Unlike most literary genres, we know the precise date and personalities involved in the creation of the emblem book. Both the form of the individual emblem and the idea of creating a collection of them were devised as a literary recreation for his humanist friends (including a number of printers) by a renowned professor of law, Andrea Alciati (1492-1550). The moment was December of 1522. His collection went to print in 1531 without his consent. It was imitated almost immediately, and by the 1540s the new genre was established and flourishing entirely outside of Alciati's control and indeed in forms he had not imagined. Alciati's long, international career as literary editor and translator and as teacher of law at Avignon, Milan, Bourges, Pavia, Bologna, and Ferrara no doubt contributed to the successful marketing of his emblem book, which saw hundreds of editions in a dozen languages within his lifetime. (4)

Alciati expounds Aldo's anchor (click to enlarge - 865 KB jpeg image)

Alciati expounds Aldo's anchor (click to enlarge - 865 KB jpeg image)


We can also delineate a detailed intellectual context for the form. Emblems had many antecedents in Renaissance art, literature, and commerce, most importantly in heraldry and trademarking. But Alciati tells us he modeled his first emblems directly on the learned printer's marks of his day. He specifically mentions the mark of Aldo Manuzio, which, as he knew, had been explicated at some length by Erasmus in his Adagia. (5)

Collected emblems (click to enlarge - 900 KB jpeg image)

Collected emblems (click to enlarge - 900 KB jpeg image)

Alciati intended his collection for the amusement of a narrow circle of friends. He did not promote or supervise the earliest editions. Emblem collections for the entertainment and edification of a broader public were market objects invented by printers. The market drove further development of the form, which is analogous in this regard to successful collections of proverbs that often supplied the emblematists' mottoes. Both proverb collections and emblem books were complex, mimetic forms, derived from commonplaces in earlier literature and aimed at inviting the creation of additional commonplaces. The emblem book easily changed and grew well beyond the author's control because the form was composite; printed emblems required an artist to complement the work of the author. (6)


Emblems were offered as learning tools for children and adults alike. The published genre was not specifically school-oriented, but we know that painted and printed emblems often appeared in schools. Alciati composed his emblems in the context of learned rhetorical culture (by definition Latin-literate) but his emblems were translated and adapted for children within only a few years of their first publication. At the end of the sixteenth century devising emblems became part of the standard Jesuit school curriculum. By the middle of the seventeenth century emblems and emblematic thinking were almost universal in Europe. Education to this mode of thinking was by then a common part of the Latin curriculum and became formalized in several ways outside the Latin schools.


Like the textbook market, however, the emblem market allowed for many regional variations of taste and practice. Courtly and academic emblems were published throughout Europe. The form was rapidly adopted by Christian evangelists of many denominations, but secular emblem books also continued to be made in some markets. In Protestant Europe, emblem books were published specifically for a children's market, giving rise to an early genre of children's literature (as distinct from textbooks for school use). But emblem books for children, whether in or out of school, were never common in Italy. And the emblem book did not have a fixed place in the curriculum on either side of the Alps. American publishers today refer to some such books as "ancillaries," that is, books that can be built into certain curricula as designed by educational publishers but which are also marketed and read separately. It is useful to imagine the emblem book having this function in early modern schools too, as a supplementary teaching tool that some teachers integrated closely into their curricula, while others did not use it at all.

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(4)   Manning 2002, 42-45 ; Wolkenhauer 2002, 55, 207-208; Grendler 2002a, 439-443; Alciati, ed. Daly and Callahan 1988; Alciati 1953, 45-47.
(5)   II,i.1. The first version was penned about 1508; it appeared in extended form in the 1520 Froben edition of Erasmus, which Alciati surely knew. (He lists Froben's mark among his inspirations.) Later, Erasmus added a diatribe against printers who did not live up to the high standards of Aldo. See Wolkenhauer 2002, 165-185.
(6)   Scholz 1993, 150-151; Jeanneret 2001, 212-214; Coppens 2005, 34-37.

Posted by admin on September 22, 2008
Tags: Chapter Seven

Total comments on this page: 13

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Sean Franzel on paragraph 3:

This modeling of emblems on printer’s marks seems like a fascinating media-historical phenomenon- new medial practices/conventions leading directly to new literary/pictorial forms, and referencing the actual technological practices that make these forms possible at that! I wonder the extent to which similar innovations might have resulted from conventions of manuscript production in earlier centuries or in later developments in the history of print and other media (contests for animated web-content based around the Google name)?

