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date: 08 March 2021

Word and Image in the English Renaissance

Abstract and Keywords

The rich and expanding rhetorical universe of the English Renaissance annexed the expressive possibilities of painting and the plastic arts using a variety of figures and tropes. These—ekphrasis (intense description), blason (anatomizing description), paragone (the contest between the arts), and emblems and imprese (formal verbal-visual symbols)—allowed English writers to press the visual into the service of the verbal, creating powerful rhetorical tools and distinctive literary expression. This article describes the development of these verbal-visual tools from the late medieval period through the early seventeenth century by Italian art theorists and in the exemplary works of Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare.

Keywords: Renaissance, emblem, word and image, ekphrasis, blason, paragone, impresa, imprese, pictorialism, iconoclasm


In his revised Arcadia (ca. 1585), Philip Sidney pictures a comic moment:

Basilius … having combd and trickt himself more curiously, then at any time fortie winters before, comming where Zelmane was, … and loth to loose the precious fruite of time, he presented himselfe unto her, falling downe upon both his knees, and holding up his hands, as the old governesse of Danaë is painted, when she sodainly saw the golde[n] shoure, O heave[n]ly woma[n], or earthly Goddesse (said he) let not my presence be odious unto you, nor my humble suit seeme of small weight in your eares.1

Basilius, the foolish senex who little realizes that his daughter Philoclea is the object of the beautiful Amazon Zelmane’s attentions, does not detect that “Zelmane” is the disguise of the heroic young Prince Pyrocles. That Basilius is in love with a cross-dressed man (in a plot familiar from Shakespeare to Some Like It Hot) occasions the usual comedy of errors, but Sidney thickens the generic brew with his Danaë reference. In the myth, Danaë’s father is told by an oracle that he will be killed by the son of his daughter; accordingly he incarcerates her in a tower to keep her childless and avoid this fate, but Zeus appears to Danaë in a shower of gold and impregnates her with her son, Perseus. Basilius, too, is responding to an oracle prompting him to seclude his daughters, a protection penetrated, in less Zeus-like fashion, by Pyrocles and his cousin Musidorus (see Figure 1).

Word and Image in the English Renaissance

Figure 1 Abraham Bloemart, Danaë

(engraving on paper by Jacob Matham, ca. 1610; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

The Danaë incident was a popular theme in sixteenth-century art: it was painted by, among others, Titian, Tintoretto, Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi, and Goltzius, all of whom include a wizened maid (not mentioned in Ovid) who is reaching for or pointing at the falling shower, which is sometimes depicted as gold coins. It hardly matters which painted version of the myth Sidney is referring to—with his wide continental experience it is likely he saw more than one—because he refers here and elsewhere to pictures as if they were standard, easily recognized images. The rhetorical deployment of a well-known pictorial referent—by which he invokes a mental picture that is specified as a particular painting or type of painting—allows him to imply and emphasize quite a lot about the local situation in Arcadia. His prompt urges us to recall such a picture so that we can visualize the scene and decode the analogy between the Arcadian and the mythic narrative.

This deft, almost casual, allusion is not expanded upon or investigated, but instead works as a kind of shorthand for a culturally specific universe in which Ovidian stories are interpolated by Renaissance artists with grasping crones confronted with unexpected opportunities for gain. Basilius, analogized with the eager old woman whose active gesture (in the paintings) is always distinctively contrasted with the passive, exposed, often slumbering Danaë, is bathetically likened to the imposed, risible servant. She is greedily intent on the gold, not the Jovian miracle; likewise, Basilius’s December-May infatuation with Zelmane is unseemly and ridiculous in an elderly married king, whose Petrarchan gesture of supplication is debased by the comparison.

Sidney uses more than twenty such iconographic analogies in the revised Arcadia, almost all from classical mythology or history. This kind of referential pictorialism is joined by many more pictorial passages in which images are devised and heavily inventoried with thick descriptions that create, rather than simply refer to, pictures. His persistent use of verbs of display—show forth, figure forth, set forth, paint, represent, witness—in Arcadia indicates this pictorial intention. Deployed also by Skelton, Spenser, Shakespeare, and many more sixteenth-century writers, such pictorialism is one of an arsenal of tropes and figures by which the writer appropriates certain features of the visual or questions the distinctive and possibly competing properties of the verbal and the visual.

When Sidney defends poetry as “a perfect picture, able to strike, pierce, [and] possess the sight of the soul” above all other modes of human discourse, he notifies us of the radical proximity, in Renaissance thought, of the image and the word.2 This conjunction of categories perceived as ontologically distinct is at once wholly conventional and highly daring.3 Sidney’s classic formulation of poetry’s “feigned image” and “speaking picture” insists that the verbal can visually represent or “figure forth” its objects as well as, and indeed better than, pictorial or plastic representation. With this claim he collapses the distinction between the poet and the painter, between the ear and the eye. This was a bold move in the 1580s, one that would retrospectively become bolder still as iconophobic expressions of sectarian belief gathered force in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.4 And yet Sidney was merely philosophizing about an engrained trend in medieval and early Renaissance assumptions and practice, one inherited from a venerable and hardy classical tradition. In this tradition, from Plato onward, the pictorial in imaginative writing reflects the recognition that the human mind processes a great deal of received information in images. The pictorial claim by poetry, like the similarity of the verbal and the visual, is both commonplace and audacious: that poetry has the power to feign “notable images” is celebrated and reviled by Sidney’s contemporaries, but is never denied.

