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Andrea Alciato's Emblemes,
Chrestien Wechel, 1539


This work is reproduced from Glasgow University Library: SMAdd261

This is the third edition of Jean Lefevre's French version of Alciato's Emblematum liber or Emblemata, the work which is recognised as the first printed emblem book and the most frequently printed (over 100 editions in all, published in Germany, France, the Spanish Netherlands and Italy before the 1620s). The influence of Alciato's emblems is enormous and, since they first appeared in Latin, extends over the whole of Europe. They set the pattern commonly, though not universally associated with the emblem, that is a motto or inscriptio, a picture (pictura) and a verse text or epigram (the subscriptio). The corpus would eventually stretch to 212 emblems, but early editions had a little over a hundred. In due course translations would appear not only in French, but also in German, Italian and Spanish, and many of the emblems appear in English in Geffrey Whitney's Choice of Emblems (1586).

Andrea Alciato (1492-1550)

Portrait of Andrea Alciato (1492-1550)

Alciato was born in Alzate near Milan. He is famed not only for his emblems but as a legal scholar. He studied in Milan, Pavia. Bologna and Ferrara, and taught law both in Italy and at different periods in France, including a stay in Bourges from 1529-1534 at the invitation of François I. His interpretative work on Roman law is still of interest to legal historians today.

Publication History (for more information on French editions see BFEB F.001-072)

Alciato's emblems were first published in Augsburg in Germany (two editions in 1531 and one in 1534); from 1534 onwards publishing shifted to France and remained there for the next thirty years. Chrestien Wechel at first produced Latin editions (from 1534), like those in Augsburg. He can be said to have set the standard for clear presentation of emblems, with each emblem beginning on a fresh page, featuring the motto or title, the pictura below that, and then the subscriptio or verse text [= 'primary text' in our search engine]. In 1536 there appeared the first French version of Alciato's emblems, by Jean Lefevre, to which the 1539 edition is closely related. Wechel went on publishing Alciato until the late 1540s, producing further Latin editions, editions including Lefevre's French, and indeed also a similarly conceived German/Latin edition. The Lefevre version was also published in pirated editions by Denys de Harsy, in Lyons, probably in late 1540 (unillustrated), and by Jacques Moderne in Lyons in 1544 (illustrated); thereafter there are editions by the celebrated Lyons printer Jean de Tournes from 1548 onwards, and (incomplete), by Jean Ruelle in Paris in 1562, probably in 1569, and again by his widow in 1574.

Two more French translations would be published in later years. The first by Barthélemy Aneau in 1549 is part of a major publishing venture by Guillaume Rouille and Macé Bonhomme, including versions in the original Latin, and in Spanish and Italian. By this time, the corpus of emblems has almost doubled. In 1584, yet another version appeared by Claude Mignault who had also supplied copious and learned commentaries in Latin to the emblems. There is also a manuscript translation by Simon Bouquet. In 1615, Jean de Tournes II produced his own translation of the second book of emblems and revisited Lefevre's version, introducing a number of emendations.

Andrea Alciato's Emblemes, Paris, Chrestien Wechel, 1539, with a French translation by Jean Lefevre

This book contains 113 emblems in a kind of parallel text, with French by Jean Lefevre; the first edition in 1536 was the first emblem book to include French. It was not until 1540 that the two first genuinely vernacular works, first Guillaume de la Perriere's Theatre des bons engins and then Gilles Corrozet's Hecatomgraphie were printed, although a mansucript version of the Theatre (incomplete) must have existed in 1536. The success of Wechel's venture into bilingual publishing can be seen in the fact that a second edition had already been published in the same year of 1536. The third edition which we reproduce here contains some minor revisions. Read a Bibliographical Description.

Jean Lefevre (1493-1565) is said to be secretary to the Cardinal de Givry, and no other literary works of his are known. Lefevre's translation is printed in a kind of parallel text, with the classic emblem arrangement on the verso, and the French motto and subscriptio-in bastard gothic-on the facing recto.

GUL SMAdd261 B8vo-C1ro. Actual page height: 157mm
GUL SMAdd261 B8vo-C1ro. Actual page height: 157mm.

We are in fact perhaps wrong to speak in terms of translation here; we are dealing rather with a distinct French version, not least because in the vast majority of cases Lefevre chooses to fit his text into a huitain, eight octosyllabic lines, irrespective of the length of Alciato's Latin original. Thus sometimes he has to expand the original and sometimes reduce it.

Select Secondary Bibliography

Henry Green, Andrea Alciati and his Book of Emblems. A Biographical and Bibliographical Study (London: Trübner, 1872), 12.

Alison Adams, Stephen Rawles, Alison Saunders, A Bibliography of French Emblem Books, 2 vols (Geneva: Droz, 1999-2001): entries F.001-072 cover early French editions of Alciato; this edition is entered as F.007.

Alison Adams, 'The Role of the Translator in Sixteenth-Century Alciato Translation', BHR 52.2 (1990), 369-383.

Bouquet, Simon, Imitations et traductions de cent dix-huict emblesmes dAlciat (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ms. fr. 19.143); an edition by Catharine Randall and Daniel Russell (New York : AMS Press, 1996)

Stephen Rawles, 'Layout, Typography and Chronology in Chrétien Wechel's Editions of Alciato', in An Interregnum of the Sign: The Emblematic Age in France: Essays in Honour of Daniel S. Russell, volume edited by David Graham (Glasgow: Glasgow Emblem Studies, 2001), 49-71.

Alison Saunders, 'Sixteenth-Century French Translations of Alciati's Emblemata, French Studies 44 (1990), 271-288.


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