Image on a wall calendar, 1511 (click to enlarge - 701 KB jpeg image)

Image on a wall calendar, 1511 (click to enlarge - 701 KB jpeg image)


There were many precursors to the fully-formed emblem in popular and learned culture alike, and many related phenomena that suggested emblematic forms of thought. Those that children might have encountered even before they got to school include religious art with mottoes for explication by preachers; flags, festival banners, livery and buildings with the insignia of towns, families, or confraternities; and, at the most basic level of all, coins and shop signs. In their own homes, some children would also have encountered hallmarks or ornamental devices on earthenware or metalwork, family coats of arms, and the ubiquitous personal devices of aristocrats. (15)


Vittorino's emblem on a medal (click to enlarge - 161 KB jpeg image)

Vittorino's emblem on a medal (click to enlarge - 161 KB jpeg image)


The earliest emblem books were not intended for elementary or intermediate classroom use, and in Italy it never became common to propose whole books of emblems for children. Still, the possibility that some were used in classrooms at an early date cannot be excluded. The emblem of the pelican widely associated with Vittorino da Feltre (1378-1446), for example, suggests that he and his successors presented such literary images to boys in his famous school at Mantua. (16) We can be sure that emblems in the form of printer's marks did arrive in classrooms on the title pages of school books. So, even before a student encountered an emblem book, that is, a systematic collection of emblems, he or she would have encountered the emblem form repeatedly. Emblem books were just a way of owning the genre personally. They made the educational activity of reading complex symbols into an object to buy on the market.

Sixteenth-century children probably learned to read emblems actively for the first time in the advertising context we have already explored in earlier chapters, namely the front matter, especially the title pages, of their school books. (See especially sections 1.06, 1.10, 1.14, and 2.08.) By the end of the sixteenth century, when popular prints and posters of all sorts were to be found on display everywhere in European cities, they could also read such emblems in the street with the same active form of reading they learned in school. It is important to understand this everyday emblem dynamic before we delve into the function of the educational emblem and emblem books, because it is clear that emblems in schools functioned both from the bottom up, using simple and familiar symbols to suggest more complex meanings, and from the top down (as more often described in the literature), as a secret or esoteric sort of communication between savants intended to exclude the non-initiate or unlearned viewer. As we will see, some students were given the exercise of creating emblems too, but they could not have done this if they were not already fully familiar with the form.

Medieval European towns boasted a welter of pictorial shop signs. Early modern streets and shops were also increasingly cluttered with printed posters or broadsides announcing everything from royal and municipal laws to the latest news events to public ceremonies and even private ones like christenings, weddings, and funerals. The communicative problem in any poster is to attract members of the target public and keep them standing long enough to get the message. (17)

Cluttered informational design (click to enlarge - 646 KB jpeg image)

Cluttered informational design (click to enlarge - 646 KB jpeg image)


Take, for example, a festival announcement from seventeenth-century Rome for the feast of the Triumph of the Wounds of Christ. It gave the details of a celebratory mass, offered some poetry on its devotional subject, and named the sponsors of the events. The design challenge in such a poster was to make present to a varied public the meaning of an abstract religious doctrine. At the center of the poster is an engraved emblem of the wounds, displaying in solemn fashion the tools of torture. Devotion to the wounds of Christ was a common late medieval practice that would have been familiar to many relatively unschooled folk. (18) The version in this Roman poster of 1671, however, was somewhat removed from popular, late medieval iconography. The wounds themselves were not depicted, only the instruments --the nails, lance, scourge, and crown of thorns. Many popular images, moreover, included the sign affixed to the cross that read "Behold the King of the Jews," the mocking words that were at once a part of the torture and a prophesy of the triumph of Christ.


Words inside the picture

Words inside the picture (click to enlarge - 135 KB jpeg image)

Here we find instead a different verbalization, one that tells us we are to take the image emblematically as well as literally. An elegant banderole woven into the crown of thorns displays the motto Plaga plagis curatur, or "The blow is cured by blows." Other texts on the poster include the names and titles of the noble patron of the feast and an original but unlovely sonnet on the wounds. Note, however, that the longer texts do not explicate the emblem any more than the motto does; these texts merely accompany the image and contextualize it. Some of the words here are strictly information, telling us when and where the solemn mass would be celebrated; others are more celebratory and ornamental. As is usual in emblems, the motto is an essential part of the puzzle. It does not label or explain the picture; rather, it offers one clue to the puzzle represented by the emblem as a whole.

The emblematic symbol of the theological doctrine being celebrated on this feast day is by far the most prominent element on the poster even though the text is fulsome and the layout is complicated by other visuals (borders, putti, flowers). Centering the most important visual may seem an obvious strategy in a case where there is really too much textual information for an effective, fully typographical presentation, but only because we, like the audience for this poster, are fully expecting to locate the meaning in a central, typographically surrounded image. Like them, we have been educated by printers, publishers, and other middle-men to expect certain things in an informational design, among them a strong visual. In this case, the reader is invited to stop and puzzle out the emblem as well as to read the information in the accompanying text. Words, graphics, border, and white space act together to ornament the central, theological doctrine; they contribute to the generally festive character of the event. But all these things also clutter the page visually and intellectually. In this way, by creating several levels of meaning for audiences with differing intellectual pretensions, this otherwise banal festival poster is typical of much early modern graphic and educational practice.