So venerable and so contentious a claim is a central feature of any literary discussion of the Renaissance image, and that Gordian verbal-pictorial conjunction in English Renaissance literature is the subject of this article. It is a conjunction that enjoins us to think about a complex and varied array of literary-pictorial practices, practices that were significantly determined by concurrent technological, philosophical, and theological developments. Within such a discussion might be found, for example, book illustrations and pictorial title pages, the rising art of natural-historical illustration, and the theological reaction to images in the form of iconophobia and iconoclasm, all of which have bearing on pictorialism as a literary practice; however, my discussion of early modern word and image relations is limited to the purely rhetorical practices and the consequences of specifically verbal-visual conjunctions in several tropes and figures: the paragone (the formal contention between poetry and painting), ekphrasis (the rhetorical figure of intense visual description), the blason (the pictorial list of parts), and emblems and imprese (conjoined words and real pictures). In each case, the symbiotic, contentious, and dangerous relation between the word and image is foregrounded and considered as a pragmatic and necessary relationship for the advancement of moral and philosophical understanding; simultaneously, each trope or figure explicitly or implicitly questions hierarchies of expression and knowledge.

Picta Poesis: Verbal-Visual Theory

The pictorial universe of late medieval and early modern England was both impoverished and rich. In mainly illiterate pre-Reformation England, the images in churches—wall paintings, statues, shrines, stained glass—depicted events in the Bible, and especially in the New Testament, that the congregation could not have read about for itself, either in Latin or English, but to which it could have direct access by looking. The advent of the printing press, and of Reformation disparagement of images, effaced the frescoed church walls and replaced them with illustrated Bibles, cheap emblem books, and later, illustrated ballads and broadsides that for the first time provided ready pictorial material to a non-elite audience that had never had access to illuminated manuscripts and had all but lost its devotional visual gallery (see Figure 2).5

Word and Image in the English Renaissance

Figure 2 Bernard Salomon, The Fall of Eve (Métamorphose Figurée, Lyon, 1557)

(The Bodleian Libraries, the University of Oxford, Douce B 361 [1], sig.A8v).

Developments in the theory and techniques of painting in France and Italy, and the simultaneous boom, both domestic and continental, in illustrated books, affected later sixteenth-century English thinking: the first emblem-books were introduced to a general readership and the culture of imprese to elite, courtly actors in the reign of Elizabeth; broadside sheets and cheap pamphlets with crude woodcuts were on the market, especially in the later sixteenth century, and continental artworks using almost miraculous chiaroscuro and linear perspective were being brought to a country whose vernacular drawing style was inherited from manuscript illumination.6 Learned treatises on painting and philosophical comparisons between pictures and poems, starting with Alberti, were translated throughout the sixteenth century. Even the decoration of houses enjoyed a proliferation of images in royal, noble, and even some lesser households, in the form of narrative tapestries from northern France and the Low Countries, walls ornamented with grisaille work and emblematic bosses, carved chimneypieces, decorated earthenware, and (late in the century) engravings from Amsterdam and other Dutch centers.7

Familiarity among major English writers like Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson with the patronly households of the aristocratic elite had an especially profound effect on English letters, and this access to works of art, illustrated books, and noble collections of art objects belonging to, for example, the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, whose tapestry collection was spectacular, to the Sidneys, and to the Earl of Leicester, shaped the way in which images were produced and represented in imaginative literature8 (see Figure 3).

Word and Image in the English Renaissance

Figure 3 Perseus and Andromeda (Johannes Postius, Germersheimii Tetrasticha in Ovidii Metam. lib. XV, Frankfurt, 1569) (woodcut, Virgilius Solis)

(The Bodleian Libraries, the University of Oxford, 4 P 20 [1] Art., facing p. 57).

Spenser’s Colin Clout articulates the vividness of such decorations (probably tapestries or frescoes with Ovidian themes) when he describes his otherwise rather disappointing visit to the Elizabethan court:

  • Love most aboundeth there.
  • For all the walls and windows there are writ
  • All full of love, and love, and love my deare,
  • And all their talke and studie is of it.9

In addition to domestic decorations, the emergence in the mid-sixteenth century of natural histories, herbals, apothecarial works, and natural-philosophical and medical treatises demanded a verbal-visual armamentarium that included precise visual description and pictorial illustration.

As encounters with images both crude and sophisticated ceased to be a prominent feature of spiritual life, they became a regular secular experience for a significant and growing proportion of the population. Literary reference to and use of images, in illustrations, by verbal rendition of the pictorial, or by allusion to well-known images or types of image, became in this period one of the most powerful rhetorical items in the early modern writer’s technical array.

