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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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French: Cyphres, Chiffres
Spanish: Cifra

Authorities: Estienne, Contile

(What is this?)

Cypher comes from sifr the Arabic word for zero or possibly, according to Luca Contile, from the Hebrew Sefer or Sefarim meaning letter or number. Rebus is the dative plural of the Latin res, thing and could be derived from the phrase according to Delepierre De rebus quae geruntur = On things which have been done i.e. news of the day.

     Secret codes were employed by the Romans and described by Cicero. In the modern era the pictura or image in the Spanish emblem book is called the cifra. Originally cifra was used for letters which had no meaning such as the letter H the status of which has since classical times always been somewhat unresolved. Was the H just a mode of pronunciation, a breathing, as in Greek or was it a letter in its own right? The word cifra was used in this sense at least as early as 1181 in the Anticlaudianus by Alain de Lille. Subsequently, ciphre developed into a synonym for hieroglyph and was employed throughout Europe as a literary genre akin to the enigma usually depicting a group of letters. Tesauro gives the example of SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, the symbol of Rome.

     Ruscelli in his Discorso says ciphers are essentially the same as rebuses and are ‘giovenili’ or childish. Menestrier (1694 177) also points out the similarity to rebuses. Estienne in his review of the genre (Estienne 1645 258) describes how cyphers employ secret inks or other materials to conceal the meaning of the message. A Renaissance example of a cipher was the letter S worn by the Duchess of Urbino about her brow in Castiglione's The Courtier. The assembled company attempted to decipher this but were unable to do so.

      A rebus is indeed similar to the cipher in its recreational and literary use although, as the proliferation of publications shown in the bibliography demonstrates, the cipher had serious military and diplomatic uses. The rebus can be defined as a visual pun where there is a combination of words, syllables or pictures which when deciphered forms a word or phrase. A typical and famous rebus was:

ra            ram
ra es et in ram II
ra            ram

     The Latin for three is ter and for two is bis. Thus the rebus reads Terra es et in terram ibis or ‘You come from the earth and you will go to the earth.’

     There were many collections of rebuses; creating and deciphering these was more than just a pastime but reflected the reverence that was felt for the word, or a combination of words and somehow reflected the affinity between the divine and the logos which was also evidenced in the contemporary obsession with Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Kabbala. The rebus was a common literary form of the age; an extreme example was the Cestus sapphicus, by Nils Thomasson published in 1661, a wedding poem of 31 stanzas of which every word had at least one syllable printed as a picture. Thomasson also sets out in his introduction the rules for creating rebuses. An example was that a picture of an object should not be used to represent that word; i.e. you should not use a picture of a mouse to illustrate the word mouse. In the rules of blason using a rebus was called canting arms or in French armes parlantes. An example was the arms of Leon in Spain which was blazoned as Argent a lion purpue or in plain English: a purple lion on a silver ground.

     The popularity of rebuses no doubt partly explains the Renaissance enthusiasm for the hieroglyph. Even Pirckheimer, the scholar whose 1515 edition of the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo (for slide-show see here) was illustrated by Durer, employed simple rebuses in some of his notes. (see the blog on the origin of the hieroglyphs in the Poliphili)

     Another similar genre was the acrostic. This had been validated for its spirituality as far back as St. Augustine who used the example of the name Adam which could mean the sphere of the whole world in Greek.

A = Anatolen = East

D = Dusin = West

A = Arkon = North

M = Mesembrian = South

     The importance that was attached to this type of recreation is shown by the appointment by Louis XIII of France of a court anagrammatist who received the enormous salary of 12,000 livres a year.