emblem books

Before Champollion deciphered the Rosetta stone and unlocked the secrets of hieroglyphic writing, many wrongly believed that Egyptian hieroglyphs represented an ideographic form of writing. Indeed, the very word “ideographic” comes to us via Champollion. “It is ironic that the scholar who demonstrated the falsity of the old belief in Egyptian as symbolic and nonphonetic should have helped to popularize terms that powerfully reinforced the popular misconception of both the Egyptian and Chinese systems of writing,” DeFrancis notes in his discussion of the ideographic myth.

During the Renaissance, notions of ideographic writing helped spawn the creation of emblem books, which in their most common form were volumes of allegorical illustrations accompanied by a motto, a short explanatory caption, and often a brief poem, too. (The English department of the Memorial University of Newfoundland has an example of an emblem book online.)

The fact that these images require extensive knowledge particular to certain cultures to read — and even then not with any guarantee of correctness — should have been enough to clue people in that the notion of ideographic reading was bunk. But myths die hard.

The library of the University of Illinois has more than 600 emblem books. A recent article in that school’s campus paper gives some information on emblem books and the ideas behind them:

Interestingly, the impetus for emblem books was a misunderstanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Renaissance Italy humanists. “They thought that hieroglyphs were a secret language … that they were ideograms that could more accurately relate hidden mysteries about human life and nature,” Mara Wade, University professor of German, said.

The Renaissance scholars created a form where the full meaning depended on an intricate interplay between text and image, both had to be understood in order to understand the meaning of the emblem. All elements drew on complex academic themes that demanded a high degree of knowledge for their creation. “It’s the key way the Renaissance views itself, in that you can have universal truths within a short exposition of picture and text. … It’s alien to how we gain knowledge these days,” Elizabeth Black, a graduate student who works with emblems, said.

The idea of emblems spread throughout Europe, with publications in every major language, including German, Italian, French, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English. The emblem books are a hybrid not just of text and image, but also languages, with many containing text in both the vernacular language and Latin.

“It was the first time you could mass-produce images,” Wade said. Even in America, emblem books attained popularity, where Benjamin Franklin printed an emblem book in 1776.

What is interesting about the emblems is that they do not present simple images, repeating what is written in the text, as in an illustrated novel. Rather, they display “a picture of something commonplace in a new or unusual setting,” Wade said. For example, to convey the title “the way of the world” an emblem from 1617 displays a crayfish with a globe on his back. In order to understand the emblem, one must know that crayfish scuttle backwards. In other words, the point of the image is the moral message one step forward, two steps back.

The ambiguous nature of emblems has invited interpretation for centuries. Subsequent editions of emblem books were sometimes accompanied with “reams of commentaries helping to enlighten, expand or completely re-order the emblems,” Black said….

Emblem books waned in popularity around 1800 when the notion of “text-image puzzles,” as Wade characterizes emblems, became no longer attractive. Nonetheless, Wade said he sees a certain connection between emblems and modern marketing logos, such as the Nike swoosh.

“A lot of the earliest emblems were designs for printers’ marks,” Wade said. In the University’s Main Library reference room, the stained glass windows contain printers’ marks that can be interpreted both as types of emblems and types of modern advertising logos.

For more information, see the University of Illinois Library’s Open Emblem Portal.

source: Emblem books: First multimedia experience, Daily Illini, Friday, October 14, 2005.

For more on how people before our time saw such matters, see Peter DuPonceau, very much a man of the Age of Enlightenment, who criticized the ideographic myth.

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