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The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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This list of books and authors has three purposes:

1.) It gives publication references of modern commentaries which are referred to in the introductions to the specific bibliographies.

2.) It gives expanded information on some of the books referred to elsewhere on the site.

3.) It gives publication references to some of the contemporary books which are not referenced in the specific bibliography.

The list is given in alphabetical order of authors.

See authors for biographical references to some of the contemporary authors referred to on this site.

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Addison, Joseph Spectator LXII 1711

Alciato, Andreas Emblematum Liber Augsburg: Steiner, 1531

Anon The Alphabet of Tales early 14th century

850 short but mostly excruciatingly boring stories which one can imagine were the highlights of interminably long medieval sermons. Here is an example. “There was a good holy old man and for 40 years he never drank; and always he would take a vessel and fill it with wine and hang it in his chamber that he might see it every day. So eventually his brother asked him why he did so and he answered again and said, ‘I do it for this intent, that when I see that thing that I desire, that with the abstinence thereof I may suffer more pain and so of almighty God I shall have more need.’”

Anon Physiologus 2nd century AD

This is usually translated as ‘the Naturalist’, was one of the most widely circulated books of the Middle Ages. Originating as a Greek text in Alexandria about the 2nd Century AD, the anonymous author drew on the descriptions of animals by Aristotle and Pliny and deduced a moral from each description At least some of the allegorical interpretations were identical with the descriptions from the Horapollo so one of the two was derived at least partially from the other or they both were derived from an earlier source. The Physiologus was translated into almost every language in the Western world, from Ethiopian to Icelandic and, eventually, it was adopted by the Church as a convenient vehicle for the propagation of Christian morality. Over the centuries, the standard format of the Physiologus expanded from just forty-nine entries to over one hundred and material from the works of other authors was added including the Hexaemera of St. Basil and St. Ambrose and the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville (d. 636). Many of the animals described such as the Unicorn, the Phoenix, the Centaur, the Siren and the Antlion were later understood to be fictitious but this did not deter the editors at the time. St. Augustine had something to say on this as indeed he did on almost every theological topic we have touched; according to him it did not matter whether certain animals existed, what mattered is what they signified.

‘Moreover, if for the administration of the sacraments, certain symbolisms are drawn, not only from the heavens and stars, but also from all the lower creation, the intention is to provide the doctrine of Salvation with a sort of eloquence, adapted to raise the affections of those to whom it is presented from the visible to the invisible, from the corporeal to the spiritual, from the spiritual to the eternal.’  

The Physiologus was one of the most widely circulated books of the age but, eventually, it gave way to the Bestiary which by the 12th Century also became extraordinarily popular particularly in England. Obviously based on the Physiologus since the very name derived from the opening line of the former, the ‘Bestiarum Vocabulum’, the Bestiary can be distinguished by the expansion of the number of animals treated, the addition of images and the change in the nature of the message that was to be learnt.

Aneau, Barthélemy and Gueroult, Guillaume Decades de la description …des animaulx Lyons: Arnoullet, 1549

Allen, Don Cameron Mysteriously Meant Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1970

Aquinas Summa Theologica mid 13th century

St. AugustineEnarrationes in Psalmos ed Dekkers E and Fraipont, J.

Bracciolini, Poggio Facetiae (Jokes)

Written in Latin in the 1450’s and printed 20 years later, this was a collection of several hundred short, mostly bawdy and supposedly true stories which were circulated all over Europe and enjoyed such popularity that serious scholars such as Erasmus and Gesner felt the need to express disapproval of the book and indeed ultimately it was placed on the Index. The Facetiae were in the tradition of a genre of humorous short stories popular in the late middle ages, also called ridicula, nebulae or nugae, going back at least to an 11th Century collection of poems called the Carmina Cantabrigiensia or Cambridge Songs. Some contemporary writers were happy to acknowledge the Facetiae as a valid art form rationalizing that they, the writers, were so industrious that they were entitled to some light relief. It is possible to detect the origin of many individual emblems in the joke books of the time although writers did not find it difficult even here to extract a moral lesson from the incidents depicted

Here, to give you the flavor of this high literature, is one of Poggio’s Facetiae.“The father of a friend of ours had an intimacy with the wife of a downright fool, who, besides had the advantage of stuttering.  One night he went to her house, believing her husband to be away, knocked loudly at the door and claimed admittance, imitating the cuckold’s voice.  The blockhead, who was at home, had no sooner heard him, than he called to his wife, “Giovanna, open the door, Giovanna, let him in, for it does seem to be me.”

