What Are Emblemata in Art and Literature?

In Italy during the late Renaissance, a new artistic and literary genre was born. Emblemata were a mix of witty epigrams and joyful illustrations that fascinated Europe.

Jan 27, 2024By Anisia Iacob, MA Art History, MA in Philosophy

what are emblemata art literature


In 1531, famous law professor Andrea Alciato published a book of epigrams that became very popular thanks to their witty and ingenious verses. Authors were quick to try and mimic Alciato’s success, while publishers added images to the poems to make the publications more appealing. This is how the emblemata genre began.


Emblemata, or emblem books, were publications that combined short poems in the form of epigrams, an ancient Latin heritage, with the skillfulness of woodcuts to illustrate the meaning of the verses. This block of poetry and image was called an emblem, and the theme of such emblems ranged from love to legends, religion, and politics. Because of this versatility and the appealing combination of image and text, emblems were quick to spread throughout Europe, becoming the favorite pastime of readers who gathered to debate the meaning of emblems.


Emblemata & Its Vast Heritage

titlepage hooft emblemata amatoria utrecht
Engraved title page from Emblemata Amatoria by Pieter Cornelisz Hooft, 1611. Printed in Amsterdam by Karel Porteman, engravings by Ianszoon inde vergulde Zonnewyser. Source: The Emblem Project Utrecht


During the Renaissance in Europe, scholars and enthusiasts from countries that retained architectural ruins from Antiquity became fascinated by their history. During this period, a general interest in Antiquity and history was manifested. Italian scholars, in particular, were living in the heart of the former Roman Empire and so developed a true admiration and passion for the lives and ways of their ancestors. However, there was a slight problem with this.


Although the intellectuals from the medieval period were closer in time to the fall of the Roman Empire and thus closer to its heritage, they manifested little interest in it. In the Middle Ages, Antiquity was seen as something that needed to be modified to fit Christian values. Because of this, medieval intellectuals were very selective with what writings and information would be treasured and passed on, selecting only those that could fit a Christian narrative.

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For example, Aristotle was quickly adopted by medieval intellectuals because most of his philosophy was adapted to be compatible with Christianity. The nature of his metaphysical system also permitted this as it was compatible with a unique God.


It was during the Renaissance that this bias started to fade. Manuscripts and antique objects became of great interest to collectors, and intellectuals began translating and reconstructing ancient histories, legends, and stories. In this context, in the interest of reviving the culture and heritage of ancient times, emblemata were born through a chance of fate. It combined the momentum of enthusiasm for Antiquity with an already existing medieval culture that survived through the Renaissance. Thus, this genre masterfully combines a myriad of influences to create something new and unique.


Emblemata, A Chance of Fate? 

andrea alciato emblemata lyon glasgow
Woodcut title page of Andrea Alciato’s Emblemata, 1550. Printed in Lyon, 1550 by Mathiam Bonhomme. Source: Glasgow University’s project “Alciato at Glasgow”


The creation of the emblemata or emblem tradition is attributed to an Italian professor of law, Andrea Alciato (1492-1550). Like most of his contemporaries, Alciato was passionate about ancient history, especially Roman and Greek history. He keenly studied Latin and ancient Greek, reading ancient texts, stories, and poems. Observing the different writing styles in ancient times, he was dedicated to imitating them and creating his own works. He was very fond of Latin epigrams, which he both studied and wrote as a hobby. An epigram is a satiric short poem with a witty ending, which was very popular in the Roman Empire among poets and comedians.


Alciato was the one to come up with the Greek name of emblemata for his epigrams, borrowing the meaning of the word from the artisans who decorated their creations with various inlays. However, the invention of emblems is not solely thanks to Alciato but also to an Augsburg printer named Heinrich Steiner, who illustrated and printed his epigrams in 1531. Through this collaboration between the author and printer, the idea of emblemata or emblem was born, as the book printed under the name Emblematum Liber was a great success. It was, perhaps, a chance of fate for the two men to have had these ideas and collaborated.


