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Andrea Alciato's Emblematum liber,
Heinrich Steyner, 29 July 1534


This work is reproduced from Glasgow University Library: SM20

This is the third edition of Alciato's emblems printed by Heinrich Steyner in Augsburg. The influence of Alciato's emblems is enormous and, since they first appeared in Latin, extends over the whole of Europe. By the 1620s, over a hundred more editions of Alciato's emblems would be printed, not only in Latin but in French, German, Italian and Spanish, and many of the emblems appear in English in Geffrey Whitney's Choice of Emblems (1586). Alciato's emblems set the pattern commonly, though not universally associated with the emblem, that is a motto or inscriptio, a picture (pictura) and a verse text or epigram (the subscriptio). The corpus would eventually stretch to 212 emblems, but early editions had a little over a hundred.

Andrea Alciato (1492-1550)

Portrait of Andrea Alciato (1492-1550)

Alciato was born in Alzate near Milan. He is famed not only for his emblems but as a legal scholar. He studied in Milan, Pavia. Bologna and Ferrara, and taught law both in Italy and at different periods in France, including a stay in Bourges from 1529-1534 at the invitation of François I. His interpretative work on Roman law is still of interest to legal historians today.

Publication History

This is the third of three closely similar editions of Alciato's emblems produced in Augsburg and printed by Heinrich Steyner. The first two had appeared in February and April of 1531. It would seem that Alciato himself had nothing to do with this series of editions, produced at the behest of his friend and colleague the Humanist Conrad Peutinger (1465-1547). The 'emblems', though probably unillustrated, had circulated among Alciato's friends in manuscript, and Peutinger commissioned the woodcuts. From 1534 onwards publishing shifted to France and remained there for the next thirty years, and in the first French edition Alciato is very critical of the previous editions. Whether Steyner's 1534 edition followed or preceded the first Paris one cannot be established. In comparison with later editions, notably the Paris ones produced by Wechel, Steyner's leave something to be desired. The woodcuts are believed to be by Hans Schäufelein, on account of the monogram featured on the colophon page of the second edition.

Andrea Alciato's Emblematum liber, Paris, Augsburg, Heinrich Steyner, 29 July 1534

This book contains only 104 emblems, of which 97 are illustrated with woodcuts believed to be by Hans Schäufelein after the Augsburg painter Jörg Breu. Read a Bibliographical Description. These are often of inferior workmanship, and at times ill-suited to their context. Nevertheless they possess a certain charm and the iconographic tradition which they launch is broadly maintained for close on a hundred years. The most serious criticism in terms of the development of the genre is the arrangement of the emblems on the page: no attempt is made to establish the kind of logical arrangement of motto, pictura and subscriptio or verse text [= 'primary text' in our search engine] on one page which we would later expect.

GUL SM 20 E5vo-E6ro. Top left woodcut = 60mm wide
GUL SM 20 E5vo-E6ro. Top left woodcut = 60mm wide.

The text itself is also faulty at times. There are signs of misreading a manuscript, for instance 'uinxit' for 'iunxit' or 'mutile' for 'inutile'. Another tendency is to simplify 'ae' as 'e', even in, for instance 'quae'. Punctuation is particularly irregular, and question marks are often omitted. Some errors have been corrected, on the basis of the Errata from the first edition, but many problems remain. Where a reading is deemed corrupt, corrections are made in our transcriptions with the help of the later Wechel editions published in Paris from 1534 onwards.

More interestingly, the texts of certain emblems are clearly written from Alciato's own Italian standpoint. Thus for instance 'Foedera' here is 'Foedera Italorum' and 'In adulari inscientem' is viewed from a specifically Italian perspective, referring to the 'Insubres' that is Alciato's home area near Milan in what must be a satirical comment, and 'Tumulus Ioannis Galeacii...' refers to the threats posed to Italy by particular countries which will later be more generally expressed in terms of mercenary armies.

The Glasgow copy of this edition contains interesting early manuscript additions, which have unfortunately been cropped in the course of rebinding. Most obviously, the emblems have been numbered on the basis of the Paris edition.

Select Secondary Bibliography

Henry Green, Andrea Alciati and his Book of Emblems. A Biographical and Bibliographical Study (London: Trübner, 1872), 6.

John Landwehr, German Emblem Books 1531-1888. A Bibliography (Utrecht: Haentjens Dekker and Gumbert, 1972), 26.


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