Whose giraffe?

Charles Hope

  • Dynasty and Destiny in Medici Art: Pontormo, Leo X and the Two Cosimos by Janet Cox-Rearick
    Princeton, 700 pp, £100.50, October 1984, ISBN 0 691 04023 0

As visitors to the recent exhibition of Dutch art at the Royal Academy will know, emblems, once the province of antiquarians, are now of great interest to historians of art. For more than a decade scholars have argued that these combinations of a motto, a picture and an explanatory poem, pointing a simple moral lesson, provide a key to the understanding of Dutch painting of the 17th century. This is not just because in many cases emblems include imagery drawn from everyday life which is strikingly similar to that employed by the painters, but also because they supposedly indicate that the public of the period was accustomed to looking for moral meanings in such imagery, wherever it might appear. In much the same way it is now often believed that the Italian counterpart of the emblem, the impresa, provides evidence about the ways in which Italian art was interpreted, especially in the later 15th and the 16th century. Unlike emblems, imprese consisted only of an image and a motto, and by convention the image was non-human. Their function, too, was rather different. Instead of providing moral instruction, they were personal devices, akin to coats-of-arms, illustrating, in a veiled manner, the aspirations or character of their owner. In Renaissance Italy the ability to interpret an impresa was an essential courtly skill, requiring something of the gifts needed for a Times crossword – a wide knowledge of out-of-the-way literary texts and a taste for the playful association of ideas.

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