14.09.28, Canone and Spruit, eds. Emblematics in the Early Modern Age

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Mara R. Wade

The Medieval Review 14.09.28

Canone, Eugenio and Leen Spruit. Emblematics in the Early Modern Age: Case Studies on the Interaction Between Philosophy, Art, and Literature. Supplementi di Bruniana & Campanelliana, 33. Pisa: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2012. Pp. xii, 166. ISBN: 9788862274548 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Mara R. Wade
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch emblematics, contextualized within Italian Renaissance culture, provides the focus of this volume of six essays with a preface by the editors that contains a brief explanation of what an emblem is and a summary of each essay.

Karl Enekel's opening essay, "The Game of Emblems: The Invention of Junuis' Self-Exegetical Emblem Commentary," is illuminating for its investigation of the commentaries attached to Hadrianus Junius' Emblemata (1565). The Plantin press published this popular emblem book at least ten times in Latin, four in French, and two in Dutch (1-2). Owing to its beautiful engravings and consistent layout and design, the book was a milestone of emblem publishing. Enekel interrogates the commentaries both for their intellectual and physical presence in the book, asking why Junius would offset the lovely design symmetry. Even more significantly, Enekel considers why Junius would offer a guide to interpretation in the commentaries, when he so firmly believed that the joy of emblems lay in solving the riddle of their meaning. Enekel suggests several reasons for the commentaries: that Junius' strove more for self-representation than self-interpretation (8) and that Junius, who also described the picturae, was perhaps trying to stabilize the emblems' meaning, showing that really only one interpretation was possible (9). Enekel situates the practice of interpretation in the sociability of emblem games, which included virtuosic (dis)plays of poetic meter, and makes a persuasive argument for the interpretation of emblems as a group activity. Through his interrogation of Junius' commentaries Enekel provides fascinating insights into the emblem and emblematic practices.

"The Image of the Human Body in Sixteenth-Century Imprese" is the title of the essay by Armando Maggi. Giovio's prohibition of human form in the impresa is well known and Maggi suggest theoretical reasons for this. Relying on Torquato Tasso's Il conte overo de la imprese from his Dialoghi, Maggi discusses the possibility that the human form is in its historicity and temporality inappropriate in a genre meant to convey higher abstract meaning and a personal intention. He also refers to Ercole Tasso's massive compendium on the impresa that allows the human form, only if it is not a recognizable person and only when it serves an indirect allusion. In contrast Contile maintained that a human form merely led to confusion in the impresa and should be limited to coins and medals. Maggi presents various positions and examples, while drawing no firm conclusions from his evidence.

Ricardo de Mambro Santos offers a tour de force in his essay "The Beer of Bacchus." Tracing Terence's "Sine Cerere et Libero friget Venus" (Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus would freeze) from a popular print by Goltzius and contextualizing it in the economic, social, and artistic environment of its first appearance in Haarlem and Amsterdam. Demonstrating the "continual negotiations between individual projections and collective expectations," de Mambro Santos interrogates various versions of the theme by Goltzius as a sophisticated drawing without a text to an emblematic treatment with the significant change in the text to "Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus." The author presents a detailed interpretation of various renditions of this theme by Goltzius, convincingly arguing their status as a coherent corpus, and seguing into a discussion of the social aspects of drinking alcohol and the influence of members of the brewers' guild in Haarlem and Amsterdam. The essay concludes with a sophisticated argument about the essential role of Bacchus and Ceres to the economic livelihood of these cities in brewing.

Els Stronks provides a magisterial discussion of the Italian origins of the Dutch love emblem, a subject she knows thoroughly as one of the moving forces behind the Emblem Project Utrecht. She also presents her ideas in the context of Dutch society and the economic and social circumstances that created a broad audience, particularly among young people, who could purchase these books of love emblems and thereby contribute to the flourishing of the genre, moving it from a pastime of the elites to greater numbers of people. These secular books offered advice on marriage and socialized young persons to expected norms of behaviour for men and women. She treats the dissemination of the genre across a broad spectrum of society and the genre's role in developing the Dutch language through instructive means.

Another essay that touches on gender in the Dutch emblem is Francesca Terrenato's "'Nuda Movet Lachrimas: Women's Chastity and Virginity in Dutch Emblematic Discourse." "Naked it causes tears" refers to the onion in Cats' emblem as an allusion to virginity and the importance of chastity. Her essay examines how emblematic texts and pictures cluster around sexual behaviour and their didactic role for a broad readership. Protestant Europe, including the Calvinist Dutch Republic, having been liberated from the stern advice to be celibate, had to socialize its citizens to new norms of sexual behaviour, as unbridled sexuality was a great threat to social stability. Tarrento's discussion demonstrates how emblematic discourses focused on the woman as a person to be respected, but also as a potential vehicle for sin. Owing to the critical role of the woman in the establishment of the family, the key element of stability in the smallest social unit in the new Dutch society, women were not just individuals but became symbols of the nation. She identifies the early entertaining form of emblems that later developed more moralizing tones, and also highlights the so-called "realistic emblem," depicting scenes of everyday life. She offers examples of emblems that encourage pairing as well as ones that admonish against unchaste behaviour, all leading women to marriage as the best choice--after mature consideration, of course.

The final essay in the volume, "Emblems, Science and Philosophy: Some Methodological Reflections," by Leen Spruit treats the intersection of emblematics and natural history and philosophy. She examines the increase in scientific learning in the sixteenth century before turning to natural history and alchemy as subjects for emblems with their related focus on hierarchies and analogies. The hidden meanings and arcane knowledge of these subjects predispose them to emblematic expression. "The contrast between the naturalism of emblems and the abstraction of their meaning" produced, according to Spruit, an "ambiguous space." She cites Richard Cavell's theory that language names "through difference" and seeks to apply this tenet to the discursive practices of emblems. Spruit also calls on new theories of cognition with regard to how humans perceive texts and images, suggesting that while the emblem "may resist interpretive closure," its meaning is largely "generated in the dialogical space between the work and the addressee."

This is a handsomely produced volume with many high-quality graphics. The editing of the text leaves much to be desired and needed a sure editorial hand of a native speaker of English. The errors in English are too many to cite here, while a very few examples point to the kinds of problems readers can expect to encounter: "seamen" (for "semen," 72), the meaningless "cupid's blow" (what is meant is Cupid breathing, blowing on the embers to keep them aflame, 58), and the lack of agreement in the phrase "this kind of books are" (86). This collection of essays contains valuable insights into emblematic practices and deserved more careful linguistic presentation. Nevertheless, the intellectual thrust of the volume is considerable and deserves scholarly attention.

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Mara R. Wade

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign