home authors books contributors books for sale links
The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

Support the Library!
Buy your books here.

Find On Worldcat
Find On This Site


Authorities: Estienne, Gracian, Menestrier, Tesauro

What is this?

The etymology is from the Greek words hiero – sacred and glyph – carving.

     The hieroglyphic script of the Egyptians held an enormous fascination for the humanists. To many of them, the Egyptian language was thought to be the original Adamic language from the time before the fall of man, an idea that was fostered by the remark in Genesis that Adam gave all creatures their name; if this were the case, then Adam must have spoken the first language. The project of recreating such a language was an obsession which the Renaissance humanists and their successors refused to abandon. The idea was expounded by Leon Battista Alberti in his De Architectura of 1452 where he proposed that hieroglyphs were the lost universal language. Francis Bacon in the 17th century suggested that the universal language was to be found in ‘real characters’, characters or signs which like hieroglyphics were more than just the concepts which they expressed, they were in some sense the concepts themselves.

     It was further believed by many during the Renaissance and later that the philosophy of Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle must have been inspired by the Egyptians and that hieroglyphs were the archetype of the Platonic symbols and were the sensible or physical representations of the divine world of ideas (the logoi) which was the highest form of reality. This reflected the belief of the Egyptians themselves that the name of an object contained its whole reality and thus by extension that knowledge of the name of the object gives power over that object. The name depicted in the hieroglyph was a symbol of the divine reality of the object itself. Plotinus himself said describing hieroglyphs: ‘each manifestation of knowledge and wisdom is a distinct image, an object in itself, an immediate unity and not an aggregate of discursive reasoning.’ Certainly the neoPlatonists, Ficino and Pico, took this view. Ficino was convinced that the divine ideas of things were conveyed directly in hieroglyphs. ‘That will be the golden age when all words - figure words - myths and all figures - language figures - will be hieroglyphs., he said. Even Erasmus thought the same (Adages II, 1): ‘hieroglyphs are symbols by means of which it was possible to express the true significance of things.’

     Some humanists including L.B. Alberti took the more pragmatic view that the form of the hieroglyphs were somehow related to the ideas they represented and in this they were supported by a reading of the famous sourcebook for hieroglyphs in the Renaissance the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo, written probably in the 5th century AD, discovered in 1417, first published by Aldus in 1505 and translated into Latin in 1517 by Filippo Fasanini. The book consists of an exegesis of the meaning of a number of Egyptian hieroglyphs although most of the descriptions are now generally regarded as fictitious.  It appears that even in the time of Horapollo, such was the decline of Egyptian civilization under Roman and Greek influence, there remained noone who could accurately read the hieroglyphs although contrary to general opinion, Iversen believes that ‘almost all of the allegorical expoundings [in the Horapollo] can more or less directly be traced back either to actual hieroglyphical meaning of the signs or be explained from one of their specific employments as graphic signs.’

     Another great work on hieroglyphs from the Renaissance was the treatise by Pierio Valeriano also called Hieroglyphica which was published in 1556 but had been written earlier probably before 1527, the year in which Rome had been sacked. It was formally intended as a commentary on and enlargement of the Horapollo but Valeriano extended his commentary to cover other ancient symbols. As he says in the title of the 1567 edition ‘to speak hieroglyphically is nothing else but to discern the true nature things divine and human’.