Images in the Library – Hieroglyphs, Emblems, Rebuses

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) by Francesco ColonnaKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Umberto Eco characterized the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, first published in Venice in 1499, as “the most beautiful book of all time.” The novel with the enigmatic title – which means “Poliphilo’s dream of love-struggle” – was composed in a sonorous mixture of Latin and Italian, and illustrated with plentiful woodcuts. The book reflects the Renaissance reader’s fascination with ‘pagan mysteries,’ which drew inspiration from hieroglyphs, emblems, and picture puzzles.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) by Francesco ColonnaKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Poliphilo, the fictive narrator of the Hypnerotomachia, wanders in a dream through surreal landscapes in which he reawakens the architecture, sculpture, and gardens of antiquity to life through the resonant quality of his speech. On page after page, the remains of antiquity are described and interpreted by Poliphilo. In addition to numerous sculptures, he also discovers a rebus, or picture puzzle, which he admires as an inscription consisting of Egyptian hieroglyphs. In reality, it is the author’s own invention.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) by Francesco ColonnaKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Below the woodcuts of the ‘hieroglyphs,’ the sequence of signs is translated by Poliphilo into a Latin text: “From your labor to the God of nature sacrifice freely. Gradually, you will make your soul subject to God. He will hold the firm guidance of your life, mercifully governing you, and will preserve you unharmed .” An image can stand for a concept (the “bucranium lashed to hoes” for “labor”), or for a series of concepts (“eye and vulture on an altar” for “God,” “nature,” and “sacrifice.”). Even the sinuous, ornamental band at the end stands for the Latin conjunction “que,” which elegantly conjoins the final two ideograms.

Symbolicarum quaestionum libri quinque (1555) by Achille BocchiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In subsequent years, Poliphilo’s hieroglyphic message was cited frequently. In a book by the Italian humanist Achille Bocchi, a teacher at Bologna University, this rebus is even presented by an angel, like a reliquary of the True Faith. Even heathen hieroglyphs can be transformed without further ado into a Catholic message of justice and probity in study, transmitted to a son by his father as a moral principle.

Hieroglyphica (1551) by HorapolloKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Appearing in Venice in 1505, six years after the publication of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, was the first edition of the Hieroglyphica, two books, painting poetic explanations of hieroglyphic symbols by a late-antique author named Horapollo, for whom the actual ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system had in fact already become alien. Now, the fashion for hieroglyphs, emblems, and rebuses was unstoppable. Read with enthusiasm by the cultural elite of the 16th century, Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica was understood as the purportedly long-lost paradigm of a ‘sacred’ pictorial idiom.

For the 16th century reader fascinated by ‘pagan mysteries,’ the distinction between phonograms (phonetic symbols) and the ideograms (logograms) of hieroglyphic writing systems had no significance. In deciphering symbols, they pursued their own logic. Celestial bodies like the sun and moon, hence, or a basilisk arched around the gods to form a circle, might stand for “eternity” or the “course of time.”

Hieroglyphica (1551) by HorapolloKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

During the 16th century, the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphs still lay far in the future. In reliance upon the classical historiographer Diodorus Siculus, it was asserted that any educated humanist was capable of interpreting such figures. This opened the door to the most fantastical pictorial inventions, which integrated the iconic sign into a spatial and scenic image.

In Horapollo, an individual who derives (excessive) delight from music and dance is referred to as a turtledove, a bird that was captured by means of melodies played on the flute – in the image, the symbol is translated into a surreal scene, with the large dove in the tree listening, captivated, to the quartet of musicians, consisting of flute, harp, and a pair of violas da gamba.

Heydenweldt (1554) by Johannes HeroldKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In his adaptation of the history books of Diodoros Siculus, the Swiss publicist Johannes Herold added a translation of Horapollo’s Egyptian ‘picture writing.’ The woodcuts have been inserted directly into the text, making a strongly memorable impression even within this tiny pictorial space, and in a way that is reminiscent of the images found in primers, or the ABC books through which pupils learn to read.

Libro nel qual s'insegna à scrivere (1548) by Giovanni Battista PalatinoKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The 16th century vogue for Egyptian hieroglyphs inspired authors to create their own rebuses, in which individual words are represented by pictographic images, an early form of encryption. In his textbook on artful writing, the Roman calligrapher Giovanni Battista Palatino included a “Sonetto Figurato,” a poem consisting of figural elements. The key to deciphering the cryptic series of letters and graphic symbols lay in the sound of the pictured object: a phonetic combination of “uova” (egg) with the letter “d” produces the interrogative “dove” (where).

Emblematum Libellus (1534) by Andrea AlciatiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The survival of the hieroglyphs is owed in particular to the emblematic literature. In 1531, a publisher in Augsburg produced a book entitled Emblematum liber (Book of Emblems), a collection of poems illustrated through woodcuts. The author, the Milan attorney Andrea Alciato, was however dissatisfied with this edition. A new edition of the emblem book appeared in Paris in 1534; here, the text and images were arranged typographically in such a way that a Latin motto, a woodcut, and a Latin epigram stood together on each page

Emblematum Libellus (1534) by Andrea AlciatiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The hieroglyphic model of reading shaped the depiction and interpretation of images, for example the symbol of the “lute” in the emblem for “foedera” (alliance). The harmoniously tuned strings of the lute emblematize the powerful political alliance between the Italian princes. In Horapollo, however, the image stood for those people who possess the dubious capacity for “making himself agreeable to others.”

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) by Francesco ColonnaKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The hieroglyphs seen by Poliphilo in his dream recur in emblematic rebuses. Enjoying great popularity was the image, familiar from antique coins, of a dolphin wound around an anchor, hence combining rapid maneuverability with firm support. Poliphilo had discovered it as ornamentation on a bridge, engraved alongside the image of a circle, and had interpreted to mean “Semper festina tarde” (Make haste slowly).

