Andrea Alciato and the Politics of the Printed Image

Working with Dr. Wietse de Boer as an Undergraduate Summer Scholar, Miami senior Caroline Godard investigated the world of political images in the European Renaissance.  Below is an essay she wrote about this journey into the past.


Our world today is saturated with images. It’s filled with photographs and films, with recording devices on our iPhone cameras, with television commercials and magazine advertisements. Our connection to images is also often symbolic, since we recognize that anything ranging from traffic lights and stop signs to memes and emojis signifies something more than what it represents. The subject of the image remains a popular product of philosophical discourse, and scholars including Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, and Gilles Deleuze have written about the significance of visual representation through cinema, photography, and digital media forms. Although this preoccupation with images may seem a product of modernity, the history of our interaction with images extends far into the past.


During the European Renaissance, the prominence of the symbolic image was connected to another emerging technology form: the printed book. Just as our current relationship to digital images may seem fluid and undefined, the printed book’s combination of image and text was similarly ambiguous. One Italian humanist, Andrea Alciato, embodied this fluidity of image and text due to his involvement in the evolution of the emblem book genre.


Andrea Alciato (1492-1550) was born just outside of Milan, Italy to a wealthy family of noble descent [Fig. 1]. Because of his family’s social and economic status, Alciato received an excellent education, and he spent his early life studying classical Greek and Latin with some of the most renowned humanist scholars in Italy. Alciato then began studying law; he was quickly recognized for his academic acuity and, accordingly, spent the rest of his life employed by universities throughout Italy and France, teaching and writing about law. Today, Alciato’s philological interpretations of Roman law still remain a subject of interest to legal historians.

Fig. 1. Andrea Alciato, portrait included in his Opera omnia (Frankfurt, 1617). (Source: Wikimedia Commons, ).

The period of Alciato’s lifetime is characterized by the high volume and quality of cultural production. Some of the most iconic works of art of the Italian High Renaissance were created during Alciato’s early years: Leonardo da Vinci painted the Last Supper in Milan during the 1490s, Raphael produced the School of Athens between 1509 and 1511, and Michelangelo was at work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between 1508 and 1512. Additionally, Italian writing flourished during the Italian High Renaissance. Baldassare Castiglione wrote The Book of the Courtier, a philosophical dialogue exploring the concept of the ideal courtier, during the early sixteenth century (the text appeared in print in 1528); Niccolò Machiavelli wrote his political discourse, The Prince, around the same time; and Ludovico Ariosto’s epic comedy, Orlando Furioso, was first printed in 1516.


However, Alciato also lived during a time of immense political instability. Italy was not a unified country during the early 1500s, and the concept of “Italy” instead referred to a loose collection of territorial states including Milan, Florence, Venice, Naples, and the Papal States in Rome. In Alciato’s home of Milan, the Visconti family had controlled the city until the mid-fifteenth century until another powerful family, the Sforza dynasty, assumed control in 1450. In addition to Italy’s internal instability, foreign powers—especially France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire—saw opportunity in Italy’s fractured conditions.  This led to multiple invasions and undermined the independence of the Italian states. The beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517 further added to Europe’s instability and complex political climate.


It is important to understand these cultural and political circumstances under which Alciato composed his emblems. Today, we use the term “emblem” to compare ideas or objects, often with a symbolic or representational intent: the Cleveland Cavaliers mascot serves as an emblem of its basketball team, the combination of stars and stripes on the United States flag forms an emblem of the country, and the image of a white bird with a blue background is an emblem of the social network, Twitter. The word emblem is derived from Ancient Greek and Latin but, thanks to Alciato, it evolved into its modern definition during the Renaissance.


In addition to studying Alciato’s influence on law and historiography, literary and art historians recognize Alciato as the founder—the “pater et princeps”—of the emblem genre. In its Renaissance context, the term emblem refers to a three-part combination of text and image that includes a short title, a longer, descriptive caption, and a picture. Emblems often communicate a didactic, moral, or humorous message to the reader and, just as today, they do so in symbolic or representational manner. For example, an emblem called “In Silentium” [Fig. 2] details in word and image how maintaining silence can make a man seem wiser, and “Concordia” [Fig. 3] suggests how, just as crows are loyal to each other when living together, so, too, should leaders maintain concord among their subjects.

Fig. 2. “In Silentium” emblem in Andrea Alciato’s Emblemata. Printed by Christian Wechel. Paris, 1534. Reproduced by permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

Fig. 3. “Concordia” emblem in Andrea Alciato’s Emblemata. Printed by Christian Wechel. Paris, 1534. Reproduced by permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.


These text/image forms became extremely popular during the Renaissance, and emblems appeared in printed books as well as in architecture, parades, and celebrations. An emblem book refers to a printed collection of emblems, and Alciato is known as the “father” of the emblem genre since his collection of emblems, the Emblematum liber, was the first emblem book ever published. This first edition, which was printed in Augsburg, Germany in 1531 [Fig. 4], contained one hundred and four emblems.  More were later added to the collection, and the final version contains a total of two hundred and twelve emblems.

