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Thursday, 27 March 2014

Sandro Botticelli's The Wedding Feast, 1483 : A guest post by Clare Gibson

I'm very grateful to Clare Gibson for the following post, which she gave me a shockingly long time ago.  I'm very happy to be able to post it now:

A Feast for the Eyes

Some time ago, my Twitter friend @Bebejax invited me to be a guest blogger on her blog, but, touched as I was to be asked, I wasn’t able to oblige at the time. Now I can, and, having spent some time wondering what @MrsSymbols could possibly blog about that would suit the Renaissance Epicurean, a foodie with a special interest in Florentine art and the Medici family, a certain painting sprang to mind: Botticelli’s The Wedding Feast (1483), which I included in my book, The Hidden Life of Renaissance Art: Secrets and Symbols in Great Masterpieces, for @SarabandBooks, in 2007. 

The Wedding Feast, 1483, Sandro Botticelli, 
oil on canvas, private collection.

Painted to mark the marriage of Giannozzo Pucci and Lucrezia Bini, and commissioned by either Giannozzo’s father, Antonio, or his godfather, Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–92), the painting represents the culmination of a series of four depicting the story of Nastagio degli Onesti, as related by Boccaccio in The Decameron (1351–53). It’s a gorily compelling tale, featuring as it does a rejected suitor who literally took possession of a lady’s heart after the object of his desire had rejected his advances and declined to bestow it on him voluntarily. I was, moreover, intrigued by possible parallels between Giannozzo, the real-life bridegroom, and the fictional Nastagio, whose wedding feast, portrayed here, followed his initially reluctant bride’s acceptance of his marriage proposal. 

The symmetry of the painting is pleasing, too, as is the somewhat theatrical vision of the parade of young men carrying an array of dishes. But I especially enjoy the symbolic references to Lorenzo de’ Medici within the painting: the Medici coat of arms at the top of the central column, for example, with its six red balls that may – or may not – originally have symbolised oranges. Another is the laurel trees that adorn the three pillars in the foreground, the laurel having featured in Lorenzo’s impresa, or personal emblem, perhaps as a play on his first name, which equates to Laurentius in Latin, while the laurel’s Latin name is Laurus. Illustrated in Paolo Giovio’s Dialogo dell’imprese militari et amorose (1574), this impresa includes two lions flanking a laurel tree, to which is attached a banner emblazoned with the motto ita et virtus (Latin for ‘So is virtue’), the implication being that, like laurel leaves, virtue is evergreen, or undying.* Equally eternal is the appreciation that cooks – and epicureans – have for the foliage of Laurus nobilis, bay leaves having been used to flavour food since time immemorial. 

Lorenzo de’ Medici’s laurel-tree impresa, f
rom Paolo Giovio’s Dialogo dell’imprese militari et amorose

*As well as signifying immortality, the laurel can symbolise victory, amongst other concepts. For more, see: Cupid's Leaden Arrows.

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Function of Alchemical Imagery in the poetry of John Donne

Where the twenty-first century reader might think of alchemy as the process of transforming one metal state to another for profit, to the late medieval or early modern scholar it had several other meanings. Whilst the transformation of metals or other objects is one, others included the spiritual transformation of the base human body into a spiritually pure entity; or the use of unusual substances such as poison to enable the new forms of medicine pioneered by Paracelsus ; to developments in astronomy and astrology. Here the process of transformation or transmutation is central to the concept of alchemy, and most educated men would be familiar with the imagery, meaning and function of alchemy, even if they didn’t practice the chemical component of the experiments themselves.

To the renaissance poet, alchemy had many faces – whether it be satirised with comic effect, as in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist - or in John Donne’s poetry it might provide a path to spiritual transformation through a complex exercise in alchemical allusion and wordplay. The text is coded to make it either comically incomprehensible jargon, or to encourage one to endeavour for meaning and intellect, a necessary function of spiritual development. However, that is not to say that Donne only utilised alchemy for the purpose for spiritual transformation – he too satirised alchemy and many of the poems might be considered intellectual exercises as appreciably as a spiritual treatise.

In order to explore this let's focus on two of Donne’s poems, examining the function of the corresponding alchemical imagery by which Donne seeks to spiritually enlighten and elevate the disposed reader.

Given the modern reader’s inability to fully comprehend renaissance alchemy, it is necessarily difficult for us to decode all alchemical imagery and meaning. As Edgar Hill Duncan points out, the tradition of alchemical satire is ‘quite different with those figures which make use of particulars of alchemical theory or practice, where the alchemical concepts serve to express outright as metaphors or to intensify as similes the thought-content of the lines. In each of these instances the value of the concept for Donne lies in its aptness for illustrating, explaining, or intensifying the idea which it embodies or to which it is juxtaposed.’

At best we can interpret or decipher Donne’s alchemical imagery against the context of his overall meaning within a poem, and against the ‘mass of beliefs known as alchemy’ which can be ‘fairly transferred from its logical connection with that science to body forth or explain a concept in another real of though or knowledge which is the poet’s subject.’ In other words, against these constraints it is still possible to draw the parallels between the imagery, the standard definitions of alchemical metaphor, the conventional definitions of Christian metaphor and Donne’s overall poetic intention.

Within this context, the theme of rebirth and resurrection is apparent in A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day, and The Resurrection, imperfect. Here, in the manner of many other Renaissance schools of thought, alchemy has been appropriated for a Christian purpose, for the student educated in both classical, Christian and alchemical thought.

Donne matches the alchemical process of putrefaction which results in new life, with the Christian parallel; that of the resurrection of Christ. However, clearly these poems operate on many levels and there are other themes. In S. Lucies Day is also the theme of Nature, with the notion that all things have a time and a season. Frank Kermode suggests that S. Lucies Day is ‘incomprehensible’ without an understanding of alchemy, but I disagree. Although there are undoubtedly references to alchemy and alchemical equipment, given the above, at a more basic level the poem can operate as a verse on Nature, on the inevitability of death, and on the inexorable manner in which time moves forward, creating anew, and with Christian teaching one might divine resurrection and rebirth, leading to human resurrection and the hope of an afterlife.

This is particularly apparent in ‘the next world, that is, at the next Spring’ which brings together the themes of Christianity and Nature. However, I do accept that knowledge of alchemy enriches the reader with a third, equally regenerative reading, particularly in the following lines where Donne states:

For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new Alchimie.
For his love did expresses
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and leane emptiness
He ruine’d mee, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.

Here Donne plays on the reversal of the usual creation process in alchemy.

In Resurrection, Imperfect , Donne represents the resurrection of Christ. The first half of the poem can be deciphered without knowledge of alchemy, with references to the Crucifixion, to the solar eclipse, to the resurrection of Christ and the Ascension. Halfway through, the poem takes on the distinct language of alchemy. Donne likens Christ to a mineral or gold, and the process of the resurrection to the process of transmutation in alchemy itself:

For these three daies become a mineral;
Hee was all gold when he lay downe, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make even sinfull flesh like his.
Had one of those, whose credulous pietie
Thought, that a Soule might discerne and see
Goe from a body, ’at this sepulcher been,
And, issuing from the sheet, this body seen,
He would have justly though this body a soule,
If not of any man, yet of the whole.

In alchemical thought the sun could transmute minerals in the earth into gold, but here Christ was already gold when he was buried, and transmuted into tincture, normally used to purify other metals. Christ’s’ resurrection is a direction for man’s goal of spiritual resurrection.

Edgar Hill Duncan has a particularly interesting analysis of the poem in his essay, ‘Donne’s Alchemical Figures’, in which he states that: ‘[Donne] expounds the death and resurrection of Christ in terms of the alchemical death and resurrection of gold. Dying is a necessary preliminary to alchemical revivification, a dying which reduces to original elements.’ Here it is essential from an alchemical interpretation of the resurrection that the body of Christ undergo some form of decay in order to facilitate transformation – it is not enough for Christ to simply ascend to heaven. This is partly because before transformation can occur, purification must have taken place, both in Christian and alchemical terms. The decay of Christ forms part of this purification process, and this spiritual cleansing is required of Christians also.

In Darke Hieroglyphicks Linden states that ‘the death-resurrection motif inherent in alchemical theory is central to the conceit.’ He goes on to say that ‘“Resurrection, imperfect” relies on alchemy to convey Christian views of death, resurrection, and salvation… Christ is represented as the transmuting agent who, through his death, acquired the potency to purify the baser bodies that he chooses to touch’.

In both poems alchemy serves to add depth to the existing Christian interpretation of re-birth. Resurrection is really a spiritual belief; it is not tangible and relies exclusively on the beliefs of the individual. In adopting what was at the time a scientific approach, in the sense that alchemy was not considered arcane, or a pseudo-science, Donne might have offered some ‘scientific proof’ that the resurrection and afterlife were possible in reality as well as spirit. By citing alchemical examples Donne is able not only to contrast natural processes with conceptual ones, he is also able to code that message to give it some form of secrecy, requiring an effort to translate it. Only the devout and pure Christian in this sense can ‘decode’ the message in the poems and find spiritual renewal.

Alchemical imagery here serves to provide example, comparison, metaphor and both the code and cipher. The prize is not the conventional interpretation of the Philosopher’s Stone, but man’s soul transfigured by Divine Grace. Perhaps here the concept of the elixir, or balsam familiar in many alchemical texts might not be interpreted as the Balsam of the Elements or the Quintessence, but the spiritual quintessence of divine inspiration through the Holy Spirit.

Abraham, L., A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery: Introduction, pp xv-xxii, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)
Abraham, L., Marvell and Alchemy, (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1990)
Donne, John, The Complete English Poems, ed. C. A. Patrides, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1991)
Duncan, E. H., ‘Donne’s Alchemical Figures’ in English Literary History 9, (1942), pp 257-85
Hayes, T. W., ‘Alchemical Imagery in John Donne’s “A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day”’ in Ambix 23 (1976), pp 55-62
Linden, S. J., Darke Hieroglyphicks, (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1996)
Mazzeo, J. A., Renaissance and Seventeenth-Century Studies:, Notes On John Donne’s Alchemical Imagery, pp 60-89, (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 1964)
Roberts, G., The Mirror of Alchemy, (London: The British Library, 1994)
Sadler, L. V., ‘Relations between Alchemy and Poetics in the Renaissance and Seventeenth Century, with Special Glances at Donne and Milton’ in Ambix 23 (1976), pp 69-76
Walker, J. M., ‘John Donne’s “The Extasie” as an Alchemical Process’ in English Language Notes 20 (1982), pp 1-8
Warlick, M. E., ‘The Domestic Alchemist: Women as Housewives in Alchemical Emblem’ in Glasgow Emblem Studies, Vol. 3, 1998

Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Identification of Jean de Dinteville in Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’, in 1890 – 1895

In the age of Twitter and Wikipedia, it's easy to forget that debates on artistic matters were often carried out via correspondence, or potentially in broadsheet newspapers such as the Times... It might take some considerable time for correspondents to review their peers comments, collate their thoughts, and respond accordingly. Of course there might often be overlap and confusion... No quick blog or tweet here... One such debate surrounded the identification of the sitters in Holbein's The Ambassadors:

The painting The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein the Younger, was acquired for the National collection in 1890 from the Earl of Radnor at Longford Castle, in whose family’s collection it had been since 1808-09[i].

We know it had not been exhibited often, but do know that it was shown in the Royal Academy at Burlington House in 1873[ii]. Its very unusual composition had ensured that it was already quite well known to London society, and its acquisition was greeted with mixed enthusiasm[iii]. At £30,000, it was one of the most expensive acquisitions of the day, but a great deal of that money had come from private funding[iv].

When the painting was put on display in the National Gallery in September of 1890[v], the initial excitement lay in the debate over the identity of the two men in the portrait, and in the meaning of the fish, or anamorphic skull, in the foreground of the panel.

It is now widely believed that the two men are in fact Jean de Dinteville and George de Selve, and although references to the original painting referred to a MM. Selve[vi], the connection to George de Selve had not been made, and the name had been ignored.

The traditional account of identity of the men, asserted by Ralph Wornum[vii] and Alfred Woltman[viii], ventured that they were Sir Thomas Wyatt and his secretary John Leland, the antiquary. In August of 1890 J. C. Robinson had concurred with Alfred Woltman in The Times stating that ‘This attribution is, I think, most likely to be the true one’[ix], given the status of the men and their access to Henry VIII.

The rationale behind the first attempts at naming the sitters rested primarily on the location of Holbein at the time of the portrait, and the fact that he was employed by Henry VIII - the assumption being that the sitters must be at Henry’s court, and therefore English. This was an entirely flawed assumption.

At the point of its acquisition for the nation, various enthusiasts began to look at The Ambassadors in earnest, and to comment on the discrepancies between the original identification and elements of the painting. The person on the left appeared to be wearing the Order of St. Michael, a French honour at that time bestowed upon royalty and a few nobles, and his clothing was not typical of that found in England at the time. The painting also indicated the age of the sitters (on a dagger sheaf and a book), and this did not match that of Wyatt and Leland in 1533.

The first person to correctly deduce that Jean de Dinteville was the ambassador on the left was Sydney Colvin of the British Museum, and he did so in The Times, on the very day that the pictures were first displayed in the National Gallery.

Colvin examined pictures of Wyatt and found them wholly different to the figure on the left of The Ambassadors. He then examined the original provenance of the painting commenting that ‘’Sir J. C. Robinson … supposes (as Woltmann had supposed before him) that it received the name of “The Ambassadors” while at Longford.

It was in point of fact traditionally known by that name in the 18th century, when it formed part of the collection of the French connoisseur J. B. Lebrun.’[x] He asserted correctly that the Order of St. Michael and the clothing being apparently French, the likely candidate would be a French ambassador at court, stating that ‘it so happens that in the several French Envoys who came to the Court of Henry VIII in this eventful year, 1533, the most important was exactly of the age required by the inscription in the picture.

This was the Bailly of Troyes, Jean de Dinteville.’[xi]

In its lead on the unveiling of the paintings that day, The Times concurs saying that ‘On the most interesting and much-discussed question of the identity of the persons represented, we print below a letter from Sidney Colvin which, we venture to think, solves the problem as far as the chief Ambassador is concerned.’

Unfortunately Sidney Colvin dismissed the mention of MM. de Selve in the original Lebrun records, saying that ‘The above conjecture unluckily leaves as unsettled as ever the question of the second personage in the Longford picture. … Special students of the period will doubtless not be backward, when the new possession of the nation is once in its place, with suggestions for solving this second branch also of the problem which it presents.’ And so the search for the identity of the sitters began in earnest.

Within the month Charles Eastlake wrote to The Times disagreeing with Sidney Colvin on the basis that it need not be necessary to look abroad, as ‘Among the numerous envoys which Henry VIII sent to the Court of France, surely one or more may have returned decorated with this Order’.[xii] Eastlake thought it far more likely that the sitter was George Boleyn, Viscount Rocheford, brother to Queen Anne, and ambassador to the court of Francis I. The second sitter he suggested was William Paget, a friend of George Boleyn. However Eastlake’s attempt to put the ages of the sitters correctly against the painting does not succeed, and seems clumsy at best.

Two days later J. C. Robinson reversed his earlier agreement with Wornum and Woltmann, and came out in favour of Sidney Colvin’s hypothesis[xiii]. Given the rapid demise of George Boleyn, he thought it highly unlikely that he might be the sitter, and agreed with Colvin that the Order of St. Michael must have some bearing on the identification of the primary Ambassador.

Sidney Colvin replied to The Times within two weeks dismissing Charles Eastlake’s theory, stating that ‘that supposition is to my mind excluded by their appearance, the details of the dress and ornaments, and the character of the accessories, as well as by the French provenance and traditions of the picture and the absence of any English records concerning it’[xiv]. Colvin’s experience as a scholar of some understanding is here demonstrated by his thorough approach to eliminating any contrivance in suggestions of George Boleyn. However he himself is not above speculation and in the same article suggests that the second sitter, by a process of elimination, must be that of Nicholas Bourbon.

Whilst Colvin is able to demonstrate that the two men were friends, and that Bourbon had a number of characteristics which made him a suitable candidate, he does acknowledge that Bourbon’s age does not match that of the sitter on the right hand of the portrait. He tries to close down the argument, suggesting that ‘very strong arguments … will be need to prevent the picture henceforth taking its place in the National collection … as that of the poet-scholar, Nicholas Bourbon, and his friend the Ambassador, Jean de Dinteville’. Here Colvin allows himself to be persuaded by the same lack of documentary evidence that he criticised in Eastlake’s theory.

Between this proposal in October 1890 and December 1895, no few than three other courtiers are suggested as the ambassador on the left. In 1890 Elias Dexter[xv] proposed that the sitter must be William du Bellay, Lord of Longey (accompanied by his brother John). Dexter’s hypothesis is that because the sitters are apparently at least forty years of age, the inscriptions bearing their name must had been falsified after the painting was completed by Holbein. He also proposed that there must have been two versions of the painting, because the Lebrun engraving had a number of alterations to it in comparison with the original in The National Gallery, and that the likeness of the two brothers in existing works matched that of The Ambassadors. This self-published book is long on speculation, and short on actual corroborative evidence, a common feature of the debate.

In August 1891 Walter Money[xvi] proposed that the sitter was Count Balthazar Castiglione, seemingly based solely on the fact that he had been awarded the Order of the Garter for doing good services for Henry VIII. Little or no real documentary evidence supports his claim.

It is not until the 31st August, 1891 that further evidence is presented to support Sidney Colvin’s claims. On that date Edward Dillon wrote to The Times commenting that the newly cleaned painting now meant that names could be read on the terrestrial globe on the second shelf of the painting. One of the names newly revealed to the viewer was that of Polizy or Policy, the home of the Dinteville family estate. Edward Dillon wrote that ‘I think that the identification of the ambassador in Holbein’s picture with Jean de Dinteville, Seigneur of Polizy, may now be regarded as final. On the terrestrial globe from which its position may be regarded as an attribute of the left-hand figure, the following names of towns occur, and no others: - Paris, Lyons, Nuremburg, Venice, Rome and finally Polizy, all except the last important place’[xvii].

Sidney Colvin responded two days later stating that ‘now that the cleaning of the surface has enabled these names to be clearly read, and that among them the obscure village of Polizy, in Burgundy, where Dinteville was born, is found inserted on equal terms with Paris, Lyons, and Bayonne (the only other French towns given), I venture to think with your correspondent that the correctness of the proposed identification must be regarded as placed beyond further doubt’.[xviii]

However, the portrait was not completely identified as Jean de Dinteville until Mary Hervey’s definite work on the subject was detailed in The Times on the 7th December 1895[xix]. At that point Mary Hervey had tracked down a fragment of a parchment which identified both sitters, explicitly, and which matched the age of the sitters within the portrait. Hervey had come across the manuscript listed in a French bookseller’s catalogue, and recognising the significance of the mention of MM de Selve, a clue which had been completely ignored by all other scholars, had purchased the parchment. Once obtained she was able to completely identify the sitters, confirm that the information within the painting had indeed been put there by Holbein, and go into history as the person who identified the sitters in The Ambassadors.

Because of the frequency with which some authors are noted here, and given the variety of their work, I have maintained the full publication details in each instance to avoid confusion.
[i] For one account of the history of the painting between 1533 and 1900, please refer to Hervey, Mary F. S., Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’: The Picture and the Men (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1900), pp. 5-31.
[ii] See 'The Longford Pictures at the National Gallery', The Times [London], 11 September 1890, 6.
[iii] ‘A work of such calibre, this thirty thousand pounder, will certainly appeal to a considerable section of the British public, from whom we may expect very mixed opinions as to the value and merits of this newly-acquired treasure’, see Robinson, J. C., 'The Longford Castle Holbein', The Times [London], 19 August 1890, 10.
[iv] The painting was bought as part of a set of three, which cost a total of £55,000. ‘Messrs. N. Rothschild & Sons, Lord Iveach, and Mr. Charles Cotes’ contributed £30,000 to the purchase. See Dickes, William F., Holbein’s Celebrated Picture, Now Called ‘The Ambassadors’, Shown to be a Memorial of the Treaty of Nuremburg, 1532, and the Portray Those Princely Brothers, Counts of Palatine of the Rhine, Otto Henry … and Philippe (etc.) (London: Cassell & Co., 1903), pp. 8.
The Times stated that ‘The price that has been paid - £55,000 - is high, but perhaps not too high; and as the country has to pay less than half of it – the rest having being privately subscribed by generous donors – even the most severe of economists may look upon the purchase with satisfaction’. See 'The Longford Pictures at the National Gallery', The Times [London], 11 September 1890, 6.
[v] The Times informed their readers that the three pictures would be displayed in the Umbrian room of the National Gallery, until a suitable home could be found for them. See 'The Longford Pictures at the National Gallery', The Times [London], 11 September 1890, 6.
[vi] The caption recorded with an engraving made by Lebrun of The Ambassadors read ‘Celui dont on voit l’estampe offer les portraits de MM. de Selve et D’Avaux; l’un fut Ambassadeur a Venise, l’autre le fut dans le nord : ils sone accompagnes des attributes des arts qu’ils cultiaient. J’ai despuis vendu ce tableau pour l’Angleterre, ou il est maintenant; les figures sont de grandeur naturelle’. Not only did it name de Selve, but it correctly asserted that he had been an Ambassador to Venice, although this occurred after the painting was made. It also asserted that the painting had been sold into England, where it now was. See Hervey, Mary F. S., Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’: The Picture and the Men (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1900), pp. 5-6.
[vii] See Wornum, Ralph N., Some account of the Life and Works of Hans Holbein (London: 1867), pp. 275.
[viii] See Woltmann, Alfred, Holbein and His Time (London, 1872), pp. 360-361.
[ix] See Robinson, J. C., 'The Longford Castle Holbein', The Times [London], 19 August 1890, 10.
[x] See Colvin, Sydney, 'The Longford Pictures at the National Gallery', The Times [London], 11 September 1890, 6.
[xi] See Colvin, Sydney, 'The Longford Pictures at the National Gallery', The Times [London], 11 September 1890, 6.
[xii] Eastlake, Charles, 'The Longford Castle Holbein', The Times [London], 7 October 1890, 7.
[xiii] See Robinson, J. C., 'The Longford Castle Holbein', The Times [London], 9 October 1890, 9.
[xiv] See Colvin, Sydney, 'The Longford Castle Holbein', The Times [London], 20 October 1890, 3.
[xv] See Dexter, Elias, 'Holbein’s "Ambassadors" Identified, and other Interesting Matters Relating to the Picture Lately Added to the National Gallery', (London: Published by the author, 1890).
[xvi] See Money, Walter, 'The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 22 August 1891, 11.
[xvii] Dillon, Edward, 'The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 31 August 1891, 10.
[xviii] Colvin, Sydney, 'The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 1 September 1891, 5.
[xix] Hervey, Mary F. S., 'Holbein's "Ambassadors" - The Solution', The Times [London], 7 December 1895, 13.


