword by A.T. Grafton, New York 1950, pp. XI-XX.
32 On the significance of hieroglyphs in the Renaissance culture, see: K. Giehlow, The Humanist Interpretation of Hieroglyphs in the Allegorical Studies of the Renaissance: With a Focus on the Triumphal Arch of Maximilian I, Leiden 2015; on the relationship between
hieroglyphs and Alciato’s emblems in particular, see: ibidem, pp. 236–289.
33 See: D.S. Russel, “Emblems and Hieroglyphics: Some Observations on the Beginnings and the Nature of Emblematic Forms”, Emblematica 1 (1986), pp. 227–243.
34 This work was most probably completed in 1467, and published in print in 1499 in the publishing house of Aldus Manutius. For further reference, see the study on this work: H. Barolini, Aldus and His Dream Book: An Illustrated Essay, New York 1992; L. de Girolami
Cheney, “Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: A Garden of Neoplatonic Love”, in: The Italian Emblem: A Collection of Essays, ed. D. Mansueto, E.L. Calogero, Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2007; as well as a further edition: F. Colonna, Hypnerotomachia
Poliphili, edd., transl., comm. M. Ariani, M. Gabriele, Milan 1998.

35 See: RIC II 112.
36 H.G. Fletcher, In praise of Aldus Manutius, New York 1995, pp. 25–34.
37 See: J. Kiliańczyk-Zięba, W cieniu symbolicznego drzewa. O sygnecie drukarskim Macieja Wirzbięty [In the Shadow of a Symbolic Tree. About the Maciej Wirzbięta’s Printer’s Mark], “Biuletyn Historii Sztuki” LXXII, 1–2/2010, pp. 93–112.
38 J. Rowlands, “Terminus, the Device of Erasmus of Rotterdam: A Painting by Holbein”, The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 67, No 2 (Feb., 1980), pp. 50–54.

39 Commonly known from the denarius of Augustus, see: RIC I 269b.

40  C. Celtes, Quattuor libri Amorum secundum quattuor latera Germanie […], Noribergae: sub privilegio Sodalitatis Celticae, 1502, fol. 122r.