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  • The Emblem in Early Modern Europe: Contributions to the Theory of the Emblem by Peter M. Daly
  • Michael Bath
Peter M. Daly. The Emblem in Early Modern Europe: Contributions to the Theory of the Emblem. Ashgate. xiv, 234. £63.00

This study of the Renaissance emblem, as it developed in the genre of the illustrated book that emerged following the appearance of Alciato’s Emblematum liber in 1581, is in fact more of an introduction to the range of issues raised by the growth and development of modern emblem studies as a scholarly discipline, in which Peter M. Daly has played a leading role, than an introduction to the emblem books themselves. Those issues are largely theoretical, and it was Daly himself, as a professor of German at McGill, who in his Emblem Theory in 1979 introduced English readers to modern German theories of the emblem, and these laid a basis not only for further debate but also for the wider development of emblem studies as a discrete academic discipline, or area of literary and art historical research.

The theoretical issues covered in this book nearly all centre on questions of definition: what is an emblem? What distinguishes it from other symbolic forms, whether literary or visual? It seemed vital in the 1980s for the emergent discipline to clarify the differences between emblems and other forms (such as allegory, heraldry, and hieroglyphica) or broader subject areas (such as iconology and semiotics). Otherwise, how could one decide whether a proposed paper was acceptable for a conference program or specialized journal? The difficulty of defining the genre indeed led John Manning (The Emblem, 2002) to deny that it was a distinct genre at all; however, it ought, surely, to be axiomatic in genre theory that nearly all genres are not fixed but mixed.

Although Daly does not say so, the problem of definition was undoubtedly accentuated by the fact that the title that Alciato (or his publisher, Steyner, in Augsburg) gave to his collection of illustrated epigrams in 1531 changed the meaning of the word emblem not only in Latin but, eventually, in virtually all the other European languages. Based on a Greek word which means “insert,” emblema means anything—particularly anything decorative—that can be “applied” to another surface. It is our modern usage of the word to refer to almost any kind of sign (emblem and sign are now virtually synonyms) that makes the question of definition so imperative for modern emblem studies. Historical usage suggests, however, that, by the seventeenth century at least, many readers had a clear-enough sense of the emblem as a discrete genre, and we already find, in the Italian impresa theorists, a readiness to define genre characteristics and differences and to lay down rules for emblems’ composition and appreciation.

Daly spends more time in the present study, however, surveying the often conflicting assumptions of modern students and theorists, and one does not find, despite its subtitle, any fully developed or consistent new [End Page 308] “theory of the emblem” of his own. Readers might, indeed, be taken aback to find a style of writing quite so full of unanswered questions, many of them rhetorical. There is, alas, much more judgmental and opinionated comment here than sustained argument or analysis: this is a review of the existing literature of its subject rather than a new theory of the emblem: Forschungsbericht rather than systematic argument. His judgments on the research he is evaluating thus often fail to make connections with other issues that he raises elsewhere in his argument. For instance, a 1999 essay by Rüdiger Campe titled “Questions of Emblematic Evidence” is dismissed for challenging the now somewhat superannuated theories of Albrecht Schöne on German baroque drama. However, Daly fails to see that Campe’s evidentia is a legal term (Alciato was a lawyer) and that questions of evidence relate to some of the unresolved issues (“potential facticity,” the credibility of emblematic topoi and argument) that Daly himself has already highlighted in his discussion. One might add that “evidence” also includes the appeals that commonplace rhetoric made to received opinion, proverbial topics, and iconographic verisimilitude: in the twentieth century French structuralism...


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pp. 308-309
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