Primary Texts:

Ainger, Alfred, 'The Skull in the Longford Castle Holbein', The Times [London], 21 August 1890, 6.
Armstrong, Walter, ‘”The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger’, Portfolio (1890), 241-2.
Brown-Borthwick, R., 'The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 22 August 1891, 11.
Burton, F. W., 'The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 7 July 1891, 12.
Burton, F. W., 'The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 8 August 1891, 9.
Colvin, Sydney, 'The Longford Pictures at the National Gallery', The Times [London], 11 September 1890, 6.
Colvin, Sydney, 'The Longford Castle Holbein', The Times [London], 20 October 1890, 3.
Colvin, Sydney, 'The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 1 September 1891, 5.
Colvin, Sydney, 'The Longford Holbein and the Order of St. Michael', The Times [London], 11 December 1891, 13.
Colvin, Sydney, 'The Longford Holbein and the Order of St. Michael', The Times [London], 31 December 1891, 7.
Colvin, Sydney, 'The Longford Castle Pictures at the National Gallery', Art Journal, new series (1891), 1-6.
Colvin, Sydney, 'Holbein's "Ambassadors"', The Times [London], 10 December 1895, 12.
Colvin, Sydney, Burlington Magazine, 2, (1903), 367-69.
Dexter, Elias, 'Holbein’s "Ambassadors" Identified, and other Interesting Matters Relating to the Picture Lately Added to the National Gallery', (London: Published by the author, 1890).
Dickes, William F, 'The Mystery of Holbein's "Ambassadors", The Magazine of Art, 15 (1891-92), pp.140.
Dickes, William F., 'The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 17 October 1891, 10.
Dickes, William F., 'The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 24 November 1891, 4.
Dickes, William F., 'The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 28 December 1891, 6.
Dickes, William F., '"The Two Ambassadors" by Holbein', The Times [London], 14 May 1894, 3.
Dickes, William F, 'The Mystery of Holbein's "Ambassadors": A Solution.' Part I, The Magazine of Art, 15 (1895), 1-6.
Dickes, William F, 'The Mystery of Holbein's "Ambassadors": A Solution.' Part II, The Magazine of Art, 15 (1895), 37-4.
Dickes, William F, 'The Mystery of Holbein's "Ambassadors": A Solution Re-Considered', The Magazine of Art, 15 (1895), 275-80.
Dickes, William F., 'Holbein's "Ambassadors"', The Athenaeum, Journal of English and Foreign Literature, Science, the Fine Arts, Music and the Drama, No. 3561 (Jan. 25, 1896), 125-26.
Dickes, William F., Holbein’s Celebrated Picture, Now Called ‘The Ambassadors’, Shown to be a Memorial of the Treaty of Nuremburg, 1532, and the Portray Those Princely Brothers, Counts of Palatine of the Rhine, Otto Henry … and Philippe (etc.) (London: Cassell & Co., 1903).
Dillon, Edward, 'The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 31 August 1891, 10.
Eastlake, Charles, 'The Longford Castle Holbein', The Times [London], 7 October 1890, 7.
Eastlake, Charles, 'The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 18 August 1891, 7.
Eastlake, Charles, 'The Distorted Skull in the Longford Castle Holbein', The Times [London], 8 December 1891, 14.
Hervey, Mary F. S., 'Holbein's "Ambassadors" - The Solution', The Times [London], 7 December 1895, 13.
Hervey, Mary F. S., Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’: The Picture and the Men (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1900).
Marshall, John, 'The Longford Castle Holbein', The Times [London], 20 October 1890, 3.
Money, Walter, 'The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 22 August 1891, 11.
Robinson, J. C., 'The Longford Castle Holbein', The Times [London], 19 August 1890, 10.
Robinson, J. C., 'The Longford Castle Holbein', The Times [London], 9 October 1980, 9.
The Longford Holbein', The Times [London], 7 August 1891, 5.
Woltmann, Alfred, Holbein and His Time (London, 1872).
Wornum, Ralph N., Some account of the Life and Works of Hans Holbein (London: 1867), pp. 275.

Secondary Texts:

Ainsworth, Maryan, ‘“Paternes for Physioneamyes”: Holbein’s Portraiture Reconsidered’, Burlington Magazine, 1132 (1990), 173-86.
Aked, C. K., ‘The Ambassadors’, Antiquarian Horology, Winter (1976), 173-86.
Anson, E. Mary, ‘Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”’, The Listener, 26 January 1961.
Baltrusaitis, Jurgis, trans. Walter, J. Strachan, Anamorphic Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977), pp. 91-114
Baynes-Cope, A. David, ‘The Investigation of a Group of Globes’, Imago Mundi, 33 (1981), 9-20.
Buck, Stephanie and Jochen Sander, Hans Holbein the Younger, Painter at the Court of Henry VIII, book published to accompany the exhibition Hans Holbein 1497/98 -1543. The Mauritshuis, The Hague. 16 August – 16 November 2003. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003).
Charlton, Kenneth, ‘Holbein’s “Ambassadors” and Sixteenth Century Education’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 21 (1960), 99-109.
Dekker, Elly and Kristen Lippencott: ‘The Scientific Instruments in Holbein’s Ambassadors: A Re-Examination’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 62 (1999), 93-125.
Drinkwater, Peter I., The Sundials of Nicholaus Kratzer (Shipton-on-Stour: Published by the author, 1993).
Foister, Susan, Ashok Roy and Martin Wyld, Making and Meaning: Holbein’s Ambassadors (London: The National Gallery, 1997).
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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The impact of ‘hieroglyphics’ on the allegorical art of Renaissance Italy

The Renaissance Humanists quest for the recovery of ancient ‘truths’ and for a greater understanding of God didn’t only find definition through the Renaissance reclamation of ancient texts, artistic styles and architecture. Renaissance humanists were interested in a variety of antique modes of knowledge, from the rituals and numerology of Cabbala; the translation of classic texts; the study of natural magic in, for example, alchemy (and again Cabbala); and also through the study of symbols such as Egyptian hieroglyphs.