November 16, 2011 4:02 pm
Paul Gehl :

Thanks for this thought, Sean. It has the possibility of contextualizing the emblem in a different way. This could be a good “how many can you name?” challenge for readers. The contemporary example that comes immediately to mind is the East Asian cell phone novel, but I am sure younger and better-wired people than I could think of other electronic examples. An earlier example might be the epistolary novel, but that is more your period of specialty study than mine. My understanding is that the genre resulted from the possibility of print reproducing a series of supposed manuscript documents of a sort and in a way that actual manuscript exchange would not likely have been assembled.

November 24, 2011 10:01 pm
nicholastotten on paragraph 6:

The notion of “emblematic thinking” is intriguing, in so far as how it is related to metaphor and analogy (or allegory/parable), which definitely serve to teach or communicate messages more effectively and, perhaps, affectingly as well. I am curious as to the extent of the “universalness” of this type of thinking, and specifically of its application. Were there many amateurs creating their own emblems? How many children learning this thinking and “devising” of emblems apply their knowledge and in how many related ways outside of merely creating more emblem books, and were they exposed at higher levels of education as well or only as a member of the general public? Also, how cooperative versus authoritative was the writer-artist production of emblems, and out of curiosity were any writers also artists?

November 27, 2011 11:11 pm
Paul Gehl :

Since our principal evidence for emblems is the printed books, we don’t have a very clear sense of how widely the making of emblems was practiced by amateurs. School emblems (see below, sections 7.11 and 7.15) often had student input, but getting them into print obviously required participation from adults in school and printshop. The one area where we can see lots of amateur emblems is in the surviving manuscripts. There is a good 1997 bibliography of these by Sandra Sider (available on Google Books if your library doesn’t have it), but it needs updating already.

November 28, 2011 7:20 am
Chen Chen on paragraph 7:

I think the emblem book is very interesting. But I’m not quite sure what it is exactly, is it a book full of emblems? Or is it a book with one emblem on the front page?

November 27, 2011 11:39 pm
Chen Chen on paragraph 7:

I think the emblem book is very interesting. But I’m not quite sure what it is exactly, is it a book full of emblems? Or is it a book with one emblem on the front page ?

November 27, 2011 11:46 pm
Chen JS on paragraph 1:

In chapter 16 (16.18 and 16.19), some title pages of the music textbooks look similar to an emblem consisting of three parts. I am wondering whether the emblem is inspired by the format of those title pages, or vice versa?

November 28, 2011 2:12 pm
Chen JS on paragraph 1:

Just saw the answer in the next paragraph.

November 28, 2011 2:26 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

Yes, as you note, devices on title pages preceded the formal emblem. However, the two title pages you point to in the last chapter are different from each other, and might be worth looking back at, since they may explicate the form. The title page in 6.18 has a true emblem (pictorial object with motto –actually two mottoes– that complement the picture without solving the puzzle). The title page in 6.19, by contrast, is a narrative scene, the Annunciation to the Virgin, without motto or any particular puzzle dimension.

November 28, 2011 5:09 pm
Esme Faneuff on whole page :

Technically speaking, how would the printer put emblems into books? Were the emblems hand drawn each time? Or was there a way to make an identical image each time with a stamp or block print? What kind of technologies developed to make emblem usage easier and faster?

March 11, 2013 2:14 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

Typically the emblems are woodcut in the earliest examples and engraved in later ones. Woodcuts are printed in the same form as type; engravings have to be printed separately, usually before the text, on a different type or press.

March 11, 2013 2:34 pm
David Harrell on paragraph 7:

If I understand this correctly, the emblem book was supplementary by default, but it was also part of a dialogue between children’s education and formalized education – which would seem to suggest that the material in each emblem book (varying, as you say, by region) would have a specific perspective or slant, focusing on different aspects of education in a way that fit the expectations of education in that region? Or is that saying too much?

May 13, 2013 9:53 am
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 7:

Yes, that’s true. But the regional variations were even wider than just education. Keep in mind that most emblem books at most periods and in most places were not tied closely either to formal education or to schools. They were intended for personal reading, meditation, and enjoyment. They were most often connected to schools in Northern Europe, especially in the Low Countries and Germany, and the Jesuits (see section 13 below) particularly used them.

May 13, 2013 10:16 am

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