Emblems functioned as machines for interpretive reading, and as such they could be tools for teaching study skills. A few examples will show how this was so. The simplest emblems make us think immediately of classroom reading exercises, even though we know they were not originally intended for that purpose. In Alciati's Emblem 126, under the motto "From one man's loss, another's gain" (Ex damno alterius alterius utilitas), the reader is invited to imagine a lioness and a boar in mortal combat while a vulture sits watchfully in a nearby tree. The poem describes the action in simple verse, deliberately rustic in style and reminiscent of an Aesopian fable. The final line, again after the fashion of Aesop, offers an epigrammatic saying or moral, "The trophy of the victor will be another's [the vulture's] plunder." (7) This moral, however, was the second one given to the reader, since he had already been told in the motto that one man's loss produces another's gain. Equally deliberately, the story is a little more complex than Alciati's rustic style or either pithy saying alone allowed. The attentive reader would notice that there were two winners and one loser in the story, while the motto described one winner and one loser, and the moral epigram named the two winners but merely implied a loser.


Lion and Boar (click to enlarge - 505 KB jpeg image)

Lion and Boar (click to enlarge - 505 KB jpeg image)


The printed image could complicate the reading of the emblem or simplify it. In Alciati's first emblems, there were no visuals, only the poems and mottoes. One of the pleasures of the puzzle --something that recommended it as a pastime-- was that the poem invited the reader to visualize the scene for himself. In the case of an animal fable like that of the lioness, boar, and vulture this process did not in fact require much imagination since the animals in question had a familiar iconography. A printed emblem complete with image was puzzling in a different way, since the reader might not at first see how the meaning of the motto at the top of the page related to the picture. In the visual dynamic of the printed emblem, motto and picture are captured by the eye at once, but only carefully reading the poem in a second moment could resolve the tension between motto and image. Emblem 126 of the lioness and boar comes from the second published collection of Alciati's emblems, offered by the Aldine press in 1546. By this time, Alciati's earlier collection had been in print for fifteen years and the learned inventor knew that his new emblems would be presented with images. The result in this case of an animal fable was a simple, clearly described image easily translated by the artist.


Obscure and complex (click to enlarge - 507 KB jpeg image)

Obscure and complex (click to enlarge - 507 KB jpeg image)


Many of Alciati's emblems, however, were less naturalistic in form and lent themselves less easily both to visualization and to reading. Emblem 16 in modern editions is also from the 1546 collection and is among the more mysterious, at least on the face of it. Certainly it requires a complex reading. The picture shows an enormous, disembodied hand floating over a rural landscape. In some versions the artist dotted the fields with flowers; in others, a single oversize flower floats alongside the hand. On the open palm of the hand, an eye stares out at the viewer. The motto appeared in both Greek and Latin, telling the reader at once that the author had found an interesting Greek text and was going to translate it both literally and into an emblem. The Latin translation was unusually wordy for Alciati; it exhorted the reader to be careful, not to believe too easily, for "these are the limbs of the mind" (haec sunt membra mentis). No reader could be expected to resolve the enigma posed by the image and motto with any degree of certainty unless he could also get some hints from the poem. Even then, the reader was made to work. The entire poem reads:

Do not be credulous, do not be incautious, says Epicharmus. These will be the sinews and limbs of the human mind. Behold a hand with an eye, believing what it sees. Behold the pennyroyal flower, ancient symbol of sobriety. By displaying it [the flower] Heraclitus calmed the crowd and charmed it, though it was threatening with swelling sedition.

Obscurity explained (click to enlarge - 695 KB jpeg image)

Obscurity explained (click to enlarge - 695 KB jpeg image)


This poem is not entirely self-explanatory, but at least it identifies the source of the quotation, tells an ancient story (which is not pictured), and gives a token meaning to the items that are in the picture, the pennyroyal and the odd, seeing hand. The functional dynamic of the emblem, however, can only be explained in terms of Renaissance memory theory, which held that a striking, if possible slightly weird image was easier to remember than an ordinary one. Indeed, the full force of the emblem depends on memory in several ways. The reader must first remember at least vaguely the story of Heraclitus. She or he must be willing to accept a miscellaneous grouping of objects as a memory device. It would help too if the reader had a good memory for Latin vocabulary and knew that the adjective oculata (here applied to the hand) often referred to eyewitnesses in a court room. A person who offered reliable testimony by distinction to mere hearsay was oculatus. At this level, the emblem required multi-level, retrospective reading. It was intended to provoke a strenuous exercise of memory and moral analogy, both personal and historical. (8)

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(7)  My translations, here and elsewhere in this chapter, are adapted from the online Alciati, www.mun.ca/alciato.
(8)   On mnemonic dimensions of emblems, Neuber 1990, 245-248, 255-257; on Heraclitus and moral analogy, Stafford 1999, 105. For the manus oculata symbol as a merchant's device, see Sabbioneta 2003, 61; it also appeared as an entirely decorative element in at least one mathematics textbook, Bettini 1642, vol. 2, pt. 2, p. 9.