In order to examine the general impact of hieroglyphics and the resulting impact on Renaissance art, it is first necessary to understand how and why hieroglyphs became so important, and what they meant to their main sponsor during the Renaissance - the humanists and neo-Platonists.

We can then explore more specific artistic examples of hieroglyphics in commemorative medal; print; portraiture; and emblems.

There are several ways in which hieroglyphs became known to Renaissance scholars. The Roman Empire had of course stretched as far as Egypt, and a number of Egyptian artefacts had been returned to Rome. These included sphinxes and obelisks, which incorporated hieroglyphs in their design, though, in fact, the most often cited example of the famous obelisk standing in St Peter’s Square contains no hieroglyphs. [2]

However, unbeknownst to Renaissance scholars, Roman artists had also produced their own imitations of hieroglyphics, and examples existed in Rome, mixed with the Egyptian originals. These were incorrectly assumed to be of Egyptian origin, and their designs were sometimes copied as genuine. Extant examples include the obelisk at the Piazza Trinita dei Monti (known as the Sallustian); the obelisk in the Pincio Hill’s Gardens made by Emperor Hadrian; and the obelisk in the Piazza Navona [3]. There is also the surviving Roman temple frieze now in the Capitoline Museum, which inspired the Renaissance copies, to be discussed later.

In response to the Egyptian artefacts brought into Italy, other examples of Egyptian structures began to appear. In the Mosaics of San Marco in Venice, pyramids were shown as Joseph’s granaries[iv], and pyramids were also incorporated into tomb monuments in Bologna.[v]

In addition, the ever popular Physiologus, whilst not strictly containing Egyptian hieroglyphs, kept alive the notion of Egyptian symbolism.

As well as the visual examples, the humanists had translated a number of classical texts which cited Egyptian wisdom and hieroglyphs, putting Egyptian knowledge on an almost exalted level. Poggio Bracciolini had translated Diodorus describing the wonders of Egypt, and Nicolo dei Nicoli had copied Ammianus Marcellinus, who had written in the fourth century of his trip to Egypt and the marvels he’d seen. Herodotus too had written that “the Egyptians … have made themselves much the most learned of any nation of which I have experience”, (Histories ii. 77), and that “The names of nearly all the gods have been known in Egypt from the beginning of time”, (Histories ii. 50).

When in 1419 Cristoforo Buondelmonte discovered a manuscript on Andros, apparently a description and explanation of Egyptian hieroglyphics by Horapollo[vii], [viii], [ix], he sent it to his friends Nicoli and Bracciolini expecting it to pique their interest. Divided into two books, the original is thought to have been written in Egypt in the fourth or fifth century, and translated in this instance into Greek by the unknown Philippos. For the first time Renaissance humanists felt as though they might truly understand the extant Egyptian remains in Rome and scattered elsewhere. (The hieroglyphs in the first book whilst not entirely accurate, generally hold true and are now thought to be original to Horapollo. The second book is thought to contain later additions accompanying the Greek translation, and the examples generally don’t bear any resemblance to Egyptian hieroglyphics).

Some years later in the early 1460’s, Marsilio Ficino, leader of the Platonic Academy in Florence established in 1439 by Cosimo de Medici, translated a text thought to be by the Egyptian sage, Hermes Trismegistus[x]. Hermes Trismegistus had been known to scholars throughout the medieval period[xi], and was denounced by Augustine in chapters 23-26 of the City of God.

Ficino and the other Renaissance Neo-Platonists were convinced that writers such as Plato and Hermes Trismegistus had in some way pre-figured Christ and were to be reclaimed into the Christian corpus - it is therefore no wonder that Egypt seemed to take on such significance[xii]. Erik Iversen states that ‘According to Ficino, Hermes Trismegistus was a sage of the Egyptians, a contemporary or maybe even a predecessor of Moses. He had attained a knowledge of things surpassing even that which was revealed to the Hebrew prophets, and comparable only to that of the Evangelists. Pythagoras had become acquainted with his teachings in Egypt, and through his intermission they had been transmitted to Plato who was a student of Egyptian wisdom himself, and had eventually based his own philosophy on the doctrines of Hermes. Egyptian wisdom, Neo-Platonic philosophy, and the humanistic studies became in this way consecutive links in an unbroken chain of tradition, joined together and united with Christianity by their common aim: the knowledge and revelation of God’,[xiii] and this view is born out by others.[xiv] Some critics disagree with this notion of a continuous flow from one to the other, but in any case Ficino clearly believed there was a level of continuity in the intention of the texts.[xv]

Ficino included Pimander in the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of hermetic writings, but had no idea that in fact the text post-dates Christ, referring obliquely back to him rather than prophesising Christ. However, such was his standing that in 1488 Hermes Trismegistus was included in the mosaic pavement of Sienna Cathedral and is there cited as a contemporary of Moses (see Fig. 1). He was also a prominent figure in alchemical writings, where his writings were quoted, and his image re-created [see Fig. 2].

In 1492 Ficino translated Plotinus’s Enneads into Latin. In it Plotinus states that “‘The Egyptian sages … drew pictures and carved one picture for each thing in their temples, thus making manifest the description of that thing. Thus each picture was a kind of understanding and wisdom and substance and given all at once, and not discursive reasoning and deliberation.’ To which Ficino added the following gloss, ‘The Egyptian Priests did not use individual letters to signify mysteries, but whole images of plants, trees and animals, because God has knowledge of things not through a multiplicity of thought processes, but rather as a simple and firm form of the thing.’” Both quotes are taken from Rudolf Wittkower’s ‘Hieroglyphics in the Early Renaissance’.[xvi], [xvii], [xviii]

Wittkower goes on to add that “In other words, in Ficino’s exposition the image does not simply represent the concept, it embodies it. If one could only decipher hieroglyphs, one would have access not only to many ancient mysteries, but above all to the secret of how to express the essence of an idea, its platonic form, as it were, perfect and complete in itself, by means of an image. So the humanists of the 15th century turned for enlightenment to the ancient writers”.

In a letter to John of Hungary, Ficino states that “the ancient tradition of theologians was to shroud divine mysteries in the numbers and forms of mathematics as well as in the images of poetry. At length Plotinus stripped Theology of these coverings and, as Porphyry and Proclus bear witness, he was the first and only one to penetrated, by divine inspiration, the secrets of the ancients”[xix]

These notions lie at the heart of the Humanists thinking on hieroglyphics – that somehow the image represented something sacred, something to be discovered, translated and utilised. It also met with the Renaissance notion of ‘the eye of the mind, that there is a certain realism between the eye of the body and the eye of the mind’[xx] and contributed to Ficino’s belief that the Egyptians had been privy to some secret knowledge, not yet revealed, which was to be uncovered for the Christian faith.

