Journal of Illustration Studies – Home page

December 2013 || Articles

Real and Virtual Illustration: Visual Memory and Early-Modern Speaking Pictures

by Roy Eriksen

Repetition and its consequence, recognition by means of memory, are essential in the transmission of knowledge, in teaching and persuasion.1  It is a commonplace that we learn only what we are able to recognize by means of relations of identity, similarity or analogy. When commenting on visual representation Nelson Goodman underscores that ‘we know what we see is no truer than we see what we know. Perception depends heavily on conceptual schemata’;2  that is, deep pre-existing conceptual schemata stored in the memory. There is reassurance and conditioning in learning, and therefore rediscovery of the known provides an efficient platform3  and a receptive matrix for knowledge transmission or expansion. In a commonplace, originality lacks what we generally associate with originality by building on previous cognition, being old knowledge rooted in thought processes inherent in us from the beginning, as it were ab origine. These general processes reside in the fundamental iconicity of language, first as shared memories, then as spectral and subliminal presences of what earlier language users have perceived, memorized, and internalized long before our time and then passed on in their usage.4  It suggests a non-digital notion of hypertext present in language and the mind.5 

The technique of ekphrasis6  – or lively description – is now used mostly about the depiction of a work of art in written discourse to evoke or provide a detailed description of that work, and as such depends on recognition. Originally meaning ‘to speak out7  and therefore being related in function to the forceful trope of apostrophe, it was developed in oral literature before manuscript and book illustration were invented, and supplemented scripted ekphrasis.8  In early modernity the two forms of illustration coexisted in various ways and texts and gave rise to interesting genres and modes of illustration. I wish here to consider some variants of illustration, including ekphrasis, found before the invention of the printing-press and some after the establishment of publishing houses and the subsequent rise and popularity of emblem books. Here I consider some emblems found in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century descriptions of buildings and pictures; these emblems, I propose, should be defined as part of the writers’ technique of persuasion, as examples of ‘virtual illustration’. The writers whose works I have decided to comment on are, in particular, the two Italians Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72) and Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), and the two Elizabethan poets Christopher Marlowe (1564–93) and William Shakespeare (1564–1616).

In Writing for Art: The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis Stephen Cheeke rehearses the idea of the close connection between paragone and ekphrasis: ‘the notion of the paragone, a struggle, a contest, a confrontation, remains central to all thinking about ekphrasis’.9  Paragone is indeed important in many instances and contexts in which different modes of representation are used to create a work of art, but it is far from a generally acceptable model. Ekphrasis needs not, and often does not, involve conflict or an antagonism between different modes of representation and/or their executors, although sculptors, painters, and poets did compete over who achieved the most natural representation. Often a verbal representation of an art work, or an action or a scene, enhances and strengthens the described or represented work; it does not necessarily compete with it but draws on its strategies of persuasion. The function depends on whether or not the particular representation was intended to give a truer or more exact representation of the objects portrayed for the purpose of imitation or execution. For ekphrasis is often a tool and a means of extending, or strengthening, an argument – for instance, in advocating an architectural design or to render events in narrative more persuasive and striking. This particular technique of persuasion by shared visual memory is particularly evident in the first part of Alberti’s moral dialogue Profugiorum ab aerumna as I will show below.

Alberti is frequently hailed as a universal man and as a kind of Leonardo da Vinci ante litteram (though Leonardo was a great painter, his influence is dwarfed by the massive impact and lasting influence of Alberti in a vast number of fields). Alberti’s many innovatory contributions to the arts – De pictura, De statua, De re aedificatoria libri decem, and Descriptio urbis Romae – have rendered his name almost synonymous with progress and novelty, and this impression is confirmed by his other technical treatises and experiments in poetry and drama. Although I have no wish to detract from his reputation as a truly innovative and dynamic thinker and entrepreneur, I would like to focus on another aspect that also characterizes the Albertian moment, that is, a conservatism and a judicious, if nostalgic, engagement with the past. These appear for many reasons, and can be explained in various ways, whether we are considering the conspicuous presence of traditional forms in his architectural ideas, or conservative ideas propagated in his literary production. It is ironic that the man who codified the rules of perspective and who divulged his method in a manuscript circulated both in Latin and Italian versions comes across almost as an iconoclast. All he has left us by way of illustration is an architectural detail for San Francesco in Rimini, surviving in a letter to Matteo de’ Pazzi, and of course the frontal view of that church with its planned but not executed dome,10  which is engraved on the medal commemorating the church’s 1450 foundation. There is also a sketchy portrait of Alberti himself that is now universally accepted as being by his own pen, as is his portrait medal, with his personal emblem on the reverse (the winged eye with the impresa ‘Quid tum').

One striking feature of Alberti’s treatises is the curious absence of illustrations, images, or designs, a lack that the people to whom he dedicated his work on architecture immediately tried to remedy by hiring famous artists to supply the ‘missing’ illustrations to enhance the usefulness of the work. Thus Federigo da Montefeltre hired the miniaturist Giuglielmo Giraldi to provide visual examples of the architectural types that Alberti only described by reference to shapes and proportions. A great admirer of Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci acquired several of his manuscripts and was eager to illustrate his predecessor’s designs from both the De re aedificatoria and De navi. Later treatises on architecture by Filarete, Serlio, Palladio, the French theorist Philippe Dell'Orme, and the English pioneer John Shute all included illustrations and, indeed, are unthinkable without their prescriptive models and ‘patterns’.11  However, Alberti himself mistrusted visual representations and deliberately avoided images or illustrations. Even in his De pictura he chose to rely on ekphrasis and purely technical descriptions.

