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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Italian: Cenni

Authorities: Tesauro, Masen

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     The concept of the sign is central to the Renaissance debate on the nature of symbolism. Both Masen and Tesauro in their definitions of the different species of symbolic literature put the Symbol at the top of the semantic tree making the distinction between the literal and the symbolic. The symbol in their hierarchy of meaning was further divided between the natural sign and the artificial or conventional sign. The natural sign was that whose form was naturally related to its object or what it was intended to signify. Natural in this context took on both meanings of the word: natural as an expression of the natural world and natural in the sense that the relationship between signifier and signified was inherent or self-evident. By contrast, the artificial or conventional sign was that where the relationship between form and object, signifier and signified was arbitrary and purposive.

     A typical example of a natural sign as St. Augustine pointed out is lightning: this is a sign of thunder. Another is a footprint: this is a sign that someone has passed by. Language is the archetypal system of conventional signs and Aristotle was the first to characterize them as such in the opening words of Chapter 2 of his De Interpretatione: ‘By a noun we mean a sound significant by convention’ and again it was Augustine who defined the conventional sign by process of elimination as that with which there was an intention to signify, the emphasis being on the intention. Conventional signs are deliberately created, in the case of language created for the purpose of communicating meaning. 

     Much of the debate in the Renaissance on the nature of the sign centered on how the conventional sign acquired the meaning that it did, how language might be given the authority of the natural sign and whether it was possible to discern the nature of God through the medium of language. Nature was the creation of God; if language was a system of natural signs it was possible that clues as to His nature were to be found in language. In this context, letters, numbers, words and names, the Logoi, were to be regarded with mystical reverence and both Christian and Jewish mystics (the Kabbalists) used the Names of God as the starting point in their speculations. The Bible describes an original Adamic language, the language with which Adam named the animals and which God had given to the world before the diaspora of Babel. The Bible further emphasizes the primacy of the Logos. ‘In the beginning was the word’, says John 1, 1. During the Renaissance, the hieroglyph in particular was seen as embodying this natural language; the pictographic elements of the hieroglyphs were enough to settle any question of the natural relationship between verbum and res, the word and the thing depicted. In other languages, where there was no pictographic relationship, theorists still thought that they might trace origins back to the protolanguage by establishing a natural onomatopoeic connection despite the fact that this theory had been derided by Plato in his Cratylus.

     By the time of the late Renaissance it began to be appreciated that the allegorical view of nature was inappropriate as a view of reality and more particularly that some of the natural signs taken for granted for a thousand years, such as the unicorn or the phoenix, did not after all even exist. The dilemma of writers in this transition was validated by Henri Estienne in his L’art de faire les devises of 1645. ‘It is lawfull to use the propriety of a natural subject …..according to the general approbation or received opinion of ancient authors, though the Modernes have lately discovered it to be false.’ No doubt, one attraction of both emblem and device was the potential to accentuate the distinction between the natural and the conventional sign. The signification or interpretation of the natural sign was by definition traditional and transparent and thus not able to produce the ‘wonder’ which was Aristotle’s criterion of the successful work of art. The format of emblem and device with multiple components of the signifier, with the capacity to combine or play off the individual components against each other and of including multiple symbols and references in all elements proved an ideal vehicle for promoting new spiritual and moral insight (see Raybould Chapter 10 for a further discussion).

See also: Symbols