Coin displaying the Emperor Titus (Back)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The dolphin that winds itself around an anchor is found on Roman coins bearing portraits of the Emperor Titus. The image of an anchor with a dolphin also served as the trademark of the Venetian printer Aldo Manuzio, who opened his printing shop in 1494, and soon became famous for his philologically exemplary editions of ancient texts.

Le Imprese Heroiche et Morali (1559) by Gabriele SimeoniKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The image of an anchor with a dolphin was characterized by the Italian author Gabriele Simeoni as the “imprese” of the Roman Emperor Titus – on the opposite page, he shows a variant with a crab and a butterfly, standing for the Roman Emperor Augustus. A derivation of the Italian word “impresa” (enterprise), the term “imprese” denotes the connection between an image and a personal motto or epigram.

Emblematum Libellus (1534) by Andrea AlciatiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The dolphin with anchor reappears in the emblem book of Andrea Alciati. Now, it serves as a political memento, and admonishes sovereigns to protect their subjects in turbulent times, and to base their rule on firm foundations, like the anchor of a ship in stormy seas.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) by Francesco ColonnaKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

On his dream wanderings, Poliphilo encounters a hieroglyph of a half-seated, half-reclining woman who holds a wing in one hand and a turtle in the other, both in perfect balance, one leg planted firmly on the ground, the other suspended in the air. He explains the image with the epigram: “Temper speed by sitting, and lethargy by standing.”

Emblematum Libellus (1540) by Andrea AlciatiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

This pictorial idea of balanced opposites was varied like a musical motif and elaborated contrapuntally. Appearing in the emblem book of Andrea Alciato is a nude, standing boy. One leg is stretched out for support, the other bent dynamically; the left-hand, which has wings, is raised into the air, while the other, to which a stone has been tied, is hopelessly burdened: "Poverty hinders the advancement of the greatest abilities.”

Le Theatre Des Bons Engins (1540) by Guillaume de La PerrièreKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In the French emblem book of Guillaume de La Perrière we find a parody of this pictorial model. The winged walking stick on the turtle serves as a warning to pilgrims not to wander about aimlessly, as though there were no greater goal “than to rush across seas and over land. But such roving about is not always the right way. The winged walking stick must keep us in check, so that we move along like a turtle.”

Emblemata (1599) by Johannes SambucusKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Employing an excessively complex system of references, the Hungarian universal savant Johannes Sambucus incorporated this now barely recognizable allegorical emblem. Nature, represented as Artemis of Ephesos, holds the contrary aspects of physics and metaphysics in her hands, the “falling blossoms” and the “flying falcon.” There is also a “Temple of Vesta” with a globe and a “Temple of Divine Providence,” which hovers above clouds with an astrolabe. This means that metaphysics is preferable to physics – although the meaning of the bird and the moon above the shoulder of nature remains puzzling.

Emblematum Tyrocinia (1581) by Mathias HoltzwartKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In the emblem book of Mathias Holtzwart, the merging of opposites acquires a new significance: “What good for a man to gain the entire world if God Himself refuses him eternal peace?” In the image, the work of the Swiss artist Tobias Stimmer, this plainspoken admonition is transformed into a fantastical image of despair: in place of a stone (for poverty), a large moneybag hangs from the man’s feet, preventing him from using his winged arms to soar upwards.

Emblematum Centuria (1613) by Gabriel RollenhagenKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Through the Magdeburg preacher and pedagogue Gabriel Rollenhagen, in the end, a different reading proved more up-to-date: poverty, as heavy as a stone, weighs us down, while talent allows us to soar into the heights, as though on wings. It was not least the artistic quality of Crispijn van de Passe’s engravings that sustained the success of this emblem book, even when the fashion for hieroglyphs and emblems faded during the age of Enlightenment and neoclassicism.

Uschabti of Psamtik by UnknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Despite all of this enthusiasm for ‘pagan mysteries,’ attempts to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs were unsuccessful. Only during the nineteenth-century did archaeological excavations unearth increasing numbers of objects bearing inscriptions, such as the “ushabti,” statuettes which accompanied the deceased into the tomb. Hieroglyphs are the symbols found in the ancient Egyptian writing system, and they remained in use from circa 3200 BCE until the fourth century CE. At first, individual pictographs were used to convey simple information. But in development as early as the third millennium BCE was a highly complex writing system employing circa 700 hieroglyphs which can be categorized as phonetic symbols (phonograms), logograms (ideograms), or additional characters (determinatives). During the Ptolemaic periodic, numerous combinations of individual hieroglyphs, along with new variant readings, increased the number of hieroglyphs to more than 7000.

Description De L'Égypte (1822) by Edme François JomardKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The abiding mystery of the Egyptian hieroglyphs was solved as the result of a happy accident. The so-called Rosetta Stone was discovered near Rašīd (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta by a French officer during the Egyptian military campaign (1798-1801) of the French General Napoleon Bonaparte. The “Commission des sciences et des arts” (Commission for the Sciences and Arts), which accompanied the campaign on assignment by Napoleon, recognized the significance of the find. Engraved on the stone stele in three different writing systems (hieroglyphic, Demotic, and ancient Greek) is a royal decree dating from the year 196 BCE. Although the stele had to be surrendered to the British after the French defeat, it was the French linguist Jean-François Champollion who first successfully translated hieroglyphic inscriptions through a comparison of the three writing systems. This decisive moment is documented in the monumental publication Description de l’Égypte (Description of Egypt).

Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Concept and Text: Michael Lailach
Translation: Ian Pepper
Realisation: Justine Tutmann
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Photo: Dietmar Katz

Credits: All media
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