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The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Italian: iconologia

Authorities: Ripa, Tesauro

What is this?

The personification of Poetry from George Richardson’s 1779 English version of Ripa’s Iconologia. Note the swan in the background.

     Iconology derives from two Greek words: eikon and logos – word. Eikon originally had a more subtle meaning than the English word Icon which we now associate with it. An Eikon was originally the perceived image of the ultimate Platonic form or conceptual archetype.e iconologies were treatises on the individual symbols (in the modern sense) which were used by contemporary authors in the symbolic literature. Much if not most of this symbolic literature, in the mystical and secretive traditions of the age, was intended to conceal as well as reveal, to contribute to the understanding of the nature of God and the meaning of life, and to expose new relationships between signifier and signified. The purpose of the iconologies by contrast was to enumerate, describe and define the basic elements or motifs of the symbolic system. The popularity of these treatises, their size and the care with which they were researched illustrates again the importance of the symbol to Renaissance culture. As Cristoforo Giarda said in the introduction to his collection of allegorical figures, the Icones Symbolicae of 1628, through his visualization ‘the most noble Arts and Disciplines ….made concrete by some medium, accommodated to our minds…can be grasped more easily.’

     The most common trope of the iconologies was personification: the depiction of an abstract idea by means of a human figure. Personification has a very ancient history. Abstract ideas are obviously the most difficult concepts to conceive and express in any language but particularly so in a primitive society where vocabulary was simple and might not even have the words which defined the abstractions. Thus abstractions were personified; for instance, Mars and Venus, war and love, expressed in their gender alone some of the meaning intended. Personification appeared in Greek works of art from an early date. Pausanias describes the famous 7th Century BC Chest of Kypselos, the decoration of which includes the figures of Death, Sleep, Justice and Injustice all depicted as women. Another was the Calumny of Apelles a symbolic trope which echoed down the ages in one form or another for 2,000 years. Originally a painting supposedly created in 400 BC by the Greek painter Apelles as his reply to a wrongful accusation, it was immortalized by Lucian in his legal exposition A Treatise on Calumny written in the 2nd Century AD and first printed by Bordon in 1494. The personifications of Envy, Calumny, Fraud, Deceit, Ignorance, Suspicion, Penitence and Truth were employed to pointed political and moral truths. The Calumny was used both by Corrozet and by Coustau in their emblem books.

     The most influential late Renaissance iconology was Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia of 1593 which tried to categorize traditional symbolism according to the methods of Aristotle in his description of metaphor. His book is an exegesis of the personification of human emotions in allegorical terms. He 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 later editors so that by the 1764 Italian edition there were more than 1,000 allegories taken from all classical, Christian and oriental sources. Almost as influential was the Hieroglyphica of Valeriano (1556), which although formally a treatise on hieroglyphics, dealt with material from a much wider range of sources and could just as easily be categorized as an iconology. Another was the Icones Symbolicae of Cristoforo Giarda.

     The iconologies bore similarity to the mythologies and material was shared by both genres. Obviously, the latter described the characters in the Greek myths including the Olympian gods and their symbolic significance while the iconologies focused on the depiction of abstract concepts which often included those also represented by the myriad Roman gods such as Mind, Piety, Nature, Fortune or Concord.  

See also: Allegories, Mythologies