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Commentary on Emblem 80

A "choenix" (Greek choinix) is a vessel used to measure out daily portions of grain in ancient Greece (in Herodotus 1.192 and 7.187).

According to the 1621 commentary there are three main sources. These help to explain the emblem.

The first is a passage from the famous "symbols of Pythagoras" a collection of ten obscure commandments that had circulated in antiquity, and that had been codified in the 1st century AD in "On the Education of Children" formerly held to be by Plutarch and which still appears as the first essay in his Moralia (12E). This essay was widely read in the Renaissance, so "do not sit on a choenix" would have been familiar to many readers. Other typical symbola are "do not touch black- tails" (keep no company with evil people) and "abstain from beans" (keep away from public affairs).

The symbols of Pythagoras are explained in great detail by Erasmus near the beginning of his Adages (1.1.2 in Collected Works of Erasmus 34:33-5). For Erasmus Choenice ne insideas or "do not sit on the grain-measure" means "shun idleness" (and that is how Alciato uses it in another emblem "Desidia" [81]). But here Alciato clearly redirects the meaning to something like "obey customary law, do not place the unclean in the clean" (in "do not sit on the grain-measure" for "sit" he seems to substitute "shit," if we may unforgiveably allow ourselves this English pun). And the meaning of "adulterium" in the last line means "adulteration" as well as "adultery" (and sexual misconduct in general).

The second source is a two-line epigram by the Roman poet Martial (1.37). Here the scatalogical humour can be seen: "Your bowels' load - and you are not ashamed - you receive in a golden vessel - unhappy urn! Bassus, you drink out of crystal; therefore your shit is the more costly." Thomas More plays with this image of golden chamberpots in his Utopia, to show the Utopian contempt for wealth. (The association of the golden chamberpot is not made in the poem, but in the illustration for 1621 Thuilius tells us he ordered the artist to place a pitcher and a cup on a table nearby, enhancing the reference back to Martial's poem.)

The third source is book 5 dream 24 in the Oneirocritica or Interpretation of Dreams by the late 2nd century AD writer Artemidorus: "A man dreamt that he was defecating onto a choenix of corn. He was convicted for having sexual intercourse with his own sister. For the choenix is a measure, and a measure is like a law. And so, by his actions, he was transgressing, in a certain sense, the laws set down in common for the Greeks" (trans Robert J. White [Park Ridge NJ: Noyes Press 1975] 232). Here we can see the sexual implication of the final lines of Alciato's emblem, including the adjective "incestus" which relates directly to Artemidorus' interpretation.

The Text
In the standard edition of 1621 the first line reads "Turpe quidem dictu, sed et est res improba factu" (Certainly it is shocking to say, but the thing is even wicked in deed), and it is often quoted thus. The correct reading (in all the early editions) was pointed out by W.S. Heckscher whose article on this emblem is one of the most engaging and learned pieces in English on Alciato.

The Picture
In the illustration from our copy (owned by W. Barker) the actual detail of defecation has been inked out. Compare the picture in the edition of 1546, where the emblem first appeared.

Last modified 25 November 1997