De Bustamante, JMB Instrumentum emblematicum New York: Olms-Weidmann, 1992

Caldwell, Dorigen Studies in Sixteenth Century Italian Imprese in Emb. 11

Camerarius, Joachim Symbolorum & Emblematum Centuria, 1590

(a Century of Symbols and Emblems) In spite of its title, the final count was four hundred emblems illustrated by the fauna of the time, and the final version had 400 devices incorporated into 4 volumes one each for animals, birds, insects and aquatics and reptiles.many of these were inspired by a gift to Camerarius of part of his collection by the great polymath Conrad Gesner.

Cartari, Vincenzo Le Imagini degli Dei degli Antichi Venice: Marcolini, 1556

Castiglione, Baldassare Il Libro del Cortegiano Venice: Aldus, 1528

----------------------------------(The Book of the Courtier trans. George Bull, London: Penguin, 1976)

Colonna, Francesco Hypnerotomachia Poliphili Venice: Aldus, 1499

Published in 1499, by the Aldine Press in Venice, the Greek title of the Poliphili means “Poliphilo’s Struggles of Love in a Dream” and Poliphilo, the hero, is the personification of a lover of many things (Greek ‘poli’), possibly also a lover of antique things (‘polia’) and certainly, lover of Polia, the name of the heroine. The origin of the title was the Batrachomyomachia, the Battle of the Mice and Frogs, a poem traditionally believed to have been written by Homer. Following the lead of Prudentius from the early years of the Christian era with his Psychomachia, there were numerous imitations of this burlesque epic in the Renaissance  and even Alciato wrote a popular legal treatise on dueling subtitled Monomachia.

Why is the Poliphili extraordinary? From the technical point of view there are several reasons. It was the first book ever printed in modern Roman (modified Bembo type), which, after 500 years, is still in widespread use today. It was the only book printed by Aldus which contained illustrations and indeed one of the first printed books where the pictures were made specially for the book and where some of the pictures occupy two pages. It was the first book ever printed where the text flows round the illustrations creating a harmonious combination of text and image. Today, in another communications revolution, we would call it multimedia. The book contains 172 wonderful woodcut illustrations which are unsigned. Mantegna, the Bellinis, Bordone and even Botticelli have been considered as candidates as draftsmen. This latter is not a completely fanciful possibility since Botticelli had already illustrated two editions of Dante’s Commedia. The artist of the Poliphili has now also been identified as the illustrator of an edition of the Metamorphoses published in Venice in 1497 by Bonsignore. 

Likewise, the author of the Poliphili is anonymous but in 1515 it was discovered that the first letter of each Chapter formed an acrostic translated as, “Brother Francesco Colonna loved Polia immensely” (note the past tense). Other references have since been found to Colonna in the text although the controversy over the identity of the author still continues. The text itself has aroused strong opinions. It is written principally in Italian but has passages in Latin, Greek, Chaldean, Arabic and Hebrew. It is horribly abstruse and much of the vocabulary is invented by the author. Also, as befits the dream state, the grammar, loosely based on Latin syntax but without case endings, is impossibly dense, making the book almost unreadable. That sourpuss Benedetto Croce called it “long, boring and a caricature of humanism”. There was an English edition in 1594 but this only covers one third of the book and much of the translation is incorrect including the first sentence! A full English translation had to wait half a millenium before publication in 1999 but the translator in this latter version makes no attempt to match the archaic obscurity of much of the vocabulary so that the reader does not get any of the enigmatic and gothic sense of the original. Even for contemporaries ‘Poliphilian’ language became a caricature of obscurity. It was castigated by Castiglione and seized on by the Venetian Senate during the equivalent of a filibuster.