That writing might attempt the pictorial, or have some ontological relationship to it, is an ancient idea. Although Plato says that poets are like painters, this is severe criticism: he associates the illusionistic qualities of poetry and painting with deception and lies and excludes them both from the republic because they are merely records of a perceived reality that is itself only imitative of the exalted realm of forms.10 Aristotle seems to liken plot in tragedy to design in painting, and dramatic character construction to distinctive portraiture.11 The Alexandrian and Roman writers misunderstood or overemphasized this analogy and also cited the famous formulation pictura loquens, poesia tacens, attributed by Plutarch to Simonides of Ceos: painting is mute poetry and poetry a speaking picture.12 Horace’s apparent verbal-visual aphorism ut pictura poesis (“as a painting is, so poetry”) is above all accountable for that pictorial-poetic analogy.13 In short, although the antique authority on which Renaissance theorists based their verbal-visual analogies and doctrine was insecure, the misprision was fortuitous.14 Like early modern misunderstanding of the linguistic structure of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which proved so fertile a ground for various moral and mystical symbolisms, the verbal-visual “tradition” of the ancients yielded to Renaissance theorists a fascinating sense of the modal likeness between the arts that poets would refer to and use repeatedly.


Samuel Daniel, speaking of the impresa and its codependently paired word and image (of which more below), says: “to represent unto the sence of sight the forme or figure of anything, is more natural in act, more com[m]on to al creatures then is hearing.”15 The figure that formalizes the debate between word and image is the paragone.

From the Italian paragonare (“to compare”), the paragone is an argument or contest between two or more arts, at first between visual arts like painting and sculpture, but later on between the arts and nature, and eventually between the visual and the verbal. Although the specialist meaning of the term itself was not yet in use in England,16 the most common and important paragone that concerns the literary in late Renaissance writing is the one between poetry and painting. Plato and his inheritors had asserted the primacy of vision in the hierarchy of the five senses; art theorists accordingly gave painting dominion over poetry, which must rely on the lesser, auditory sense. But medieval and Renaissance approaches to this valorization of the visual were not straightforward, partly because artists were regarded as mechanics and craftsmen, and visual technologies such as the invention of linear perspective, developments in pigment chemistry and improvements in woodcutting, etching, and engraving had not yet elevated them beyond this status; and partly because the rise in literacy from the early sixteenth century meant that the literary was more widely apprehended through the eye than it had been in the preliterate and more typically oral culture that preceded it.

The inherently dialogic paragone was particularly attractive to dramatists. John Lyly’s entertainment at Mitcham for Queen Elizabeth in 1598 is a paragone between a painter and a poet who are preparing for the arrival of the queen and quarreling about which art—a portrait or a panegyric poem—can best express her superlative virtues. The entertainment ends in an ontological coup when the queen herself, whose “perfection admitteth no coloring,” enters the scene and obviates both verbal and visual representations of her. They agree that “as hard it wilbe for thee to sett downe her vertues, as for mee her beawtye: the one not coming within the compass of Art, nor the other of imagination.”17 Her entrance is a coup that frames the epistemology of many of the verbal tropes discussed below.

Defending painting in the fifteenth century against charges of blasphemy and moral degeneracy not unlike those against poetry that Sidney dismisses in the sixteenth, Leon Battista Alberti had claimed that painting is the “mistress” of all the arts;18 Leonardo says in the Trattato della Pittura that poetry is man-made and inferior, an invention of language that renders nature in a version much more remote from the depicted object.19 But painters, more than any other creative artist, are nipoti a dio, the grandchildren of God, godlike in their ability to create a second nature with their use of light, space, and color.20 Sidney claims this power for poets when he says that “the heavenly maker of that maker … [has] set him beyond and over all the works of that second nature: which he showeth in nothing so much as in poetry.”21 The familiar snobbery against toil that dirties the hands gradually faded away, especially as new techniques and styles, and the artists themselves, were imported to England from the continent. At the same time, attacks on poetry as corrupt, full of false images that poison the reader, evoked by Sidney and others, attempts to justify a morally unimpeachable and powerful poetic art worthy of conveying the highest thoughts.22 The social taint in the visual arts diminished as confidence in English as a literary vehicle also gathered momentum.

Leonardo reflected current thinking about the relation of the visual arts to other disciplines, but his Trattato della Pittura was not published for more than a century. Other Italian art theorists were more directly influential in England, and their paragoni are not so absolute as Leonardo’s. Although Lodovico Dolce agrees with Leonardo that painting is nothing other than the imitation of nature and brings mankind closer to perfection and mastery, he allows that this is also true of poetry and poets: if the painter imitates the lines and colors detected by the eye, the poet can represent phenomena as they offer themselves to the intellect.23 And does the distinction matter, he asks, when painters and poets are always borrowing from each other? Raphael was inspired by Ariosto for his Vatican frescoes, and Michelangelo read Dante for the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.24 In 1584 Paolo Lomazzo was also conciliatory, annexing the traditional virtues of poetry as those of painting: “Nor yet does painting only express the outward Forms of things; but also discourseth certain inward passions—painting, and as it were, laying before our eyes the affections of the mind.”25 The debate about representability is especially germane to the study of a number of sixteenth-century English writers, who strove for something like painterliness but simultaneously recognized the difference “betwixt reporting and representing,” that “many things may be told which cannot be showed.”26 Painters and poets in the period consistently appropriated the strength of the rival art as their own.

