CÆSARE RIPA: Reflective Iconology

My readers tend to ask me the difficult questions. Such as  Who Is to Blame?  What Is to Be Done?  When the Book is due?  Could I please elaborate in more details on when all these random scribblings will finally proceeded to the exploration of the Mirror of the Futures, as it was promised?

Speaking about the book, I should, perhaps, be more precise: probably, never. Similar to my other long-running project, aman-geld, the major goal of this one is also not the end result (be it in form of book, or any other format), but a never-ending process. Of self-transformation, that is, which by definition consists of endless efforts to pull yourself out of the quagmire of own stupidity ignorance (a hopelessly vain attempt, as it turns out).

Yes, I should, perhaps, describe more explicitly my own take-aways, those ‘before & afters’ that I experience during these reflections, the task I tend to neglect. Ironically, I would be the main beneficiary of such explicit descriptions – but see the lines above, about the futility of self-transformative efforts.

Alright, the whining aside, today I’d like to talk about the Iconology, once very famous and today nearly forgotten book, written by Cesare Ripa (and of course, about the mirrors, in this book and around).

This is is the cover of the second edition of Iconologia, how it is called in Italian, published in Venice in 1645:

The author is presented as Cesare Ripa Perugino, because he was born in Perugia, but by now this second part of his surname is rarely mentioned.

This edition is of mid 17th century, but the book was originally published more than 50 years before that, its first edition, published in Rome, dates back to 1593, so technically speaking the is the book of the 16th century (although it became amazingly successful in the next one).

It is because of this success, the later editions also included the portrait of its author, who also became knighted for this publication, becoming Cavalier of Saints Maurice and Lazarus (although some historians are doubtful that these are very accurate depiction of him).

We know quite a lot about the later years of Cesare Ripa, but little is know about his yearly life. Even the date of his birth is known very approximately, sometimes between 1555 and 1560.  Apparently, in this early twenties he had to be living in Rome, where he was hired by the cardinal Antonio Maria Salviati, who was summoned to Rome in 1583 from France, where he served as a bishop in the monastery of Saint-Papoul, a small town in the southern France.

Again, we know something about this cardinal, but not much (or at least, not much is available in the public domain, I am sure Vatican may have more detailed records of its members).  This is his portrait (the best I could find) and the coat of arms:

Speaking about the cardinals, it’s perhaps worth to mentioned the Popes, too. This was, of course, the time when the Roman Popes ruled the world, perhaps, not directly, but Omni Potens.

Yet however powerful were these folks, their rulings also tended to be short. I didn’t check if this is the record, but Cesare Ripa managed to witness the ruling of 13 (thirteen!) Popes during his life!

Being a kid, he may not remember the Popes Pius IV and V, otherwise not particularly remarkable, but his youth and ‘studentship’, as we would call it now, went in the times of Gregory XIII, the Pope we all know even if we don’t, since we still live using the calendar he commissioned to developed (and the one we know under his name, Gregorian).

It was, in fact, him who summoned the cardinal Salviati, who was tasked to also supervise the activities of the Vatican’s growing collections of art and antiquities.

Now, English wikipedia says that Ripa was hired as a ‘cook’ in the house of Salviati, but the Italian version mentioned the name ‘trinciante’,  ‘the cutter’ (of meat) and in a broader sense, a butler. Perhaps, it was one of his duties, too, but apparently he had a chance to do many other things, too. Some sources indicate that before coming to Rome he studied in the L’Academia Intronati in Sienna, which means he had to be literate and knowledgable man.     

He had to also have plenty of free time and generous support of the cardinal, to be able to first prepare his book, and then publish it.

What, exactly, was this book? In today’s language, the book would be called a dictionary with pictures, or more precisely, a compendium of pictures with the interpretations. Its full name is Iconologia overo Descrittione Dell’imagini Universali cavate dall’Antichità et da altri luoghi, ie, literally a collection of images (= icons, logos, symbols) of (nearly) everything in the world.

In a nutshell, what Cesare Ripa did is he looked through a large variety of sources, from old Egyptian, Greek and Roman authors to the more modern (Christian) writers, and then selected and described several hundreds of ‘concepts’. He also described how these concepts are usually depicted, and for some he also provided illustration.

Picture worth a thousand words, so I better simply show the example of an article from this book; let’s take the very first one, Abondanza:

This is a fairly typical example of the article (we can also see it as a template). The text describes the “concept” (in this case, Abundance), supported by a fairly large number of quotations from all kinds of authors, which support the description and int turns legitimizes it.

