7.15 Italians Out of Step

Except in Jesuit schools, we have little solid evidence that Italians used emblems in classrooms. Indeed the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a trend in Italian emblem-making that was exactly the opposite of the popularizations common in Northern Europe. Among Italian emblematists, theory took center stage with the appearance of a number of weighty methodological works. Italian theorists concentrated on the abbreviated emblem-form called impresa. The impresa was typically conceived as a personal device rather than a commonplace one, so it related a particular, sometimes hidden truth about an individual or a closed group. The authors did not necessarily propose useful themes for others to imitate. Italians, moreover, consistently emphasized esoteric and elitist emblem-making. Imprese were meant for members of the elites, especially for the gentlemen and scholars who belonged to the Italian academies. The emblems of academies defined the group against others. In this rarified atmosphere emblematics participated in a revival of Neo-Platonic thought and played an important part in the debates over the nature of poetry. The academic impresa was above all a vehicle of meditative poetics and a machine for contemplation of the divine. It was a stimulus to the quest for personal and corporate virtue. (64)

We do know of a few specific instances of educational, even classroom use of emblems in Italy. What we know of them, however, reinforces our sense that they were exceptional and suggests as well the ways in which the Italian emblem "scene" was distinct from that of Northern Europe. Above all, Italian educational emblems almost always trained students in devising or resolving the esoteric dimensions of the emblem or impresa, not in the potential pastoral or popularizing functions of the form that were most important in emblem making elsewhere. Even the Jesuit emblems of the Imprese di tre Academie follow the Italian tradition and not that of northern emblem making. Though the emblems all relate to a specific Christian doctrine, the chastity of the Virgin Mary, they do so for the sake of creating collegiality among an elite group of students. The lengthy explications are weighted down with citations from classical and Christian literature. And the student authors explicitly measured their imprese against the standards for the genre described in the most prestigious Italian manual of emblem making, Scipione Bargagli's Delle Imprese, which had seen print in successively larger editions between 1578 and 1594. (65)

Outside the Jesuit colleges, Italian teachers seem to have used emblems only occasionally if at all. The humanist schools of the fifteenth century included intensive study of Christian symbols. Students also studied and composed ecphrastic poetry that evoked the works of Christian art displayed in churches and other public places. This older tradition of literary image-making and image-reading was an essential part of the humanist rhetoric curriculum. It was replaced in Italian schools only rarely by the study or creation of true emblems, and then only late in the sixteenth century as far as we can tell. By sharp contrast to French, German, and Dutch schools, where an abundance of evidence points to frequent emblem-making, there are only a few documentable examples of emblems in use in Italian schools. The Milanese educationist Giulio Porri, writing in 1561, recommended using adages, mottoes, proverbs, stories, fables, and similes in stimulating students to good morals through literature; only as an afterthought does he recommend an image, and then in terms that suggest he is thinking not of an emblem but a more conventional painting or print. (66)

By the middle of the seventeenth century, preaching, iconographic programs, and religious publishing had made the emblem ubiquitous in Italy, even for parts of the public relatively unschooled in Latin. The Counter-Reformation may be credited with this flourishing of the public emblem. Preaching and meditative manuals, art works commissioned for the churches of every religious order and even for parish churches, posters and shop signs --all these forms could function emblematically. Most did so on several levels at once, from esoteric to streetwise. Thus, a single emblem (like the poster of the Wounds of Christ examined above) could serve as the basis for elaborate, private meditative practice, as the pompous, communitarian symbol of a confraternity, and also as a call to prayer aimed at the whole populace of Rome, native and pilgrim alike.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (64) Bregoli Russo 1990, 225-240; Ciardi 1995, 38-45; Maggi 1997, 17-23; Maggi 1998b, 368-369; Maggi 2000a, 116-121 and 2000b, 212-215; Manning 2002, 73-79.
  • (65) Imprese 1603, 2-6, 36-40; Maggi 1998b, 370-371.
  • (66) Turchini 1996, 317.
Switch to Dark Mode
Show Comments