Leon Battista Alberti also came to the same understanding. Wittkower quotes from the Eighth Book of his Ten Books on Architecture: “The Egyptians employed symbols in the following manner: they carved an eye, by which they understood God; a vulture for nature; a Bee for King; a circle for Time… the manner of expressing their sense which they used on these occasions, by symbols, they thought must always be understood by learned men of all nations, to whom alone they were of the opinion that things of moment were fit to be communicated”. Again there is this belief that an understanding of hieroglyphs will only be available to the initiated, to the erudite man.

In Asclepius, from the Corpus Hermeticum, we find “Do you know, Asclepius, that Egypt is an image of heaven or to speak more exactly, in Egypt all the operations of the powers which rule and work in heaven have been transferred to earth below? Nay it should rather be said that the whole Kosmos dwells in this our land as in its sanctuary”[xxi]

Of course we know that hieroglyphs are in fact a phonetic language or alphabet, but because Egypt had undergone a series of incursions and occupations, the hieroglyphic language had all but died out in the fourth century. During this period it was known and practiced principally by the priests, which confirmed in the minds of those writing later that it was a form of secret communication with God.

As I have already mentioned, scholars such as Pico della Mirandola were working on Hebrew texts and the Cabbala, particularly the Sefer Yetzira (the Book of Creation)[xxii], with others trying to re-discover Adam’s sacred form of communication with the angels. Whilst clearly the Cabbala and Hermetic writings do not “meet”, it is possible to see that Ficino and Pico were working towards a common goal, albeit from different sources. Both sources seemed to point to hieroglyphs as a potential key to the puzzle.[xxiii]

In this context, the Classical interpretation of hieroglyphics seemed perfectly logical to the Renaissance Humanists - they saw no reason to question the interpretation of the image as a complete and secret symbol. Combined with the rogue and indecipherable Roman examples, the false examples in the Hieroglyphica, and the incorrect dating of Hermes Trismegistus’ Pimander, we can see how a number of contributing errors led to the mistaken understanding of hieroglyphics. The prevailing view that hieroglyphic symbols encapsulated a complete idea in each image survived until they were finally translated by Champollion, using as his key the surviving Christian Coptic texts in Egypt.

It is against this background that we should examine a few instances of Renaissance hieroglyphics.

Some of the best known examples of hieroglyphics are those used on two commemorative medals for Alberti. Wittkower states that “There is no doubt that the Renaissance medal was an important vehicle for the communication of esoteric pictographs… they were made for a small circle, and the ideas expressed by them were meant to remain dark and mysterious to the public at large.” Most importantly he says “They were a kind of priestly currency, the reserve of the few – just as in their view the Egyptian hieroglyphs had been a secret of the sacerdotal caste”[xxiv]. Again the prevailing view is that hieroglyphs should be kept a secret language, available only to a select coterie of ‘worthy’ men.[xxv]

Alberti used a winged eye hieroglyph below what is regarded as a self-portrait, dated 1438 [Fig. 3]. But this emblem is also shown on the reverse of Matteo de’ Pasti’s medal of Alberti. Here the emblem is joined by the expression “What then?”. Scholars continue to debate Alberti’s intention - he had already spoken of the eye as being the symbol of God’s omniscience, and Wittkower has the quote as appearing to come from Cicero[xxvi]. Douglas Lewis states that “In this emblem a human eye – understood by association to be the artist’s own – is born aloft by the wings of a raptor, a falcon or an eagle, to a height from which the entire universe is visible, The eye not only sees all, it is also all powerful, for the thunderbolts of Jupiter are grafted onto its end. Through his art, the new, all-sing, humanist artist wields a potentially godlike power”[xxvii]. In this context Lewis concludes that the motto when accompanying the emblem should be read as “what then, or what next? - implying that there is nothing that cannot be imagined or attempted”[xxviii]. However other readings exist – some critics believe that the motto refers to Alberti’s illegitimate birth – that he is saying in effect “so what?”. I think it is precisely this ambiguity which appeals to Alberti – the winged eye may be read in many different ways – depending upon the reader, its meaning remains obscure.

Textual examples also had a profound impact on the study of hieroglyphs. In 1499 Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Polifili was published in Venice by Aldus. A very complicated romance, it includes a number of different languages and styles, from Tuscan, Latin, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean to Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Except that the hieroglyphs copied in the Hypnerotomachia, which are of particular concern to us, are modelled on a Roman temple frieze which had existed in the San Lorenzo fuori le mura. It had been copied by others, including Mantegna, but Colonna used the hieroglyphs in a very unique way. What is perhaps surprising to modern readers is that Renaissance scholars didn’t seek just to understand and imitate the extant Egyptian hieroglyphs. On the contrary, they seem to have applied the technique in an innovative sense to create their own hieroglyphs.[xxix]

Colonna was convinced that not only was he able to string together some meaning for existing hieroglyphs, including his translation of the base of a crypt, but also that by linking together new ideographs by means of, say a ribbon, that he could create new sentences which might be translated by the modern reader [see Figs 4-12]. Again Colonna didn’t understand the system to be phonetic, but along with other scholars though them a complete ideogram. However, Diekmann states that “from the moment of the publication of the Hypnerotomachia, Renaissance art became flooded with hieroglyphs. Lionardo, Mantegna, Pintrucchio, Giolio Romano, Durer, to name only a few, delighted in this fashion.”[xxx]

In portraiture, hieroglyphics were used by Sebastiano del Piombo in his Portrait of Andrea Doria, dated 1526 [Fig. 13]. Doria was an important sea captain who came to the aid of Clement VII in defence against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. According to George Gorse, Clement VII “in effect sealed the personal and contractual relationship between Clement and his Captain of the Sea. Apparently on the initiative of the pope, the portrait made a formal declaration in humanistic terms of the admiral’s condotta, his military contract, and of this alliance, to be displayed within the Vatican palace and near to the pope, as a sign of personal affection”[xxxi]. The hieroglyphs in the portrait reflect Clement VII’s interest in hermetic humanism “which purported to ‘uncover’ Egyptian ‘sacred knowledge’ and the hidden order of Nature – that is, the secrets of Creation understood by Adam before the Fall”[xxxii]. Many of the examples are shown in the Hypnerotomachia Polifili, and the temple frieze discussed, now in the Museo Capitolino. The symbols are clearly meant to represent the skills ideally found in a sea captain: “discipline, steadfastness, caution, prudence, and fortitude”[xxxiii] Ironically Doria subsequently left the patronage of Clement VII and defected to Charles V, taking his portrait with him.

In each of these examples the principle stated earlier holds true – the meaning of the message is obscure, but not illegible. For the educated reader familiar with the translations made by Ficino and others, and aware of the hieroglyphs in Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica, and Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia, the text can be deciphered. The key is a proper understanding of intention.