Some of the articles also have illustrations – like in this case we see a typical image of Abundance, presented as a woman with an appropriate Cornucopia in one hand and an assortment of agricultural products in another.

I don’t have the exact stats for the very first edition, but the second edition of the book already contained nearly seven hundreds of such ‘concepts’, with about 150 of them illustrated. Interestingly, but these concepts were arranged in the book in an alphabetical order (a growing fashion of the Renaissance times), which makes the book easy to use, yet also results in some amusing encounters on the books’ pages.  

This book was not a unique edition per se; Cesare Ripa himself mentioned a few similar editions he used when working on this own book, including the Hieroglyphica, by Piero Valeriano Bolzani, published in 1556:

or even earlier edition, Emblemata, by Andrea Alciato, published in 1531.

And if to speak in a broader sense, we can track this genre to the Hierarchia Celesti, that was compiled by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the 5th century AD, and that contained the description of the Heavens and all the divine creatures inhabiting them, including their pictorial representations.

But even if not being totally original, the book by Ripa was still amazing for the time, both in terms of the amount of the materials gathered in one place, and also due to the large number of illustrations.  The first edition was published in 1593 (already under the reign of another Pope, Clement VIII, who took the papal seat in 1592, after three other Popes before him died within less than a year, including  Pope Urban VII, the shortest ruling Pope in history; his reign lasted less than two weeks.)

The second, revised, improved and extended edition was published in 1603, a year after the death of the cardinal Salviati (the first book was dedicated to him.)  Fortunately for Ripa, he was able to stay in the house of the cardinal’s relatives (and so the second edition is dedicated to some Lorenzo Salviati.

The book quickly became very popular, and numerous editions appeared already during the life Cesare Ripa (including, apparently, the ‘pirate’ ones – such as the Venetian edition I mentioned in the beginning; Venice was in the state if not war, then a very tense conflict with Rome, and the publication could occur only due to the high demand of the reading public, willing to have the book in their homes.

The book was also translated to many European languages, and soon became widely available in all corners of Europe, from England to Russia (apparently, Russian Peter the Great saw the book during his stay in the Netherlands, and it was one of the first books he ordered to translate to Russian after his return to Moscow):

Speaking about the Netherlands, it’s interesting to see how quickly the book had been transformed, from a mere descriptive source, to a prescriptive tome, when its illustrations were treated as a template of how certain figures or allegories had be to depicted.

Take, for example, the Clio by Vermeer; painted in 1666, it follows literally the description of how the muse of history, Clio, is supposed to be portrayed.


The book would be important source itself, because of the large amount of interesting information it contained. But now, and especially due to its huge popularity among all educated people of the 17-18th centuries, and its numerous editions and translations (and also the growing number of illustrations in them) it becomes a hyper-important artifact for any diligent researcher of ‘mirrors in art’ such as myself. I don’t have any resources to do it now, but in principle it would be a great project, to track the evolution of the concept of ‘mirror’ over time, using the editions of Cesare Ripa’s Iconology.

To cut this story short, I eventually bumped into an old edition of this book, kindly digitized by Google and available online.  It is till in Old Italian (and I don’t know very well even the modern version of the language), so I was not really able to read it. Yet I couldn’t resist thumbing through its yellowed pages scrolling the screen in search of the mirrors.

I didn’t know what to expect, and if there would be any mirrors at all, and what ‘concepts’ would they illustrate, if yes. In a way, it was a crystal clear situation of ‘before’, and I regret I didn’t make any bets beforehand, even if only for myself – like, how many mirrors I expected to see, or what kind of mirrors these would be etc.

In this sense the situation ‘after’ would be also pretty strait-forward and easy to present: what I need to do is to basically show all the mirrors I found in this book:

In a way this posting is indeed not much more than a list of all the mirrors (and a few other ‘collateral’ objects) I found, perhaps with some minimal commentary.

I was lucky enough to find another edition of the book, an English translation published in 1709, more than a century after the original book; it wasn’t the first translation of the Ripa’s work in English, but to my knowledge, it was the first where the original illustrations had been re-drawn, and also arranged differently.

This English edition (you can look at the .pdf here) has much shorter descriptions, and hardly any quotes to support them, plus small illustrations are arranged by four per page. As a result, it looks much lighter and easier to read, compared to a very dense layout of the original volume. This is just an example of the page from the English version: 

Notice the order of the concepts (or ‘Moral Emblems’, how they are translated) is original, according to the alphabetical order of the Italian names; and in general the translation is made very carefully, including the ‘visual translation’ of the original illustration into the new style.  The front page mention the name of the illustrator, some I.Fuller, but I didn’t find any details about him.

