Cesare Ripa, Iconology’s father and ancestor of the “form and info” (to be discovered online)

Albrecht Dürer,

Albrecht Dürer, “Nemesis (The Great Fortune)”, 1502, engraving on laid paper, 33.2 x 23 cm, National Gallery of Canada

Amongst the roots of the relationship between form and information in art, there is to be pinpointed the book “Iconologia” (1593) by Cesare Ripa. The full title is: “Iconology, or description of the universal images drawn from antiquity and from other places by Cesare Ripa from Perugia, a work not less useful than needed to poets, painters, sculptors in order to represent the virtues, vices, affections and human passions” (Iconologia, overo descrittione dell’imagini universali cavate dall’antichità et da altri luoghi da Cesare Ripa Perugino, opera non meno utile, che necessaria à Poeti, Pittori, Scultori, per rappresentare le virtù, vitij, affetti, et passioni humane). The book offers the widest repertoire of allegorical images taken in the visual arts.

The “Iconologia” by Cesare Ripa had an amazing fortune: five editions published during his lifetime, eighteen posthumously in the seventeenth century, fifteen in the seventeenth century. And it marks the modern revival of interest in the world of symbols and images which, combined with the word of men of letters, they turned into a new language.

Cesare Ripa wrote in his preface: “The images made to mean a different thing from what you see with the eye have no more reliable or more universal rule that the imitation of the memories that are found in books, in Medals and carved in marble industry by the Latins and Greeks , or those who were most ancient inventors of this artifice. But generally it seems that those who labors out of this imitation make a mistake: because of ignorance, or too much presumption, which were two spots are very abhorrent to those who wait with their efforts to purchase some praise”.

The great success of the book is also given to its changeable structure, which has allowed the continual rewriting and adaptation, as if it were an internet data base. It became over time a reference point for visual artists of different eras and different countries. Even in the twentieth century (thanks to the studies by Male, Gombrich and Panowsky) the book was evaluated as a tool to interpret frescoes, paintings and sculptures from both philological and cultural points of view.

The full original italian text can be found on the web site of the Gallica, bibliothèque numérique de la Bibliothèque nationale de France.

March 5, 2018