Following a practice current since Ptolemy, Alberti and other quattrocento humanists relied on written descriptions rather than maps and technical drawings because these were notoriously unreliable, a fact commented on by Ernst Gombrich in Art and Illusion.12  Experience had shown that designs or illustrations were prone to become grossly inaccurate when copied and would soon become utterly useless as a result. Alberti’s De pictura, De re aedificatoria, and De statua are all versions of a new type of transmission of data, one that ensures that all copies be made from a described original, specifying both measurements and which tools to use to arrive at the desired shape.13  By securing and fixing the medium, the tools, and the method, Alberti made it possible for everybody to recreate the object in question from within a given formal matrix. The highly technical treatise Descriptio urbis Romae relies on this practice at the same time that it represents a first step towards the creation of an exact and reproducible digitalized map of letter codes within a well-defined circular model. The underlying formal metaphor in Descriptio urbis Romae, however, is that of the heavens as transmitted by Ptolemy’s stellar maps in the Cosmographia.14 

The unfamiliar preference for writing rather than drawing is in one sense conservative, but in another sense this use of a specified and framed textual field – also made evident by schemes of elocution – is also ‘modern’ and verges on the formulaic. The Profugiorum ab aerumna begins with a consideration of Brunelleschi’s newly built dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and the principles inherent in the building, but there was no need for an illustration because the dome was a familiar kind of construction. All Florentines would have had a pretty precise conception and recollection of what the imposing construction looked like. Just as today we can visualize a tower by drawing on mental images of structures such as Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and even the biblical Tower of Babel, for Alberti’s readers in Florence or in Tuscany in the early 1440s the dome was vividly present in their shared visual imagination and memory – a communal visual archive, as it were. As such it was actually embedded in Alberti’s text as a virtual illustration.

In Profugiorum ab aerumna Alberti praises the aesthetic inherent in Brunelleschi’s dome, but does not describe its shape, building materials, or measurements. Instead he writes:

… mi diletta ch'io veggo in questo tempio iunta insieme una gracilità vezzosa con una sodezza robusta e piena, tale che da una parte compreendo che ogni cosa qui è fatta e offirmata a perpetuità. Aggiugni che qui abita continuo la temperie, si può dire, della primavera: fuori vento, gelo, brina; qui entro socchiuso da’ venti, qui tiepido aere e quieto: fuori vampe estive e autunnali; qui entro temperatissimo refrigerio.15 

[it pleases me that I see in this temple a combination of charming grace and robust and full solidity, in such a way that I from one point understand that everything is made and sealed for eternity. If you add that here mildness, as it were, of spring always dwells: while on the outside wind, frost, brine hold rein; here on the inside you are shielded from winds, the air is mild and restful: outside summer’s heat or autumnal blaze.]

In a comment on the first part of the description Christine Smith situates the passage in a rhetorical and aesthetic context, explaining how Alberti develops categories of styles in terms of architectural description.16  The particular terms and aesthetic principles involved are ‘grazia’ (grace) and ‘maiestà’ (majesty), which trigger a series of antitheses: ‘gracilità vezzosa’ (pleasing grace) balances ‘sodezza robusta e piena’ (robust and full solidity), ‘fatta a […] delizia’ (made […] to delight) is matched by ‘offirmata a perpetuità’ (fixed of eternity). As a result, ‘ideal equilibrium’ is created17  by offering tranquillity of mind and spiritual sustenance by virtue of its supportive symmetrical textual form.18  In this way Alberti anchors the visually imagined or remembered form within a balanced verbal pattern that underpins the dialogue’s stoic philosophy in a Christian setting. The building is said to produce the climate of spring regardless of whether it is summer or winter. Inside the church visitors experience mildness and calm even when winds, frost and brine bite outside; and the dome offers a temperate refuge also during the heat of summer and autumnal blazes. Alberti here appeals to our shared sensual experiences – our ‘objective correlative’, as it were – relating how the elements work on the bodies of all of us.19  In the description antithetical qualities characterizing the dome are composed to form a balanced whole signalling the dome’s inherent consonance with a Classical aesthetic of firmness and delight, and also with what the reader will find amenable to her or his well-being. This appeal to the senses expresses what Carolyn van Eck refers to as the Albertian view of architecture as ‘persuasive communication’.20  Virtual image and metaphor are here intimately connected, because they both refer to the same trope: the conceit of the cupola as an analogue to the heavenly dome.

Antonio di Piero Averlino (c. 1400–c. 1469, alias Filarete), the Florentine architect and sculptor and Alberti’s exact contemporary, also had a specific didactic goal in mind in his treatise, but unlike Alberti he fills the margins of his sheets with fanciful, many-storied towers and palaces that appeal to the eye rather than the intellect. He uses illustrations in his codex in the manner of a demagogue. John Spencer explains the particular use of spectacular drawings in the margins of Filarete’s manuscript in terms of a technique of diversion and entertainment aimed at erasing the hold Gothic forms had on the readers’ visual register rather than propagating a particular building form:

His divertimenti were intended to make the reader’s mind receptive; the destructive criticisms of Gothic architecture were intended to purge the reader’s mind of the last vestiges of uninformed taste. To fill this receptive void Filarete offers a catalogue of new forms, which are adjusted to the reader’s willingness to be informed.21 

Despite his Classical learning and an impressive breadth of references to Pliny, Vitruvius, Alberti, and others, Filarete thus appears to be less an architect of Classical design and abstraction than Alberti proves himself to be in the non-illustrated De re aedificatoria libri decem. It should be stressed, however, that copies of Alberti’s codex, too, later were supplied with illustrations by Alberti’s wealthy dedicatees.22 

When Alberti died in 1472 none of his works had been printed, but at the very end of his life he was in contact with the two German monks and printers, Arnold Pannartz and Konrad Sweinheim, who in 1464 established the first Italian printing press at Subiaco, and who in 1467 settled in Rome.23  He clearly realized the potential of the new medium and apparently sought to have his technical treatises printed.24  Then, too, this may be one of the reasons why Vasari in his ‘Life of Alberti’ couples the invention of perspective to that of the printing press.25  Heralded by the Aldine edition of Francesco Colonna’s ‘Albertian’ Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499),26  the production of books containing architectural designs and fantasies became good business in the sixteenth century, and Italian books were copied and /or exported to various parts of Europe, while Dutch, French, Spanish, and German printers were quick to follow suit. This vogue flourished alongside a new genre that focused on illustrations, that is, the emblem book, from its inception in Andrea Alciato’s seminal Emblemata (1531), which provided topoi, images, and patterns for poets and visual artists to imitate. Even though many today frown on these books and their relatively crude illustrations (woodcuts or engravings), works like Vincenzo Cartari’s Gli imaginini dei degli antichi (1533) and Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593) functioned as pattern books by providing topoi or motifs for the visual arts, being aids to invention. In addition, they enrich meaning and aesthetic pleasure through the multimodal complementarity of the resulting art works.

