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Andrea Alciato's Emblematum libellus,
Chrestien Wechel, 1542


This work is reproduced from Glasgow University Library: SM26

This is the first German translation, by Wolfgang Hunger, 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 and German, as here, but also in 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. Wechel went on publishing Alciato until the late 1540s, producing further Latin editions, editions including Lefevre's French, and this similarly conceived German/Latin edition.

The 1542 edition with Hunger's German text should be seen as a companion volume to the edition including Jean Lefevre's French text which appeared in the same year. Indeed much though not all of the type-setting of the Latin text is shared between the two editions. Both add two extra emblems which had not previously been published.

A second German translation would be published in 1566/67, by Jeremias Held, and this time including the full corpus of emblems.

Andrea Alciato's Emblematum libellus, Paris, Chrestien Wechel, 1542, with a German translation by Wolfgang Hunger

This book contains 115 emblems in a kind of parallel text, with German by Wolfgang Hunger. It follows the pattern of the bilingual French editions which Wechel had been publishing since 1536. Read a Bibliographical Description.

Wolfgang Hunger (1511-1555), like Alciato, was a lawyer. He claims to have undertaken his translation originally for his own purposes, in order to extend his own facility in German when he returned to Germany after a period in France (1535-1537) as tutor to two young nobles to whom his Alciato edition would be dedicated. Only later did he offer the translation to Wechel. As a lawyer, he would need to exercise his fluency and skill in the vernacular, and his interests were presumably to enhance the language to suit it to his needs. Interestingly, his dedicatory epistle reveals that there had been a possibility of numerous further emblems being added to the corpus in the 1542 Wechel editions-probably those which later appeared in the 1546 Venice edition-since Hunger was asked to provide the necessary information for the engraver. Indeed Wechel's last edition (1549 Latin and French) did include a further six emblems, but nothing like the full 86 of the second wave. It seems then that Alciato had again taken no responsibility for the picturae. Moreover, he reports that he had also prepared scholia, that is commentaries for the emblems, a tendency which would not make it into print till Aneau's brief prose comments in the 1549 Lyons edition.

Hunger's translation is printed in a kind of parallel text, with the classic emblem arrangement on the verso, and the German motto and subscriptio on the facing recto. Wechel employs a large italic font, resulting in a book which gives the impression of being a overtly Humanist publication.

GUL SMAdd26 C3vo-C4ro. Actual page height: 142mm
GUL SMAdd26 C3vo-C4ro. Actual page height: 142mm.

We are in fact perhaps wrong to speak in terms of translation here; we are dealing rather with a distinct German version, not least because in the vast majority of cases Hunger chooses to fit his text into a 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), 20.

John Landwehr, German Emblem Books 1531-1888. A Bibliography (Utrecht: Haentjens Dekker and Gumbert, 1972), 27.

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.013.

Denis L. Drysdall, 'Defence and Illustration of the German Language: Wolfgang Hunger's Preface to Alciati's Emblems (text and translation), Emblematica 3 (1988), 137-160.

Stephen Rawles, 'Layout, Typography and Chronology in Chr├ętien 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.


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