However by the time we reach Alciato’s Emblemata, circulated in 1521, but first printed in 1531, the nature of the image had changed. For the first time the intention is to elucidate, not conceal, meaning. This marks a significant alteration in the way in which images of this nature had been used – if you can read, the meaning of the symbols in now available to you. Although this point is made by several scholars, most forget to point out that the illustrations to the Emblemata were only added in later additions. Whilst some of the symbols used have been taken directly from Horapollo and the Hypnerotomachia, others are taken from different sources[xxxiv]. The illustrator is unknown, and Alciati was not sure about the inclusion of images as being necessary to meaning of the motto. What is clear is that the more popular versions of the Emblemata did include the illustrations, and were translated into and circulated all over Europe. The text went on to have a major impact on renaissance art and literature, and is still published today. In addition we might consider other forms of visual symbols, such as imprese, rebuses, all of which might be considered to have been influenced by, if not have stemmed from, Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The overwhelming question remains, why did hieroglyphs appeal so directly to Renaissance Humanists? We have already considered a number of reasons. Humanists were interested in seeking the essential ‘truth’ of Christianity. They believed that although Christ was unknown to classical writers, a number of their texts clearly, to their mind, pre-figured him. Although the Church condemned a number of these classical sources, scholars such as Ficino and Pico believed they should be re-incorporated into the Christian corpus. Some texts were later to be shown to post-date Christ, such as those of Hermes Trismegistus, but there seemed to be some essential Christian truth in the writings of, for example Plato. It is for this reason that the Humanists felt compelled to view the ideographs of the Egyptians in the same way – surely these were also the secret communications of God? They may have predated Christ, but they surely contained some essential message relating to Christianity?

Interestingly, where the Humanists sought the truth, they also sought to conceal it from all but the enlightened. Where paintings contained allegories designed to obscure meaning from all but the initiated, hieroglyphs might also be employed for the same intention. Alberti’s medal is still not clear to us today – is it secular or religious, or both? What is clear is that hieroglyphics had far-reaching affect on all cultures which came across them, way beyond their loss of meaning between the fourth and eighteenth centuries - but nowhere was as creative with hieroglyphs as the Renaissance period, which created its own language of ideographs and which influenced several other areas of specialisation, such as emblems, rebuses, and imprese. The humanist’s understanding of hieroglyphs all but died when Champollion discovered the true nature of hieroglyphs, and unlocked for the first time the ancient dead language. However, if left us with a rich vein of humanist and neo-platonic exploration and creativity.

This piece was written in 2006 - the bibliography will not be up-to-date.

Aldred, C., Review of ‘The Myth of Egypt and Its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 105, No. 721 (April, 1963), 172
Barasch, M., ‘Renaissance Hieroglyphics’ in Hieroglyphen, Stationen einer anderen abendlandishchen Grammatologie, (Munich, Germany: Wilhem Fink Verlag)
Caldwell, D., ‘The Paragone between Word and Image in Impresa Literature’, Journal of Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol., 63 (2000), 277-286
Dannenfeldt, K., ‘The Renaissance and the Pre-Classical Civilisations’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Oct., 1952), 435-449
Dieckmann, L., Hieroglyphics: The History of a Literary Symbol, (St Louis: Washington University Press, 1970)
Elsky, M., ‘George Herbert’s Pattern Poems and the Materiality of Language: A New Approach to Renaissance Hieroglyphics’, English Literary History, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Summer, 1983), 245-260
Ficino, M., The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, Volume 7, (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 2003)
Goldscheider, L., Unknown Renaissance portraits: Medals of Famous Men and Women of the XV and XVI Centuries (London: Phaidon Press, 1952)
Gorse, G. L., ‘Augustan Mediterranean Iconography and Renaissance Hieroglyphics at the Court of Clement VII: Sebastiano de Piombo’s Portrait of Andrea DoriaThe Pontificate of Clement VII: History, Politics, Culture, Ed. K. Gouwens and S. E. Reiss, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005)
Herodotus, The Histories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1972)
Hill, G., Medals of the Renaissance (London: British Museum Publications, 1920, repr. 1978)
Iversen, E., The Myth of Egypt and it Hieroglyphs in European Tradition (Copehagen: GEC GAD Publishers, 1961)
Magee, G. A., Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001)
Panofsky, E., Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939, reprint)
Panofsky, E., Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939, reprint) 
Scher, S., The Currency of Fame: Portrait Medals of the Renaissance (London Thames and Hudson, 1994)
Seznec, J., The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, repr. 1995)
Tervarent, de G., Review of ‘The Hieroglyphics of Horapollon’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol.94, No. 589 (April, 1952), 122-123
Volkmann, L. von., Hieroglyphik und Emblematik bei Giorgio Vasari (Leipzig: Hiersemann 1923)
Wind, E., Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958, repr. 1980)
Wittkower, R., ‘Hieroglyphics in the Early Renaissance’, Allegory and the Migration of Symbols, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977; repr. 1987)

List of Figures:

Fig. 1 Hermes Trismegistus in the mosaic pavement of the Sienna Duomo,,%2Bhermes%2Btrismegistus%26svnum%3D10%26hl%3Den%26lr%3D%26sa%3DN

Fig. 2 Hermes Trismegistus from D. Stolcius von Stolcenbeerg, Viridarium chymicum, Frankfurt, 1624

Fig. 3 Alberti’s medal, taken from Scher, S., The Currency of Fame: Portrait Medals of the Renaissance (London Thames and Hudson, 1994), p. 42

Fig. 4-12 Examples of hieroglyphs used in the Colonna ‘Hypnerotomachia Polifili’.

Fig. 13 The Portrait of Andrea Doria, from Gorse, G. L., ‘Augustan Mediterranean Iconography and Renaissance Hieroglyphics at the Court of Clement VII: Sebastiano de Piombo’s Portrait of Andrea Doria’ The Pontificate of Clement VII: History, Politics, Culture, Ed. K. Gouwens and S. E. Reiss, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005)


