Emblem books: First multimedia experience

By Noah Lenstra

Take out a one-dollar bill and turn it over. Notice the strange pyramid with the unattached, glowing eye. The image and the Latin text above it, “Annuit Coeptis,” God has favored our undertaking, and below it, “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” A new order for the world, together constitute a unique rhetorical device first popularized during the Renaissance known as emblems.

Between roughly 1500 and 1800, emblems were put into collections with prose and poetry in order to interplay with the text to provide meaning. Of these emblem books, the University library system has “one of the best collections in the world,” Valerie Hotchkiss, head librarian of the Rare Book and Special Collections Library, said.

Only the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom, has an emblem book collection larger than the University. The large size of the University’s collection owes largely to one man, Professor Henri Stegemeier, one of the first scholars to study and write about emblem books. When he arrived at the University in 1942, the library had only 25 emblem books, and “not all of them were what we today would call an emblem book,” Stegemeier later said in a library document. The University now has a collection of over 600 emblem books.

The Rare Book library currently contains an exhibit displaying parts of the collection. The exhibit can be visited by anyone during regular library hours.

Interestingly, the impetus for emblem books was a misunderstanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Renaissance Italy humanists. “They thought that hieroglyphs were a secret language … that they were ideograms that could more accurately relate hidden mysteries about human life and nature,” Mara Wade, University professor of German, said.

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The Renaissance scholars created a form where the full meaning depended on an intricate interplay between text and image, both had to be understood in order to understand the meaning of the emblem. All elements drew on complex academic themes that demanded a high degree of knowledge for their creation. “It’s the key way the Renaissance views itself, in that you can have universal truths within a short exposition of picture and text. … It’s alien to how we gain knowledge these days,” Elizabeth Black, a graduate student who works with emblems, said.

The idea of emblems spread throughout Europe, with publications in every major language, including German, Italian, French, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English. The emblem books are a hybrid not just of text and image, but also languages, with many containing text in both the vernacular language and Latin.

“It was the first time you could mass-produce images,” Wade said. Even in America, emblem books attained popularity, where Benjamin Franklin printed an emblem book in 1776.

What is interesting about the emblems is that they do not present simple images, repeating what is written in the text, as in an illustrated novel. Rather, they display “a picture of something commonplace in a new or unusual setting,” Wade said. For example, to convey the title “the way of the world” an emblem from 1617 displays a crayfish with a globe on his back. In order to understand the emblem, one must know that crayfish scuttle backwards. In other words, the point of the image is the moral message one step forward, two steps back.

The ambiguous nature of emblems has invited interpretation for centuries. Subsequent editions of emblem books were sometimes accompanied with “reams of commentaries helping to enlighten, expand or completely re-order the emblems,” Black said.

Currently, the University is involved in an international project to make high-resolution access of emblems available anywhere in the world. The University hosts the OpenEmblem Portal, a gateway featuring emblem collections across the globe, free and open to the public online.

University Librarian Nuala Koetter is one of many librarians involved in the digitization process, which is much more complicated than simply scanning the image into a computer. “Many of them are rare, valuable, fragile, so we have to use a digital camera … the light can be damaging to rare materials, so we have to set up the book, set up the camera, and then switch on the lights just for a split second,” Koetter said.

“Our images are always archived in the highest resolution possible,” Wade said.

While the University digitization project currently focuses entirely on emblem books written, at least partially, in German, Black is working through the University’s collection of French emblem books to determine which most need to be digitized. “I ask myself, is the book being digitized by someone else, or is there an earlier edition of the same book that’s being digitized?” Black said.

“By focusing on this subgenre of rare books, we are developing best standards and models for digitizing other kinds of rare books,” Wade said.

Wade is currently teaching a course on emblem books at the Newberry Library in Chicago with students from all across the Midwest.

Emblem books waned in popularity around 1800 when the notion of “text-image puzzles,” as Wade characterizes emblems, became no longer attractive. Nonetheless, Wade said he sees a certain connection between emblems and modern marketing logos, such as the Nike swoosh.

“A lot of the earliest emblems were designs for printers’ marks,” Wade said. In the University’s Main Library reference room, the stained glass windows contain printers’ marks that can be interpreted both as types of emblems and types of modern advertising logos.

At the Seventh International Conference of the Society for Emblem Studies entitled “Emblems in the Twenty-First Century: Materials and Media” held this summer at the University, Wim van Dongen of Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, presented a paper focusing on another time of expansion in mass media, the creation of the modern paperback book. In paperback book covers, like emblems, Dongen saw “intentions closer to persuasion than to mere illustration.” Both paperback book covers and emblems contain images “encoded by the inventor” and “decoded by the viewer,” Dongen said.

Emblems were one of the first multimedia experiences in western society. Of modern mediums, Black believes the cinema is the most emblematic. “You’ve got the image, text, sound effects. … You put the elements together and they say something new. That’s a very emblematic effect,” Black said.

Find out more about the international portal that the Universty hosts of digitized emblem bookson this website