The Society for Emblem Studies

Emblem of the Month

Emblem of the Month no. 006



Andrea Alciato, ‘Paupertatem summis ingeniis obesse ne provehantur’ (1531) / Richard Shirley Smith, ‘Classical Profile’ (2011)


Financial support for humanities scholarship has never been bountiful in any era, but the situation since the global recession hit in the last decade has been drastic indeed. The unfortunate lot of impoverished scholars was a theme understood by Andrea Alciato (1492-1550). As a university man at Avignon, Bourges, Bologna, Pavia and Ferrara, Alciato appreciated the need for economic security, and found it throughout his career in the form of stipends and salaries. There were episodes in his life when political circumstances were such that he fell back on the practice of the law, and it was during the years 1522 to 1527, while serving as a lawyer in Milan, that he wrote one of his most celebrated treatises, De verborum significatione. These were the years, too, when he honed his collection of emblems. In one of them, ‘Paupertatem summis ingeniis obesse ne provehantur’ (Poverty prevents the advancement of the best of abilities), Alciato considers the plight of the talented scholar held back by financial constrictions. This emblem, which was among those published in February 1531, shows a figure in doctoral gowns and cap struggling to control his right arm which is vigorously fledged at the wrist. While the wings on his arm tug the scholar upward, his other arm is burdened by a stone which pulls him down to the earth. Alciato’s subscriptio elucidates the image thus: ‘My right hand holds a rock, the other bears wings. As the feathers lift me, so the heavy weight drags me down. By my mental gifts I could have flown through the heights of heaven, if malign poverty did not hold me back.’[1] The emblem’s pictura provides a corporeal exemplification of what amounts to a psychomachia, a struggle within the mind. The image is not governed by naturalism: it expresses cryptically an invisible battle between, on the one hand – as it were – the lofty, abstruse and abstracted ideas of philosophy and higher learning that prompts the mind to leave the constraints of everyday life behind; and on the other, the mundane, earthbound and deleterious demands of the body and the endless task of ministering to its sustenance and provision. The emblem argues eloquently for the encouragement of intellectual talent, regardless of financial or social background. It strikes the modern reader as unusually enlightened in promoting a democratization of knowledge, an awareness of the wide distribution of native intelligence, and an understanding that intellectual capacity is not a quality reserved for the social elite. In this, Alciato anticipates Thomas Gray’s lines on the graveyard at Stoke Poges where the poet contemplated how many rustic villagers might have been writers had not ‘Chill Penury repress’d their noble Rage’.[1]


Scholars have suggested that Alciato was mindful of an earlier hieroglyphic image when he composed his striking conceit of the impoverished scholar, a picture within that mysterious work Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, usually attributed to Francesco Colonna and published by Aldus Manutius in 1499. There, on a porphyry tablet we see carved a woman ‘wreathed with a serpent’ with ‘a pair of wings in her hand, and in the other a tortoise’. This, one of the characters, Logistica, explains, signifies that we should ‘Control speed by sitting, and slowness by rising’.[2] Within this figure we see a similar tension between opposing energies, the fleetness of the wings against the torpor of the lumbering tortoise. Perhaps it was this image that prompted Aldus to develop his famous printing device of a dolphin, that swift, mercurial swimmer, entwined around the dense mass of an anchor, a device he first deployed in 1502.[3] Certainly, Alciato’s wings and stone participate in a wider humanistic iconography of oppositional forces and energies popular in the years around the turn of the sixteenth century – together with these Aldine manifestations, consider the ant and elephant hieroglyph elsewhere in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, the tortoise with a sail sprouting from its back – a device of the Medici –, or the cube and sphere dichotomy of Mercury and Fortuna found on the frontispiece of Carolus Bovillus’ Liber de sapiente (1510).

Whatever its origins, the emblem of the conflicted scholar in time became a staple of other emblem authors. It was taken over in a straightforward manner by writers like Thomas Palmer and Geffrey Whitney, and in more mediated ways by Otto Vaenius and Gabriel Rollenhagen.[4] For Palmer, the emblem particularly commented upon young scholars setting out on the foothills of learning:

In Oxforde and in Cambridge eke […]
Bene such, as nature favors muche,
but fortune frownes vppon.
Their witte, their memory is muche,
their diligence is more;
Their charges greate, their livinge smalle,
of goodes they have no store,
So povertie breakes of the race,
wherin they ran before,
And makes theim shifte or thei be ripe,
to lyve, and lerne no more [5]

This identification Palmer makes of the poor scholar with a young scholar is not explicit in Alciato’s original text, but it became the accepted understanding of his emblem through the commentaries of Claude Mignault which first appeared in 1571; for Mignault, the emblem concerned the ‘Adolescentis … ingeniosi’. When Gabriel Rollenhagen and Crispijn de Passe the Elder re-deployed the scholar with the winged hand and the stone, the emphasis in their emblem was notably more optimistic. Where there is an unmistakable fatalism in Alciato’s original text, the hampering effect of poverty is something that Rollenhagen’s speaker seems confident of overcoming: ‘As the feathers swing me upwards, so the unimaginable weight presses me down: because of poverty, I am kept low; because of talent I will rise up to the heights’.[6] As is often the case with Rollenhagen and De Passe’s emblem book, the secondary action in the background of the pictura is worth our attention. In this case we see the shepherd-boy David swinging his sling in the direction of the Philistine giant, Goliath, in illustration of 1st Samuel 17. With some wit, De Passe converts the modest, unassuming stone into a potent projectile; this stone, far from impeding David’s progress, will propel him to the forefront of his nation’s affairs and to the front rank of divine approval. In its passage from sling to giant’s forehead, it will indeed take wing and ascend the heights. Is De Passe suggesting that poverty can be the very incitement to, and instigator of, academic achievement?

Alciato’s emblem continues to resonate with modern readers. In 2003, a Festschrift was prepared under the direction of Marc van Vaeck, Hugo Brems and Geert H.M. Claassens in honour of the distinguished Dutch emblem scholar, Karel Porteman. In it, tribute was paid to Professor Porteman’s masterly scholarship over many decades, but recognition too of his stewardship of the administrative labours pertaining to his role. The title given to this volume in appreciation of his mastery of both intellectual and pragmatic roles was The Stone of Alciato.

But the essential tension between antipathetic forces that Alciato’s emblem so concisely expresses still seems to hold power for artists working today. This may be the case in the work of the British painter, engraver and illustrator, Richard Shirley Smith, who celebrated his eightieth birthday in 2015. Over many decades, Shirley Smith has enjoyed the highest accolades for his many beautiful woodblock illustrations for fine print publications by The Folio Society, among others, and for his work as a muralist and decorative artist in the venerable tradition of Rex Whistler and John Fowler. But he is also a celebrated painter of mysterious canvases full of allusions to the Classical world, the Renaissance, the Italian past – and a dash of Victoriana. His still life works connect with Surrealism and show rapport with De Chirico and Dali, as well as older traditions of Vanitas painting. He likes to add enigmatic texts in Latin to his compositions in a way familiar to readers of emblemata. And it is perhaps the case that Shirley Smith places an allusion to Alciato’s ‘Paupertatem summis ingeniis obesse ne provehantur’ in a painting from 2011 entitled ‘Classical Profile’. Its subject is characteristically enigmatic, but centres upon a female classical bust crowned with wild flowers framed by a jug with feathers, a sculptural fragment, and a pale pink curtain. Here we see some elements typical of Shirley Smith’s still lifes over several decades: an obelisk, a shell, a Corinthian capital, and a withered artichoke. There are glances at the quadratura tradition of Italian painting, as well as to the trompe l’oeil still life. But what draws the eye is the curious sculptural fragment, a broken-off lower arm with a hand holding a stone.[7] This sculptural shard is suspended from a double cord, thereby emphasizing the weightiness of the fragment in itself, and of the stone in the carved hand’s grasp. This massy element hangs ponderously to one side of the classical head. Occupying the symmetrically equivalent space on the other side of the head is a jug filled with feathers. Tracing a lateral axis, then, are two elements suggestive of antagonistic properties; the density of the dependent stone, and the airiness of the feathers. That Shirley Smith is adept and versed in such iconographical playfulness is not in doubt; within this piece, we also see the meaningful juxtaposition of the obelisk of eternity against the vanitas elements of the seashell and the withered flower-head.