Giordano Bruno, the poet-philosopher, is one of the authors who employed various kinds of illustrations in his works, ranging from diagrams and images to highly personal examples of virtual illustration. The closest example to an emblem proper we probably find in Cantus Circaeus, ad memoriam praxim ordinatus (Paris, 1582) in which there is an engraving of a pig within a lettered circle (Figure 1)
fig. 1. from G. Bruno, Cantus Circaeus: Ars memoria (1582)
. The full emblem ensemble is, however, dispersed in various parts of the treatise. The pictura (of the pig) is found at the textual centre, whereas the inscriptio (Cantus Circaeus) plus a first verse explicatio (a thirty-three-line poem entitled ‘Iordani libro') introduce the work itself. A second, and longish, prose subscriptio (a fifty-line gloss on the pictura) follows the engraving at the work’s midpoint.27  This would strike many readers as odd, but it is part of Bruno’s joco-serious and combinatory compositional style to juggle with the different parts of his work, creating verbal and thematic links ('vinculi') between them. Thus he entitles the introductory poem ‘Iordani libro’ [on Giordano’s book], and makes the content and disposition of its parts exactly replicate those of the ensuing work, which is written in prose but given the title Cantus Circaeus [Circe’s song, or poem].28  Bruno himself in the poem emphasises that it repeats the topoi of the whole work in compressed form ('arctis arctis […] terminis’, verse 4). Based on the Circe myth it explains the various ways in which men resemble animals, the central metaphor being the transformation of a man into a pig. Thus the words ‘occorret porcus’ in the central verse of the poem (17) reflect on the centrally placed porcus emblem in the work itself29  Bruno here, therefore, reconfigures the emblem formula, possibly with the intent to show that he does not slavishly follow the fashion of Continental emblem books.

Nor does Bruno ape the conventions of emblem books in the London dialogue De gl'heroici furori (1585), which in addition to being a moral dialogue is also a sonnet sequence with a running commentary, and an emblem book, though one only ‘illustrated’ by scripted or virtual emblems. Although lacking pictures, in its extensive references to emblems it is pioneering in England, which had yet to see her first publication of this type. Samuel Daniel published his translation of Paolo Giovio’s Imprese30  – also without illustrations – in the very same year (1585),31  and a year afterwards Geffrey Whitney had his highly derivative, but illustrated, A Choice of Emblems printed at Leiden.32  As an exponent and theorist of literary mannerism Bruno combines genres and forms in a truly innovative manner, as witnessed especially in his Italian works and explained in the treatise De vinculis in genere.33  Rosalie Colie comments on this playful working out and presentation of ideas and stresses that ‘Bruno delights by establishing literary topoi as steps to his teaching […] abstract[ing] literature as he does so many elements of his thoughts, into its signs and symbolic values’.34  I would like to stress that this also is the case in his prominent use of visuality and memotechnics. Bruno underscores that the frenzies (furori) described are not examples of forgetfulness, but of memory ('non son oblío, ma una memoria').35  Besides, De gl'heroici furori is the best example of Bruno’s combinatory and ‘rotational aesthetic’, realized in individual poems as well as in the combined totality of parts in that work. In point of fact, it realizes on a larger scale the technique of which Cantus Circaeus constitutes an example. However, before turning to two examples of his use of visual memory in De gl'heroici furori, I wish to introduce the reader to his very explicit but highly personal way of organizing his texts according to the methods taught in his mnemonics, more particularly the strong nexus between visualization and composition. He is clearly thinking in terms of an early version of hypertext, one that is powered by memory.

The work, which consists of an introductory ‘Argomento’ addressed to Sir Philip Sidney and a sequence of ten combined dialogues (in I, 5 and II, 1), has at its centre a series of twenty-seven scripted emblems carried as banners by a militia of lovers. The lovers themselves do not utter a word, but Bruno’s interlocutors, Maricondo and Cesarino, watch and describe the emblems, commenting on the inscriptiones on the banners. The underlying emblems are thus are not included in the text as images, but the readers are implicitly asked to imagine them drawing on the storehouse of their own memories. Each emblem fulfils the emblem formula by having a subscription and being followed by one or more poems and commentary. In this way Bruno relies on already published emblems, which he expects his implied readers to fetch from memory, or recreate visually in their imagination. The missing emblems are virtual illustrations in the manner that the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore was not exhibited to Alberti’s Florentine readers. The dome to Alberti had the precise function of being a visual recollection and mental manifestation of an embedded metaphor for the heavens above the dialogue’s speakers; Bruno’s emblems, too, in being well known to some of his readers, become stages in and vehicles for the author’s highly personal quest for truth and beauty, expressed through the figure of Actaeon. The recollected emblems become the starting point for a reconfiguration of conventional knowledge into a new vision of unity between the human and the divine.36  This parallels the way in which he uses Petrarchan sonnets by Luigi Tansillo and himself as points of departure for his discussion of divine love, while attacking conventional sonneteers and reinterpreting their metaphorical language.37  In a strategy that is decidedly anti-Petrarchan38  he deviates from conventional emblem explanations in his comments on the virtual ‘pictures’ and the mottos (or inscriptiones) that he mostly draws from Classical texts. This technique by association and allusion had considerable impact on some of his Elizabethan contemporaries, as we will see in Marlowe and Shakespeare’s response to two of these virtual emblems treated below.

