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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Greek: Apophthegmata
French: Dictes
Italian: Sentenze
English: Apophthegms, sentences, gnomes, maxims, aphorisms

Authority: Erasmus 1531

What is this?

     Invention, the first stage of the Art of Rhetoric, required the collection of ‘authorities’ out of which ideas could be gathered for the purpose of composition or oratory and collecting extracts from ancient authors was understood to be a prerequisite for all students and writers of the age. The earliest of these collections were called doxologies from the Greek doxon meaning opinion and later there followed the vast number of anthologies, florilegia or commonplace books of sayings, aphorisms, and maxims which characterized the close of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  

     The word anthology comes from the Greek for flower, anthos, and word, logos, and this was translated into Latin as florilegium, a collection of flowers. The picturesque thought was of a garden of flowers, in which the reader might wander, culling his favorites for recitation or reference. An extension of the metaphor which was universally employed in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was that of the author as a bee distilling nectar from his flower garden. As Seneca said ‘we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted and turn them into a single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.’  

     This tradition of the commonplace book or collection is the basis of a large percentage of the whole symbolic literature; the bibliographies in this website document vast numbers of collections of literary symbols in different formats intended to project an underlying spiritual or moral message. In this section we focus on collections of authorities or the sayings of historical figures. An archetypal collection was the Symbola of Pythagoras supposedly the precepts of the great philosopher. There were editions by Ficino and Alberti amongst many others (see symbols). Another which illustrates the popularity of the genre was The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers published by Caxton in 1477 and translated by Earl Rivers, the brother in law of King Henry IV himself. Not only is this supposedly the first dated book printed in England, it was an English translation of a French translation of a Latin translation of a Spanish translation of an Arabic version of a Greek original. Unfortunately for this wide readership, the original appears now to have been a fake. (see Jayne 37 for a full discussion)

     An extreme form issuing out of the imperative for collections was the Cento (Latin = patchwork). This was a work composed of extracts from different authors which did not necessarily have any relationship to the subject at hand. It was a popular conceit during the whole period and justified by Seneca’s bee dictum. There were works by classical authors including Ausonius, the Byzantine Empress Eudoxia and for the Renaissance, a Life of Christ by Alexander Ross of 1634 and a commentary by Henry Estienne in Parodiae Morales of 1575.

See also: Proverbs, Symbols