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Andrea Alciato's Emblemata,
Officina Plantiniana, 1591


This work is reproduced from Glasgow University Library: SM58

This is one of the series of smaller format editions produced by the Plantin workshops in Antwerp and Leiden of Alciato's Emblematum liber or Emblemata, the work which is recognised as the first printed emblem book and the most frequently printed (over 100 editions in all, published in Germany, France, the Spanish Netherlands and Italy before the 1620s). The influence of Alciato's emblems is enormous and, since they first appeared in Latin, extends over the whole of Europe. They 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. In due course translations would appear not only in French, but also in German, Italian and Spanish, and many of the emblems appear in English in Geffrey Whitney's Choice of Emblems (1586).

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

Alciato's emblems were first published in Augsburg in Germany (two editions in 1531 and one in 1534); from 1534 onwards publishing shifted to France and remained there for the next thirty years. Chrestien Wechel at first produced Latin editions (from 1534), like those in Augsburg. He can be said to have set the standard for clear presentation of emblems, with each emblem beginning on a fresh page, featuring the motto or title, the pictura below that, and then the subscriptio or verse text [= 'primary text' in our search engine]. In 1536 there appeared the first French version of Alciato's emblems, by Jean Lefevre. Wechel went on publishing Alciato until the late 1540s, producing further Latin editions, editions including Lefevre's French, and indeed also a similarly conceived German/Latin edition, with the translation by Wolfgang Hunger, in 1542. After an unillustrated pirated Lyons edition by Denys de Harsy, probably dating from late 1540, the main focus of publication for emblems shifted more firmly to Lyons from the mid 1540s, with editions of Alciato first by Jacques Moderne (1544, pirated), by the celebrated Lyons printer Jean de Tournes, and then, with a programme of editions, by Guillaume Rouille and Macé Bonhomme from 1548 onwards. At the same time, the total number of Alciato's emblems had been growing. In particular 86 new emblems were published in Venice in 1546, and others enter the corpus piecemeal. The 1550 Latin edition by Rouille is the first to have 211 emblems (the whole corpus, apart from the so-called obscene emblem 'Adversus naturam peccantes') illustrated. The Rouille/Bonhomme programme of editions included not only a French translation, but also versions in Italian and Spanish. Christopher Plantin's first edition of the emblems appeared in 1565, following the de Tournes format: thus in early editions not all the emblems are illustrated. From 1577 onwards, Plantin used a new set of slightly larger woodcuts, and these are generally found in our edition (though a smaller version of the tree cuts had been added), which was produced by Franciscus Raphelengius in Leyden.

Andrea Alciato's Emblemata, Leyden, Officina Plantiniana/Franciscus Raphelengius, 1591, with commentaries by Claude Mignault

This edition, in 16o, containing 211 emblems (all except 'Adversus naturam peccantes'), represents the later set of Alciato editions produced by the Officina Plantiniana. Unfortunately, the Glasgow copy of the 1577 edition with its extended commentaries is not suitable for scanning. The 1591 edition, apart from the trees, contains the same woodcuts. Read a Bibliographical Description. But a much shorter version of the commentaries is used, close to those found in the 1584 bilingual edition published by Richer but also used in earlier smaller format Plantin editions. The commentaries, however, are longer than those in the bilingual edition, including more detailed references to individual lines, and they are printed at the back of the book rather than following each emblem.

GUL SM 58 K6vo-K7ro; X7vo. Actual page height: 110mm
GUL SM 58 K6vo-K7ro; X7vo. Actual page height: 110mm.

The commentaries have not been transcribed, but can be viewed in facsimile, following links on the transcribed page. This edition also contains Mignault's Syntagma de symbolis and his life of Alciato, as well as an index, which have not been transcribed, but may also be viewed in facsimile.

Select Secondary Bibliography

Henry Green, Andrea Alciati and his Book of Emblems. A Biographical and Bibliographical Study (London: Trübner, 1872), 118.

John Landwehr, Emblem and fable books printed in the Low Countries 1542-1813: a Bibliography, (Utrecht: Hes, 1988), 21

For information on earlier Plantin editions, see L. Voet, The Plantin Press, Vol. 1 (Amsterdam: Van Hoeve, 1980), 22-32B.


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