Alciato's Book of Emblems
About Alciato

This section contains a brief background survey, divided into

1 Life of Alciato
2 Publication of the Emblematum liber
3 The Commentary Tradition
4 English Translations
Elsewhere, you may consult
A List of Editions
A Select Bibliography

1 Life of Alciato

Portrait from Boissard, Icones virorum illustrium (Frankfurt, 1597-9) vol. ii, R3v (we also provide a larger version)

Andrea Alciato (or Alciati), the celebrated legal scholar, was born in Alzata near Milan in 1492. His family had long been prominent in the region; they took as their heraldic mark the elk ("alce"; see Emblem 3). Alciato was early recognized as an outstanding student. He studied in Milan under Aulus Janus Parrhasius, and heard lectures by the celebrated Greek scholar Janus Lascaris. Though most of his studies were in Milan, Pavia, and Bologna, he received his doctorate in law from Ferrara when he was 24 years old.

In 1518, when he was 26, he moved to Avignon where he taught law. In 1522 he returned to Milan. In 1529 Francis I invited him to teach at the University of Bourges. In 1534 he returned to Italy, to a series of teaching positions at Pavia, Bologna, Ferarra, and, finally, Pavia, where, after a remarkably distinguished career, he died in early 1550.

Alciato was immensely well known during his lifetime, principally for his interpretations of Roman law. His De verborum significatione (On the signification of words) was an important study that united the new philology with a profound knowledge of ancient law. Erasmus, Budé, and other scholars held him in great respect. His collected works in 4 volumes were published in Basel in 1549, and his commentaries and studies set the direction for the study of civil law for his generation and several to follow. But another book also kept his reputation alive - the Emblematum liber, the Book of Emblems, which he wrote in his spare time, as a kind of jeu d'esprit.

2 Publication of the Emblematum liber

Alciato's earliest mention of his emblem book is in a letter to Francesco Giulio Calvi, a bookseller, 9 January 1523.

During this Saturnalia, at the behest of the illustrious Ambrogio Visconti, I composed a little book of epigrams, which I entitled emblems: in separate epigrams I describe something which, from history or from nature, signifies elegantly (libellum composui epigrammaton, cui tituli feci Emblemata: singulis enim epigrammatibus aliquid describo, quod ex historia, vel ex rebus naturalibus aliquid elegans significet) after which painters, goldsmiths, and metal-workers could fashion the kind of thing we call badges and which we fasten on hats, or use as trademarks, like the anchor of Aldus, the dove of Froben, and the elephant of Calvus, which is long pregnant, but produces nothing. (Latin corrected and translation slightly modified from Daly, et al., Andreas Alciatus, 1:[xx])

There are a number of different accounts of the genesis of Alciato's Book of Emblems. It is clear from the above that they began as translations or variations on fables and on poems in the Greek Anthology. In the passage above, where he speaks of his "little book of epigrams," it seems that he is describing in large part a series of translations and imitations he was making of short poems from this collection of late Hellenistic poetry. Indeed many of the emblems are direct translations. In the translation of the Planudean text organized by Johannes Cornarius, Alciato provided 154 of the poems. Many of these poems later worked their way into his series of "emblems," making up some forty of the first 104 emblems of 1531.

Alciato's genius was to recognize a certain type of riddling, moral poem as a genre and to present his work to his contemporaries in an original series. It has been argued (by Claudie Balavoine and Bernhard Scholz among others, and convincingly to us) that the emblems began and were initially intended as epigrams as such. Though (in his latter to Calvo) he seems quite alert to the signifying power of the images, these images are in words first, and are then only to be transferred to the visual realm. The later standard three- part division of the emblem into motto, picture, and emblem poem seems does not really apply to Alciato, not at least at the beginning.

The importance of the pictures seems to have come only at the moment of unauthorized publication, when the 1531 text appeared in Augsburg, perhaps through the agency of Conrad Peutinger. This first edition seems (to us) to be somewhat in the style of Aesop's fables. Aesop, of course, is an important source for the emblems (see for instance commentary to Emblem 7). The illustrations seem to have been an invention of the publisher or Peutinger or some other person, not Alciato himself. The appropriateness of the pictures in this edition was, however, immediately accepted by Alciato. For in the second, and now authorized, edition of Paris 1534, the pictures were retained, though now carefully redesigned, and organized one emblem per page, perhaps by the direct involvement by the author himself. Alciato certainly kept an interest in this book. He published a further (illustrated) sequence of emblems in 1546. But whether he felt the emblems had to be accompanied by illustrations (the assumption of much emblem theory since) is moot. The important Reliqua opera of 1548 and the scholarly collected works (Basel 1549; posthumous editions in 1558 and 1582) give only the text without pictures.