Early modern reading was rarely straightforwardly informational, and so too, reading education was not aimed at finding single meanings. Even when the educational aims were heavy-handedly moralistic, and even when the creators of the works ostentatiously talked down to their audiences, the resulting graphic objects were rarely simplistic. They were multi-layered by design. Their puzzle-like nature derived directly from pedagogical theory that insisted upon multiplicity of meaning. (19)

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(15)   Daly 1979, 9-36; Saunders 1988, 29-43.
(16)   Gentile 1981, 224-227.
(17)   On early broadside design, Schilling 1990, 285-192; Honemann 1996, 17-24; Rautenberg 2000, 131-134; Eisermann 2003, 162-168, 172-175.
(18)  Duffy 1992, 238-248; Honemann 1996, 20-21 and plate 5; Areford 1998; Henkel 2000, 219-221; Schmidt 2000, 254-262.
(19)   Köhler 1986, 77-86; Scholz 2002, 303-305, 316-327.

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

Total comments on this page: 16

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dianarobin on whole page :

Again, Paul, you’ve packed so much
information into your discussion here
that you’ve opened up a whole new line
of inquiry for me not only about
humanist pedagogy but about
humanist reading.

March 17, 2009 4:18 am
dianarobin on paragraph 9:

So emblems were also important
tools for communicating across
borders in Europe. Emblems served
as connectors among, say, French,
British, and Italian readers — and
printers (who as you point out had
the final say on which emblems were
to be used in the production of a text.)

March 17, 2009 4:25 am
John Vincler on paragraph 3:

Your discussion of emblems is fascinating. You introduce, elucidate, and contextualize the genre (and its evolution) wonderfully; I’ve never read anything like it before.

I have been fascinated by the evolution of the title page, especially those that take the form of imaginary architectural spaces or cabinets of wonders that graphically attempting to represent or summarize a book’s contents. I find what you have here immensely helpful. I’m thinking of Hobbes’s Leviathan ( or of Tycho Brahe’s Mural Quadrant (

It seems increasingly clear to me, that these two works referenced above from the 17th and late 16th centuries represent a further evolution of the same sort of verbal / visual interplay you describe here, whereas the designers attempt to render the whole of the text into the title page’s picture plane.

This leads me back to an earlier thought 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 title page of Hobbes, I recollected that Hobbes begins his Leviathan with a series of interrelated metaphors linking together God and nature; man, machines (“engines”/”automata” in his words) and the higher form, (as he sees it) art. This leading to the visual metaphor depicted on his title page, whereas the Monarch is the brain (or reason) operating the cyborg “this artificial man” (part man / part machine in Hobbes’s complex metaphor) whose body is composed of the Monarch’s subjects but described with mechanical language (rather than biological, for example).

Hobbes’s nested and mixed metaphors are followed by a discussion of reading books vs. reading men vs. “reading thyself”. He then returns to his earlier cyborg Monarch metaphor. When the Monarch is reading himself, he reads all of mankind.

Hobbes creates a riddle-like metaphor-laden passage, which seems like an attempt to summarize the entirety of his book, very much like the model you describe here of emblems with their accompanying poem. With all of his mixed and/or nested metaphors it seems possible that his use of mechanical language also makes a connection between the play between emblem and text. Or, stated more simply, he seems to suggest that the text animates the emblem (this being the age of print, this animation plays out in our minds). The accompanying text provides the necessary code for how the emblem is to function (a code that wouldn’t make sense on its own, or would at least remain incomplete, without the presence of the emblem itself).

You discuss the role of medieval mnemonics as providing a model for the visual spaces of printed texts. Even in the Hobbes’s (or Brahe’s) texts we can see the spatial or room metaphor of the classic medieval mnemonics continue (whereas related information is stored spatially in particular rooms). The emblem seems to take this mnemonic out of the imagination onto the page, where it evolves overtime, still serving its mnemonic function but put to ever expanding uses.

I apologize for this overlong (rambling) comment, but I am still left wondering about your use of the term “machine.” By my count (and electronic texts make this easy!) you only use the phrase machine twice, once in the section “Emblem as Machine” (7.03) (and only in the very beginning of this section) and then again once more in section 7.15.

In what sense are emblems machines? Perhaps this could use some more explaining. I think you are onto something but your use of the phrase still isn’t clear too me. I think part of the difficulty maybe that it is a means of explaining the almost entirely unexplainable functioning across images and texts in a dynamic way. (This seems to be the reason Hobbes utilizes the language of machines.)

These two OED definitions seem to be approaching what you mean:
“A material structure designed for a specific purpose, and related uses” (def. II, first used in late 16th century) and “An apparatus constructed to perform a task or for some other purpose” (def. IV, first used in mid-17th century).

