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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Greek:  Symbola, Akousmata
Latin: Symbola
Italian: Simbolo

Authorities: Estienne, Tesauro           

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     In the introduction or Syntagma to his commentary on Alciato’s Emblemata of 1571, Claude Minos gives an exposition of the meaning of the word symbolum. Minos mainly obtained his definitions from Guillaume Budé, the legal scholar from his Commentarii linguae graecae, Commentaries on the Greek language, of 1529. The original meaning seems to have been two halves of a dice or piece of bone which could be used in primitive commercial or legal situations where two parties to an agreement could be identified by joining the two disparate pieces. Budé quotes Plato’s Symposium that ‘Each of us is but a symbolon of a man…and each is ever searching for the symbolon that will fit him’ (Symposium 191 D-E). The word also took on related meanings: a collision or clash as in the clash of armies and a donation or contribution both from the element of the bringing together of the two pieces of the symbolon. Then it came to mean what we now understand by the word, a symbol, one thing representing another. Aristotle uses it in this sense in his definitions of words and ideas and soon the mystical element of the signfying symbol was added. One secondary meaning of the word given both by Budé, Estienne and Minos is as a ring, insignia or military decoration and this relates symbol to the Greek word kosmos and the Latin synonym decor. Estienne also gives several other meanings – a contribution to a feast, a seal for letters, an order given to soldiers, a token of some future event, a pictorial inscription on a grave (Estienne 1645 11). Sandt (1626) gives some 20 meanings.

     During the Renaissance, the word symbol came to be used by most writers to characterize the generic form of the symbolic literature. Thus Emanuele Tesauro distinguishes between the symbolic and what he calls the lapidary art, the latter, as he describes it, consisting merely of words and characters (Tesauro 486). He says that ‘the symbol is a metaphor signifying a concept through the medium of some expressed figure’.   

     Jakob Masen does the same; at the top of his hierarchical classification of the characteristics of symbolic literature, he distinguishes between symbolic species and those which are propria that is literal or without significance (Masen 1650 209). This distinction between the symbolic and the literal would seem to be basic to any definition of the symbol although words, names and hieroglyphs can also be symbolic in the full sense; the names of God were seen as mystical symbols of His divinity as in the works of Pseudo-Dionysius and Llull. There were other uses by Renaissance writers of the word symbol: Minos himself had to make do with the word symbolum for the impresa or device since there was no other appropriate Latin word. Then there was the collection of sayings called the Symbola of Pythagoras which were believed to be the precepts of the great philosopher for his immediate disciples (Laurens 2000). There were a number of Renaissance editions of the Symbola including one by Ficino in 1497 and Erasmus gave commentaries on several of these sayings in his Adages.

     Similar in meaning and development to symbols were tessera, originally the small square pieces of stone or glass used to make mosaics. They were also used in ancient Rome as tickets or receipts (Dickson 1998) and out of this use the word evolved new meanings: a token, a password or object whereby a member of a group or secret society could be recognized or as we would say a membership card. Tesauro uses tessera as a note on his entry on the war cry and this is understandable if the war cry is related to the motto and the motto is also viewed as an alternative to password. Tessera thus acquired the meaning of secretive and symbolic. Minos in his commentary on Alciato’s Emblemata (1571) also identified the tessera with the war cry and Sandt (1626) describes three additional types of tessera two of which were associated with financial transactions.

See also: Signs