Emblems and Enigmas

Emblem book, Andrea Alciato, Emblematum Libri Duo (Lyon: 1547) acquired by University of Glasgow Library in 2014 with an NFA grant of £2,450.

What is an emblem book? Put simply, it is a small picture book. The illustrations are accompanied by mottos and texts that combine to make a point or tell a story. It is up to the reader to crack the emblematic code by interpreting these interacting symbols and words in order to understand the message hidden within.

Alciato, Tournes 1547

Andrea Alciato, ‘Emblematum Libri Duo’. Lyon: 1547

Emblem books were produced prolifically on the Continent thoughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Andrea Alciato (1492-1550) is credited with producing the first; his Emblematum liber was originally published in Augsburg by Heinrich Steyner in 1531. Many editions followed.

Sixteenth-century French editions were particularly important for developing Alciato’s work. The first of these was produced in Paris in 1534 by Chrestien Wechel. No doubt he had heard of the success of Alciato’s book and decided to benefit commercially from its popularity. He spoke disparagingly of the earlier, German versions and provided a completely new series of illustrations. He reinforced the unity of the three parts of the emblem – motto, picture and verse/epigram – by printing them on the same page. His venture was so successful that he went on to produce sixteen subsequent editions.

The University of Glasgow Library possesses probably the finest collection of emblem literature ever amassed. Originally formed in the 19th century by Sir William Stirling Maxwell, it is recognised today as an internationally important research resource comprising over 2,000 works, including over 80 different Alciato editions.

Alciato, Paris 1542, acq 1990

Andrea Alciato, ‘Emblematum libellus’. Paris: 1542 (acquired in 1990 with an NFA grant of £375)

 The NFA has supported the purchase of no less than 8 different Alciato editions since the early 1980s which, despite his obsessive collecting, helped to fill gaps in Stirling Maxwell’s original collection. Our latest acquisition is the first edition of Alciato’s two books of emblems printed together. It was produced by Jean de Tournes in 1547. The beautiful woodcuts in this edition add greatly to its significance as they are the first use of the exquisite blocks attributed to the renowned artist Bernard Salomon, and all subsequent illustrations in Alciato editions descend from them.

Alciato, Lyon 1550, acq 1985

Andrea Alciato, ‘Emblemata’. Lyon: 1550 (acquired in 1985 with an NFA grant of £209)

Potentially, emblem books offer us a key to a fuller understanding of the Renaissance and Baroque mind. Yet even for those of us who lack the cryptic crossword skills to fully understand their meaning, they are attractive books and fascinating early survivors of the text/image genre.

Julie Gardham
Senior Librarian, Special Collections
University of Glasgow Library



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