Book Library Blog


Emblemata, Emblemata, Emblemata – May

Saturday, 30 April, 2011 by Erica Foden-Lenahan


What is an emblem book? It is a form that was tremendously popular during the Renaissance. It is believed that the Italian lawyer Andrea Alciato devised the first such book. The books themselves contained small illustrations (a bit like a modern thumbnail image) that were accompanied by “a brief title or motto, an edifying verse epigram, and often an additional explanatory text in verse or prose.”                (Gordon Collection: Emblem Books http://www2.lib.virginia.edu/rmds/portfolio/gordon/emblem/)

These books were created by individuals and reveal their own outlook, but they also “communicate moral, political, or religious values in ways that have to be decoded by the viewer.” (Glasgow University Emblem Project. http://www.emblems.arts.gla.ac.uk/) They often have classical or humanist sources, such as Erasmus’s Adages. (Gordon Collection: Emblem Books http://www2.lib.virginia.edu/rmds/portfolio/gordon/emblem/)

Alciato introduced the first Emblematum liber, published by Heinrich Steyner and printed in Augsburg in 1531. Scholarship suggests that Alciato himself had nothing to do with this series of editions, but that his associate and friend Conrad Peutinger commissioned the publications based on unillustrated epigrams, etc., that “had circulated among Alciato’s friends in manuscript” (Andrea Alciato’s Emblematum. Alciato at Glasgow.  http://www.emblems.arts.gla.ac.uk/alciato/books.php?id=A31a&o=). Several versions were printed in continental Europe and were collected widely.

This month’s CABS Book-of-the-Month is a version printed, we believe, in Leiden by Franciscus Raphelengius (son-in-law of Christoph Plantin) in 1608. We don’t know for sure because the title page is a hand drawn copy that was added at some stage, possibly to replace the original title page which was destroyed. But one inclined to conspiracy theories might think that it was a deliberate attempt to associate an inferior copy with a renowned publishing house and established edition of the book. Who knows?

This book is fascinating for a number of other reasons, mostly relating to its binding. First of all, the book has no writing on the spine, but Alciatus is written vertically on the fore-edge of the book, two letters per row. Anyone interested in library history will know that bookshelves as we know them only came into common usage well into the era of the printed book. Manuscripts and early printed books were usually laid flat on lecterns or shelves and were often chained to the furniture. It was only with the mass production of books that forced libraries to find a more space-efficient way of storing them. Initially they were shelved upright, fore-edge facing out. Blind-tooled decoration was common in northern Europe into the 17th century and that did not lend itself well to spine titles. With the spread of gold-tooling from northern Africa via Italy and Spain, which was a more visible way of marking the spine, books began to be shelved spine outwards.

We know very little about the book’s provenance other than it was given to the Courtauld in 1978 in accordance with the bequest of the art historian and collector Dame Joan Evans. But if the book was published in The Netherlands it was northern Europe and the binding tells us a bit more. The book has been sewn onto pasteboard boards using 4 parchment thongs, which are visible because there are no pastedowns. These are all features of that suggest the binding is contemporary to the publication of the book, if 1608 is correct.

The covering is brown calf, blind tooled with floral and compass motif stamps, one of which incorporates the initials RW. The initials could be those of the owner of the book, although they are more likely to have been those of the binder or the finisher (the person who decorated the binding). The initials also suggest a northern European origin, as the letter W appears in Spanish, Italian and French words usually only of foreign borrowings.

The book has a shelfmark of CABS Z7483 ALC. We have another edition (Emblemata ad quae singula, praeter concinnas insciptiones, imagines…) in the Anthony Blunt bequest. This was published in Lyon in 1626. Its shelfmark is BLUNT ALICIATI. The library has a other emblem books, including a copy of Ripa’s Iconologia, which is not an emblem book per se, but has similar elements, Jacob Cats’s Proteus ofte minne-beelden verandert in sinne-beelden, for an example of a Flemish emblem book, and an 1883 facsimile of Jean Cousin’s Liber: Fortunæ centũ emblemata, et symbola centũ, continens…, as well as a number of books about emblem books.

There are numerous emblem projects, so if you are interested:
OpenEmblem Project – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – http://media.library.uiuc.edu/projects/oebp/
Alciato’s Book of Emblems – Memorial University at St. John’s, Newfoundland – http://www.mun.ca/alciato/index.html
Glasgow University Emblem site – http://www.emblems.arts.gla.ac.uk/
Alciato at Glasgow – http://www.emblems.arts.gla.ac.uk/alciato/
The English Emblem Project – Penn State University – http://emblem.libraries.psu.edu/home.htm
Emblem Project Utrecht – http://emblems.let.uu.nl/index.html

Erica Foden-Lenahan
Special Collections

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