I get why Hobbes, in his time, would look to the machine as a metaphor for animating his image via his text. This is of his time. Your discussing works predating Hobbes, and I’m not sure if this “animating” concept I described above is what you are getting at. It is a metaphor, but I still feel like I’m missing something with how it is used here. (And this could just be me, because I haven’t had time to deeply read what you have here–which is one of the clearest and best discussions of emblems I’ve seen.)

March 28, 2009 5:37 pm
Lauren Bartshe on paragraph 8:

Is it known to what extent emblems were used as communication tools to/for the uneducated and/or illiterate?

November 26, 2011 12:50 pm
Paul Gehl on paragraph 8:

As you noted later (on section 7.15), Lauren, this clearly did become a conscious strategy on the part of educators and public officials. However, there is very little scholarly literature that evaluates the extent or effectiveness of this kind of poster, just because what we can find easily is the printed works themselves and not discursive evidence (diaries,letters, other descriptions of the material). The paradox is that this poster survives because it was never posted –it was saved. We assume it was actually used, but there are no sources to tell us for sure that it was. If one could find good sources of this latter kind, it could make fine dissertation.

November 26, 2011 6:14 pm
Hana Katsenes on paragraph 2:

Forgive my ignorance, but what are “the ubiquitous personal devices of aristocrats” in the 16th century?

November 27, 2011 2:18 pm
Hana Katsenes on paragraph 8:

As a music student, I’m always interested in crossovers into that area. I’m curious if there were posters announcing concerts or events at aristocratic courts of say, Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo (premiered in 1608) where we could find similar emblems.

November 27, 2011 2:39 pm
Hana Katsenes on paragraph 8:

Ack, pardon the mistake. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo premiered in 1607.

November 27, 2011 3:37 pm
Paul Gehl :

This is very far from my proper field of study, but my impression is that the Monteverdi operas were staged for events at court and would not have been advertised to a wide public.

November 27, 2011 6:23 pm
Paul Gehl on paragraph 2:

Partly as a result of the new fashion for the study of ancient iconography, hieroglyphics, and hermetic symbolism in fifteenth-century Italy, aristocrats began to take on personal symbols in addition to their family coats of arms. Some of these in turn became family symbols or devices. Several generations of the Medici, for example, used the device of a diamond ring.

November 27, 2011 6:18 pm
Chen Chen on whole page :

Does this mean, we are also reading emblems every day? Are the coins such as cent, dime and quarter also emblems?

November 28, 2011 12:22 am
Paul Gehl on whole page :

You are right, Chen, that many commonplace things (among them coins, paper money, and all kinds of flags) are or were originally designed to be emblematic. We are not systematically taught to read them, however, so we often just don’t see that dimension of them. These commonplace images frequently get parodies (think of all the dollar bill take-offs) and that makes us at least look a little more closely.

November 28, 2011 7:24 am
Emma Tolkin on paragraph 4:

Considering the active, involved, and creative nature of deciphering emblems, is there evidence of owners marking up their emblem books with notes? It would be a way of making a personal mark like an author’s title page emblem, but also a memory technique—a handwritten note beside an emblem might represent a larger idea or conclusion. This practice is so common in the present, I can hardly imagine reading a textbook without highlighting or writing questions and ideas in the margin. Were these books too valuable to be scribbled in? Or did the advent of printing and resulting ease of text production render them less precious? Or was the idea of writing in a book not so problematic in the first place—I remember learning that many surviving medieval personal books of devotion, painstakingly composed by scribes, are rife with the handwritten notes of their various owners. I’m curious how ideas of ownership and personalization played out in this new type of text.

March 10, 2013 11:21 pm
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 4:

Marginalia are common in medieval books and in printed books from the start. The notion that you should NOT write in a book is relatively modern. Interestingly, however, relatively few emblem books that I have seen get annotations–perhaps because they tend to be smallish volumes with fairly crowded pages already, and maybe because the beauty of the design discouraged people.

March 11, 2013 10:47 am
Vivian C. on paragraph 2:

It’s interesting to see during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was widespread practice to use images to add more layers of complexity, even in every day settings. I was wondering, how much difference in terms of obscurity/complexity would there be in an image that would be found in a textbook, as compared to an image on a poster or storefront? Would a book image necessarily be much more intellectually demanding in nature? And how long did this practice of using “inventional” images in daily settings persist – is this practice considered to still be around in the same form today?

March 15, 2013 3:02 pm
Paul Gehl on paragraph 2:

In very general terms, basic textbooks are popularizations, so the emblems there(like other things–tables, charts, etc.) tend to function like posters or other public art –explaining complex ideas in a simple way, or at least at several levels, one of which can be understood quickly and without reflection. Once emblems are compiled into books, however, they can afford to be more complex because the book form invites slower,more thoughtful reading. As for today, we have lost the emblem theory, but designers of many things try to include several levels of meaning. The most obvious example is trademarks or logos –just think of the red-white-and-blue theme of many corporations. The name or image may not evoke patriotism but the designers try to stimulate it or just refer to it with that color scheme.

March 16, 2013 8:19 am

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