College of LAS « Illinois

A Second Renaissance

Web project brings new life to old books.

Emblem detail

Many emblems were drawn as ovals—an allusion to eggs as the source of life. Religious themes of all kinds were popular because of people's concern for salvation and their fascination with gore. Skeletons, grim reapers, and scenes of amputations and bloodlettings were common.

One never knows what will tickle the public's reading fancy. Today it is romance novels and self-improvement books. But a few centuries ago, during the Renaissance, it was a brainteaser-type of art form called emblem books. The books were a cross between poetry and hieroglyphics that some scholars have dubbed history's first picture books. Although largely forgotten today except by scholars, they were the rage throughout Europe for three centuries, following the invention of the printing press.

"They are addictive if you like puzzles," says Mara Wade, an associate professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures who got hooked on the books in the 1980s, when she stumbled upon them in the U of I Library. "True emblems, like the ones in these books, are not merely symbols; they are riddles or allegories. Their images and motto carry a secret message—usually a moral message—that requires a firm grasp of the Bible, classics, philosophy, and history to decode. Those published as part of books are more intriguing still because each is accompanied by a poem that adds another facet to the riddle."

Photo of  Mara Wade

The images alone are heaped in allusion. Illustrations drawn in ovals are references to eggs, the symbols of life. The preponderance of skeletons and grim reapers allude to death. Arms extending from heaven…well, you guess. As the popularity of emblem books faded, the art was reborn as advertising logos. In a way, emblem books gave us the Nike Swoosh.

With many of these books now threatened by deterioration, Wade is leading an ambitious effort to preserve and increase access to these rare books. She and six other researchers from LAS and the U of I Library are digitizing the books and employing information technology to build a searchable database that can be accessed via the Internet. Their project—Digital Emblematica—is part of a larger preservation effort called the Digital Imaging and Media Technology Initiative, which is establishing standards and developing Web-based tools to allow easier access to rare materials of all kinds. In a twist of fate that Wade loves, they are using the tools from the latest revolution in mass communication to preserve products that owe much of their original popularity to the previous communications revolution.

An enterprising Florentine lawyer named Andres Alciati was the first to collect emblems into a book, which he published in 1531, just as printing presses were spreading throughout Europe, sparking the craze that lasted until the early 1800s. UI has more than 600 emblem books, with the oldest dating to 1540. Many are one-of-a-kind, such as the library's prized watercolor book Emblemes Et Devises Morales, published in the 1600s. Of the thousands of emblem books published throughout Europe during the art's heyday, nearly all were black and white woodcuts or engravings, which were well suited to reproduction on printing presses. Watercolor emblem books had to be hand colored.

Two to four centuries later, the surviving emblem books are fragile and must be shielded from everything from the ultraviolet rays in sunlight and standard light fixtures to the salts and oils in one's hands. UI's emblem books are usually locked in specially lit, climate-controlled rooms and seldom handled. The Rare Book Room relaxes the rules with replicas, but still keeps close tabs on them.

Wade's project is focusing on digitizing the library's 80 German emblem books. Containing more than 10,000 imprints, the collection is the largest in the world. Her concern for the welfare of this unique collection prompted her to investigate digitizing the books as far back as the early 1990s. At the time, she was envisioning a CD project. When the Web burst on the scene, she immediately switched media, recognizing an opportunity to reach a worldwide audience. The growth of the Web also opened up avenues for funding.

"The project really took off around 1998 because funding agencies also began to recognize the potential of the Internet for aiding scholarship in the humanities as well as the sciences," says Wade. UI was the ideal place, too, because of its strong track record in software engineering (it was the birthplace of the Web browsers that led to Netscape™) and its groundbreaking experiments in distance learning. The reputation of the University's languages and literatures professors and the size and quality of the library's emblem collection only cemented the University's appropriateness for the project.

With help from a steady stream of graduate students plus colleagues, this team began employing software and establishing the types, quality, and structure of descriptive information that would be applied to each emblem, motto, and poem, then applying those descriptors, which are called metadata. These latter steps laid the foundation for databases so that it would be possible to search within and across books for recurring themes. Most existing rare book websites are little more than electronic replications of printed pieces.

"Think of the Internet without search engines," says Wade. "Finding the information you are looking for is a matter of luck. You click and click until you stumble upon it. What we're trying to do is establish standards for cataloging rare books on the Web so people can find what they are looking for as well as discover new information."

Establishing "best practices" for scanning the images is another part of the project. Wade recently received permission to remove the watercolor book from storage—for one hour—so that it could be photographed as part of the preservation project. The book's leather binding is cracked, and many of its pages are rippled from water damage, making it risky to place on a flatbed scanner, which is the preferred method of digitizing. Each page must be photographed individually—using only the illumination provided by the Rare Book Room's UV filtering lights.

Some 140 images from two books are already posted to the website that, while only a prototype, is ready for searching and browsing. The poems and mottos have been updated from old to modern German so that they are consistent in grammar, punctuation, and spelling (which, apparently, was not a concern in past centuries). Because the site is aimed at scholars, none will be translated into English. (Scholars prefer the original language.)

Emblem graphic

Even if you aren't fluent in German, check out the site. You, too, may be smitten. Try deciphering the significance of the crayfish in Emblemes Et Devises Morales. Hint: crayfish scuttle back and forth.

Answer: This emblem is a commentary on life: for every one step you take forward, you take two steps back.

See more emblems.

By Holly Korab
Photos by Thompson-McClellan

Summer 2002