Apart from its technical and bibliographic interest, the book absolutely typifies the literary and philosophic atmosphere of the time, the moment in history when the emblem books were conceived. Many if not all the themes of Renaissance literature and culture are encapsulated in it; from Platonism to personification, a passionate not to say erotic love of classical languages, architecture and monuments, an obsession with secrecy and riddles all illustrated by hieroglyphs and devices and the whole subsumed within Poliphilo’s dream within a dream. The text is replete with analogies and direct reference if not plagiarism from Apuleius, Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch, Ovid, the Roman de la Rose in addition to architectural references from Alberti and Filarete.

Every modern commentator has had a different view of the author’s overall theme. To some it is a textbook of alchemy and to others an allegory of the conflict of the Church and humanism. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to determine whether it had a serious objective or was a pastiche or parody of the pastoral romances of Boccaccio, a rhapsody of the author’s encompassing classical knowledge or a passionate offering to Eros for the real Polia who, if she has been correctly identified, had died of the plague before the book was completed.

The outline of the story is Poliphilo’s love for and pursuit of Polia and the eventual consummation of this journey, all as an allegory of the progress of the soul to its final destiny, the union of love and death, a hypererotic manifestation of Ficino’s furor, one of the elements of the ascension of the Platonic soul. Behind this simple tale, lie layers of complexity matching the density of the language. The Poliphili had been described as a compendium of all knowledge available to the Renaissance humanist. Over two hundred pages of the book, together with more than half the illustrations describe the fantastic architecture that Poliphilo encounters in his quest. Another large section is devoted to a description of gardens and according to one authority the Poliphili became the most influential treatise on architecture and landscape gardening over the three centuries after its publication. The book is an encyclopaedia on botany; there is said to be a description of every plant then known in Europe and there are dozens of other topics on which the narrator expounds at length including music, topiary, mosaics, fabrics, painting and food.

The Poliphili is subtitled “where all human things are nothing but a dream.” Does this foretell a Nietzschean denial of reality or is it a reference to the Reality of the Platonic forms or possibly on the contrary the whole book is no more than a desolate cry for the ‘real’ human Polia and a rejection of stifling Platonic metaphysics? The book was extraordinarily influential in many fields and especially amongst the emblem writers. Achille Bocchi takes an image of an ox head from the Poliphili as the first emblem of his Questiones Symbolicarum of 1556, one of the earliest of the Italian emblem books. Alciato in his emblem Paupertatem summis ingeniis obesse, ne povebantur, Poverty prevents the greatest development of your abilities, uses an image derived directly from the Poliphili.

Read Robin Raybould's lecture to the Grolier Club on 9/20/2010 on this topic here.

Contile, Luca Ragionamento Pavia: Bartoli, 1574

Cook The Figure of Enigma: Rhetoric, History, Poetry Rhetorica 2001 Vol 18 No. 4 349-378

Curtius, Ernst Robert European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990

Daly, Peter M. Emblem Theory: recent German contributions to the characterization of the emblem genre Nendeln: KTO Press, 1979

-----------------------Literature in the Light of the Emblem Toronto: UP of Toronto, 1998

Dante, Commedia c1314

The greatest of all the Renaissance allegorical epics was of course the Commedia of Dante (1265-1321) first printed in Florence in 1481. Not only was Dante a pioneer in the revival of classicism, the first ‘to thrust antiquity into the foreground of national culture’, his great work illustrates many of the themes we have been discussing. It is the archetypal embodiment in the Renaissance of philosophy and aetheticism, not only philosophy expressed poetically but the drama of creation as a poetic and aesthetic act. The framework of his story is based on the cosmic system of Ptolemy, he treats Christian and classical doctrines in parallel and the three parts of the book represent the three types of understanding of God. He specifically states in one of his letters  that the interpretation of his work must follow the fourfold interpretative schema of the scriptures and these are mediated by his several guides; Virgil represents interpretation by reason, Beatrice by faith and St Bernard by revealed wisdom.  In addition to his guides there is ‘Dante’ himself who is more than just a narrator; he is a player in the narrative who contributes his own commentary on the action and and whose character changes and develops as the poem proceeds until at the climax he becomes a mystical figure and is apotheosized as he ascends through the circles of Paradise to reach union with God. A background to the whole epic are the ‘shades’, the individuals he meets during his journey through the Underworld who allegorize the Platonic notion of material things being the shadows of reality; in the words of Statius from the poem, Dante treats ‘the shades as solid things’.  No better eulogy of Dante’s achievement can be quoted than that of Curtius (379)

