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In recent years, scholars in many disciplines have recognized that the literally thousands of engravings, wood blocks, and etchings in emblem books constitute an unparalleled source not only for the study of daily life of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but also for extraordinary insights into what the intellectuals of the times viewed as a necessary adjunct to heraldry, social life, politics, philosophy, and moral behavior. The English emblem books scanned for this project are cultural artifacts frequently used in the analysis of reading practices, printing history, Elizabethan popular culture, the use of allegory, and the relationship of word to image.
An emblem combines a picture and text for the striking presentation of a message. For example, an emblem titled In astrologos alongside a picture of Icarus may at first seem mystifying, but the epigram beneath the picture explains that astrologers like Icarus get into trouble because they are overreaching their human limitations. The emblem text concludes that humans should not inquire into the mysteries that God has reserved for himself.
In an exhibit of Penn State's emblem books in 1993, Daniel Russell, head of the French and Italian department at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote that "these compact little compositions could be displayed on the reverse of medals, in festival decor, on costumes, and in all kinds of programs of political propaganda or religious pageantry. They were considered so effective in communicating pithy public relations messages that their composition was actually part of the curriculum of the upper classes in Jesuit schools in the first half of the seventeenth century. Emblem books provided moralizing and explanatory commentary that made these figures easier to read when they were encountered in the commerce of everyday life." --Sandra Stelts, Special Collections, The Pennsylvania State University Libraries
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