This new book has helped me to find a few new mirrors (or rather to spot the ones I missed in the Italian book), and there were also some cases when I ‘lost’ the mirrors (they turned to be not mirrors). It was an interesting hunt for the mirrors, and now I can share my trophies.

**** Ammaestrammento / Instruction ****

This is the case of the mirror that I initially missed in the Italian version; I thought it’s a mace of some sort. The title, Ammaestramento, didn’t tell me anything, I found only one translation, something like ‘dressure of the horses’. I later figured that it is likely close to contemporary “addestramento”, training.

I will be also copying here the English descriptions:

The motto (barely visible in the English version, but readable in the Italian one), Inspice (et) Cautus Eris, can be translated as Contemplate (or Observe, Inspect) Yourself to Become Protected, so the mirror here served as a tool for self-training.  Notice, that the mirror is called ‘Glass’ (and it’s a convex one). 

“The Glass intimates that our Actions should be accommodated to those of other Men, to render ’em praisworthy; as the Motto declares, which advises to cast an Eye upon our own Faults, so that finding Blemishes in ourselves, we may endeavour to clear ourselves of ’em.”

Basically, it’s a call for Self-Reflection, or Self-Criticism, leading to Self-Improvement, and the mirror is indeed a very useful tool for the purpose.

**** Apprehensiva / Apprehension ****

The lady is to display Apprehension, in other words, (Self) Understanding; she holds a mirror (a flat one, by the way) in one, and a chameleon (!) in another. The mirror is a symbol of learning and understanding, because of its capacity to imprint (=reflect) the things around, thus absorbing them: [T]he Glass because the imprints on herself, and makes all the hears and sees her own.    

**** Astronomia / Astronomy ****

Here is my mistake – I thought first that she also holds a round convex mirror, but it was wrong. They started to use lenses (in telescopes) only about hundred years later, and in this case it’s astrolabe.

**** Bellezza / Beauty ****

This was not a mistake, I gathered that the object that man holds in his hand is not mirror, but since the picture was to illustrate the Beauty, I decided to learn what is it.  First, I discovered that this is not a man, but a woman, whose head is in the cloud, and whose naked body we are not supposed even to see, due to the shining Radiance behind her (which strongly resembles Saint Mary’s aura).

In one hand she holds a Lilly, and a Ball and Compasses in another; the explanation is not trivial, and related to the Measure and Proportion that the Beauty is defined by… but in any case, the mirrors are not used here in any way. 

**** Chiarezza / Clearness ****

Again, I understood that this is not a mirror, but the Sun in her hand, but decided to take it too. As I wrote in this blog, many times, in fact, the mirrors had been seen (and used) in the past as the replicas of the Sun, and exactly because they could reflect its light. And the light was able to clear, and clarify things around, physically and mentally.

**** Contento / Contentment ****

The young gentleman is intended to symbolize Contento, or Content – in other words, (Self) Satisfaction, or (Self) Sufficiency. He holds a Bowl full of Money, and Jewels, and also a Mirror (called here Looking-Glass). “[I]f a Man be ignorant of his own Good, he cannot be content“.

**** Dottrina / Learning ****

In case of Apprehension the figure was holding a mirror, but for some reason it’s not the case for Learning (or Dottrina in Italian).  The lady with wide-open arms holds a Scepter with the Sun, is it doesn’t reflect but induces the light, to combat the the Darkness of Ignorance.

I like the design of his devices, the Sun with a Handle (we somewhat similar design solution in the engravings of Hans Sebald Beham).

**** Diffegno / Designing ****

This one I also missed initially (partly because I didn’t get the meaning of the figure – I didn’t recognize ‘design’ in Diffegno, but also because it looked more like a drawing board). The English edition did help me to catch this bird mirror, mostly because it gain new design there, too.   It is a rare case when the new illustrator changed not only the shape of the mirror, but also its type, it became a convex one.

Also interesting is a the explanation of the mirror’s role: it is aimed at boosting Imagination! “the Glass, a good Imagination requisite.”

**** Fidelta / Fidelity ****

Again my mistake: I thought that Fidelity holds a small mirror in her hand, but no, it’s a Seal.