It would be unsophisticated and simplistic to insist that Shirley Smith was intending a modern interpretation of ‘Paupertatem summis ingeniis obesse ne provehantur’ in his ‘Classical Profile’; the painting is an independent work of art with its own internal logic and a dream-like poetical aura quite removed from the vigorous graphic energy of Alciato’s illustrated epigram. But to an artist as fully conversant with the culture of the Renaissance as Shirley Smith, and one addicted over his long life to the collection of books of engravings, it is hardly far-fetched to suggest a certain iconographical rapport between elements within ‘Classical Profile’ and the work of the Milanese humanist. Of course, Shirley Smith’s work is a compendium of classically inspired, Italianate sources, re-imagined for the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries: but we can perhaps enjoy his cryptic utterance expressed in private communication when the artist, with a twinkle in his eye, teasingly suggested that the painting ‘would be better named “Alciato”’!


(Simon McKeown)


Works Cited

Alciato, Andrea. Emblematum liber. Augsburg, 1531.

___.  Emblemata […] Latinogallica. Paris, 1584.

___.  Emblemata, Lyons (1550), trans. Betty I. Knott with Introduction by John Manning.

Aldershot, 1996.

___. Andreas Alciatus 1. The Latin Emblems: Indexes and Lists, ed. Peter M. Daly, Virginia W. Callahan and Simon Cuttler. Toronto, 1985.

Bain, Iain. The Wood Engravings of Richard Shirley Smith. Cambridge, 1994.

Bovillus, Carolus. Liber de sapiente. Paris, 1510.

Colonna, Francesco. Hypnertomachia Poliphili, trans. Joscelyn Godwin. London, 1999.

Goldfinch, John, and Stephanie Coane. Aldus Manutius and the Renaissance Book. Eton, 2015.

Green, Henry. Andrea Alciati and his Book of Emblems: A Biographical and Bibliographical Study. London, 1872.

Palmer, Thomas. The Emblems of Thomas Palmer: Two Hundred Poosees: Sloane MS 3794, ed.

John Manning. AMS Studies in the Emblem 2. New York, 1988.

Praz, Mario. Studies in Seventeenth-Century Imagery. 2nd ed. Rome, 1964.

Rollenhagen, Gabriel. Sinn-Bilder. Ein Tugendspiegel, ed. and trans. Carsten-Peter Warncke. Dortmund, 1983.

Shirley Smith, Richard. Trophies and Cartouches: Recent Paintings, Murals and Line Drawings. Marlborough, 2015.

___.  The Paintings and Collages, with a Preface by Roy Strong. London, 2002.

___.  Richard Shirley Smith: Fiftieth Birthday Retrospective Exhibition, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

and Riba Heinz Gallery, London. Exhibition catalogue, 1985.

Vaenius, Otto. Amorum emblemata. Antwerp, 1608.

Whitney, Geffrey. A Choice of Emblemes. Leiden, 1586.



[1]  Thomas Gray, ‘An Elegy wrote in a Country Church Yard’ (1751), l. 51.

[1] I quote from Betty Knott’s translation. In fact, the woodblock artist of the first edition of Alciato’s Emblematum liber, Jörg Breu, has made an iconographical error in his execution of the xylograph, because Alciato’s text assigns the two elements of wings and stone to the other hands: the epigram opens ‘Dextra tenet lapidem, manus altera sustinet alas,/ut me pluma levat, sic grave mergit onus….’ This was one of several mistakes in the woodblock illustrations which apparently frustrated the author and perhaps prompted him to have his emblems published by Wechel in Paris. In Wechel’s various editions of Alciato, the wings and stone are correctly allocated dexter and sinister, and this was followed in subsequent editions of Alciato across Europe.

[2]  Colonna 1999, pp. 133-134.

[3]  Concerning the Aldine device, see Goldfinch and Coane 2015, pp. 13-14.

[4]  When Otto Vaenius published his famous Amorum emblemata in 1608, he included an allusion to Alciato’s emblem when he added wings to the right hand of one of his Amorini. This was to exemplify his moral that ‘Celerem oportet esse amatoris manum’ (The lover should show a speedy hand). See Vaenius 1608, pp. 110-111.

[5]  Palmer 1988, pp. 64-65.

[6]  Rollenhagen 1983, pp. 296-297.


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