Alciato wrote 212 emblems in all, but in the later 16th century 211 actually appeared in print. The suppressed Emblem 80 was only restored to the sequence in the famous variorum edition of 1621.

Certainly many of the poems work well without pictures. Often the emblems actually describe pictures or works of art (in the ecphrastic tradition of the Greek Anthology), so that the visual image is in a sense generated by the text itself. Relation of picture and text is never fixed: some emblems have text in tension with the picture, some have texts that refer to the picture (that describe and expand on it), and some have pictures that actually describe the text (so that, in our work of translating, we have occasionally been able to turn to the picture in order to interpret the text, relying on the illustrator for interpretive assistance). The variety of relations provides much of the energy of the emblems as a collection. Certainly there is not a stable relationship between motto, picture, and text, and none of the components should be seen as having a necessary priority. This unstable relationship seems to set Alciato's emblems off from those of many of his successors, who worked very hard to formalize the relationship between motto, picture, and text.

It is our belief that Alciato's emblems should be read carefully, not just looked at, that their verbal ingenuity is a great part of what they are all about. Of course an electronic edition seems to invite a kind of non-contemplative, rapid movement through the texts, so perhaps we are asking for a kind of reading that is at odds with this new medium. Too often 20th-century readers are attracted by the visual images of emblems, and stop there. Yet the emblem in Alciato is also - some might say principally - a working through of moral and verbal dilemmas, of the puns, proverbs, and catchwords of classical Latinity (and Greek). Some of the poems have a very elaborate referentiality, so that commentary becomes necessary, even for highly educated readers.

3 The Commentary Tradition

Very early on, Alciato's contemporaries recognized the pleasures in this puzzling difficulty of the emblems. Their response was to write commentaries on them. One of the earliest was by Barthelemy Aneau, who appended short moral interpretations to his French translation of 1549. Another short commentary was that of Franciscus Sanctius, a professor at Salamanca. A much larger scholarly interpretation was by the Dijon jurist Claude Mignault, published in 1573 and in later editions. There were other commentaries by Diego Lopez (1615) and Laurentius Pignorius (1618). A great deal of the previous commentary was combined in the remarkable variorum edition of Padua, 1621, prepared by Johannes Thuilius, professor at Breisgau. In this the notes for a single emblem have swollen to fill several pages.

We give notice of the main commentaries in our brief List of Editions.

In this Web edition, we intend to provide a brief commentary for each emblem. The temptation to expand the commentary is great, but we hope to resist the impulse. We have already prepared sample commentaries for a number of emblems. Most of our notes follow the extraordinarily learned work of the 16th and 17th century commentators.

4 English Translations

Some of the earliest versions of Alciato's emblems in English are found in two works, by Thomas Palmer and Geffrey Whitney. Palmer's Two Hundred Poosees is a manuscript emblem book (1566) that rewrites many of the Alciato emblems. Whitney's A Choice of Emblemes was published in Leiden in 1586 by Christopher Plantin. Whitney often radically rewrites Alciato, so it is difficult to call his poems translations.

There is an early 17th-century translation in manuscript (Green 137), apparently now in the hands of a private collector. We have heard in conversation that Karl Josef Hoeltgen has promised an edition. This work has however never been published. (There are samples of this translation in Green, and we give one of the manuscript's renderings in our commentary to Emblem 7.)

A late Victorian translation "in English verse" by the Rev. G.S. Cautley was announced as having been completed and ready for publication (Green 179). But it too has never appeared.

The first English translation appeared only in 1985, in an index of Alciato's emblems prepared by a team headed by Peter Daly of the German Department of McGill University, and published by University of Toronto Press. The translation was made by Virginia Callahan, with the assistance of Paola Valeri-Tomaszuk. As the first in English, it certainly deserves praise.

Alciato is not at all easy to translate, and naturally (as with any translation) in many places we must disagree with the Toronto edition. Nevertheless, it seems odd to us that this important translation never reappeared (with the necessary revisions) in a single volume with a short commentary. For that is what is needed by English readers. Such a translation, with a commentary, based on the edition of Lyons 1550, has recently been completed by Betty I. Knott for Scolar Press (1996); it is a wonderfully clear and authoritative piece of work.

List of Editions
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Last revised 19 November 1997