Andrea Alciati, (1492-1550) was a celebrated legal scholar, humanist, and pedagogue, born in Alzata near Milan in 1492. Recognized as a kind of prodigy from an early age, Alciati was only twenty-four years old when he received his doctorate in law from the University of Ferrara. His De Verborum Significatione (On the Signification of Words) was an important work which combined humanist philology with Alciati’s impressive knowledge of ancient law (Erasmus, Budé, along with many other important humanists, regarded this text with great admiration). His collected works in four volumes were published in Basel in 1549, and his commentaries and studies set the direction for the study of civil law during his lifetime and beyond. But it was another book that kept his reputation alive long after his work on Roman law ceased to be well known—the Emblematum liber, or the Book of Emblems, which he apparently composed in his spare time between teaching and writing on law and philology. This work is a collection of 212 Latin emblem poems, each consisting of a motto (a proverb or other short enigmatic expression), a picture, and an epigrammatic text which invites the reader to decipher the poem/picture’s hidden meaning. Alciati's book was first published in 1531 and was expanded in various editions during the author's lifetime. Its publication began a fad for emblem poetry that lasted well into the late eighteenth century. Yet when the Emblemata was first published in 1531, it may have been unauthorized by Alciati. This first edition featured illustrations by Jorg Breu written for Alciati’s text, but the original idea of uniting poetry with images likely came from the publisher, Conrad Peutinger (1465-1547).
|Not for you, for the God!|
Alciati’s short verses probably began their lives as translations or variations on fables and poems from the Greek Anthology. What would become a book on emblems, then, originated as a kind of classical imitatio. The emblems may even have originally been intended to be epigrams, but they gradually became a kind of riddling, moral poem; though Alciati was certainly a visual thinker, it appears that his emblems were written first and only later connected to images. In fact, the later three part division of the emblem into motto, picture, and verse doesn’t really hold water in the case of the Emblematum liber, and most of the author’s verses can stand on their own unaccompanied by images: editions published in 1548, 1558, and 1582 feature no illustrations whatsoever. This does not imply that there is no connection between poem and image, however. Often the emblems actually describe pictures or works of art (in the ekphrastic tradition of the Greek Anthology), so that the visual image is in a sense generated by the text itself. Yet the relation of picture and text is never fixed: some emblems have text in tension with the picture, some have texts that may refer to the picture (that expand on it), and some have pictures that literally describe the text. There is, then, no stable relationship between motto, picture, and text, as can be found in later emblem books.
Many of the early images are comparatively easy to interpret and have simple morals. Emblem three, for example, features an elk raising its hooves with a Latin motto which translates into “never postpone anything.”
The epigram relates the story of when Alexander was asked how he accomplished so much, he claimed it was because he never desired to delay. The Elk with the raised hooves was actually the sign of the Alciati family, and the moral of the epigram is clearly advising readers not to procrastinate. Other emblems are more complex, such as emblem two hundred and twelve, the two-colored popular tree. This emblem states, “Herculeos crines bicolor quod Populus ornet, Temporis alternat noxque diesque vices. Because Hercules wears the two colored poplar in his hair, both night and day alternate in time.” The suggestion seems to be that they who lose now are destined for victory later, and they who are victorious now will later lose. The wheel of fortune ever turns. But obviously this interpretation isn’t the only meaning possible, and the later images tend to be extraordinarily multivalent. Readers are invited by the text to discern hidden meanings that aren’t readily apparent.
This multivaliancy likely contributed to the Emblem Book’s popularity, and although the first edition was likely not originally published with the author’s permission, the work sold well. Taking advantage of the works popularity, in 1534, Alciati prepared a more official, authorized version with the same publisher but with redesigned illustrations. The book kept selling throughout the 1530s and far beyond, and Alciati published a further sequence of illustrations in 1546 to meet the demand of his new readership. In fact, Alciati’s book proved so popular that between 1531 and the last edition of 1790, the Emblemata went through 130 editions printed by numerous printers located in a variety of different countries.
For instance, both of the Center’s editions were printed by Franciscus Raphelengius (1539-1597), a Flemish-born Dutch scholar, printer, and bookseller. Raphelengius was based in Leiden and was the patriarch of the Raphelengius printing family as well as the son-in-law of the renowned printer, Christopher Plantin—from whom Ralphelengius had initially inherited his press. Christopher Plantin, of course, had originally established himself in Leiden after his previous office in Antwerp had been plundered in the so-called “Spanish Fury” of 1576 (the beleaguered printer had been forced to pay an immense ransom to the occupying Spanish forces in order to recover his tools and goods). When the political situation eventually calmed down, Plantin retuned to Antwerp, leaving his son-in-law to manage the Leiden office while he oversaw his company’s original headquarters. Both of the Center’s editions of Alciati reflect this turbulent history in important ways.
For instance, each of the Center’s Emblematicas are illustrated with the second set of woodcuts produced for Christopher Plantin’s 1577 version of Alciati’s text. It was common practice for publishers to quickly produce emblem books by reusing whatever images were on hand in the printing house, usually woodcuts or engravings left over from previous works. But that wasn’t what Plantin did for his edition. Instead of refurbishing previous illustrations, the 1577 Plantin Emblematica reproduced most of the original woodcuts from the texts overseen by Alciati. The only images significantly altered were the tree emblems found in the final third of the emblem book. The original tree illustrations were much more literal interpretations of Alciati’s verses—they depict whatever activity is referenced in the poem, and are thus effectively analogous to the riddling verbal icons written by the author. The Plantin tree illustrations, on the other hand, are just images of trees without any human elements being directly depicted. Thus, with the exception of the trees, both of the Center’s editions are relatively faithful to Alciati, but they also have their origins in editions initially printed by Raphelengius’ more famous father-in-law.
Yet beyond the illustrations, the two editions are actually quite dissimilar. Aside from being larger, the quarto edition’s woodcuts are surrounded by a number of detailed ornaments and frames which are entirely absent in the duodecimo volume. More importantly, while both editions feature the commentary of Claude Mignault, the quarto edition’s paratextual apparatuses are much more extensive. Both editions feature Mignault’s explications of Alciati’s text, but the smaller edition places the commentary after Alciati’s poems and their accompanying images, while the larger quarto provides the explication immediately after each woodcut and verse. Surrounded by a scholarly apparatus, the quarto’s language and images are much more explicitly mediated compared to the smaller book. Yet at the same time, this scholarly apparatus also lends the text a certain weight and authority; it frames these little poems as something worthy of scholarly attention and interpretation. The duodecimo volume is also missing the commentator’s “Letter to the Studious and Honest Reader.” In its place is a life of Alciati, written by Mignault, but not found in the quarto edition. These differences point to the likely reason why Raphelengius printed two separate editions of the same book in the same year: they are each aimed at different audiences. The smaller book seems directed toward a broader readership, one more interested in deciphering Alciati’s riddles then in the rhetorical theory underlying the pedagogical effectiveness of visual images. This is the same audience that would have appreciated the biography of the author in place of a letter explicitly directed at an audience defined by its learning and studious habits.