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Northern European Emblem Books, 1550–1700

37 volumes

The term emblema was coined by the jurist Andrea Alciato in 1522: he used it to designate a novel literary device—the witty and erudite pairing of a motto with an epigrammatic commentary. In commenting on the motto, the epigram often makes use of verbal images, and perhaps as a result, one of the earliest (unauthorized) printings of Alciati’s manuscript Emblemata (Augsburg: Heinrich Steyner, 1531) translates verba (words) into picturae (pictures), incorporating woodcut illustrations, interpolated not by Alciato but by the publisher, probably at the behest of Alciato’s humanist friend Conrad Peutinger. Whereas the original Emblemata were erudite, festive, and occasionally ribald, the illustrated versions issued in Southern Germany and France (mainly Lyons) utilized pictures to appeal to a much wider public of reader-viewers.

In the form codified by Andrea Alciato and publishers such as Steyner, emblem books adduce their arguments by means of a complex text-image apparatus that operates bi-directionally, reading from text to image, and conversely, from image to text. Generally, a lemma (motto) is attached to a pictorial image, while a longer epigrammatic text (in verse or prose) comments upon this relationship. The connections between text and image are often complex, even paradoxical, for they were devised to test the reader-viewer’s powers of observation and interpretation. By the second half of the sixteenth century, emblem books had many functions: some were proverbial, others scholarly, yet others exegetical. Some were used to meditate on sacred or secular subjects, others to cultivate the soul and facilitate exercises geared toward self-formation.

Northern Europe was the preeminent center for the production of emblems, and Emory University has an important collection of emblem books, mainly published in the Low Countries, with a few French, German, and Italian comparanda.

—Walter S. Melion

Sacrum sanctuarium crucis et patientiae crucifixorum et cruciferorum, emblematicis imaginibus labor…

  • Author: Bivero, Pedro de, 1572-1656.; Collaert, Adriaen, d. 1618,; Mallery, Karel van, 1571-ca. 1635,; Plantijnsche Drukkerij.
  • Published: 1634
  • Publisher: Ex officina Plantiniana, Balthasaris Moreti
  • Publication City: Antuerpiae
  • Added: April 23, 2020, 5:06 p.m.

Spiegel van het menselyk bedryf vertoonende honderd verscheiden ambachten, konstig afgebeeld en met…

  • Author: Luiken, Jan, 1649-1712.; Luiken, Caspar, 1672-1708.
  • Published: 1730
  • Publisher: By Kornelis van der Sys, Boekverkooper in de Beurstraat, in de drie Raapen
  • Publication City: Te Amsteldam
  • Added: April 22, 2020, 5:51 p.m.