Poets and painters used the representative strengths of their respective arts to make certain self-serving claims: Petrarchan poets could say that although the beauty of the beloved is blinding to mortal eyes, poetry safely transmits its idea; painters could, by the same token, argue that their powerful portrayals reproduce in the viewer the experience of the lover. This particular contention is exemplified in the revised Arcadia, when Prince Musidorus is introduced to the house and art gallery of the Arcadian grandee Kalander. Among the pictures he sees

a large table, which contained a comely old man, with a lady of midle age, but of excelle[n]t beautie; & more excelle[n]t would have bene deemed, but that stood betweene the[m] a yong maid, whose wonderfulnesse tooke away all beautie from her, but that, which it might seeme she gave her backe againe by her very shadow … it seemd the skill of the painter bestowed on the other new beautie, but that the beautie of her bestowed new skill of the painter.27

This ekphrasis of Basilius, Gynecia, and their daughter Philoclea is remarkable in telling us nothing definite about Philoclea’s beauty, much about its effect. Musidorus is arrested by the picture and might be expected to fall in love with Philoclea on the strength of its extraordinary power. But the case is stranger. His cousin Pyrocles afterward sees the picture while Musidorus explains it to him. At this point, Pyrocles is fascinated by the story but appears to make little of the painting itself. Later, however, he admits to Musidorus in the depths of his lovesickness, “[t]here were mine eyes infected, & at your mouth did I drinke my poison,”28 explaining that once he sought Kalander’s corroboration of Musidorus’s account, he was conquered by love. Although he sees the picture, it is only when he hears verbal accounts of Philoclea that he is afflicted by love. He is pining for a woman he has never seen and whose picture does not strike him as forcefully as his cousin’s words about her.

The Platonic intensity of this incident—one that prompts a prince to fall in love almost with an idea—is purely Sidneian, a sort of accommodation or compromise between the arts in which the painting itself and Sidney’s own initial narratorial ekphrastic description of it become the subject of a secondary explanation that yields calamitous consequences. It exemplifies Sidney’s own contention that poetry, precisely because it is ultimately abstract rather than embodied and concrete, can appeal to the mind rather than to the senses and produce such effects. This implicit paragone dismisses the painting itself (and possibly even the embodied Philoclea) from any functional role in affecting Pyrocles.

Sidney is also an adept formal paragonist, and he uses the figure in the Defence between poetry (or “fiction”) and personifications of philosophy and history, against whom he claims the joint powers of poetry and painting when he compares rich poetic images to the dry discourse of philosophy, which with “sullen gravity … [is] rudely clothed for to witness outwardly … contempt of outward things,” and ideal poetic forms to the musty and burdensome materials of history, “mouse-eaten records” that are “a wonder to young folks and a tyrant in table talk.”29 However, “[t]he peerless poet giveth a perfect picture … for he yieldeth to the powers of the mind an image of that whereof the philosopher bestoweth but a wordish description, which doth neither strike, pierce, nor possess the sight of the soul.”30 This is virtually the same argument Leonardo had used to exalt painting and the same power that captivates Pyrocles.

The paragone remained vibrant beyond the sixteenth century. Ben Jonson’s notorious quarrel with Inigo Jones, the designer of Jonson’s masques, is summarized in the title page of their 1631 publication of Love’s Triumph through Callipolis, in which the two “inventors” are listed with Jonson’s name before Jones’s.31 This particular paragonal quarrel, in effect one-sided because there survives no formal response from Jones to Jonson’s squibs and epigrams, vividly displays one of the penalties of the visual: as “mute poetry,” art has no clear-cut polemical voice. The superb theatrical effects created by Jones’s spectacular art are merely ephemeral, as Jonson is quick to observe; text, however, has an afterlife. Jonson had already staked the claim of word over image, as we see in his couplets accompanying the Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare, included in the First Folio of 1623:

  • This figure, that thou here seest put,
  • It was for gentle Shakespeare cut;
  • Wherein the graver had a strife
  • With nature, to out-doo the life:
  • O, could he but have drawne his wit
  • As well in brasse, as he hath hit
  • His face; the print would then surpasse
  • All that was ever writ in brasse.
  • But since he cannot, reader, looke
  • Not on his picture, but his booke.32

For the Italian theorists and practitioners, the art/poetry paragone was a contest of relative brilliance, and they would very likely have allowed that images, either verbal or visual, conduce to contemplation and reflection, especially on higher, divine things. This was the standard argument, too, for various contemporary liturgical and decorative practices in the Roman Catholic church, in which statues, frescoes, ceremonies, and the sacraments themselves were a set of visual mnemonics for believers. But to the northern European theorists such claims were not straightforward: Protestants were uneasy about the use of many kinds of visual items and worried that images distracted, deceived, and obstructed contemplation of the word of God. Indeed, the early modern phenomenon of iconoclasm—the wrecking of images, particularly in churches, to prevent idolatry—can partly be explained in terms of the word-image dialectic inherited from Plato. English iconoclasts are always Protestant, and their distrust of images—of crucifixions and last judgments and Holy Virgins—is a version of the paragone in which the Word is not merely the primary and superior vehicle of faith, but the only permissible one.33

Notionally, the advantage of the poetic image is that it is virtual and lacks the tempting physicality of the visual. But as W. J. T. Mitchell observes, “poetry is the scene of struggle between iconoclastic distrust of the outward image, and iconophilic fascination with its power, a struggle which manifests itself in [the] practice of proliferating visual images in order to prevent readers from focusing on any particular picture or scene.”34 Poetry, as even Sidney admits, has the power to deceive.


