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Reviewed by:
  • Mosaics of Meaning: Studies in Portuguese Emblematics
  • David J. Hildner
Gomes, Luís, ed. Mosaics of Meaning: Studies in Portuguese Emblematics. Glasgow: Glasgow Emblem Studies. Vol. 13, 2008. xii + 186 pp.

This volume of essays makes a valuable contribution to the already impressive Glasgow Emblem Studies series by focusing exclusively on Portugal (and, in some instances, colonial Brazil). The idea for the volume arose from the realization among Glasgow Emblem scholars, after a conference talk by Luís Gomes, that not enough was known about Luso-Brazilian emblematics. Since the pioneering work of Maria Elena de Teves Costa Ureña Prieto, to whom the collection [End Page 199] of essays is dedicated and one of whose previous studies is included here in English translation, there had been a notable dearth of studies on the subject. The volume under review makes giant strides in filling the gap, both in the variety of books and artistic works studied and in the valuable links that are made between texts, drawing, painting, architecture, and the decorative arts, as epitomized in the title Mosaics of Meaning. The objects of these studies form part of both the material culture of Portugal and its colonies and of an important chapter in the history of ideas and their representation in Western Europe.

In the first place, careful attention is given to the material substratum of emblems, ranging from manuscripts and printed texts with engravings to ceramic azulejos. This last medium is brought to bear several times and is highlighted in a separate essay devoted to two Portuguese eighteenth-century azulejeiros. Throughout the volume, care is taken to consider not only medium, but spatial placement and arrangement of images and text. Fortunately, the volume also contains an abundance of illustrative plates. Although the methodology of these essays comes principally from traditional philology and art history, scholars with a more postmodern bent will find many intriguing examples of the complex ways in which material media and mental messages interacted in pre-Enlightenment Iberia.

If one insight becomes clear through the reading of the collection, it is the incredible fecundity of emblem and hieroglyphic collections throughout Western Europe and the Protean forms that individual emblems assumed as they were transmitted from one nation to another. The contributors provide many fascinating instances in which the same image, with varying inscriptiones and subscriptiones (usually in the form of verses) can provide different interpretations about general morality, religious dogma, or even historico-political events. There are also cases in which variations in the images themselves or in their placement are of interpretive interest.

There are further insights to be found by those interested in the history of early modern education and preaching. Nigel Griffin provides documentation of the use of, not only emblems of the Alciato format, but riddles, rebuses, and enigmas used by Jesuits in educating their pupils or in celebrating holy days. The generally recognized interest of the Jesuits in visual arts as educational media is here abundantly confirmed in a Portuguese context by means of primary documents.

Students of baroque Luso-Brazilian literature should take note of Isabel Almeida's study on the emblematic element in the sermons of Padre António Vieira. Not only does the essay give abundant examples of his use of ekphrasis and hypotyposis (vivid description), a technique favored by much of baroque oratory, but it also provides instances in which Vieira has a specific emblem from Alciato or another non-Portuguese source in mind. Finally, Luís Gomes's essay on the baroque poet Vasco Mousinho de Quebedo (a writer who, thanks to several recent studies, has come out of obscurity) presents the case of Portugal's first "emblem writer," with the caveat that his are "virtual emblems," [End Page 200] i. e. published without illustrations. The fifty "emblematic" sonnets under study here must create, through words, their own virtual images and draw moral, religious, and political messages from them.

The editor and contributors of Mosaics of Meaning are to be congratulated for a well-documented, carefully-researched, and richly interdisciplinary volume.

David J. Hildner
University of Wisconsin-Madison


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