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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Authority: Tesauro

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     Collecting inscriptions from the classical ruins which lay about them was a mania for Renaissance scholars and gentlemen and illustrates both the rhetorical imperative for the collection of authorities as the basis of composition and the overpowering interest in all things Greek and Roman which obsessed the dilettanti of the Renaissance. Even Alciato, who can by no means be called a dilettanti, made copies of inscriptions in Milan early in his career and used these as a basis for a number of his emblems (Laurens). The epitaph is the most obvious subgenre of inscriptions and as is obvious from a reading of the Greek Anthology is important as the origin of the epigram

     There were numerous publications of inscriptions and epitaphs throughout the period and their fascination to contemporaries as one more link to the mystery and authority of the classical past is well illustrated by Colonna’s fantasy the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili published in 1499 in which (amongst many other adventures) the hero and heroine wander amongst architectural monuments and ruins and attempt to decipher the many inscriptions which they find. The book demonstrates the appeal to contemporaries of inscription and epitaph as examples of wit and riddle (see jokes and enigmas).

     Tesauro in his authoritative treatise on metaphor, The Aristotelian Telescope, emphasizes the importance of the lapidary art (by which he refers to inscriptions rather than lapidaries) as a genre apart from the symbolic art but he is not consistent in his usage of the term. In some cases he appears to equate lapidary with literal i.e. non-symbolic and in others as is suggested in this introduction as symbols carved rather than written. He also categorizes together both epitaphs and elegies indicating that the epitaph is merely the shortened and lapidary version of the elegy. The elegy was one more literary genre which like the epigram in its most successful examples demonstrated the extreme form of metaphor or wit to illustrate its subject. In classical times, the elegy was a poem on any subject written in elegiac couplets, a particular form of poetic meter, but by the Renaissance it was usually but not always confined to encomiums to the dead.

See also: Epigrams, Symbols