Bruno surrounds the series of emblems of the central dialogues (Part 1, dialogue 5, and Part 2, dialogue 1) by two other dialogues (1.4 and 2.2) focused on the Actaeon figure, best-known from book three of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but also a popular topic in emblem books. A concluding twenty-eighth emblem (‘Levius aura’), is found in 2.2, which concludes the series focused on the furioso veiled under the image of Actaeon. As we read we understand that the Actaeon image and emblem are what unites the series on described emblems in the middle of the work, because all of the twenty-eight emblems illustrate the different states of mind of the lover in his quest for divine wisdom and beauty. Naturally, this is an unusual and oblique way of re-configuring the emblem, but because Scripture

presents Solomon, David, and other prominent types of Christ as stags longing for the waters of the divinity, the Actaeon myth was widely interpreted as an allegory both of the fall of the first Adam, and of the resurrection of Christ, the second Adam, who made possible the regeneration of man, so that man again may achieve union with God.39 

The myth and the emblem fashioned from it therefore could be interpreted in bono and in malo, as seen in the Ovide moralisée or indeed in Bruno’s De gl'heroici furori, which both draw on scriptural sources.40  In 1.4 Bruno openly explains that the Actaeon image, which is the topic of five sonnets on the myth, signifies the intellect intent on hunting for divine wisdom, for the apprehension of divine beauty.41  That Actaeon figure, known from emblem books (Figures 2 and 3)
fig. 2. Barthélémy Aneau, ‘Ex domino servus’ (1554 [1552])
, therefore is the key to interpreting the twenty-eight emblems that follow.

Bruno’s narrated image or emblem manqué was traditionally given many interpretations when read according to the four-fold method of interpretation of Scripture taught by theologians.42  One reading saw the fate of Actaeon as a warning to rulers against flatterers, and as such Marlowe introduces it in the history play Edward II, where it is ironically uttered by the king’s minion and flatterer, Piers Gaveston. Gaveston brags about how he can ‘draw the pliant king’ (I.i.53) by presenting him nocturnal entertainments on mythological topics:43 

Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Coronets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive-tree,
To hide the parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring; and there, hard by,
One like Actaeon, peeping through the grove,
Shall by the angry goddess be transform'd,
And running in the likeness of an hart,
By yelping hounds pull'd down, and seem to die.


fig. 3. A. Alciato, ‘Contra que se acompañan de rufianes’ (1549)
This description would have triggered different responses in the audience depending on the level of education or acculturation. A few spectators would have thought of the (no longer extant) Diana fountain in the gardens of Nonesuch Palace, a fountain that showed the goddess sprinkling water on the intruder Actaeon. The fountain, which probably was based on an Italian design and most likely carried out by English sculptors, attracted great interest from those who had the opportunity to enter the palace gardens. The episode from book three of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a popular subject among Renaissance and Baroque painters, but few in the audience – even court audiences – would have seen such a painting or fresco.44  More people, but still not many, would in 1592–93 probably have had access to a Continental emblem book showing an Actaeon emblem (Figures 2 and 3), or to Geffrey Whitney’s A Choice of Emblems (1586). However, the greater part of an audience would not have had a mental image based on such illustrations to recollect or relate to, so the reference to the emblem or the fountain would be lost to them and they would have had to cope with the image of the described death of the Theban prince in terms of a deer hunt, which would be closer to an Elizabethan’s experience. Nearly all would have responded to the voyeuristic element, of course. The fact remains that only a chosen few literati or well-to-do citizens would have been able to conjure up a virtual image based on previous visual acquaintance with the emblem, but some, like Marlowe himself, obviously did. Interestingly, we find confirmation of his use of one of Bruno’s virtual emblems and commentary later in the history play.

When the barons have removed Gaveston from the king, Edward mourns and ‘harps upon his minion’ (I.iv.314) in a most undignified manner for a king:

My heart is an anvil unto sorrow,
Which beats upon it like Cyclops’ hammers,
And with the noise turns up my giddy brain,
And makes me frantic for my Gaveston;
Ah, had some bloodless Fury rose from hell,
And with my sceptre struck me dead.


In Edward’s passionate longing for his lover we recognize one of the stages of love explained by Bruno’s virtual emblem ‘Ab Aetna’.45  The king’s complaint strikingly repeats a number of the elements appearing in Bruno’s discussion of ‘amore bestiale’ or ‘disordinato amore’ (disordered love). The heart is the seat of the soul, and in Marlowe’s play the Cyclops strike Edward’s heart with their hammers, while in Bruno it is the prostrate soul of the lover that receives this brutal treatment. Thus we recognize both the tormented, ‘frantic’ lover, and the Cyclops that are the blacksmiths in Vulcan’s forge at Mount Etna in Sicily (hence Bruno’s motto ‘Ab Aetna'). When the lovesick king wishes for a ‘bloodless Fury’ to strike him dead to end his painful longings, this echoes the furioso who lacks blood but is copiously endowed with melancholic humours ('difetto de sangue, copia di malancolici umori').46  Moreover, ‘the noise’ of the Cyclops’ hammers hitting Edward’s heart matches the false ‘concerto’ within soul of the lover ‘who willingly serves the body’.47  (At the root of this image is of course Pythagoras’ legendary discovery of harmony at a smithy, when listening to the sound made by hammers of unequal weight striking the anvil.) The main difference between love described in the emblem and the king’s speech is, of course, that Edward’s passions are due to the loss of his male lover. Otherwise, the emblem strikingly matches Marlowe’s portrayal of King Edward’s reactions, revealing the dramatist’s continued interest in Bruno’s work, as seen also in Doctor Faustus. Several emblems feature Vulcan’s forge or an anvil,48  but none have topics even remotely similar to those in Bruno’s commentary.