“Love, order, salvation are the foci of his inner vision – spheres of light in which immense tensions are collected.  They dart together, circle one another, become constellations, figures.  They must be expanded into shapes, choirs, chains of spirits, laws, prophecies.  The whole plenitude of his inner visions must be applied to the whole extent of the world, to all the heights and depths of the world above.  The most immense frame of reference is required.  From every point of his mythically and prophetically amplified experience connections run to every point of the given matter. They are forged and riveted in material as hard as diamonds. A structure of language and thought is created – comprehensive, with many layers of meaning, and as unalterable as the cosmos.”   

Dante Epistula XIII to Cangrande della Scala     

Delepierre Delepierrem Octave Rebuses London: 1870

Dickson, Donald Tessera of Antillia Boston: Brill, 1998

Eisler, R. Traditio vi. 1948 187     

Erasmus, Desiderius Adagia Paris: Marcellus, 1500

----------------Apophthegmata Basle: 1531

----------------Dialogus Ciceronianus 1528

see http://www.crrs.ca/library/vaults/conversations/cicero/l_ciceronianus.php4

Estienne, Henri II Anthologiae Gnomicae Frankfurt: Corvinum, 1579

---------------------------Epigrammata Graecae Stephanus, 1566 and 1570

Estienne, Henri Sieur des Fosses L’art de faire les Devises Paris: Jean Pâlé, 1645 

------------------------(The art of making devises trans. Thomas Blount, London: WE & JG 1646)

Farra, Alessandro Settanario dell’humana riduttione Venice: La Minima Compagnia, 1594

Da Filippi, Michele The Literary Riddle in Italy in the 16th Century University of California Press 1948

Fletcher, Angus Allegory the Theory of a Symbolic Mode Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975

Giovio, Pierio Dell’Impresi Militari e Amorose Rome: Barré, 1555

Gracian, Balthasar (Lorenzo) Agudeza y Arte de Ingenio Madrid: Sanchez, 1649

-----------------------------------------(The Minds Wit and Art trans. L. H. Chambers, Michigan, 1962)

Higgins, Dick Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature Albany: SUNY Press, 1987

Hoskins, John Directions for Speech and Style 1599 ed. Hoyt H. Hudson, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1935

Huizinga, Johan The Autumn of the Middle Ages Chicago: Chicago UP, 1996

Isidore of Seville Etymologies early 7th century

Iversen, Erik The Myth of Egypt and Its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition 1961

Jayne, Sears Plato in Renaissance England Kluwer: Dordrecht, 1995

Kruger, Steven F. Dreaming in the Middle Ages Cambridge: 1992

Lando, Ortensio Paradossi 1542

Laurens, F.V. La Raison des Figures Symboliques à la Renaissance et à l’Âge Classique Geneva: Droz, 2000

Laurens, P and Vuilleumier, F De l’archéologie à l’emblème: la genèse du Liber Alciati in Revue de l’Art 1993  

Marbode of Rennes Liber lapidum 1061 – 1081

Marchant Chorea ab eximio Macabro Paris: Marchant, 1486

Lewalski Notes towards a study of the Renaissance letter in Renaissance genres Harvard 1986

Macrobius Saturnalia (Percival Vaughan Davies trans. Columbia, 1969)

Masen, Jakob Speculum Imaginum 1650

Matthiolus Commentarii in Sex Libros Pedacii Dioscorides Venice: Valgrisi, 1554

Menestrier, C-F La Philosphie des images: images Enigmatiques Lyons: Baritel, 1694

Molnár, Albert Lusus poetici 1614

Moss, A. Ovid in Renaissance France London: 1982

le Moyne, Pierre De l’Art des Devises Cramoisy: Paris, 1666

Nicoll, Allardyce The Stuart Masques and the Renaissance Stage London: Harrap, 1937

Onians, R.B. The Origins of European Thought Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1951