Fig. 4.  Titlepage of Andrea Alciato’s Emblematum liber. Printed by Heinrich Steyner. Augsburg, 1531. Source: Wikimedia Commons (available online ).

No manuscript versions of Alciato’s earliest emblems exist today, so it is difficult to reconstruct the details of the Emblemata’s genesis and circulation prior to 1531. However, we know that, although Alciato’s early emblems were visually descriptive, their manuscript versions likely did not include images. Additionally, the emblems circulated among a fairly limited, educated and elite audience, those who were fluent in Latin and understood the allusions to Ancient Greek and Roman mythology. In other words, only members of a small social network could understand or even access the emblems.


However, the Emblemata’s audience changed with the book’s appearance in print in Augsburg, Germany in 1531. Images were added to clarify each emblem’s meaning; in an introduction to the book, printer Heinrich Steyner explains how he hoped that the Emblemata’s images would help the reader understand the text. This first edition of emblems must have been very popular, because other publishers began releasing their own editions of the emblems, first Christian Wechel in Paris (1534) and then printers elsewhere in Europe, including Lyon, France and Venice, Italy.


Beginning in 1536, Alciato’s emblems were also translated into vernacular languages, which caused the book to become accessible to an even larger audience. The reader no longer needed to understand Latin in order to read the emblems, nor did he or she need access to an elite social network in order to procure the book. The Emblemata’s circulation had quickly broadened as the book became available on the open market.


As we study these emblems now, they may seem purely symbolic, abstract, and playful.  Yet Alciato used several of them to comment eloquently on Europe’s unstable political environment. For example, he addressed his “Foedera Italorum” emblem (which, in English, reads “On Italian Alliances”) to Maximilian Sforza, the Duke of Milan between 1512 and 1515 [Fig. 5]. Although this emblem did not appear in print until 1531, its message suggests that Alciato had composed it much earlier. In the text, Alciato compares the abstract concept of political harmony to another, more easily imagined idea: the musical harmony of a lute.  But the caption also contains a direct political reference:

the nobles of Italy are forming federations: there is nothing to fear if there is concord            and they still love you. But if one breaks from the rest, such as we see so often, then all          that harmony dissolves into nothingness.

Fig. 5. “Foedera Italorum” emblem in Andrea Alciato’s Emblemata.  Published by Heinrich Steyner, Augsburg, 1531. Reproduced by permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.


In fact, French forces had controlled Milan between 1499 and 1512—just prior to Maximilian’s rule—and the citystate’s independence was precarious when Alciato composed this emblem. Thus he used this playful, literary form of writing to communicate a very serious message to the Duke of Milan: Maximilian Sforza must form alliances with other Italian states in order to protect the peninsula from the threat of foreign rule. Alciato’s emblem referred to a specific political moment in Italian history, so it was not as abstract and symbolic as we might have thought.


Also in subsequent years, this emblem’s political subtext must have remained obvious to its readers, since the political turmoil continued unabated.  In 1515 King François I of France invaded Italy and assumed control of Milan. Italy’s near future would be further marked by violence and foreign rule: in 1527, troops from the Holy Roman Empire invaded the Papal States, instigating one of the most devastating disasters in Italian history.


Over time, however, the “Foedera Italorum” emblem was subject to change.  From 1534 onwards printers removed the adjective “Italorum” from the title, and this decision caused the emblem’s message to become more open and indeterminate. Alciato’s message about alliances was no longer connected to a specific political situation; rather, the text could refer more broadly to all alliances, whether personal or political, whether in Italy or elsewhere. Perhaps the printers intended to make the message more appealing to the emblem book’s growing international audience; and perhaps this caused later readers to engage with the text more personally, as if the emblem communicated a moral lesson applicable to the reader’s own life.


The “Foedera Italorum” therefore originated in Alciato’s desire to protect Italy’s political integrity, but his message was concealed within the emblem’s highly literary and artistic form. This form, moreover, was fluid; emblems texts could change along with the audience who consumed them. As we reflect on how the intersections between politics and culture are defined through text and image, we may notice that Alciato’s rhetorical strategy appears in our culture today, too. For example, we can examine how citizens respond to politics through music and poetry, and how political leaders use social media (another combination of text and image) to maintain their voting base. However, these interactions are never stable—not in the Renaissance, nor today—and we often adapt to new forms of technology as they are released. Just as the Renaissance public’s relationship to technology and politics was fluid and kaleidoscopic, so, too, is our own.



For further reading:


Alciato, Andrea. Emblematum liber. English & Latin. Translated and edited by John F. Moffitt.       Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2004.


Kaborycha, Lisa. A Short History of Renaissance Italy. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson, 2011.


Manning, John. The Emblem. London: Reaktion Books, 2002.


Yates, Frances Amelia. The Art of Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.


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