Since I started with mistakes and omissions, mention a few more:

**** Imitatione / Imitation ****

This not so much a mistake, but a wrong expectation; I would expect to see a mirror in the hands of Imitation, but she holds a Mask.  Yet in the English version the monkey may well look at a mirror.

**** Fraude / Fraud ****

The same story with Fraud: I wouldn’t be surprised to see a mirror here, but she again holds a mask (but notice the tail!  – it is this tail that brings this image close to the depiction of a Sinful Woman aka Witch, who often does have a mirror – look at the painting by the Master of Girard, for example.)

Back to the mirrors

**** Operatione Perfetta / Perfect Work ****

The lady of Perfect Work also got her mirror (a Miroir in the English version, in a French way), and here how it is explained:

“The Glass wherein we see no real Images, is a Resemblance of our Intellect; wherein we fancy many Ideas of Things that are not seen; but may be practis’d by Art, by the Help of material Instruments, which the Square denotes”.  The mirror is here the platform for the imaginary, the ideal, and thus perfect.

**** Prudenza / Prudence ****

The figure of Prudence with a mirror is one of the most common visual memes in art history, and it would be expected that Ripe make his version with a mirror, too.  Prudence is a complex concept, and its meaning very much depends on a particular cultural setting – it may be interpreted as wisdom, but could also be seen a mere common sense, or as a careful attitude to thinking (and to doing things).

It’s interesting, for example, that they decided to depict a dear (Stag) next to the lady – because of its chewing, that should be working as a hint to us, as “we should ruminate before resolving on a Thing”. The emphasis is on careful, ‘think twice’ kind of attitude.

Two-faced head is also a typical symbol of Prudence, as is the Arrow with the Snake (here called Fish).  All these symbols would be very interesting to explore too, but I am here after the mirrors.

“The Miroir bids us examine our Defects by knowing ourselves” says the description, again positioning this technology as a tool for (self) learning about your Self.

I would like to spend a bit more time at some point later to research the depiction of the Prudence and her Mirrors; so far I met this symbolism in the early work by Bellini and the in the (alleged) Prudence of Hans Baldung, but I have many more examples to reflect upon.

**** Scienza / Science ****

The mirror is a important attribute of the Science as well, and helps in the following way:

“The Glass denotes Abstraction, that is to say, by Accidents, which the Sense comprehends; the Understanding comes to know their Nature, as we, by feeling the accidental Forms of Things in a Glass, consider their Essence.”

This is very Buddhist understanding of the mirrors; there they are also used to elevate over the sensorial, natural impact on us of all the things around, and achieve a more rational and clean comprehension, the essence.

The English edition shows the ‘Wings on her Head’, and the Italian one doesn’t; but it’s not an invention, the illustrators of the English volume made a fairly accurate copy and rarely added something completely new (they would have to change the text then).

The issue is that there are a few articles in the book by Cesare Ripa that had two (and in one case even three!) illustrations.  Here is the second one for Science, where we see these Wings:

In general these Wings are to show the elevating nature of the exercise, but the translation is very short, and doesn’t elaborate on this issue.

What is also interesting is the design of mirror on this second plate: its mirror surface looks almost like a triangle, but I guess it’s just an effort to show the view from a side (although I would still reserve some chance for ‘triangle mirrors’ to exist, too).

The last mirror is also very special:

**** Origine d’Amore / Origin of Love ****

Functionally speaking this is not a mirror but a magnifying glass, or a lens, although its design repeats the one of true mirrors (and it’s named Mirror, too). Using this mirror/lens, the lady lightens the Torch (of Love, apparently). “Sic in corde facit amor incendium” means “Thus in the Heart Love is Inflamed”.

“A young Beauty with a round Miroir, expos’d to the Sun, whose Reflexion sets Fire on the Flambeau”.

This confirms, one more time, a deep and intimate (sic!) connection of the Sun with the Mirrors (both literally, as the source of light, and metaphorically, as the symbol of Life/Love/Sex/Power).  

The description refers to this connection one more time, explicitly:

“The Sight of her confirms our Belief of her Beauty, represented by the Sun and Glass, just as the Rays of a Miroir, expos’d to the Sun, light a Torch: so Mens Eyes, meeting with those of a beatiful Woman, a Flame is soon kindled in the Heart.”

A few random observations:

**** Libidine / Lust (Luxury) ****

The Lust (that is transformed into Luxury in the English volume) does not have any mirror (but does have a crocodile).