Pisan, Christine The Epistre Othea

Letter of the Goddess Othea to Hector written about 1400 is perhaps her best known work both now and in her own time. Some forty-three French manuscripts have survived and there were three different English translations within 100 years testifying to its popularity.[1] It is particularly interesting since the many editions of the work spanned the advent of printing and it is thus possible to compare manuscript and printed versions.[2]

The overall theme of Pisan’s book was the training and character of the perfect Christian knight and to illustrate this theme there were 100 separate histoires or stories each taking up one page. The format consisted of a picture, a brief quatrain or four-line poem, a gloss containing the moral relevance with a classical reference and quotation and an allegorie which setout the spiritual reference including a quotation from the Bible or one of the church fathers. In many editions there were no pictures but both in its content and its format this was a direct prototype of the emblem book. The inspiration for the Othea came from an earlier Italian book the Fiore di Virtu, Flowers of Virtue, also called the Chapelet des vertus and the origin of each of the individual stories from the Othea can be traced. Apart from the anthologies mentioned above, the mythological histoires were based on the Ovide Moralisé and stories from classical history were taken from the Histoire Ancienne jusqu’á César or Ancient History up to the time of Caesar, a well known contemporary history text of which several manuscripts have survived.

Plotinus Enneads 3rd century AD

Puttenham, George The Arte of English Poesie London: Field, 1589

Rabelais, Francois Gargantua and Pantagruel Lyons: 1532

Rabelais challenged much of orthodox dogma as well as the abuses of Church and State. He ridiculed divination of all kinds and the object of the final quest of his hero was the Temple of the Bottle where initiation would bring enlightenment of an oenophilic nature although even this scene is a caricature of the Orphic rites. The potential of the fruits of the vine for artistic inspiration and for mystical visions was a wellcharacterized rationalization of the time. Rabelais was like his contemporaries however in his love of classical language and literature and in his delight in the literary opportunities that the printing press had brought him.

Ripa, Cesare Iconologia Rome: Gigiliotti, 1593

Perhaps the most influential late Renaissance book on the nature of allegory was the Iconologia which tried to categorize traditional symbolism according to the methods of Aristotle in his description of metaphor. Ripa’s book is categorized by Praz as an emblem book but it is much more. It is an exegesis of the personification of human emotions in allegorical terms. Ripa considered that other abstract ideas had been dealt with adequately elsewhere: nature was treated in the myths he said and propositions which assert or deny are the province of the device.

There were more than forty editions of his book in a total of eight languages and in each new edition further entries were made to the original number both by Ripa himself and future editors so that by the 1764 Italian edition there were more than 1,000 allegories described. The material is taken from all the diverse classical, Christian and oriental sources which we have discussed. The English edition of 1779 was also rewritten and expanded by the translator George Richardson who emphasizes, even at this late date, the importance of the didactic function of literature and art. When discussing allegory and mythology, Richardson says that mythological painting

“may extend to those subjects which do not fall within the province of our senses….it will be found, upon a closer examination, not only that painting may be thus extended but also that  its highest perfection consists in this method of employing it.” 

 Ripa’s book was extremely influential for decorative artists and the emblem writers.  Henry Peacham in his Minerva Britanna of 1601 based thirty-one of his emblems on Ripa. The latter’s work was also a strong influence on the Icones Symbolicae of Christopher Giardia.

Rouse, Mary and Richard Preachers, florilegia and sermons: studies on the Manipulus florum of Thomas of Ireland Toronto: 1979

Ruscelli, Girolamo L’imprese illustri Venice: Senesi, 1584

Russell, David Emblems and Hieroglyphs …in Emb. 1, 2, 1986

Ruiz , Juan Libro de Buen Amor 14th C 

 Ruiz was the Archpriest of Hita, author of "EI Libro de Buen Amor" (Book of Good Love], a somewhat unexpected sort of book to come from a Churchman, with its ribald humor, Chaucerian tone and Spanish wit. The "Libro de Buen Amor" also makes wide use of the play on words, a characteristic of much later Spanish Literature. It is vulgar and elevated at the same time, and one of its main characters, "Trotaconventos" (go-between] is a type who recurs often in later works. Trotaconventos is a busybody, a sort of panderer, who sticks his long nose into everyone else's business, especially business involving love. The book also pioneers in having a clergyman who gets involved with women. This frank attitude toward the clergy is especially Spanish and reveals the attitude the Spaniards have long had towards their religion, believing strongly in the Church but always aware that its caretakers were human beings and not above reproach.