When Renaissance writers imagined that the resources of the visual could enrich and empower the peculiar strengths and deficiencies of the verbal, they were assisted by the figure of ekphrasis, an iconic description, a verbal representation of the visible.35 Ekphrasis is the most powerful rhetorical tool of the literary-pictorial.

In the best hands, ekphrasis is a self-conscious and self-advertising trope, a figure in which mediocre writers show off their painterly flourishes, and in which great ones manipulate our reading habits and our understanding of their art. A contested term, ekphrasis in post-Enlightenment definitions is limited to verbal descriptions of real or imaginary works of art, but this does not sort with actual early modern practice, which observed no such constraint.36 Under the broader dispensation that actually prevailed in the period to 1600, ekphrasis is a figure that in the act of describing converts the described into an art object, or (to refine the definition) into any object that invites our interpretive scrutiny in the way that an art object might do.37 The critical argument about the definition of ekphrasis is in some ways salved by W. J. T. Mitchell, Leonard Barkan, and D. P. Fowler, for whom the figure is more important as a literary mode, a narrative structural device, an ideological contention, a struggle for dominance, or a rhetorically slippery figure. As Leonard Barkan says, ekphrasis is “not about words versus pictures but words as pictures.”38

It is, however, important to distinguish ekphrasis from other kinds of intense description. Ekphrasis is the verbal description of any physical object, artifact, physical condition or symptom, scene, or individual that intends to put before the imagination an image of such exact and convincing clarity that the act of reading it is like the act of looking at a picture. That last phrase is important, because in being “like looking at a picture,” ekphrastic description is differentiated from the merely arresting. When we look at a picture or a sculpture, we are looking at a man-made object that was produced in order to elicit an interpretive response from us, and we are likely to pause, to admire, and to decode it in some way. The same is not normally true of natural phenomena like sunsets and landscapes and beautiful women, or even battles, and yet the power of ekphrasis is to treat even these as pictorial, as meaningful, as if they were artificial and designed for our critical, interpretive inspection. Ekphrasis insists that we impute meanings to things.

We can think of the spectrum of practices (of which ekphrasis is one) along the verbal-visual axis as “literary pictorialism,” of which there are two mains strands in Renaissance literature. Sometimes we can make absolute identifications between a literary “picture” or a recognizable type of picture, and known artifacts and symbolic traditions (as, for example, in Sidney’s Danaë reference, but also in Shakespeare’s emblem-making fishermen in Pericles, and of course in the much later example of Keats’s Grecian urn). Such iconographic identifications appear to be common in the classical use of ekphrasis and have led to much sleuthing, especially among Renaissance art historians.39 But most Renaissance ekphrasis is not so exact, and the more interesting strand is iconologic, producing pictures in the mind’s eye that function like pictorial artifacts in expecting the reader to gaze and interpret as if before an artwork. The iconologic mode enjoins us to consider the imagined “seen” as interpretable objects that are like artworks but do not refer to any work existing outside the poet’s imagination.

Well-known pictorial moments, such as Enobarbus’s mesmerizing description of Cleopatra’s entry by barge into Alexandria, exemplify this ekphrastic conversion of natural into artificial.40 That passage is striking in its length and in its musical rhythm and cadence, features that set it apart from the choppy, tetchy badinage among the triumvirs that precedes it. The nervy action of Rome and Romans is lulled by the incantatory power of Enobarbus’s report. The fact that the speech is a report, not a direct narration or representation of an immediate moment, emphasizes the contrast with the urgent, present politicking of Caesar and Lepidus and the kind of febrile dramaturgy that goes with it. The narrated Cydnus passage enforces attention in a way quite different from dramatically represented action, a technique Shakespeare uses frequently, almost against the impulses of the theater, as if to arrest attention at dramatically important moments. Like Edgar’s rendition of a nonexistent clifftop view, Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s death, and Cleopatra’s own vision of Antony as a colossus, the Cydnus speech works almost as if the scene could be painted and hung on the wall. It is at the very least a mental canvas in which we observe the machinations of the artful Egyptian queen, who has devised a self-spectacle for the consumption of her Roman visitor.

The river spectacle that Enobarbus delivers rhetorically is gorgeous and painterly, full of colors, textures, glitter, and shine. Crammed with mythological allusions (to Cupid, Venus, nereids), it seems to gesture to other paintings of the period. Indeed, Enobarbus tells us that Cleopatra “o’erpictures” a painting of Venus that itself outdoes nature, in a complex recursion of visual references: the event is transformed into an image that “beggars” description by outdoing an unspecified, possibly imaginary, painting that is better than anything we could hope to see for ourselves in the real world. It is a series of retreats into the impossible or the unimaginable, framed as a reportable, ekphrastic image. Like many such passages (whether in drama, prose romance, or poetry), this one brings the main action to a halt. As Cleopatra in Alexandria “made a gap in nature,” so the Cydnus passage makes a gap in the progression of the play—prickly negotiations are interrupted by a descriptive hiatus that arrests the ongoing business of the story by looking backward in time in a compelled stasis. When the description ends, the business of Rome and the play go forward again. In this play the static spectacle of Cleopatra operates almost like a paragonal example in a contest between the visual suspension of action and the narrative force of action itself.41 It is a powerful advertisement of Shakespeare’s poetic power.

