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Emblem Books, or, What's Going On in this Engraving?

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This is one of over a hundred such puzzling images you can find in Symbolorvm & emblematvm ex animalibvs qvadrupedibvs desvmtorvm centvria altera, a 1595 book printed in Nuremberg, Germany.

Emblem books like this one were common in 16th- and 17th-century Europe, and a typical example of this genre contained dozens of emblems — each made up of an image and some explanatory text meant to be approached as a small mystery to be solved by the reader (and often designed to impart a moral lesson). Because emblem books combined words and images in ways novel at the time, they are interesting examples of print in which the illustration and text must be studied as one in order to glean meaning from the page.

This book’s author, Joachim Camerarius, was a Nuremberg physician and botanist, and he also created a plant-themed emblem book called Symbolorvm et emblematvm ex re herbaria desvmtorvm centvria. (In the Library's Rare Book Division, these two works are bound together in a single volume. The German language, which has a word for everything, calls two or more distinct works bound together in a single volume a Sammelband. I recommend browsing ABC for Book Collectors to brush up on bookish vocabulary.) Camerarius drew on a variety of humanist scholarship when detailing the flora and fauna within his works, and his volumes include extensive lists of the sources — both those from antiquity as well as sources contemporary to him — he consulted in compiling his books.

Scholars have long turned to emblem books for the clues they provide about everyday life, mores, and customs. Camerarius’s animal emblems are studied for the light they shed on natural history and animals in folklore. If you’d like to learn more about emblem books, I recommend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s German Emblem Books website and Glasgow University’s Emblems website. And if you’d like to see each and every one of Camerarius’s amazing animal emblems, you can page through the Getty Research Library’s copy online on the Open Library website. I recommend visiting the pages with the camel, the unicorn, and the bears, myself.

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