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Andrea Alciato's Emblemata,
Jean Richer, 1584


This work is reproduced from Glasgow University Library: SMAdd283

This edition contains the third published French translation 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

(for more information on French editions see BFEB F.001-072)

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 in Paris produced first Latin editions (from 1534), which can be said to have set the standard for clear presentation of emblems, with each emblem 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, and subsequently further Latin editions, editions including Lefevre's French, and indeed also a similarly conceived German/Latin edition. 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. By the latter part of the century however, Alciato was being more widely published across Europe, for instance in the Low Countries and in Germany. Moreover a tendency emerged for lengthy and erudite commentaries, with those by Claude Mignault being the most important and influential. Mignault in fact first concerned himself with Alciato's emblems in 1571 when the unique unillustrated Alciato edition produced by Denis du Pré in Paris appeared. This is the first edition to include the extensive and learned Latin commentaries which ultimately change the nature of Alciato's emblems and perhaps indeed are responsible for a new development of more learned and discursive works within the genre. Subsequent illustrated editions appear first with the Plantin press, and later in France with Marnef and Richer in Paris. There were in fact six editions of the emblems produced by Richer, starting in 1584, and these include a new set of woodcuts. All are in some way connected with Mignault, for the Latin-only editions (which appear between 1589 and 1618) contain these extensive and learned commentaries with which Mignault is usually associated.

The first French version by Jean Lefevre, (1536) appeared at a stage when there were fewer emblems in the corpus, whereas Barthelemy Aneau's version in 1549 was almost complete with 201. There is also a manuscript translation by Simon Bouquet. In 1615, Jean de Tournes II produced his own translation of the second book of emblems and revisited Lefevre's version of the first book, introducing a number of emendations.

Andrea Alciato's Emblemata, Paris, Jean Richer, 1584, with French translation by Claude Mignault

The priorities of Claude Mignault in the 1584 edition, reproduced here, and the closely related one of 1587 are rather different from those with lengthy commentaries with which he is more often associated, and much less learned. This edition, which includes the full 211 emblems (omitting only the so-called 'obscene emblem') broadly speaking adopts the thematic organisation initiated in 1548, and involves a new set of woodcuts. Read a Bibliographical Description.

Although each emblem is followed by a commentary, this is kept very short, much more like those which had appeared in de Tournes editions, by Sebastian Stockhamer from 1556. The presence of these commentaries in the bilingual editions prevents its presentation as a parallel text. Typically, each emblem runs to four pages.

GUL SMAdd283: S10ro-S11rro. Actual page height: 142mm.
GUL SMAdd283: S10ro-S11ro. Actual page height: 142mm.

Mignault's translation, he tells us in his Preface, was undertaken merely to pass the time while travelling, and he endeavours to play down its value, emphasising only his desire to convey to others the pleasure he himself has taken in the emblems. This does not prevent his criticising his predecessors, Jean Lefevre (1536) and Aneau (1549). Mignault's translations are much more varied than Lefevre or Aneau's: some are weak, while others show a certain literary intention. As well as the emblems and their brief commentaries in Latin and French, the 1584 and 1587 editions both contain an important account of Alciato's life, likewise in the two languages.

Select Secondary Bibliography

Alison Adams, Stephen Rawles, Alison Saunders, A Bibliography of French Emblem Books, 2 vols (Geneva: Droz, 1999-2002) [=BFEB]: entries F.001-072 cover early French editions of Alciato; this edition is entered as F.026.

Alison Saunders, 'Sixteenth-Century French Translations of Alciati's Emblemata', French Studies 44 (1990), 271-288.

Alison Adams, 'The Role of the Translator in Sixteenth-Century Alciato Translations', BHR 52.2 (1990), 369-383.

Bouquet, Simon, Imitations et traductions de cent dix-huict emblesmes dAlciat (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ms. fr. 19.143); an edition by Catharine Randall and Daniel Russell (New York : AMS Press, 1996).

Claudie Balavoine, 'Le classement thématique des emblèmes d'Alciat: recherche en paternité', in The Emblem in Renaissance and Baroque Europe: Tradition and Variety, edited by Alison Adams and Anthony J. Harper (Leiden: Brill, 1992), pp. 1-21.

Page written by Alison Adams.


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