****Vanita / Vanity ****

Vanity was, perhaps, the biggest surprise for me; her depiction as a woman with a mirror is so typical that I only expected to see it here, too.  However, I didn’t, she is completely mirror-less (unless this tray on her head is a mirror of some sort).


There are many more interesting illustrations, some of them depicting more obvious and familiar concepts, yet others illustrating very bizarre and unusual ideas (for us, at least). See, for instance, Philosophy and Eternity.

But I don’t have any time now to explore all of them in any depth, and even less, to write about all these interesting matters.  There are people who are doing it professionally, so leave it to them.

As a way of short summary, I can put here the collage with all the mirrors I found (I place here only ‘Italian’ ones), but this time with a verbal, semantic layer as well:

What is the most interesting in this simple visualization?

First of all, its sheer diversity; not only of the mirrors themselves (although that too, it’s amazing to see so many different designs), but also how many ideas the mirrors are connected with, directly or indirectly.

The second insight is that despite all this diversity, the general image of a mirror, so to speak, is very positive. We don’t see mirrors in any of the traditionally negatively colored concepts (e.g., Vanity, or Lust), and instead see the linked with positive phenomenas or personal traits, such as Science, Learning, Prudence or Content.

I wonder how specifically Italian is such a perception; at this very time, the end of the 16th – beginning of the17th century, we see a very different picture in the Northern Europe, where mirrors had been still associated with the ‘dark forces’ or ‘sinful practices’.

Of course, there are more more interesting observations and discoveries that could be made by tracking the evolution of these concepts over time, and the book with all its later editions is an excellent platform for such an exploration.  I didn’t have a chance to indulge in any systematic research, so below are just a few random illustrations, of ‘other mirrors’ from later editions.

As I wrote already, the book became incredibly popular, and was published in ever more lavish edition. One of them, made around mid-18 century, contained five (5!) separate volumes (I think, there is contemporary remake of this edition, too):


On the very cover (front page) of its fifth volume we see a lady with a large convex mirror:

I don’t know what concept she illustrates; perhaps, the very Iconology itself?

I found a few (but not all) illustrations with mirrors from this edition; notice, how close they are to the original versions, the only difference is their realistic background, and more refined figures in general:

The same edition also contains some new illustrations that I haven’t seen in the earlier version, for example, this (pretty striking!) illustration of Paganism:

It’s interesting in itself, but also as an indication that there may be more (‘new’) mirrors in this book as well, the issue to be further explored.

The next illustration is interesting, but not very clear to me; I found it only ‘orphan’, without the description and any clear attribution (there is a chance that it may not even belong the ‘Cesare Ripa’ family of concepts.

In the middle of 18th century Johann Georg Hertel, a German author (and also a publisher, to my knowledge) prepared a significantly reworked edition, now known as the ‘Hertel Edition of Ripa’s Iconologia’:

Not only this edition is richly decorated (by the engravings of Gottfried Eichler the Younger), but text was seriously revised, too. After 150 years since the original publication many texts required some ‘politically correct’ re-interpretation, and Hertel (a protestant) made special ‘framing’ of the original description of Ripa (a catholic).

Unfortunately, I still didn’t see this edition myself (I didn’t find it online, and also can’t get the hard copy), so I would postpone any serious discussion for later;  I just show one example of the new etchings (in this case, of Time), that happened to have mirrors:

The Time didn’t have the illustration in the original volume by Ripa, but it has a lengthy article, with many quotes from various authors. Hertel significantly truncated the text, now looking like a short digest:

However short, it still introduces not one, but two (!) mirrors, somehow related to the Time: one held by the old man himself, and another, by two putties, symbolizing the Past and the Future:

With time, some colorful editions appeared too, inevitably. Some of them had just colorized versions of the original illustrations:

Yet others also produced entirely original versions, that more (or less) closely followed the initial designs:

Again, I don’t have all these editions, so my knowledge about the ‘mirrors’ in them is very scarce at the moment.  I assume they could also start introducing new mirrors, as shown by this cover of one of the later editions:

By the way, this lady is indeed the Iconology herself:

I hope that I will be able to peruse at least at some of these editions, and will be happy to write an update to the posting.  Today I will finish with this richly decorative desk that once belonged to Luis XV (so called Bureau du Roi)

It’s a remarkable (and remarkably posh) piece of furniture, made around 1760s.  What is interesting in the context of this story is that it is decorated by the imagery from Cesare Ripa’s Iconology:

PS: You can also see the slideshow of this posting here




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