Ekphrastic command of the movement of narrative is a structural command, but ekphrasis has equally important thematic power. In Cymbeline this pictorial ability to control or even to overcome the movement of narrative is found again in Iachimo’s rehearsal of the art objects in Imogen’s chamber, objects (including a tapestry of Antony and Cleopatra) that are used to authenticate with visual evidence the fictive sexual adventure that will secure him Posthumus’s wagered diamond. Iachimo disrupts and deflects the natural movement of the story with his deceptive visualizations and demonstrates at the same time that ekphrasis is inescapably a figure of evaluation. Iachimo alludes to that evaluative function when he describes Posthumus as a man whose virtues he can “table” or write down as if in an auction catalog, and when he baldly refers to Imogen’s art objects as “moveables.”42 The fiction of ekphrasis, as well as its frank appraisal of objects, is exposed by Iachimo in his vague “such-and-suches” as he regards the items in Imogen’s chamber; that vagueness is later converted with suspect precision into a tapestry, a pair of firebrands, and a silver basso-relievo with material value and mythographic heft. Of course, no room or objects could deliver messages about infidelity and betrayal as accurately as those insinuated by Iachimo’s descriptions of them, and Posthumus is as culpable in believing that they can as Iachimo is of fraud. Those ekphrastically reported objects do not of course exist on stage, nor should they: their only reality, like that of Dover Cliff and Cleopatra’s barge, is in the imagination of the speaker and the auditors. Iachimo, like all ekphrasticians, knows that word pictures are superior to actual pictures because they can make pictures in words of things that could never actually exist, or could never be noticed, in the world or in plastic renditions of the world. Literary pictorial iconology encourages, as Walter Ong formulates it, “the habit of seeing the intelligible in the visible.”43


As Iachimo’s ekphrastic habits show, tropes of assessment in early modern writing are often bound up with visual tropes—the paragone weighs up the relative merits and value of competing arts, and ekphrasis allows ambitious poets as well as evildoing stage villains to demonstrate, note, evaluate, and even sell using particulate descriptions that have the effect of breaking down things that are whole into constituent parts. The blason also fractures (usually) female beauty by rhetorical assessment in the register or catalog.44 The poetic blason is closely related to the heraldic blazon, or enumerative account of genealogy and honors represented in a coat of arms. Heraldic signs are an unusually simplified and denotative pictorial code that refer to exact relationships and hierarchies and are possibly a unique system of precise “figurings forth” of abstract individual identity. In an imaginative extension of the technical heraldic practice, Olivia in Twelfth Night declares that Viola’s tongue, face, limbs, actions, and spirit “do give [her] five-fold blazon,”45 a sentiment that divides Viola into anatomical elements. The blason, like the heraldic blazon, descriptively lists parts. Inherited in the English Renaissance from Alexandrian and late Roman examples via Petrarch, the blason allows the poet to praise his beloved extravagantly by comparing each part of her body to delightful natural or precious substances—fruit, flowers, jewels, and metals—as in Campion’s “Cherry- Ripe.” Sidney’s clerkly shepherds, Strephon and Claius, praise their muse, the shepherdess Urania, in pastoral topoi (eyelids like two white kids, breath like a gentle southwest wind, herself a “best builded fold” to contain “unspeakable virtues”).46 Colin Clout similarly describes Cynthia in the terms of Virgilian georgic, her words like flowing honey, her acts like grapes ripe for pressing into wine, and her looks like the morning sun on grazing cattle.47 Elsewhere in the same poem, finding her “glorie greater than my simple thought,” he renders her more typically as a catalog of flowers.48

The blason is a type of meronymy—the list or register. Meronymy can be diversely deployed, in library or shopping lists, in anaphoric descriptions (like Smart’s “Cat Jeoffry” sequence in Jubilate in Agno), in ekphrastic accounts like Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles, and in natural-historical lists of plant onomastics and morphology, to suggest only a few of its uses. The list or register is, in other words, an essential descriptive tool in poetic, empirical, and utilitarian writing. The blason is a troubling and troublesome example, however, because it lacks the ordinary rhetorical neutrality of the list. Seen as a species of meronymy, the blason’s most important feature, and one that in the hands of some poets and in the view of some critics explodes its own power and meaning, is its dispersion of a whole into its parts: the visualized woman of the blason can never be seen in the round, only as a collection of separate, discrete elements whose aggregation is contingent not upon the autonomous object but rather upon the will of the describing poet.49 It is a celebration not of the poet’s beloved but of the poet’s skill. The meronymic blason rhetorically scatters and deposes the coherence of its object; she is unpacked, fragmented, anatomized, even dismembered, by the poetic act.

