In design terms, popular products like posters functioned very much like the emblematic title pages on books. That is, they combined informational and moral import in individual images that were surrounded by type but usually not closely explicated in the adjacent text. Commercial or advertising motives were never absent but they did not usually function alone, if only because the emblematic mode of thinking encouraged readers to look for more than one level of meaning. The presence of the image was an invitation to think on more than one level, to add imaginative value, if you will, to the textual content. (20)

All these meanings were present in printer's marks even before Alciati invented the emblem as such. Not incidentally, they were just beginning to be a regular feature of title pages about the time Alciati imagined the literary genre. In her book on the development of the early title page, Margaret Smith distinguishes between the protective value of a cover sheet, its labeling value, and its function as a sales tool. (21) If we recall that sophisticated book buyers in the fifteenth century approached any page with the expectation of multiple meanings, it comes as no surprise that these several functions worked simultaneously. Putting a printer's mark on the title page added yet another marketing function and another level of sophisticated consumer expectation. Even if the mark were merely ornamental or functioned primarily as a hallmark ensuring quality, its presence was already an addition of sorts, signifying a certain quality of manufactured object. If it was also an emblem of the kind educated readers were trained to puzzle out, then it recommended the book in intellectual and moral as well as other consumer terms.


It is well worth asking how these design-oriented motives went along with the literary, moral, commercial, and practical ones. Emblems were puzzles, and puzzling them out was considered a sort of invention. Invention still had a strongly rhetorical meaning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It always meant inventing arguments or finding them out in the raw materials of a subject. In the case of emblems it also meant encoding them in symbols that could be unlocked in a second moment by another inventor. As such the emblem participated in a sort of retrospective or reflexive design process. From the start, the maker of an emblem expected that it would be the subject of intellectual back-formations on the part of its readers. The act of devising or inventing images and the act of decoding them were not just technical skills. They were moral acts, fruitful applications of mental skill to problem solving, and practice in making and effecting moral decisions. (22)

Adding an emblem to the title page in the form of a printer's mark (or, less commonly, the personal emblem of the book's author or that of a scholarly academy) usually had more to do with the authority of the product than its subject. It was validation, not information. It invited the reader to take the book seriously. The emblematic mark also embedded in every text from a given press the multi-layered meanings of the emblem, whether they had anything to do with the specific content of the book or not. (23) Claude Mignault, a late sixteenth-century theorist of the emblem, pointed to this specific function of the emblematic printer's mark:

… I must add a few words about the emblems of certain learned men of the press which they are accustomed to add ingeniously to the title pages of their books, and by which they encourage themselves either by genius or by design, to do those things necessary for the cultivation of better letters. (24)

Thus the emblematic mark is both an ingenious device or company logo and a way for the printers to encourage themselves and others to do their best for the republic of letters.

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(20)   Schilling 1990, 288-292; Henkel 2000, 210-213, 237-243.
(21)   Smith 2000a.
(22)   For the design process, Peponis et al. 2002, 75-88; Gehl 2002, 104-105; further on psychology, Gareffi 1981, 12-17; Scholz 2002, 303-305; on marketing aspects, Sabbioneta 2003, 16-36.
(23)   Compagnon 1979, 262-267; Pinkus 1996, 75-88.
(24)  Mignault 1571 quoted by Wolkenhauer 2002, 90: … quorundam rei Typographicae peritorum hominumn huc adiiciam eiconas, quibus ingeniose uti soleant in suorum libris fontispiciis, quibus se vel ingenio, vel arte, meliorum litterarum adiumento necessaria commendent.

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

Total comments on this page: 9

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John Vincler on paragraph 3:

Ah, here you utilize the language of machines (“encoding,” “unlocking,” “decoding”) making the “machine” metaphor from 7.03 more explicit. However, it seems like the comparison to a puzzle is more sustained throughout than the comparison to a machine.

March 28, 2009 10:14 pm
Richard Mallette on paragraph 3:

Applications of mental skill to problem solving: and thus perfect for schoolboys. But quite different from opportunities for meditation, as averred earlier. I see they can overlap, though.

July 17, 2009 6:31 am
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 3:

Yes, the two applications are different but overlapping. The emblem form stimulated several different uses beyond Alciati’s original one of learned entertainment, but the puzzle is at the core of all of them. The reader may enjoy solving the puzzle, may learn skills from the process in or outside a classroom, or may use the emblem for private meditation. Some collections had one or the other of these for a starting point, but most emblems are suitable for all three uses.

July 17, 2009 6:44 am
Sean Franzel on paragraph 3:

Very suggestive formulation: emblem “participating in retrospective or reflexive design process;” again, as a non-specialist, I find myself thinking about what this might mean in different medial contexts. In a sense, it seems that these early print forms might help readers appreciate or model new design ideas in ways that are closer to the technologies of the print shop than today (we don’t think about writing code when we change our facebook status- are we more alienated from the means of medial production? if we are, should we even care?). On the other hand, participating in a medial environment always seems to involve a certain potential for rethinking, reworking, “redesigning” that environment. Your discussion of the emblem makes this very clear.

November 26, 2011 11:36 am
Paul Gehl :

I like this (imperfect) analogy to Facebook, Sean! It points to the way the tools are handed to us and we make of them what we will, largely unfettered by the intentions of the toolmakers. The makers of emblems seem (after Alciati’s apparent initial shock at the way the form got away from him) to have accepted the notion of readers inventing new puzzles on the basis of the published emblems. Unlike printed emblems, of course, the Facebook page owner actually can change what is published, what the public encounters, while the user of an emblem had to be in a position to publish a new book in order to do that. The issue of who cares about how tools are used is perennial, however. Just to take the Facebook analogy one step further, recall how incensed people got a few weeks ago when Facebook changed some parameters –and indeed how annoying it is when any software update takes away familiar patterns of use.

November 26, 2011 5:21 pm
Hana Katsenes on paragraph 1:

I find it fascinating that educated readers were trained to look for multiple meanings in this time. We should train ourselves to do the same, not to simply accept images and texts at face value when we’re presented with art and literature, but to analyze and search for deeper meanings.

November 27, 2011 3:01 pm
Paul Gehl :

You are pointing here, Hana, to an essential skill for scholars in all fields concerned with the past. The context for most literary creations and most artistic ones before the nineteenth-century spread of popular literacy was exactly this kind of multi-level reading.

November 27, 2011 6:21 pm
nicholastotten on paragraph 3:

“They were moral acts…”: At what point might we see that “puzzling something out” gains a high degree of social status, especially in terms of morals? Business-folk, in one line of rhetoric, are seen, for example, today as being de facto morally superior, one could argue (as George Lakoff has), because they have figured out some special problems that others simply haven’t. It seems clearly implied, at least, that the mere publishing of such texts containing moral lessons and then spurring on the “puzzling out” of such and maybe other lessons for the readership would be in itself a very moral act. Did technical problem solving ever see its day in those earlier centuries as a moral venture?

November 27, 2011 11:46 pm
Paul Gehl on whole page :

An important new collection of essays on printer’s marks is: Anja Wolkenhauer, and Bernhard F. Scholtz, eds. Typographorum Emblemata. The Printer’s Mark in the Context of Early Modern Culture, Berlin and Boston, Walter de Gruyter, 2018. I will cite this volume repeatedly in the comments that follow in this chapter, using the shorthand Typographorum Emblemata and page numbers.

June 25, 2018 6:08 am

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