Emblem books reached the height of their popularity during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with an estimated 2,000 publications being published in Europe. This is a great feat for a genre, as although book consumption increased with the invention of the Gutenberg press, making books was still a complex process that took time and funds to complete.


The Context of Alciato’s Emblems

love conquers heinsius emblemata utrecht
Engraved emblem symbolizing the idea that love can conquer everything. Taken from Daniël Heinsius, Emblemata amatoria, 1607/8. Emblems were made in the first edition of this book by Jacob de Gheyn. Source: Emblem Project Utrecht


According to Alvan Bregman, an emblem or emblemata usually has three components. The first is a short heading or a title, called the motto, inscriptio, or lemma. The second is an illustration, called the pictura, and the third is a text of a moralizing and explanatory nature, called the subscriptio. The last part of the emblem is also referred to as the epigram, thus linking the genre with the culture of Antiquity.


Alciato was interested in inscriptions since his youth, transcribing inscriptions from around Milan, which he would study. His hobby, like that of many intellectuals from his time, was to translate epigrams from the Greek Anthology into Latin. This book used by scholars was a collection of poems collected by the Byzantine scholar Maximus Planudes in 1301. The anthology included over 3,000 poems collected from sources as early as the seventh century BCE. This book used by Alciato during his youth had a lasting impact on his work, as various scholars identified more than half of his published epigrams and emblems as being connected to poems from the Greek Anthology. Various themes, imagery, and verses were used by Alciato in his later creations, proving the lengths to which a Renaissance author went to emulate classical literature.


Why Were Emblemata So Popular? 

hooft emblem emblemata amatoria utrecht
Engraved emblem with the motto Nothing without you. Taken from P. C. Hooft Emblemata amatorial, 1611. Printed in Amsterdam by Karel Porteman, engravings by Ianszoon inde vergulde Zonnewyser. Source: Emblem Project Utrecht


As previously mentioned, emblemata was a popular literary genre as it combined literature and images to convey a witty point with a moral aspect. It is, therefore, no surprise that the publications became so popular with the general public. The texts of the emblems were short, oftentimes written in a simple and common language that would have been understood by most literate readers. The epigrams used amusing and witty wordplay to make themselves memorable and catchy, while the message conveyed was enjoyable and something to ponder. The moral aspect of Emblemata was especially highly prized in a society that, although it was beginning to open itself up to the “pagan” ideas of Antiquity, was inherently rooted in the Christian religion and morality.


Besides the textual aspect, the visual one was equally appealing, if not more so. Images were accessible to a greater public, as the viewer didn’t necessarily have to be literate to enjoy the emblem. One only needed to look at the images to get an idea of what they expressed, as most of them relied on mythology and analogies to make their point. Moreover, the aesthetic aspect also played a role in this, as people were most likely attracted to the many illustrations because they were intriguing and pleasant to the eye. The combination of witty text and complex images offered a tempting format that played an important role in the emblems becoming such a popular genre.


Other Influences of the Emblem Genre

good advice late heinsius emblemata utrecht
Engraved emblem with the motto Good advice comes too late. Taken from Daniël Heinsius, Emblemata amatoria, 1607/8. Emblems were made in the first edition of this book by Jacob de Gheyn. Source: Emblem Project Utrecht


Besides their obvious connection to Antiquity, emblem books also have some medieval roots. The witty poem, coupled with an appealing image, has made contemporary scholars posit that emblemata also take inspiration from medieval mnemonic poems. Monks and university professors from medieval times were known to make and use short, funny poems as a way to help students remember complicated notions or concepts. Such poems, for example, were extremely popular and useful to students who struggled to remember notions of Aristotelian logic. Witty poems or saying were used as a sort of catchy code, which signified certain keywords that made the student remember the content. Moreover, many of these phrases had a moral aspect to make them more appealing or memorable.