[1] Where the neo-Platonist sought to uncover truths, it is inevitable that any language which apparently expressed the thoughts of God directly would interest them. Liselotte Dieckmann agrees that “It is not accidental that most of the passages under consideration are intimately connected with Platonism and its traditions … The problems of the relationship between matter and spirit, appearance and reality, outward form and true meaning, tangibility and idea, constitute the basic problems of all Platonic thinkers, in metaphysical as well as in aesthetic considerations. It is in this contact that we will find the hieroglyphical thinkers.” Dieckmann, L., Hieroglyphics: The History of a Literary Symbol, (St Louis: Washington University Press, 1970), p. 2.
[2] Wittkower, R., ‘Hieroglyphics in the Early Renaissance’, Allegory and the Migration of Symbols, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977; repr. 1987), p 114. “In the course of time Rome had more than forty-two obelisks, twelve of which survive to this day… Nobody interfered with this obelisk standing next to the old basilica of St. Peter’s, the centre of Christianity.”
[3] Taken from the site, on Roman obelisks.
[4] Dieckmann, p. 31
[5] Wittkower, p. 114
[6] Herodotus, The Histories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1972), pp. 105 and113
[7] Iversen, E., The Myth of Egypt and it Hieroglyphs in European Tradition (Copehagen: GEC GAD Publishers, 1961), p.59. According to Iversen, Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica had been coped down until the fourteenth century, but the ‘Egyptological material was never studied for its own sake, for the information it provided about Egypt and Egyptian culture, but exclusively for philological reasons’.
[8] Wittkower, p. 116
[9] Dieckmann, p. 31
[10] Magee, G. A., Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 28. “In 1460, fourteen out of the fifteen “philosophical” Hermetica were brought to Florence from Macedonia by a monk employed by Cosimo de'Medici to locate manuscripts for him. Remarkably, Cosimo ordered Marsilio Ficino (1433–99) to interrupt the translation he was preparing of Plato's dialogues to begin work immediately on a Latin translation of the Corpus Hermeticum. Ficino's translation, entitled Pimander (after the first of the treatises) and printed for the first time in 1471, had an incredibly wide circulation. It went through sixteen editions up until the end of the sixteenth century”.
[11] Magee, p. 22: ‘from the end of the Roman world until the Renaissance, the Latin Asclepius was the only portion of the Corpus Hermeticum available in the West. During this period of nearly a thousand years, the primary transmission of Hermetic ideas to Europe was through alchemy. During the Middle Ages Hermes Trismegistus was given as the author of scores of occult works, and even medical texts. Prominent among this “pseudo-Hermetic” literature were the various Arabic texts attributed to Hermes. The most famous of these works was the Emerald Tablet. A very short work (about a page long) it was nevertheless extremely influential, particularly on alchemy. According to the text, Apollonius of Tyana discovered the tomb of Hermes Trismegistus and, inside, an engraved emerald tablet still clutched in his gnarled hands. The text of the tablet then follows. It consists of twelve propositions. The initial one is the most famous: “In truth certainly and without doubt, whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing.”‘
[12] Panofsky states: “For Ficino, Plato is both a ‘Moses talking Attic Greek’ and an heir to the wisdom of Orpheus, Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster, and the stages of ancient Egypt”. Panofsky, E., Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939, reprint), p. 183
[13] Iversen, p.60.
[14] Magee, p. 28. “In the preface to Pimander, Ficino presented his own genealogy of wisdom, which he culled from a variety of sources, including the church fathers Augustine, Lactantius, and Clement. It began with Hermes Trismegistus and Zoroaster, and traced a direct line to Plato.”
[15] Iversen, p.60, Iversen points to Ficino’s De Christiana Religione and Theologica Platonica as linking these together. See also note above.
[16] Wittkower, p. 115-116
[17] Edgar Wind, however, would have this comment as an “incidental remark by Plotinus”, he goes on to state that “Plotinus has suggested that Egyptian ciphers are more suitable for sacred script than alphabetic writing because they represent the diverse parts of the discourse as implicit, and thus concealed in one single form. Since Pico ascribed the same virtue to the writing of the Hebrew without vowels, it is legitimate to suspect that the Renaissance speculations on ‘implicit signs’ were not concerned with a positive theory of optical intuition, but with that far less attractive subject called steganography, the cryptic recording of sacred knowledge”. Wind, E., Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958, repr. 1980), p. 207. Here I’m unsure if Edgar Wind really means steganography in the literal sense of hidden text, as opposed to a coded message to be deciphered by the recipient.
[18] Liselotte Dieckmann also feels that the Neo-Platonists were quick to utilise Plotinus for their own aims. She states that “Plato’s negative attitude toward the art of writing is carefully omitted later by those authors who considered hieroglyphs to contain supreme truth”. Dieckmann, p. 6. Later she states that “Plotinus mentions the Egyptian hieroglyphics as an example of his idea of ‘form’, thus furnishing the Renaissance authors with a strong philosophical argument”, p. 17.
[19] The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, Volume 7, (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 2003), p. 23, Letter 19 to John of Hungary. For a breakdown of the possibe intended recipients of this letter, see p. 200 of the same volume.
[20] Barasch, M., ‘Renaissance Hieroglyphics’ in Hieroglyphen, Stationen einer anderen abendlandishchen Grammatologie, (Munich, Germany: Wilhem Fink Verlag), p. 170. Barasch goes on to say ‘The eye can be a way of the cognition of God because in itself it has some affinity with the divine, The way the eye acts in the processes of cognition is a reflection of divine thinking. Discursive cognition and recording is an analytical process… seeing, on the other hand, is a grasping in one, single instant, the whole configuration. It is therefore not surprising that it is precisely in a passage dealing with hieroglyphs where Ficino says that “God doubtless has a knowledge of things which is not complex discursive thought about its subject, but is, as it were, the simple and steadfast form of it”. Ficino’s words are a concise description of visual or intuitive thought, as the Renaissance understood it. It is also in this kind of thought that man can perceive, or visually experience, something of the divine’.
[21] Dieckmann, p. 23
[22] Dieckmann, p. 38-39. Dieckmann lists a “brief and incomplete enumeration of some aspects of the Cabala as it made itself felt in Renaissance hieroglyphical thinking: 1. God himself revealed to man the “names” of all things. When Adam, in Paradise, named the things, he was taught to do so by God. 2. Consequently the names of things are the right names, the only meaningful and necessary names of the things. 3. Hence, by pronouncing the name of a thing, the essence of the thing is evoked…”
[23] Martin Elsky also points to this, he states that “Renaissance thinkers, influenced to various degrees by Humanism, Neoplatonism and Christian cabalism, attributed mystic powers and deep symbolic meaning to the Hebrew alphabet, thinking of its letters as secret hieroglyphs, a characteristic that was in some sense passed on to its descendents in the modern languages. For instance, in his De Verbo Mirifico (1494), Reuchin saw in Hebrew letters the same mystical hieroglyphic meaning as the renaissance attributed to Egyptian writing”, Elsky, M., ‘George Herbert’s Pattern Poems and the Materiality of Language: A New Approach to Renaissance Hieroglyphics’, English Literary History, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Summer, 1983), 245-260, pp. 248.
[24] Wittkower, p. 120
[25] Dannefeldt states that “Here was a new language for the humanist to master, and those who were inclined toward the occult and esoteric were especially intrigued, for here, they felt, was not only a key to ancient wisdom, but by clever arrangement of images and by the addition of a few signs of their own, whole sentences, mottoes and coats of arms could be formulated that would be known only to the initiate.”, Dannenfeldt, K., ‘The Renaissance and the Pre-Classical Civilisations’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Oct., 1952), 435-449, pp. 449
[26] Wittkower, p. 120
[27] Lewis, D., in The Currency of Fame: Portrait Medals of the Renaissance, Ed. S Sher (London Thames and Hudson, 1994), p. 42 

[28] Lewis, p.43
[29] Wittkower, p. 118 “To this misconception we must add the strange phenomenon that, although Egyptian hieroglyphs were the starting point of their search for the lost wisdom, they never regarded it as necessary to use symbols even vaguely reminiscent of true hieroglyphs. Their interest was focused on the method rather than on the original ideogram.”
[30] Dieckmann, p. 44
[31] Gorse, p.314
[32] Gorse, p. 319
[33] Gorse, p. 325
[34] Dieckmann, p. 47