‘Ab Aetna’ is but one of the series of visually absent emblems illustrating the torments Bruno’s frenzied lover is subjected to in his quest for the ‘unique Diana’. Above all hovers the Actaeon figure or emblem that also serves as a frame around the virtual emblems in 1.5 and 2.1. In 2.2 Bruno concludes the Actaeon series by celebrating how the frenzied lover is fused with the heavenly Diana in an act of sparagmos, where the hunter becomes the hunted. The emblem’s motto, ‘Levius aura’ [Lighter than Air], Bruno tells us, relates how ‘divine love does not weigh down its servant by conducting him like a malignant slave into the pit, but raises and elevates him, rendering him greater than whatever freedom’.49  This concluding emblem is the only one in the series to be directly coupled with a sonnet on the Actaeon myth, and the ensuing commentary summarizes and explains in detail the crucial and unifying role of the embedded Actaeon emblem, which was introduced in the Actaeon sonnets preceding the series (1.4, pp. 53–67). This is the very same technique of prolepsis used in Edward II when Marlowe prepares his audience for the ensuing tragedy by using the description of how Actaeon unwittingly spies the naked Diana and becomes transformed into ‘the likeness of an hart, / By yelping hounds pull’d down, and seem to die’ (I.i.69–70).

The emblem ‘Voluptas aerumnosa’ [Voluptuousness Badly Taxed] may have been one of Marlowe’s sources, for by 1592 emblems had become considerably more popular and present in the visual memory of many spectators. However, there is evidence in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor but that Bruno’s scripted and ‘virtual’ illustration still exerted some influence, as I will explain below.

Critics have long since pointed out the popularity of the Actaeon myth among Elizabethan writers,50  and John Steadman, Leonard Barkan, and Francois Laroque have commented on Shakespeare’s comic deployment of the Actaeon emblem in the presentation of Falstaff in the concluding midnight scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor.51  By then (1597) widespread knowledge and popularity of emblems had made their use a natural part of artistic semiosis in drama and in the arts. The first English emblem book to feature a printed emblem on Actaeon is Geoffrey Whitney in A Choice of Emblems (1586),52  who repeats the emblem from Alciato’s Emblemata (1531) and Barthélémy Aneaeu’s Picta poesis (1544).53  However, London audiences would also have had the opportunity to see Actaeon appear frequently on the stage in the period’s most popular play: Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (B), a play probably penned late in 1587 or in 1588, that is, shortly after the appearance of De gl’heroici furori (1585) and A Choice of Emblems (1586).

In fact, Marlowe lets Actaeon, identified by name, materialize twice in the imperial sequence of his play. He appears first in an exchange between Faustus and Marlowe’s Actaeon-figure, Benvolio:

BENVOLIO: Ay. Ay, and I be content too. And thou bring Alexander and his paramour before the Emperor, I’ll be Acteon and turn myself to a stag.
FAUSTUS: And I’ll play Diana, and send you the horns presently.54 

And a little later in the same scene, when Mephistopheles has planted antlers on the head of the sleeping Benvolio and turned him into a laughing-stock to the court of Charles V:

FAUSTUS: If Faustus do it, you are straight resolved
In bold Acteon’s shape to turn a stag. […]
I’ll raise a kennel of hounds shall hunt him so
As all his footmanship shall scarce prevail
To keep his carcass from their bloody fangs.


We see that the dramatist has created a striking dramatic emblem that Shakespeare could utilize in his grotesquely inappropriate and comic lover, Falstaff, who in the final scene in Shakespeare’s ‘village comedy’ dresses like a local figure from legend and myth, Herne the Hunter, for his rendezvous with Mrs Ford and Mrs Page. In expectation of an imminent amorous encounter he casts a spell in the form of a well-structured speech in prose, in which the many embedded symmetrical repetitions form a larger sign:

FALSTAFF: The Windsor bell hath struck twelve; the minute draws on. Now, the hot-blooded gods assist me! Remember, Jove, thou wast a bull for thy Europa. Love set on thy horns. O powerful love, that in some respects makes a beast a man; in some other, a man a beast. You were also, Jupiter, a swan for thy Leda. O omnipotent love, how near the god drew to the complexion of a goose! A fault done first in the form of a beast: O Jove, what a beastly fault! And then another fault in the semblance of a fowl: think on’ t, Jove, A foul fault! When gods have hot backs, what shall poor men do? For me, I am here a Windsor stag, and the fattest, I think, i’th’ forest. Send me a cool rut-time, Jove, or who can blame me to piss my tallow? Who comes here? My doe?55 

In a speech that recalls Tamburlaine’s rhetorical question – ‘What better precedent than mighty Jove?’ (II.vii) – Falstaff seizes on Jove for an example. However, his hope is soon abated because instead of an amorous encounter the wives have prepared a humiliating and humorous scene of chastisement (IV.iv.16–20). The audience would also have been well prepared for this, either through acquaintance with a moralized Actaeon emblem about ambition and illicit love, or even more likely by being part of an audience that had seen Marlowe’s trespassing and self-assured Actaeon (i.e. Benvolio) appearing on stage with antlers on his head, who also is humiliated but avoids death at the ‘bloody fangs’ of Faustus’s devils.

An important ingredient of Elizabethan stage practice was the added visual resource created when plays were repeatedly acted on the same stages by the same companies and watched by largely the same spectators, amounting to an education by association and repetition. This created a repertoire of shared images that gradually amounted to a collective memory of visual dramatic forms that provided a basis for parodic reworkings of the original situations and contexts. This gradually created an increasing collected memory of visual dramatic forms and meanings. A highly popular play like Doctor Faustus afforded many memorable events and images that could be referred to implicitly or explicitly, as in the case of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Leonard Barkan, who also links Doctor Faustus (B) and The Merry Wives of Windsor, has observed that ‘if Merry Wives turns the amatory side of myth into grotesque comedy, then Doctor Faustus does the same for the visionary side’.56  However, in Faustus the visionary side is also coupled with the political side of the myth, which is in turn more prominently evoked in Edward II.

