Yesterday I had another one of those lovely moments when a search looped back on itself. They seem to be happening more often; hopefully this means that I'm developing that framework for understanding that I wrote about the other day.
I figured I'd had enough of a breather after my marathon writeup of the Field Museum exhibit, so I tackled my notes from the "Virtual Tourist in Renaissance Rome" exhibit at the University of Chicago Library Special Collections Research Center. I began transcribing them, but soon I ran up against another tangent I just knew I'd end up chasing: the fascinating symbols in the frontispiece of Bartolomeo Marliano's guide to ancient Rome, Topographia antiquae Romae, published in Lyon by Sebastien Gryphius in 1534. The gryphon, the rectangular block, the chain and the winged sphere fascinated me so that I took the time to draw it in my notes. Thankfully you don't have to make do with my sketch. The top left section of the picture above shows you exactly what I saw. Click it to see a larger version.
My fascination with these symbols started a conflict in my brain. "Why do you care about this?" I asked myself. "It's just a symbol that some publisher hoped would impress folk. Keep pushing ahead! Don't get lost in minutiae like you always do!" But I knew it was useless; I had my teeth in those symbols, and I wasn't about to let go.
I did some unsuccessful Googling, and then hit the jackpot. Holbein's Ambassadors, a book by Mary S.F. Hervey that's fully downloadable from Google Books, has an image almost exactly like the one above, and the following explanation.
The sixteenth century repeated its favourite symbols over and over again. Alciati had made famous that form of emblem in which words and picture combine to form a single device. But in so doing he had merely given classical shape to a general taste. the better-known symbols were so familiar that they were readily understood without the explanatory text. Such was that adopted by the bishop of Auxerre in the window of the Maison de l'Aumonier.The wings of Hermes! OK, so the image was appropriated as the new symbol of Fortune. Fortuna ain't quite a god, but heck, she's close enough as makes no odds; I sure don't want to mess with her! The point is that those early publishers really did think of themselves as the new gods! Immediately this connected back to the van den Keere world map of 1611. Take a look at the largest of the three images above. Of all the allegorical tableau from that map, that's the one which fascinated me the most. See how Death is wrestling with a man for control of an hourglass? That's not just any man. See the apparatus near his feet that's labeled "DE WITTE PAES"? That's a printing press, and the label means "The White Press", the printing shop in the center of Amsterdam where the map was made. That man is a printer, and as far as I can see, he's on a roughly equal footing with Death! The way I read this, the printer sees his craft as giving mankind the godlike power to impede Death; able to store and disseminate information in ways that were impossible mere decades earlier, man can effectively slow the deleterious effects of time by passing his essence to posterity! Gryphius thinks of himself as a modern day Hermes, and van den Keere is ready to rassle with Death!
The sphere with the wings of Hermes is an emblem appropriated by Fortune. Sometimes a youth, sometimes a maiden, with winged feet lightly poised on an ever-rolling globe, or wheel, the figure of the deity was well known and popular in the sixteenth century. Derived from the antique, it had quickly leaped into favour on the revival of learning. there were many variations of the familiar allegory. Machiavelli had devoted a sonnet to it; Alciati had placed it among his emblems; it had been painted and carved, and all were acquainted with the symbols that gave it pictorial expression. When, therefore, the winged globe was abstracted from the whole subject and used as a separate emblem it was readily interpreted. But to guard against all possibility of misunderstanding, the printer Gryphius has added to the symbol the motto, Virtute Duce, Comite Fortuna [Virtue as guide, Fortune as companion]. The meaning is identical with that of the Dinteville motto and conclusively proves the point.
Intriguingly, that wasn't the only connection to the van den Keere map. Hervey's book is about a specific painting: The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein. YIKES! I think this is what the young kids nowadays are calling "freaky-deaky". Until I read the article I had no idea that anamorphic perspective was an invention of the Early Renaissance - or even what anamorphic perspective was. That is an amazing painting, one that I'll be spending some time analyzing. For now, though, it's enough for me to ponder what these images say about their makers. These symbols speak of people deeply invested in establishing a cosmology, yet unable to find their own place in it: "Look at our new tools! We've mapped the world, and our knowledge flies to its four corners! Surely we are the new gods! Aren't we? Aren't we? ... By the way, tell that skinny guy with the hood and the scythe to stop staring at me."
When I read history I get scared easily. It ain't a matter of taking the road less traveled by, because the road in the yellow wood branches off not into two, but into a seeming infinitude of paths. I cringe at all I'll never have time to learn. I think that's why I have a tendency to focus so obsessively on minutiae like this; if I bring my entire sensorium to bear on a square millimeter of the surface of history, it blocks out the vertiginous view of all I don't know. It's very easy to fill my mind's eye with one man and his printing press - to wonder why he thought it was a Good Idea to take a wooden block with those particular symbols, put some ink on it, and press it to paper. It's a lot easier than attempting to get my head around the vast sweep of history going on around that man. The disadvantages are obvious: after all, the whole point of me studying history is to understand that vast sweep, and here I am wasting precious time on trivialities. This time, though, it worked out well. Gryphius's frontispiece led me down unexpected paths, and now I'm thinking back to my lectures about Erasmus and wondering just how much his humanist teachings affected that printer in Lyon. Sometimes those minutiae I chase because they're comfortable turn into windows, and I find myself looking out at an expanse I'd been scared to face before. And you know what? The sun feels kinda good on my face.