The oldest books in the Art Library, Part IV

This post continues the series on some of the earliest books in the Art Library’s collection, all of which are housed in the Art Library’s rare book room.    If you want to see any of them, just ask at the desk.

The next book to investigate is by Cesare Ripa and is called Iconologia.  Our copy was published in 1613.

Cesare Ripa (c.1555-1622) was born Giovanni Campani.  Ripa was not a professional scholar; rather, he was chief butler to a cardinal and he worked on the book that made him famous in his spare time.   First published in 1593, the book did not gain popularity until woodcuts were included in the 1603 edition.  With more than 1000 images and almost 700 concepts, it describes and prescribes ways to represent allegorical figures in emblem books* and artworks. In most cases though, Ripa’s images did not follow the guidelines he established because he adapted what was available from multiple sources.  Ripa began with Abundance and moved alphabetically, ending with Zeal.

In the 17th century, the Iconologia appeared in the book lists of many artists and provided the raw material for their numerous iconographic conceptions. Once artistic tastes changed, however, Ripa’s imagery was no longer useful and the Iconologia fell into obscurity.  When  later art historians looked at the imagery in 17th works of art, they were often baffled about the meaning.  In the 1920s, art historian Emile Mâle brought the Iconologia back to light and today the Iconologia is used to understand symbolism in the Baroque era.

Below is the title page and a typical page from the book:

*As discussed in Part III, emblem books flourished in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. An emblem combines both words and images, the interpretation of which requires intellectual effort and results in the communication of a moral lesson. Emblems generally consist of three parts: a short motto, a pictorial representation or icon, and the explanation of the link between them in an epigram.

Why does the library collect rare books?  Because they are primary source materials of art history, offering a first-hand account of an artist’s life, the first critical response to a building or painting, or a new theory of art or architecture.  As the building blocks of art history, they remain relevant sources for researchers.

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