Nor does the amatory provide the whole answer in The Merry Wives of Windsor, because there, too, Bruno’s virtual Actaeon crops up also in Shakespeare’s use of mythology in Falstaff’s Herne the Hunter speech (V.v.3–15). Although surprising, the emphasis on metamorphosis, I propose, relates directly to what Bruno calls ‘la ruota delle metamorfosi’ [the wheel of metamorphosis], described in detail in the sonnet ‘Quel Dio che scuote il folgore sonoro’ and its accompanying commentary (1.3). The sonnet describes the various forms assumed by Jove and other deities in order to love humans, who then suffer death, but paradoxically also become immortal by being transformed into plants, birds, animals, and constellations. These myths, Bruno argues, provide examples of how humans may ascend on the same wheel of metamorphosis. He underpins his argument by distributing verbal repetitions in the sonnet through a technique he elsewhere dubs ‘per via di circolazione’ (2.5) so they form an acrostic: ‘dio […] fu pastore / pastore […] fu […] dio’ [god […] became shepherd / shepherd became […] god].57  Bruno conveys that the wheel of metamorphosis is underscored by a studied use of subliminal manipulation distributed in repeated seen (and heard) verbal signs.

Turning to the formal aspects of Falstaff’s mythological speech on ascent, we note that it, too, has a circular structure of repeated words that revolves the moral lesson taught by Shakespeare’s dramatic emblem of misguided love. The embedded structure, being an example of second-degree iconicity consists of an array of carefully placed verbal repetitions arranged as a macro-chiasmus.58  The dramatist comically transforms his allusion to Bruno’s Actaeon emblem in his own version of the wheel of metamorphosis. Few spectators would have grasped the reference to Bruno’s or other emblems, but nearly everybody would have remembered the striking image of the shamed Benvolio with antlers on his brow in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (B) and would – based on recognition – therefore have expected the completion of the form, that is, an immediate change of fortune for Falstaff. Furthermore, the circular pattern in the latter’s speech would have worked subliminally to suggest a wheel in the imagination of many spectators, reminding us that, as Carrier puts it, ‘Visual thinking is verbally structured by the rhetoric of art writing’, or, in Goodman’s words, ‘Perception depends heavily on conceptual schemata’, that is, conceptual schemes formed on the basis of visual impressions stored and layered in the memory.59 

In the examples of virtual illustration in the writings of Alberti and Bruno discussed above, I have focussed on the transition from a manuscript-based humanist tradition of ekphrasis. In this textual tradition of ekphrasis references to well-known physical objects (e.g. buildings) and figural representations (e.g. the Vices and Virtues) are communicated by means of conventional iconography and rhetorical rules of composition. These are descriptions whose efficacy depends on a combination of patterned scripted texts and memorized images and codes stored in the individual’s visual register and memory. Paulus Silentiarius’s description of Hagia Sophia, Vasari’s description of Michelangelo’s cupola at St. Peter’s, and Alberti’s ekphrasis on Brunelleschi’s dome of Santa Maria del Fiore are examples of ‘flat’ texts that draw on this type of encoded interactive and virtual pop-up illustration.60  These texts provide an interiorized type of illustration that differs from Filarete’s drawings in the margins of his Trattato. He used illustration to argue a point and win acceptance for a novel all’ antica-style, but genre-wise he continues a medieval technique of illustration and is less ‘modern’ than his famous innovatory contemporary who laid the foundation of 3-D representation.61 

Illustration proper – when, for example, objects, edifices, or personified virtues are reproduced by engravings in a printed text – exploded in the cinquecento and new, specialized mixed genres were born. Architectural treatises, pattern books, and emblem books flourished on the Continent and, even though English emblem books appeared relatively late, the genre was known through importation.

Bruno’s De gl’heroici furori (London, 1585) antedates Whitney by one year. It therefore follows that very few theatre spectators in the late 1580s would have known about, for example, the fate and meaning of Actaeon from having read Alciato, Whitney, and Bruno; instead, they would have relied on remembered dramatic emblems like the ones provided by performances of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (B) or Edward II. Nonetheless, Bruno’s text is addressed to an audience accustomed to emblems. It both depends on the emblem vogue and represents a reaction against it, by reinterpreting the standardized meanings to suit Bruno’s own purpose. He reverts to the early technique of narrating the emblems (as in Paolo Giovio, for example), so attention would not have been directed at a (more or less successfully executed) print, but on the truth conveyed by a text. In this there is also a clear anti-Petrarchan bias, and a critique of the sensuous and erotic sonnets that had removed the mini-genre far from its initial encoded moral and religious subtexts. However, Bruno must have been acutely aware that his audience was limited.

This revision of the visual/verbal nexus62  of the emblem draws on abstract pre-print illustration, while putting the stereotypes of the popular emblem books to new use. Whereas Alberti had combined abstract and concrete forms of illustration within a controlled conceptual framework that depended on both visual memory and rhetorical composition,63  Bruno modernizes Alberti when he reinterprets and situates the clichés of cinquecento emblem literature into the conceptual scheme of his own programme of religious and political reform. That particular mixture, or ars combinatoria, appears to have appealed especially to Marlowe and Shakespeare, who turned the airy domes of Bruno’s lofty philosophy into the speaking pictures of their plays, transforming the abstract and complex notions into gripping multimodal representations of the human predicament.


1 See, for example, Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, trans. by J. H. Freese (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: Heinemann, 1926), 2.4.13 and 3.9.6–9. Aristotle recommends ‘number’ and repetition because both enhance understanding and memory. Standard studies of the art of memory are Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory, and Mary J. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

2 Nelson Goodman, Problems and Projects (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972), p. 142.

3 The Elizabethans used ‘platform’ both for the groundplan of a building or a city, and the plan of a poem: see, R. Eriksen, ‘Two into One: Gascoigne’s Companion Poems’, Studies in Philology 81.3 (1984), pp. 275–98; R. Eriksen, ‘The Forme of Faustus Fortunes’: A Study of the Tragedie of Doctor Faustus, (1616) (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., and Oslo: Humanities Press and Solum, 1987). For examples of this usage, see George Gascoigne’s short treatise 'Certain Instructions for the Making of Verses in English', in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. by G. Gregory Smith, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1904), I, 46–57. See also Christopher Marlowe, Dido, Queene of Carthage, in The Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. by Roma Gill, 5 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), I, at V.ii.1–2.