Another influence of the emblem can also be linked with an early Renaissance tendency of logicians and metaphysicians to illustrate complicated theories in an image format. The most classic example is the Tree of Knowledge, which lists the hierarchy of intellectual disciplines as branches of a tree. Another such example is also found in the logic and pedagogy of Petrus Ramus (1515-1572), which uses diagrams that follow a tree-like aspect for the same purpose, namely remembering. Thus, the model of the emblem and the coupling of text with image can be seen as linked to earlier examples and visual traditions.


A Popular Genre Outside Italy 

emblemata saecularia bry bruegel rijksmuseum
Engraved emblem on the theme of learning. Taken from Emblemata Saecularia, 1596 (series title). Printed in Frankfurt am Main by Johann Theodor en Johann Israel de Bry, designed after Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


The emblemata genre quickly spread in other parts of Europe, where it was appreciated by the literate public. Even since Alciato’s published books, German printers saw the potential of such books and were quick to invest in this type of publication. Dozens of editions of Alciato’s works were spread in the German-speaking part of Europe during the late Renaissance. Wishing to imitate Alciato’s genre, various authors from different countries began writing epigrams and arranging them in the emblem format. Some were published just once, while others became very famous for their emblems and gained a reputation for this genre.


Besides Italy and Germany, which were known as centers for publishing books in Europe, the Netherlands (first a territory under the influence of Habsburg Spain and later as the Dutch Republic) was also becoming a center for publishing. As tensions between the Reformed Dutch and Catholic Spain grew, a lot of printers began fleeing Flanders towards the North (the current territory of the Netherlands). This gave a boost to the Dutch publishing industry, which had yet to make a name for itself. Having a lot of skilled printers migrate helped encourage business and competition in the book market. As famous printshops like the Elzeviers and Blaeu established themselves, the Dutch industry became a real presence at the Frankfurt annual book fair. This, in turn, encouraged authors to publish more, leading to genres like the emblemata to flourish.


The Dutch Craze for Emblemata 

liber amor emblemata saecularia bry bruegel
Engraved emblem on the theme of love and morality. Taken from Emblemata Saecularia, 1596 (series title). Printed in Frankfurt am Main by Johann Theodor en Johann Israel de Bry, designed after Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


Following the popularity of emblem books in Italy, the Dutch quickly adopted this genre and excelled at it during the seventeenth century. Two of the most popular and prolific Dutch emblem authors were P. C. Hooft and Jacob Cats. They published several books with emblemata that eventually became best-sellers. The genre was extremely popular because of its accessibility. The readers didn’t need extensive education to be able to understand or decode the meaning of the emblem. That isn’t to say that some emblems weren’t difficult to decipher and needed further interpretation, but this wasn’t generally the case. In both Hoft and Cats, we see that the main themes of these playful and witty publications have a moral undertone.


However, their main selling point is that of relatability. People could relate to the scenarios presented in these emblems. Daily struggles and life situations were the inspiration for these witty verses. The reader could turn to emblems to find answers or a humoristic take on daily struggles through the examples taken from or inspired by ancient stories and legends of Roman or Greek origin.


The literary and artistic genre of emblemata is an interesting invention of the late Renaissance, which flourished especially during the seventeenth century. The genre became very popular for a number of reasons. Emblems recovered and continued an ancient literary heritage, that of epigrams, while also serving as educational and entertainment tools. The young generations could be educated in both ancient literary/visual motives and also be educated in the matters of life, society, morality, religion, and politics by reading these witty and delightful short poems.

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By Anisia IacobMA Art History, MA in PhilosophyAnisia Iacob holds an MA in both Art History and Philosophy at Leiden University. She holds a BA in Art History where she focused on 17th century Dutch vanitas painting and a BA in Philosophy where she researched fashion and embodied cognition. With a keen interest in anything and everything, her research interest goes from history to neuroscience, attesting to her curious personality. Besides studies, she works as a contributing writer. Anisia looks forward to finishing her two MAs and starting a PhD in Philosophy.