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The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Italian: imprese

Authorities: Estienne, Contile, Giovio

What is this?

The Italian for device is Impresa from the Latin imprendere, to undertake, implying that it was intended to depict some undertaking, action or ambition of its bearer.

     The device is one of the group of symbolic species related to but distinct from the cognizance, coat of arms and other heraldic forms the purpose of which was to identify the holder or his retainers. The device was a late development flourishing in the 16th century and since it comprised only two elements, the motto and picture, which made the interpretation of the symbol particularly demanding, it represented for contemporaries the most subtle expression of all the symbolic species. According to Alessandro Farra, the device had its origins in “the Cabala of the Hebrews, the sacred writing of the Egyptians, the mysteries contained in the fables of Orpheus’s theology and the numbers and symbols of Pythagoras.” Modern commentators treat the device as part of the emblem genre but contemporaries saw them as distinct. Pierre Le Moyne comparing the two wrote that “there is nothing that is common between them, not in their content, their form or their purpose.”

     There were numerous books of devices in the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly by Italians, most of which followed the same format: they described the devices belonging to distinguished individuals of the time, interpreted the symbolic meaning of each and laid down the rules required for a perfect device. Paulo Giovio (1483-1552), was the acknowledged master of the device with his Dialogo dell'Impresi Militari et Amorose, Treatise on Military and Amorous Devices published in 1551. He set out five criteria for the successful device but the validity of these criteria continued to be debated and disputed by the theorists for years to come. A century later Emanuele Tesauro in his Il Cannochiale Aristotelico (1678), the Aristotelian Telescope, outlined thirty-two essential elements for the device.

     Devices had military origins and these were reflected in their use by contestants in Renaissance tournaments and by extension in affairs of the heart, the battle of the sexes. They probably originated in the 15th century in Italy and France. They are referred to in letters in the first decade of the 16th century and by Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier which was written in about 1508. In the heyday of devices, the 17th century, there was a trend towards their use in more peaceful and intellectual pursuits; they were widely employed as the symbols of the Italian academies and academicians, much debate, amusement and intellectual energy being spent on creating appropriate devices. Finally, as part of the function of all the Arts as a didactic medium and of the identity of the fine and decorative Arts at that time, devices, like emblems, were displayed in the court spectacles, in masques and theatrical events and as elements of contemporary architecture.

See also: Arms, Cognizances, Emblems