4 On these processes, see Lars Elleström’s thoughtful introductory essay on the integration in all media of four basic modalities (the material, the sensorial, the spatio-temporal and the semiotic): Media Borders, Multimodality and Intermediality, ed. by Lars Elleström (Basingtoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 1–10 (pp. 4ff).

5 This reminds us that Vannevar Bush imagined hypertext in a variety of forms: see Vannevar Bush, ‘As We May Think’, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945, 101–08. On this point, see N. Katherine Hayles, ‘Print is Flat, Code is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis’, Poetics Today 25.1 (2004), 67–90 (esp. pp. 69–70).

6 James Heffernan, Museum of Words: The Poetry of Ekphasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 1.

7 See Stephen Cheeke’s clear exposition in Writing for Art: The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), pp.19ff.

8 David Carrier argues that ‘visual thinking is verbally structured by the rhetoric of art writing’: Writing about Visual Art (New York: Allsworth Press, 2003), p. 14.

9 Cheeke, Writing for Art, p. 21.

10 Charles Hope, ‘The Early History of the Tempio Malatestiano’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 55 (1992), 51–154.

11 William Cecil imported ‘pattern books’ from the Continent for building projects: see Lu Emily Pearson, The Elizabethan at Home: A Complete Picture of a Way of Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957), p. 26; see also Books and Collectors, 1200–1700: Essays for Andrew Watson, ed. by James P. Carley and Colin G. C. Tite, The British Library Studies in the History of the Book (London: The British Library, 1998), pp. xxii, 501.

12 Ernst H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (London: Phaidon 1960; rept. 2000), p. xlii.

13 See Mario Carpo, ‘Descriptio urbis Romae: Ekfrasis geografica e cultura visuale all’alba della rivoluzione tipografica’, Albertiana, 1 (1998), 121–42.

14 Leon Battista Alberti, Descriptio urbis Romae, ed. by Mario Carpo and Martine Furno (Genève: Droz, 2000).

15 Leon Battista Alberti, Profugiorum ab aerumna, in Opere volgari, ed. by Cecil Grayson, 2 vols (Bari: Laterza, 1966), II: Rime e trattati morali, p. 107.

16 Christine Smith, Architecture in the Culture of Early Humanism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 85.

17 Smith, Architecture in the Culture of Early Humanism, p. 60.

18 Roberto Cardini, who is primarily interested in quotations from ancient authors rather than words repeated within a lineamentum, observes that Alberti’s strategy is ‘rigorous and complex’, consisting in ‘a lucid and I would say a geometrical strategy of the page within which every “scrap” finds a new meaning and function’: Roberto Cardini, Mosaici: Il ‘nemico’ dell’Alberti (Rome: Bulzoni Editore, 1990), p. 7.

19 T. S. Eliot, ‘Hamlet and his Problems’, in his The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 2nd edn (London: Faber & Faber, 1997), p. 85.

20 Caroline van Eck, ‘Architecture, Language, and Rhetoric in Alberti’s De re aedificatoria’, in Architecture and Language, ed. by Georgia Clarke and Bernard P. Crossley, pp. 72–81 and 184–88 (pp. 79–81).

21 Filarete’s Treatise on Architecture, being the treatise by Antonio di Piero Averlino, Known as Filarete, ed. and trans. by John R. Spencer, Yale Publications in the History of Art, 16, 2 vols (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965), I, p. xx.

22 M. Beltramini, 'Le illustrazioni del trattato d’architettura di Filarete: Storia, analisi e fortuna', Annali di architettura, 13 (2001), 25–52.

23 The Mathematical Works of Leon Battista Alberti, ed. by Kim Williams, Lionel March, and Stephen R. Wassell (Birkäuser: Basel, 2010), p.189.

24 Anthony Grafton, Leon Battista Alberti: Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000), pp. 331–32, 336.

25 Roy Eriksen, ‘Vasari on Printing and Painting’, Source: Notes in the History of Art, 17.2 (1998), 1–3.

26 Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice: Aldus, 1499). See also Liane Lefaivre, Leon Battista Alberti’s ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’: Re-cognizing the Architectural Body in the Early Italian Renaissance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).

27 I use the conventional terms employed in emblem literature, where pictura refers to images, inscriptio to titles or mottos, and subscriptio to narrative commentary. Hanno Ehses and Ellen Lupton explain that ‘The combination of image and narrative usually results in a riddle, the solution of which comes about through an explanatory third part, the narrative text. An emblematic image is not simply a mute representation but refers to didactic and moral meanings’: Design Papers: Rhetorical Handbook (New York: Cooper Union, 1988), pp. 5–6.

28 I have used the text in Jordani Bruni Nolani: Opera latina conscripta, ed. by V. Imbriani and C. M. Talarigo, 2 vols (Naples, 1878), II, 179–257.

29 See my detailed analysis in The Forme of Faustus Fortunes.

30 Paolo Giovio, Dialogo delle imprese militari et amorose (Rome: Antonio Barre, 1555).

31 Samuel Daniel, The Worthy Tract of Paulus Jovius, containing a Discourse of Rare Inventions […] called Imprese, with a Preface (London, 1585). Daniel worked with the second edition by Girolamo Ruscelli, who contributed an introductory essay on imprese (Venice: Zitelli, 1556).

32 Geoffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes and other Devises, for the moste parte gathered out of sundrie writers, Englished and moralised, and divers newly devised (Leiden: Plantin Press, 1586).

33 Maria Rika Maniates argues that the work is the first comprehensive mannerist aesthetic: see Mannerism in Italian Music and Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979). For Bruno’s treatise, see the edition by Albano Biondi, De vinculis in genere (Pordenone: Edizione Bibliotheca dell’Immagine, 1986).

34 Rosalie Colie, Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966), p. 111.

35 Giordani Bruno, Eroici furori, ed. Simonetta Bassi (Bari: Laterza, 1995), part 1, dialogue 3.

36 Bruno strove for religious unity in the face of the religious divisiveness that tormented the Europe of his own days; see Michele Ciliberto, ‘Esistenza e verità: Giordano Bruno e il “vincolo” di Cupido’, introductory essay in Bruno, Eroici furori, pp. vii–xlv (especially pp. xiii–xix).

