Emblemata Politica

The History of a Hybrid Book

Text by Mara R. Wade, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

From the earliest days of print, authors, artists, and printers constantly looked for new ways to combine words and images together to bring lessons and ideas to a wide range of audiences. One of the most popular innovations in this vein was the emblem book, which began to appear in the second half of the sixteenth century. 

Emblems were a kind of puzzle that combined intriguing imagery with short mottos and some sort of explanatory text (often epigrams), all working in concert to explain a concept. Emblem books contained a series of these puzzles, and were intended to serve as a tool for entertainment and instruction. Readers would often gather to work through the enigmatic words and images to arrive at the emblem’s meaning. By the seventeenth century, emblems could be found all over the early modern world, from posters to table centerpieces to, as was the case in Nürnberg, public buildings.

VAULT Wing MS 279 offers us a striking view into that world. Rem’s descriptions of the other civic monuments and allegorical images in Nürnberg places the emblems portrayed in Isselberg’s engravings in a century-long context, from the 1521 painted decoration of the Great Hall with Albrecht Dürer’s and Willibald Pirckheimer’s Triumphal Chariot of the Emperor Maximilian I through the later renovations that included Rem’s emblem program. In other words, VAULT Wing MS 279 gives, for the first time, an author’s interpretation of architectural emblems that situates them into their contemporary context. In this, it shows how Rem understood his emblems within the greater framework of Nürnberg’s civic monuments.

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