The blason is additionally troubling because, although its analogies between the parts of the body and delightful or precious substances and property (e.g., lips and cherries, breasts and hills, teeth and pearls) are formulaic and conventional, it radically joins unlike things as a way of invoking straightforward visual referents that are in fact impossible to imagine or to gather together into a coherent whole. In other words, although it is hardly difficult to imagine the blue of sapphires or the red of roses, as an aggregation of alien, often inorganic metaphors, they become strange, inconceivable, and even grotesque. Arcimboldo, in literalizing the blason conceit in his fruit and vegetable portraits, shows exactly how bizarre such collocations are; likewise, the poetically emblazoned woman is difficult to picture. If the blason’s Petrarchan heritage initially suggests the conventional relation of the supplicant male poet and the praised and unattainable female beloved, the word-image relation in the blason is, like the more neutral ekphrasis, also poetically self-advertising, and is freighted with a peculiar self-canceling visuality that heightens the power of the poet over the power of the woman. It is a pictorial figure that devisualizes and diminishes.

The blasonneur often acknowledges the insufficiency of his figure to make adequate representation of the woman, but that failure can go in two directions. Spenser’s Colin Clout articulates the difficulty of making a blason of Cynthia when he confesses that

  • Such gretnes I cannot compare to ought:
  • I would her liken to a crowne of lilies.

By resorting to the conventional flower catalog and to the conditional “would,” Colin emphasizes not only his shepherdly incapability, but the incapability of words ever to perform the denotative ekphrastic deed upon an incomparable being; she cannot be “paragoned”:

  • But vaine it is to thinke, by paragone
  • Of earthly things, to judge of things divine:
  • Her power, her mercy, and her wisedome, none
  • Can deeme, but who the Godhead can define.50

The humility of Colin Clout is more subtly articulated by Petrarch, who admits the impossibility of description, either in words or in paint, when he praises Simone Martini’s portrait of Laura as one that could only be executed in heaven. On earth, “le membra fanno a l’alma velo” (the body is no more than the veil of the soul).51 But equally the anatomically specific blason that visualizes and analogizes the woman in a panegyric that dismembers her in a series of ironically incomprehensible descriptions is a figure of domination such as Donne uses in Elegy XIX or Spenser in Sonnet 25, in which the praised woman is a conquerable dominion or merchandised as a trader’s warehouse of exotic imports. Nancy Vickers has described this more earthbound quality of the blason as the language of salesmanship, a quality that connects it with the wily ekphrasis of Iachimo.52 The motives of blason are thus at best questionable: “I will not praise that purpose not to sell,” Shakespeare warns in Sonnet 21, a sentiment that would be opaque to Colin Clout but not to Iachimo.

This dangerous, almost economical, quality of the blason (which advertises the worth of the poet and might be used to convey the price of the woman) is explicitly discussed by Iachimo and Posthumus in Cymbeline. The wager they make on Imogen’s virtue is eventually won by Iachimo, who uses, among other things, ekphrastic evidence to “prove” that he has enjoyed her favors. The wager itself (a thousand ducats against a diamond ring) is concluded in a conversation that is all about the problems of assigning price to priceless women by tropic conversion or similitude. Iachimo has already been thinking about Posthumus as if he were about to make a blason of him: “[T]he catalogue of his endowments had been tabled by his side” he says, “and I … peruse him by items.”53 Thereafter, his diction of valuation and itemization assigns or quibbles with “hand-in-hand comparisons” such as the diamond and Imogen’s virtue. Posthumus argues that such a woman, unlike a diamond, cannot be priced, but Iachimo scoffs at this “unprizable estimation” as the buying of “lady’s flesh at a million a dram.” True virtue should defeat language altogether by defeating similitude or estimation—this is Colin Clout’s Petrarchan view—but the blason acknowledges no such thing, and by converting women into the gorgeous symbolic substances of a courtly conceit, Iachimo, like Arcimboldo, literalizes that conversion by reducing Imogen’s reputation to a very marketable jewel.

In Sonnet 106 (which is not a blason but is about blasons), Shakespeare suggests what all blasonneurs would prefer to forget: that language, no matter how figurative and inventive, is ultimately at a loss to speak of true beauty. Instead, poets risk cheapening both the lady and the language of praise in attempting to do so; they “have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.”54 The dangerous linguistic fault lines of the blason can be referred back to the paragone between the visual and the verbal.


The verbal-visual devices discussed so far in this article are virtual because they are rhetorical: there is no physical image displayed in ekphrasis, the paragone, and the blason. The emblem culture of the sixteenth century (and its associated form, the imprese) is, by contrast, an actual concatenation of word and image. Walter Ong places emblems and imprese in the broader scenario of the quantification and spatialization of thought in the post-Gutenberg era, when print culture overtook the aural as the prevalent organizational mode. The powerful, pervasive phenomenon of word-image relations in the form of the emblem in the early modern period from about 1530 was thus in some respects inevitable.55 The emblematic habit of mind long predates the Renaissance, but the explosion of emblematic practices in the early modern period was made possible by the invention of print, which allowed both words and images to be reproduced easily. More profoundly, print culture prompted extensive thought about the nature of language itself as a connotative and possibly as a denotative form.