37 Bruno, Eroici furori, pp. 3–4, 7.

38 The argomento addressed to Sir Philip Sidney is the most outspoken anti-Petrarchan expression in print in the entire period, surpassing even Thomas Nashe’s mockery of sonneteering in The Unfortunate Traveller (1594); see especially the sonnet ‘If I must die, O let me choose my death’ in An Anthology of Elizabethan Prose Fiction ed. by Paul Salzman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 254–55.

39 Eriksen, The Forme of Faustus Fortunes, p. 139.

40 For the association of the biblical hart in Canticles with Actaeon, see Bruno, Eroici furori, pp. 5, 8–9, 56.

41 'Atteone significa l’intelletto intento alla caccia della divina sapienza, all’apprension della betà divina’ (1.4), p. 53.

42 See, for example, Jean Daniélou, From Shadows to Reality: Studies in the the Biblical Typology of the Fathers (London: Continuum, 1960).

43 The emblem ‘Ex domino servus’ by Bartholemaeus Anulus (Barthélémy Aneau), printed in Picta poesis, vt pictura poesis erit (Lugduni: Apud Mathiam Bonhomme, 1554), provides the sinister background for the nightly ‘Italian masques’ in Gaveston’s speech: ‘CORNIBUS in ceruum mutatum Actæona sumpsit | Membratim proprii diripuere canis. | NAE miser est Dominus, Parasitos quiquis edaces | Pascit: adulantum præda parata canum! | Se quibus irredentium suggerit, & comedendum. | Seruus & ex domino corniger efficitur.’ (sig. V5, p. 41) [Actaeon was changed into a stag with horns, he was devoured limb by limb by his own dogs. For miserable is the Lord, who feeds hungry parasites: for fawning dogs are quick to attack their prey. If he invites such like to eat at his table, the Lord becomes a slave with horns.] The flatterer turns the king, his master, into his servant and causes his death. Gaveston is one of the ‘parasitos […] edaces’ that, like Actaeon’s dogs, will devour him ‘limb by limb’. Note the pun servus–cervus.

44 The Diana and Actaeon motif was frequently painted, for example by (in chronological order) Lucas Cranach the Elder (1518), Matteo Baldinucci (c. 1554), Jan Brueghel the Elder (1556–1559), Joseph Heintz the Elder (1590), and Titian (c. 1595). Then there is Benvenuto Cellini’s famous bronze lunette of Diane de Poitiers and Francois I as Diana and Actaeon at Fontainebleau.

45 Bruno, Eroici furori, 1.5, pp. 82–83.

46 Bruno, Eroici furori, 1.5, p. 83.

47 Bruno explains: ‘perchè l’anima essendo cosa divina, è naturalmente non serva, ma signora della materia corporale, viene a conturbarsi ancor in quel che voluntariamente serve al corpo’ [because the soul by nature is divine, it is not the servant, but the mistress of corporeal matter, and there is even more shaken in who willingly serves the body]: Eroici furori, 1.5, p. 83 (my emphasis and translation).

48 Arthur Henkel and Albrecht Schöne, Emblemata: Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart: Verlag J. B. Metzler, 1967; rept. 1996), cols 1755–58.

49 ‘[L]’amor divino non aggreva, non trasporta il suo servo, cattivo, schiavo al basso, al fondo, ma l’inalza lo sulleva, il magnifica sopra qual si voglia libertade’: Eroici furori, 2.2, p. 120.

50 Walter R. Davis, ‘Actaeon in Arcadia’, Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, 2 (1962), 95–110; Michael J. B. Allen, ‘The Chase: The Development of a Renaissance Theme’, Comparative Literature, 20 (1968), 301–12.

51 John M. Steadman, ‘Falstaff as Actaeon: A Dramatic Emblem’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 14 (1963), 231–44; Leonard Barkan, ‘Diana and Actaeon: The Myth as Synthesis’, English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980), 317–53; Roy Eriksen, ‘Falstaff at Midnight: The Metamorphosis of Myth’, in Contexts of Renaissance Comedy, ed. by Janet Clare and Roy Eriksen (Oslo: Novus Press, 1997), pp. 114–34.

52 The very first English emblem book was Samuel Daniel’s 1585 work The Worthy Tract of Paulus Jovius (a translation of Paulo Giovio’s Imprese). But, like Bruno’s work, this edition was not illustrated with woodcuts or engravings.

53 For further Actaeon emblems, see Henkel and Schöne, Emblemata, cols 1622–23.

54 Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus: A– and B–texts (1604, 1616), ed. by David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), IV.ii.50–53.

55 William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, ed. by T. W. Craik (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), V.v.3–15 (emphases added).

56 Barkan, ‘Diana and Actaeon’, 352n.

57 See Eriksen, The Forme of Faustus Fortunes, pp. 68–71.

58 See my analysis of this speech in ‘Falstaff at Midnight’, 128–30.

59 Carrier, Writing about Visual Art, p. 14; Goodman, Problems and Projects, p. 142.

60 We are reminded of Hayles’s argument in ‘Print is Flat, Code is Deep’, where she puts the contrast between a flat text and deep codes. However, I would also like to emphasize the patterned nature of that ‘flat’ surface and its relation to the spatial, or three- or multidimensionality produced by codes.

61 Tomàs Maldonado, Reale e virtuale (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1992). Maldonado traces virtuality back to Alberti and the codificaton of perspective rules.

62 For this term see Speaking Pictures: The Visual/Verbal Nexus of Dramatic Performance, ed. by Virginia Mason Vaughan and others (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010), pp. 11–22.

63 Cf. Carrier, Writing about Visual Art, p. 14.



Citing this article:
Eriksen, Roy. “Real and Virtual Illustration: Visual Memory and Early-Modern Speaking Pictures.” Journal of Illustration Studies (December 2013). 19 Dec 2018. <>