Speed, Peter Medieval Cautionary Tales Italica, 2004

Spenser, Edmund The Shepheardes Calendar London: Singleton, 1579

The Shepheardes Calendar is allegorical on many levels in the manner dictated by Aquinas and almost every character in the poem has been identified with a historical person. As an illustration, we can take the fifth Eclogue, May, which is one of the most complex and multilayered of the twelve. This spoke primarily to one of the three major themes of the poem, a complaint about the corruptness of the church and it included a fable about a Fox and a Kid from which, on the tropological level, we are taught to beware of flatterers and deceivers. Anagogically, the Goat is Christ, the Kid, the Church and the Fox the devil and finally, on the allegorical level the characters designate political figures, King James of Scotland and the French Duke, Alençon, who was a serious suitor for the hand of Queen Elizabeth in marriage although this suit was opposed by many in the court and the country including Spenser. On yet another level, the Calendar followed the allegorical traditions of the genre where the months and seasons of the year depicted the several ages of man.

The Shepheardes Calendar is a hybrid literary form: a poem divided into eclogues which only have the most general thematic connections. Each Eclogue in the Calendar had a motto which was entitled the Emblem. The Calendar also included a picture for each Eclogue and this in itself made it unusual for a book printed in England at this time.

Tesauro, Emanuele Il Cannochiale Aristotelico Venice: Curti, 1678

Thorndike, Lynn History of Magic and Experimental Science New York: Macmillan, 1923

Toscan, Jean Le Carnaval du Langage Lille: Atelier Reproduction des Thèses Université de Lille, 1981


The most influential during the Renaissance of the doxologies after Theophrastus was the Florilegium by Johannes Stobaeus probably written for his son Septimius in the 5th Century AD. This gives extracts from more than 200 Greek authors including many which are not found elsewhere making the Stobaeus an important source book of Greek literature and philosophy for the Renaissance. The Stobaeus anthology has had a long and interesting history which is worth relating as it is typical of the vicissitudes of a classical text over the centuries and gives some indication of the fascination which the subject can hold for a literary historian. Stobaeus’ anthology was originally called the Florilegium and it was divided into four Eclogues, a Greek word which also means collection. These Eclogues were contained in two volumes and it is known that one copy of the two, perhaps the only surviving copy of the complete work, were together in a library in Constantinople in the 10th Century. Sometime later the two volumes were separated and thenceforth led separate lives. Mistakenly, the first volume with the first two books was thereafter called the Eclogues and the second volume containing books three and four became known as the Florilegium. The whole contained two hundred and eight chapters of which thirty-nine were lost from the Florilegium during the late Middle Ages although subsequently four of the lost chapters were found in an unrelated text.

The first Latin translation of the Florilegium by Varinus Camers, the tutor of Pope Leo X was published in Rome in 1517. The first printed Greek Edition was in 1535 and the Swiss scholar Conrad Gesner (1515-1565) edited and translated a Latin and Greek edition in 1543 which he called Sententiae a word which is obviously the origin of the English ‘sentence’ but in the Renaissance had the specific meaning of saying or aphorism.  The first printed edition of the Eclogues i.e. Books 1 and 2 was by Plantin in Anvers in 1575

Vasari, Giorgio Le vite de piu excellenti pittori Florence: Torrentino, 1550-1567

-----------------------(Lives of the Artists ed George Bull, London: Penguin, 1988)

Wickham, Glynne Early English Stages New York: Columbia UP, 1980/1

Watanabe-O’Kelly, Helen and Simon, Anne Festivals and ceremonies: a bibliography of works relating to court, civic and religious festivals in Europe 1500-1800 London: Mansell, 2000

[1]The first English translation of about 1450 was by Stephen Scrope (1386-1472) and the first printed edition of Scrope edited by Curt Bühler had to await publication until 1970.

[2]D. Russell 33