'Bastard' form's trifles and truths

The Emblem
August 1, 2003

Emblem books were bimedial collections of moral aphorisms, political counsel, religious devotion or amatory consolation that flourished between the 16th and 18th centuries. The emblem typically consisted of a motto, a picture - either a woodcut or a copperplate engraving - and a commentary in verse or prose. The emblem's modus operandi was to compare unlike with unlike, a species of simile based on surprising comparisons and striking parallels. They were traditionally dismissed as a literary curiosity, a bastard form whose poetry and illustrations rarely attained high artistic status. Over the past 30 years, scholars have taken a new interest in the emblem, recognising it as a locus for interdisciplinary study, where philology, semiotics, political theory, theology and the history of social mores converge.

John Manning's attractive and amply illustrated monograph is a welcome survey of the field, providing a one-volume introduction to the form and a challenge to some erroneous assumptions that have long marred the emblem's reputation. He emphasises the sheer diversity of the genre, the extent of its penetration into early-modern culture and its establishment of an "image stock" accessible to writers and artists across political and confessional boundaries.

The book begins by attempting to define the emblem, and quickly discovers it to be unwilling to conform to prescriptive rules. The inception of the form can be traced to Andrea Alciato's Emblematum liber (1531), although we are reminded that the epigrams of the Italian jurist and humanist were informed by earlier iconographic traditions, such as medal art, ancient statuary, Egyptian hieroglyphs and medieval tournament devices. Manning devotes attention to Alciato's pioneering work, and discovers an unexpected playfulness and levity in his social and political observations. For long considered a soberly moralistic form, the emblem often conceals wit, even salacious vulgarity. The author supports this reading with analysis of Alciato's neo-Latin verse, where he detects a combination of humanist erudition and frank satirical coarseness.

Another innovation is the emphasis placed on the importance of the form in relation to children. The traditional perspective has maintained that emblems lost respectability when authors increasingly directed their books to a juvenile audience. In a strongly argued chapter, "Children and childish gazers", Manning rehabilitates the emblem as a vibrant species of children's literature, and links the simple, universal truths of such books to the topos of ex nugia seria - out of trifles come serious things.

The Emblem is impressively broad in scope and is sure to become the standard introductory guide to the genre. Manning's insights are not confined to English and Latin emblem books; he also shows competence with French, Dutch, Spanish and German versions of the form. Manning is a most genial guide to the territory, with a lively, eloquent humour that leavens his scholarly rigour. One might quibble that space prevents the author from saying more about the use of emblems in the fine and applied arts; but to have done so, the book would have perhaps transgressed a key tenet of the form: Multum in parvo - much in a small space.

Simon McKeown has written several books on allegory, emblematics and iconology.

The Emblem

Author - John Manning
ISBN - 1 86189 110 5
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £25.00
Pages - 398

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