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Barthélemy Aneau's Imagination poétique,
Macé Bonhomme, 1552


This work is reproduced from Glasgow University Library: SM97

When in the mid 16th century the impetus for producing emblem books in France switched from Paris to Lyons, following the death in 1544 of the specialist printer of emblem books in Paris, Denis Janot, the Picta poesis was only the third emblem book by a French writer to be published in Lyons (preceded only by Scève’s Délie –itself a special case – and Guéroult’s 1550 Premier livre des emblemes). Aneau’s emblem book, which he produced almost simultaneously in this Latin version, and also in a French translation by himself (the Imagination poetique reproduced here), is much more heavily dependent on classical sources than earlier emblem books produced in France, and contains few emblems based on scenes from everyday life such as are found commonly in the emblems of La Perrière or Corrozet. Nearly half the emblems are based on woodblocks designed to illustrate Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but although Aneau sometimes alludes to the original Ovidian theme, more commonly he reinvents his own theme, and his emblems express a universally applicable moral lesson akin to those of other emblem writers.

Barthélemy Aneau (c.1510-1561)

Barthélemy Aneau was born in Bourges but spent most of his adult life in Lyons, where he was regent and then principal of the Collège de la Trinité between 1538 and 1551, and again from 1558 until his death at the hands of a rioting crowd in Lyons in 1561. He was an important figure in the development of emblem literature in the mid 16th century (particularly in Lyons), not only producing his own emblem book, but also producing (in 1549) the second French translation of Alciato’s Latin emblems, accompanied for the first time by a short commentary. Aneau was also most probably responsible for arranging Alciato’s emblems into logical groupings according to subject matter, thereby significantly changing the character of the work, although thisn is the subject of debate. He worked in close association both with the literary and the printing fraternity in Lyons (describing Macé Bonhomme – for whom he translated various works - as his ‘bon ami’), and was much involved in the organisation of civic celebrations, notably that of the 1548 entry of Henri II into Lyons in which Maurice Scève also participated. He was a prolific and varied writer: as well as his own emblem book and his translation of Alciato, his works also include an emblematic collection of illustrated verses on the animal world, the Decades de la description des animaux (1549); a novel, Alector histoire fabuleuse (1560); a nativity play to be put on by the boys of the Collège de la Trinité (1539); an attack on the revolutionary ideas on poetry of the Pléiade set out in Du Bellay’s Deffence et illustration de la langue francoyse, the Quintil horatien (1550).

Publication History (for more information BFEB F.085, F.087-8)

Aneau explains in the preface to the Imagination poetique that he found a set of woodblocks in Macé Bonhomme’s workshop which he was told were useless because they had no text to go with them, and so Aneau undertook to give them new life by creating a text (the Picta poesis/Imagination poetique). The account is interesting, illustrating clearly the way in which old woodblocks could be used as a starting point for emblems. But Aneau’s statement that the woodblocks lacked a text is inaccurate, since a number of the blocks he used as a basis for his emblem book had already been recently used by Bonhomme in 1550 and 1551 for editions of a French translation by Clément Marot of the first two books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and together with others were also to be used in 1556 for an edition of the first three books (the third book being translated by none other than Aneau himself). Aneau’s French Imagination poetique was only republished once (by Bonhomme in 1556), whereas the original Latin version must have been more popular since it ran to a third edition in 1563/4.

Barthélemy Aneau’s Imagination poetique, Lyons, Macé Bonhomme, 1552

Textually very interesting, particularly for the black picture which it paints of society, the Imagination poetique is visually less decorative and aesthetically pleasing than earlier French emblem books produced in Paris by Denis Janot.


The work contains 101 emblems. The woodcut figures are small and are not encased in decorative frameworks, and some emblems include more than one woodcut. The layout lacks symmetry, since the verses vary significantly in length, and several run over onto the next page. Since all emblems begin on a new page there are many spaces at the end of emblems which are filled in with typographic ornaments. Aneau’s French translation does not follow slavishly his original Latin text, but rather the verses are tailored to fit the perceived needs of a vernacular reading public. They are about 30% longer than the original Latin ones of the Picta poesis, allowing Aneau to develop and explain his material more fully. In the interests of clarity more key words are flagged in the French version than in the Latin, and much greater use is made of adjectives. While the Latin version included some Greek phrases, these are excised from the French version. An interesting feature of this edition is the presence of a diacritic over vowels, indicating the loss of an ‘h’ from Latin; no attempt has been made to replicate this in the transcription.

GUL: SM97: B8r. Actual page height: 162mm.
GUL: SM97: B8r. Actual page height: 162mm.

Select Secondary Bibliography

Alison Adams, Stephen Rawles, Alison Saunders, A Bibliography of French Emblem Books, 2 vols (Geneva: Droz, 1999-2002): entries F.084-088 cover early French editions of Alciato; this edition is entered as F.084 [LINK TO BIBLIOG DESCRIP]

Alison Saunders, ‘The influence of Ovid on a sixteenth-century emblem book: Barthélemy Aneau’s Imagination poetique’, Nottingham French Studies 16, (1977), 1-18

Alison Saunders, ‘The bifocal embem book: or how to make one work cater for two distinct audiences’, in Emblems in Glasgow, (Glasgow: University of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1992), pp.113-133

François Cornilliat, ‘De l’usage des images muettes: Imagination poetique de Barthélemy Aneau’, L’Esprit créateur, 28.2 (1988), 78-88

Page written by Alison Saunders.


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