7.07 Title Page Emblems

In design terms, popular products like posters functioned very much like the emblematic title pages on books. That is, they combined informational and moral import in individual images that were surrounded by type but usually not closely explicated in the adjacent text. Commercial or advertising motives were never absent but they did not usually function alone, if only because the emblematic mode of thinking encouraged readers to look for more than one level of meaning. The presence of the image was an invitation to think on more than one level, to add imaginative value, if you will, to the textual content. (20)

All these meanings were present in printer's marks even before Alciati invented the emblem as such. Not incidentally, they were just beginning to be a regular feature of title pages about the time Alciati imagined the literary genre. In her book on the development of the early title page, Margaret Smith distinguishes between the protective value of a cover sheet, its labeling value, and its function as a sales tool. (21) If we recall that sophisticated book buyers in the fifteenth century approached any page with the expectation of multiple meanings, it comes as no surprise that these several functions worked simultaneously. Putting a printer's mark on the title page added yet another marketing function and another level of sophisticated consumer expectation. Even if the mark were merely ornamental or functioned primarily as a hallmark ensuring quality, its presence was already an addition of sorts, signifying a certain quality of manufactured object. If it was also an emblem of the kind educated readers were trained to puzzle out, then it recommended the book in intellectual and moral as well as other consumer terms.

It is well worth asking how these design-oriented motives went along with the literary, moral, commercial, and practical ones. Emblems were puzzles, and puzzling them out was considered a sort of invention. Invention still had a strongly rhetorical meaning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It always meant inventing arguments or finding them out in the raw materials of a subject. In the case of emblems it also meant encoding them in symbols that could be unlocked in a second moment by another inventor. As such the emblem participated in a sort of retrospective or reflexive design process. From the start, the maker of an emblem expected that it would be the subject of intellectual back-formations on the part of its readers. The act of devising or inventing images and the act of decoding them were not just technical skills. They were moral acts, fruitful applications of mental skill to problem solving, and practice in making and effecting moral decisions. (22)

Adding an emblem to the title page in the form of a printer's mark (or, less commonly, the personal emblem of the book's author or that of a scholarly academy) usually had more to do with the authority of the product than its subject. It was validation, not information. It invited the reader to take the book seriously. The emblematic mark also embedded in every text from a given press the multi-layered meanings of the emblem, whether they had anything to do with the specific content of the book or not. (23) Claude Mignault, a late sixteenth-century theorist of the emblem, pointed to this specific function of the emblematic printer's mark:

... I must add a few words about the emblems of certain learned men of the press which they are accustomed to add ingeniously to the title pages of their books, and by which they encourage themselves either by genius or by design, to do those things necessary for the cultivation of better letters. (24)

Thus the emblematic mark is both an ingenious device or company logo and a way for the printers to encourage themselves and others to do their best for the republic of letters.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (20) Schilling 1990, 288-292; Henkel 2000, 210-213, 237-243.
  • (21) Smith 2000a.
  • (22) For the design process, Peponis et al. 2002, 75-88; Gehl 2002, 104-105; further on psychology, Gareffi 1981, 12-17; Scholz 2002, 303-305; on marketing aspects, Sabbioneta 2003, 16-36.
  • (23) Compagnon 1979, 262-267; Pinkus 1996, 75-88.
  • (24) Mignault 1571 quoted by Wolkenhauer 2002, 90: ... quorundam rei Typographicae peritorum hominumn huc adiiciam eiconas, quibus ingeniose uti soleant in suorum libris fontispiciis, quibus se vel ingenio, vel arte, meliorum litterarum adiumento necessaria commendent.
Switch to Dark Mode
Show Comments