An overview and definition(s)
For us today, McDonald’s golden arches summon up the smells and tastes of juicy Big Macs, crisp fries, and ice cold milk shakes. Indeed, we live surrounded and bombarded by corporate trademarks and logos—the solid, thick letters of IBM; BMW’s blue and white logo; the Nike swoosh; the Penguin book label. The companies that create these symbols intend that we read them with our mind’s eye—that we associate the symbol with the company and that the association will give rise to an immediate, positive, connotation about their product.
This kind of reading, and indeed parts of many of today’s trademarks and logos, are not new. In fact, they have a long history. They descend to us from “emblems,” a word used throughout the 16th-19th centuries to refer to a particular kind of text and image that was gathered and published in books. Between 1531 and 1900 over 6,000 of these emblem books were printed in Europe.
While many of the images can be dated to still much earlier times, the first emblem book is credited to Andrea Alciati (or Alciato), 1492-1550, an Italian jurist who coined the word “emblem,” signifying “mosaic work” (Praz 23). In 1531, in Augsburg, Germany, Steyner published Alciati's Emblematum Liber (Book of Emblems), a collection of 104 rough woodcuts with a text in Latin. Three years later Alciati issued a more exact and artistic edition in Paris (Wechsel press) with finer woodcut illustrations more accurately interpreting the text, and in 1546 a second book containing 86 emblems. With the two books combined, and another dozen emblems added, Alciati’s work reached its standard size of 212 emblems in the 1548 edition.
In the first 80 years after it was published, Emblematum Liber was published in 130 editions—90 of them Latin, the international language of the period. French, Italian, Spanish, and German translations also appeared (Green 54).
What exactly is an emblem book?
An emblem book contains individual
emblems designed to teach or moralize. Though we usually think of emblems
solely as images, it is important to remember the idea of a “mosaic
work”: each emblem actually consists of three parts, usually identified
by their Latin names:
The more realistic answer—which John Manning describes in his introduction to The Emblem:
"The tripartite structure is not unique to emblem books but was the popular form of illustrated proverbs, fables and other books. The number of parts could vary since ‘exceptions’ co-existed at the same time, even within the same volume of an emblem book (22). It is suggested that Alciati’s original manuscript had no intent for illustration—this was rather the publisher’s doing. Thus, the difficulty in having a normative definition since this 'denies the very flexibility that gave the genre life'”(25).
Figures from classical mythology appear often in Alciati and other emblem books. This Prometheus emblem bears the motto(inscriptio): What is above us, is no concern to us. The conclusion of the subscriptio applies Prometheus’s situation to human life: “The hearts of wise men, who aspire to know the changes of heaven and the gods, are gnawed by various cares.” (Daly 14) Thus, the emblem reminds us that even for wise men, divine mysteries should remain mysteries (and perhaps they should be spending their time deciphering mysterious emblems instead).