Treasures of Special Collections – Alciato’s first Emblem book

Continuing our ‘Treasures’ series, this image appears in one of the world-renowned emblem books held in Special Collections. It was published in Augsberg in 1531 and was compiled by an Italian lawyer, Andrea Alciato (1492-1550). This is the first edition of his first emblem book. It was an instant success and about 170 further editions were printed. 

Emblem books were extremely popular in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and were influential in literature and the visual arts. An emblem is a symbolic picture, usually a woodcut or engraving, with accompanying text, which can be decoded by the viewer. 

Emblem showing dolphin and anchor from Alciato's emblem book, 1531

Emblem from Alciato's book, 1531 Sp Coll S.M.18

This is one of 98 woodcuts attributed to Jorg Breu. The emblem shown here can be interpreted as a prince ensuring the safety of his subjects. The anchor is a traditional sign of political stability, while the dolphin fixes the anchor more safely in the deepest seas. 

Emblem books are consulted by researchers interested in all sorts of areas: painting, decorative arts, literature, illustrated books, iconography, symbolism, theories of representation, social and cultural history.  A number of significant books in our collection, including works by Alciato, have now been digitised. For more information see the University of Glasgow emblem website 

We acquired Sir William Stirling Maxwell’s unrivalled collection of emblem and device literature in 1958, as a bequest from his son. More images of our ‘Treasures’ are available on flickr.

Categories: Special Collections

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