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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Latin: Nebulae, nugae, facetiae, ridicula, scomma
Greek: Skomma

Authority: Gracian, Tesauro

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     The late Middle Ages and Renaissance gave rise to a host of joke books, parodies and satires many of which included scatological and pornographic material and many of which did not have specifically symbolic intentions although even here writers did not find it difficult to emphasize moral lessons from the incidents depicted. The facetiae are certainly a legitimate genre of the symbolic literature since as Aristotle said jokes are a form of wit, wit is a form of metaphor and metaphor is the driving mechanism of the literary symbol. Called variously facetiae, ridiculae, nebulae or nugae these collections were part of a tradition of humorous short stories popular in the late Middle Ages, going back at least to an 11th Century collection of poems called the Carmina Cantabrigiensia or Cambridge Songs. One of the most well-known of the Renaissance collections of facetiae was that by Poggio Bracciolini, the Papal Secretary and book collector, printed in 1471.

     Some contemporary writers were happy to acknowledge the facetiae as a valid art form rationalizing that they, the writers, were so industrious that they were entitled to some light relief and it is possible to detect the origin of many individual emblems, devices and other of the symbolic species in the joke books of the time.

     But it was also an honorable tradition that more serious metaphysical matters could be dealt with in a lighthearted fashion. We can think of Apuleius and his Golden Ass which was an exposition of Platonist dogma. Serio Ludere, to play seriously, was the maxim of many of the Renaissance neoplatonists; it was in the title of Achille Bocchi’s emblem book Symbolicae Questiones quas serio ludebat.  Cusanus’ book De Ludo globi, the Game of the Sphere, describes a game in which the player attempts to throw a misshapen ball or globe in a straight line. This was an allegory of the paradoxes and contradictions to be found in the nature of God.

     A subspecies of the facetiae referred to by Tesauro is the scomma (Latin for a teasing, taunting expression and the same word skomma in Greek). Macrobius (Saturnalia Book VII, Chapter III) describes the scomma as a figurative expression which ‘often has a veil of guile or politeness so that the words used appear to say one thing but mean another’. Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics iv, viii) uses scomma in the sense of joke or witticism but does not refer to any element of double meaning.

See also: Burlesques, Equivoques, Satires