Wrong Love, 1536 (click to enlarge - 948 KB jpeg image)

Wrong Love, 1536 (click to enlarge - 948 KB jpeg image)

From the start, Alciati assumed active reader response in visualizing the images, but the process could be problematic. John Manning has related how Alciati's Emblem 110 proved difficult for artists; it appeared in the first printed collection of 1531 with a picture that is entirely inappropriate to the poem. The image is that of Amor, and the poem asks a series of questions, wondering where are the love god's bow, arrows, torch, and wings. It adds, why does he hold three garlands and wear another on his brow? As Manning notes, Alciati was inviting his reader to imagine a child or youth without any of the usual attributes of Cupid/Amor; but the earliest editions offered a standard-issue cupid with bow, arrows, and wings.

Wrong Love, 1540 (click to enlarge - 865 KB jpeg image)

Wrong Love, 1540 (click to enlarge - 865 KB jpeg image)


Apparently the highly standardized iconography interfered with a proper understanding of the verse, for the mysterious lack of attributes was made perfectly clear in the second half of the poem when the god himself replies that he is not promoting venereal love but love of virtue, that his laurel crown represents wisdom, and that he is weaving garlands of the other virtues. The motto also pointed in this direction, since it is "Love of virtue" (Amor virtutis). It took several editions prepared with advice from Alciati to fully correct the error.

Exactly the reverse iconographical drift occurred with Emblem 6, False Religion (Ficta religio). Early editions correctly showed an enthroned prostitute who offers the wine of delusion to her followers. Later in the century, the poem's passing reference to Babylon led artists to imagine the biblical whore of Babylon and show Alciati's strumpet seated on the seven-headed monster common in images of the Apocalypse. (9)

Simple image, multiple=Alciati's emblems were generally straightforward and eschewed the kind of pretend mysteriousness that many emblem authors affected. Even straightforward emblems, however, were susceptible to multiple readings and indeed demanded them. In the emblem adopted as a trademark by the Medici Oriental Press, for example, the reader is presented with an image of a hand reaching out from a cloud and sowing grain onto a recently plowed field. The plow, apparently just abandoned by the plowman, sits atilt at the bottom of the frame. The accompanying Latin motto reads, "Rejoicing, they will gather the harvest." (10) In the then-current Italian fashion, and because this is a trademark as well as an emblem, there was no accompanying poem, so the relationship between motto and image was left to the viewer to figure out. The motto does not refer directly to the scene of plowing and sowing but to the far-off harvest. Since the Medici Oriental Press was a missionary effort devoted to presenting catechetical texts in oriental languages, the verbal/visual device here had a specific meaning with reference to Christian missionary efforts. But it was open-ended enough to be read more generally of the fruitfulness of hard work, something appropriate to any printing house and, indeed, to most areas of Christian life.

Almost all emblems are based on literary sources and imply a comparative reading of texts on related themes. (11) In this example, there was no exact verbal parallel for the motto about the harvest in either the Old or New Testament, but the author deliberately evoked scriptural language (that of the gospel parables in particular); and the saying easily suggested a whole range of moral readings. The emblem as a whole embodied more of the related biblical stories than either the single image of sowing or the motto about reaping could offer. So the reader was presented with two themes commonplace in themselves but slightly different from any in scripture, that labor is its own reward and that joy is a precondition for as well as the result of fruitful work.

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(9)   Manning 1989, 129-134; Manning 2002, 51-54, 277-279.
(10)   In exultatione metent. Tinto 1987, 44.
(11)   Manning 2002, 48-51.

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

Total comments on this page: 6

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dianarobin on whole page :

The images of emblems are
beautiful and evocative encouraging
your present-day readers to
participate in the interpretive process
and to become active readers of
your text.

March 17, 2009 4:09 am
Richard Mallette on paragraph 4:

I can easily look this up, I suppose, but I am curious about the date of the founding of the Medici Oriental Press — since this date has soem bearing on your claim about emblems and merchandising.

July 17, 2009 6:17 am
Alexandra on paragraph 4:

So interesting to see how images were integrated into books at this time (and how they confused the meaning of the text–I’ve definitely seen examples of that!)

October 11, 2011 1:48 am
Paul F. Gehl :

The particular thing about emblems, of course, is that they were deliberately devised as puzzles, so the reader was made to work and there was always room for multiple interpretations. Many other books of the period had a kind of illustrative scheme that we would recognize more easily, with key scenes or characters presented by way of helping the reader visualize the narrative.

October 11, 2011 10:20 am
Hela on paragraph 4:

Did the authors of a emblem ever provide a sort of “key interpretation” of their emblem?

November 28, 2011 9:43 am
Paul F. Gehl :

The essence of the emblem is that it is a puzzle, so in the first instance there is rarely a key or solution. Alciati originally didn’t even give a picture, just the poerm. As the genre evolved, however, some of the more popular collections were issued in annotated editions where there would be a commentary on each emblem that would solve the puzzle or at least explicate the several dimensions of it.

November 28, 2011 11:13 am

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