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

Total comments on this page: 15

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barrym on paragraph 3:

While looking at the emblems on the footnoted website did not add much to my understanding of emblem 126 (lioness/boar/vulture), emblem 6 (whore of Babylon), or emblem 110 (wingless Cupid), seeing emblem 16 (floating hand) did make a difference. The description alone did not work by itself to explain how the strange quality of the picture served as a memory device.

December 29, 2008 3:52 pm
dianarobin on paragraph 5:

Here you invite your reader to enter
into the process of emblem reading
and 16th-century puzzle solving.

March 17, 2009 4:06 am
Richard Mallette on paragraph 2:

How could Alciati not have visuals in his first emblems, if an emblem is, by definition, a “picture puzzle”?

July 16, 2009 11:18 am
Richard Mallette on paragraph 5:

Do you reckon this emblem has any relation to the ancient Eye of Providence, which I recall being associated with the Trinity (usually inside a triangle), once it was used in the Middle Ages?

July 16, 2009 11:24 am
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 2:

Alciati imagined the form as a brief poem with motto that assumed a mental picture created in the first instance by the author and re-created for the sake of the puzzle by the reader. All part of the erudite game. Within just a few years, however, publishers got hold of the form and printed pictures, thereafter altering the dynamic. Scholarly authors continued to compose emblems without pictures, but the standard form from the 1530s onward is the one we recognize today, the picture puzzle.

July 16, 2009 6:41 pm
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 3:

When Max Barry read this chapter, the pictures were not yet all in place. Readers are still welcome to say if there are parts of the exposition that would be helped by an additional image.

July 16, 2009 6:43 pm
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 5:

I don’t know for sure, Rick, but I don’t see any direct parallel in the texts that accompany the image. Alciati references Epicharnus of Kos for the moral advice –a quotation he may have gotten from any number of sources, perhaps most likely Diogenes Laertes– and the Heraclitus story, both of which seem to fit better into a personal-moral than a mystical framework.

July 16, 2009 8:53 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

Anna Maranini (cited to para 4) does not adduce the eye of Providence either, but she located the origin of the literary commonplace of the manus occulata in Plautus; p. 146-47.

November 8, 2016 11:29 am
Leviathan « Deviant Forms on whole page :

[…] about this section on emblems. Initially, I wasn’t convinced that your earlier description of “Emblem as Machine” (7.03) analogy made sense or, more likely, I felt I was missing something. As I got to thinking about the […]

November 16, 2009 8:21 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

For those unfamiliar with blogging, this comment is a link to John Vincler’s thoughtful and provocative blog about art and books, “Deviant Forms.” In addition to some notes on emblems, with specific reference to the title page of Leviathan, at this link, you can find John’s musing about a variety of contemporary and historical artistic books.

November 17, 2009 10:36 am
siribeckett on paragraph 8:

It’s certainly very interesting to learn about the art of memory in this indirect mannor. From the beginning of the chapter I was wondering when the use of emblems would tie in with one’s memory. Also, it’s interesting to learn that the use of bizzare images did not entirely disappear once the Christian moral way of life took over.

October 10, 2011 2:57 pm
liam db on whole page :

I really liked this section! It is also fascinating to think about emblems as tools for remembering as well as interpreting, coming out of the classical tradition of the art of memory as described by Francis Yates in The Art of Memory.

October 11, 2011 1:31 pm
Hana Katsenes on paragraph 5:

You commented earlier that the boar / lioness / vulture motto and poem existed first without the picture. Did this picture, too, get added later to the emblem? If so, how could the artist possibly have known exactly what Alciati wanted depicted?

November 27, 2011 1:27 pm
Paul Gehl :

All of Alciati’s original emblems were composed without pictures. He invented the form as a literary one where the picture was supposed to be imagined by the reader of the poem. Once the reader had imagined the image, then he would re-read and understand the poem more fully. These original emblems were designed for manuscript circulation. The new emblems Alciati added for this later, larger collection, however, were composed after the first set had been published with images made up for the printed book by artists not working directly with Alciati; so we must imagine that he has already re-conceptualized the literary form he invented only a few years earlier and was now probably working with an artist to create emblems with both pictures and poems. This is an unusual moment in literary and media history. We can not only witness the invention of a new genre, but also watch how it was appropriated by new writers, and then watch the inventor respond to the changes wrought by others on his invention. We see this happening online everyday but it was also an exciting event for sixteenth-century people, to watch the media change before their very eyes.

November 27, 2011 6:32 pm
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 4:

This emblem is further explicated by Anna Maranini in her article, “‘Col senno e con la mano’: Eyes, Reason and Hand in Symbolic Transmission,” Glasgow Emblem Studies 12, 115-156, esp. 145-153.

November 8, 2016 11:24 am

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