Sunday, August 16, 2015

Maureen E Mulvihill: “The Emblem in Europe”

Maureen E. Mulvihill

Book Review

Peter M. Daly, The Emblem in Early-Modern Europe: Contributions to the Theory of the Emblem. Ashgate Publishing Ltd. (Surrey UK and Burlington USA, 2014), 234 pp., 63 b&w ills. ISBN: 978-1-4724-3013-7

1> Delivering sententiae to the masses in early-modern Europe was critical to governance and stability. But as the power élite was quick to discover, the spoken word from pulpits had limited impact; basic moral and ethical principles were conveyed more effectively through articulate images. Owing to low literacy rates and limited access to printed text, entire populations soon received instruction through the more stimulating sensory medium of the visual arts: paintings, sculpture, prints (woodcuts, etchings), emblem-books, symbols, historiated initials, and the like. The emblem was a particularly robust genre, and entire books of these enigmatic designs (early anthologies, really) soon established themselves as reliable guides, competing favorably with such specialized texts as bibles, missals, breviaries, hagiographies, and the perfunctory conduct manual. Emblems in printed books were not merely a species of decorative book arts, they were serious content of a higher order: emblems interpreted the world for readers, telling them what to value and avoid, telling them how to live. Emblems also offered readers maxims and principles for private meditation; and, of special interest, emblems exercised readers in the specialized art of deconstructing visual text.

2> Emblem-books were a short-lived vogue, a transient phenomenon in early-modern book history, owing to predictable changes in consumer taste, as well as the rise of more spectacular modes of instruction, principally painting. For many centuries, emblems were marginalized as a hybrid construct (a mixed art form) of encoded image with didactic text; they were a minor, if peculiar, sub-order of scholarly inquiry. But with the recent upsurge of interest in iconography, book history, book illustration, and the utility of multimedia methodology (especially the intersection of word and image), emblem studies has achieved its own respected, if hard-won, niche in the canon. Ambitious global databases, such as Emblematica Online (Illinois), along with dedicated emblem websites, journals (Imago; Emblematica), monographic series, and facsimile editions of the early emblem-books, all attest to the importance of these enigmatic images to scholars and readers.

3> Peter M. Daly, dating from his first publications in the 1970s, has distinguished himself as an authority in emblem studies. A graduate of the University of Bristol UK and of Universität Zürich, Switzerland, Dr Daly is presently professor emeritus, McGill University, Montreal. While most of his work on emblems engages with German baroque literature, he has wisely extended his focus to include representations of the emblem in other book cultures. A detailed summary of his training, credits, and awards is at Alan Young Research.

4> The goal of Peter Daly’s newest offering in emblem studies is to contribute to the evolving “theory” of the emblem, begun by earlier emblem specialists Mario Praz (1939), Rosemary Freeman (1948), William S. Heckscher (1959), and Albrecht Schöne (1964); they did the first serious work on emblems and emblem theory, they provided the foundation and suggested new directions. Yet, as Daly, writes, addressing the most sensitive aspect of his new book, “Relatively little seems to have been published on what might be called emblem theory [emphasis supplied], although with so many printed books of emblems and imprese it would be difficult to formulate one theory that would encompass them all. But that does not mean that existing theories [by the scholars named above] have solved all the problems. Disagreement is likely to continue, but certain issues do appear to remain” (Preface, [xiii]). Over ten closely sourced and lavishly illustrated chapters, Daly’s new book scours representations of emblems in printed books in mostly 16th- and 17th-century Belgium, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Scotland, Spain, etc. Readers will find in Daly’s book sixty-three generously formatted images of emblems as they appeared in the original early emblem-books. His chapters consider such subjects as ‘truth’ in emblems; emblems as transmitters of knowledge and tradition; mnemonics and emblems; the reading of emblems; and, of special interest, Jesuit emblems (do they serve God, Man, or the Society of Jesus?).

5> The principal strength of the book is Daly’s immersive philological method; he collates his material and selected images from several book markets (impressive enough!), and he also supplies some close and measured distinctions. For example, he organizes his data into cultural units, such as Dutch emblem-books, English emblem-books, Jesuit emblem-books, “realistic” emblem-books, and so on. Daly’s discussion of page design and the physical layout of emblem pages in the printed emblem-books is entirely useful; he shows, with numerous examples, that the emblem presentation in most early-modern printed books had its own signature structure (or ‘visual rhetoric’): viewers were engaged optically and mentally as the eye would scan over an entire page, seeking to decode and grasp the message of the emblem and ‘language’ of the page. (Early cerebrations for the early-modern brain, indeed!) The design of the emblem page often followed a threefold division: (i) the motto (inscriptio), at the head of the page, often in a foreign language; (ii) below that, serving as the page’s dominant interest, the emblem itself (the imago or pictura) whose figures often originated in biblical, mythological, or occult sources (emblems inspired by images from the natural world were “realistic”, uncoded emblems); and (iii) under the emblem, a block of interpretive text (subscriptio), guiding the reader’s interpretation of the page’s overall message. As Daly emphasizes, the entire presentation engages the reader in a complex experience of seeing, reading, and understanding. As in the image, below, eye and mind are called to task by this familiar emblem in George Wither’s classic emblem-book (London, 1635). The theme of the entire page, asserted in the motto (or inscriptio) is the durability of the Church (“She shall increase in glory, still, ….”); the page’s emblem displays a “knot” of three intersecting “crescent moons” representing the three-fold aspect of the Church (the Church Militant, the Church Suffering, the Church Triumphant); the interpretive text below the emblem relates the motto to the emblem, lending a harmony of meaning to the entire page. Reader, behold:

From northern Europe’s most famous emblem book,
George Wither’s Collection of Emblemes
(London, 1635), Book 2, emblem 49.
In Peter M. Daly’s Emblem (2014), Figure 4.7, page 77.
With permission, Scolar Fine Art Ltd / Ashgate Publishing Group Ltd.

George Wither’s Collection of Emblemes
(London, 1635; engraved frontis., William Marshall)
Image, Couleurs2, Yama-boto Images.

6> There are but a few lost opportunities in this handsome, impressive survey. Informed readers may wish that Daly had written more on the design origins of the emblems he selected, as well as the physical aspects of emblem production by early-modern master engravers and, perhaps, woodcutters. Who were these designers and artisans? Which mediums were typically used in the creation of emblems? George Wither relied chiefly on the earlier plates and designs of master artisans Crispin van Passe and Gabriel Rollenhagen; but which other artists and tradesmen contributed to the creation of these small visual narratives? Also a fold-out timeline, in the book’s front matter, of the principal emblem-books, from Alciato’s Emblematica (1531; over 100 editions) to, perhaps, Kaspar Mändl’s work in 1709, would have been useful, especially to non-specialists. We also might mention that the book’s index ([231]–234) is limited to proper names, thus pre-empting quick and convenient access to special subjects (e.g., “booksellers of emblems”; “digital initiatives in emblem studies”; “engravers and artisans of emblems”; “facsimile editions of emblem books”; “popularity and multiple editions of emblem-books”; etc.). Finally, as an appendix to the book’s Select Bibliography ([221]-229), a dedicated list of digital resources for emblem studies would have been most desirable. As a late addition to this essay, and thus its slightly delayed placement in the current issue, Daly might have mentioned a fine collection of rare emblem-books at The Ringling Art Library, Sarasota, Florida. During a scheduled visit to Ringling on 14 August 2015, this writer examined thirteen beautiful copies of rare 17th-century emblem-books, many with distinguished provenances, such as John Ringling, founder of The Ringling Museum of Art; and Robert Hoe, collector, inventor, and first president of New York City’s Grolier Club.

7> Owing to the breadth of Daly’s approach and his book’s many handsome illustrations, this book will attract the interest and respect of specialists and non-specialists alike. Specialists will admire its rigor, intelligence, and organization; generalists will appreciate Daly’s sensible guidance on the challenging process of emblem-reading. Applause, all around.


Acknowledgments: The author takes pleasure in thanking the following for their contribution to this review essay: David Cota, Senior Marketing Coordinator, Ashgate Publishing Group Ltd, Burlington, Vermont; W. Scott Howard, editor, Appositions; Mēgan Oliver, Reference Librarian, The Ringling Art Library, Sarasota, Florida.

Maureen E. Mulvihill (PhD,Wisconsin, ’82; post doc., Yale Center for British Art; Columbia University Rare Book School; NEH Fellow, Johns Hopkins University) is a rare book collector and specialist on English and Irish writers, with complementary strengths in book history and the visual arts. She is an elected member, Princeton Research Forum, NJ, and formerly Associate Fellow, Institute for Research in History, NYC. From 2012-May, 2015, she served as Vice President, Florida Bibliophile Society. In addition to many essays, articles, and reviews, her book credits include two editions of the rare ‘Ephelia’ texts (NY, 1992, 1993Aldershot UK, 2003); a multimedia ‘Ephelia’ archive (Penn., 2001-); an edition of Mary Shackleton Leadbeater’s poems, with extended critical essay (Irish Women Poets, 2008); and, as Advisory Editor, Ireland & The Americas, 3 vols (Oxford UK; Santa Barbara, Ca., 2008). Notices on her April, 2015 event on the Schoenberg Manuscripts (valuation, US$20M.) are hosted on several websites. She is at work on Irishwomen’s early political writings and response.


Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges



Felix de Villiers said...

I find this review very interesting. I had never given much thought to emblems and here they are existing in a rich world of their own. Mulvihill's prose immaculate as usual. I would have liked to see more emblems but those that appear are really little works of concentrated art, of imaginative craftsmanship.

Felix de Villiers,
Verona, Italy

Doug Saum said...

Like de Villiers I, too, found the subject novel yet compelling. Intriguing to think how writing spread ideas through emblems (art) with a soon to be literate population. I cant help but wonder if we are moving back to a greater reliance on artistic imagery to express ourselves. Perhaps a pendulum effect? Thanks for this. This topic fits right in with Mulvihill's long time study of early and rare books and seems to promise another enlightening read.