The Neoplatonic search for a divine universal code that operated outside the corrupting intermedium of language—unreliable and artificial as it could not but be—was focused on a pure relation between ideas and things. Although the wide medieval and Renaissance discussion of the universal “ensignment”56 that would underpin the discovery of a universal language is outside the bounds of this discussion, it forms the background of two key events.57 One was Aldus Manutius’s publication of Hieroglyphica in 1505. This was an edition of a hieroglyphical manuscript purportedly by Horus Apollo (Horapollo), discovered in 1419 at Andros and thought to contain pre-Mosaic Egyptian ideograms of priestly wisdom in which each symbol was ascribed an abstract, transcendent meaning; the lexicon of such hieroglyphs might thus belong to a universal language that could overcome the corruption of languages after Babel.58 The other was the appearance of Emblematum Liber in 1539 by Andreas Alciati (or Alciato), a book of emblems that began a fad that lasted for the next one hundred years and went through 150 editions in that period. These two events roughly mark the beginning of a specifically early modern address to verbal-visual relations.

Renaissance theorists suspected that hieroglyphs and picture writing might be denotative—inherent rather than conventional bearers of meaning. Hieroglyphs appeared to operate at the boundary between the verbal and the pictorial and were thought by paragonists like Paolo Giovio to be wholly “unartificial.”59 Guillaume de la Perriere observed: “[W]here oftentimes feeling and effectual words, though never so sensible, do pass the reader without due consideration, pictures which are discerned by the sense are such that they make words as it were deeds, and set the whole substance of that which is offered before the sight and conceipt of the reader.”60 The emblem, consisting of mutually reinforcing word and image, satisfied that need for a wordish deed.

An emblem is an epigrammatic metaphor illustrated by a picture that embodies it in conventional signs. The typical Renaissance emblem consists of three parts: an inscription or motto (usually a commonplace), a symbolic picture, and an explanatory subscription. The emblem did not begin this way. Alciati’s emblems were purely rhetorical rather than pictorial, and the original edition of his emblems offered no woodcuts. Instead, the motto and subscription functioned as a simple ekphrasis, hinting at a picture but not producing it. The Alciatian emblem was meant to provide inspiration for hat badges and other ornaments, which might declare personal beliefs; it also supplied conceits for craftsmen producing bed hangings, shields, ceiling bosses, windows, and architectural ornament, and this purpose is elaborated by the mythographers Cartari and Ripa, who use Ovidian material to construct their emblems, specifically to assist poets and painters or to adorn great persons. The moral and natural histories of Plutarch and Pliny, as well as material from the Bible, the Greek anthology, and collections of sententiae, were other sources of emblems.

The emblem selects the best or most essential part of the represented object and meanings to produce a microcosm of wit. Thus small or single things like the beached dolphin or the grafted vine might metonymically express large, complex, and abstract ideas through a conscious process of decipherment, a process that sets the emblematic apart from the more broadly symbolic (see Figure 4).

Word and Image in the English Renaissance

Figure 4 Alciati, Emblematum Liber (Augsburg, 1531), Emblem 75

(image courtesy of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections).

  • In eum qui truculentia suorum perierit
  • Delphinium invitum me in littora compulit aestus,
  • Exemplum infido quanta pericla mari.
  • Nam si nec propriis Neptunus parcit alumnis,
  • Quis tutos homines, navibus esse putet?

The emblem might function as the illustration of a well-known epigram, or it might use natural or pictorial signs on which it imposes meaning.61 However it works in any single instance (and both are present in early modern usage), it marries verbal content in the form of a thought with equivalent illustrative pictorial content in the form of a woodcut (later an engraving). Thus a thesaurus of verbal-visual referents became a conventional, and largely popular, currency that found its way into the literary productions of the period. When the homespun fishermen in Pericles moralize about the saltwater foodchain, they speak in well-known emblems:

THIRD FISHERMAN:Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.

MASTER:Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones: I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale; a’ plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful.’62

Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender (1579) organizes each eclogue as a picture-subscription-motto, in which the poem itself is the explanatory gloss (see Figure 5). The February eclogue, for example, which retails the fable of the oak and the briar, closely resembles Alciati’s “Amicitia etiam post mortem durans” (see Figure 6), as does Wyatt’s lament for Thomas Cromwell, in which he casts himself as ivy supported by the pillar that had also supported Henry VIII.63

Word and Image in the English Renaissance

Figure 5 Spenser, “Februarie Æglogue” (The Shepheardes Calender, 1579)

(available at

Word and Image in the English Renaissance

Figure 6 Alciati, Amicitia etiam post mortem durans (Emblematum Libellus, 1536).

Sidney, likewise, uses emblematic shorthand to make narratorial points. When the lovelorn Musidorus and Pyrocles (disguised as an Amazon) commiserate, Sidney places them “under a fewe Palme trees, (which being loving in their own nature, seemed to give their shadow the willinglier, because they held discourse of love)”64 (see Figure 7).

Word and Image in the English Renaissance

Figure 7 Jacob Cats, Vivite Concordes (Emblemata, 1618).

In the emblematic lexicon, palm trees refer to married love (because some palm species are dioecious—each plant is either male or female), and Sidney covertly adds to the ongoing comedy of mistaken sexual identity at the expense of his heroes, who are emblematically cast as a loving couple. He uses such material more obviously when he describes a brooch worn by Zelmane, “a very riche jewell: the devise wherof … was this: a Hercules made in little fourme, but a distaffe set within his hand as he once was by Omphales commaundement with a worde in Greeke, but thus to be interpreted, Neuer more valiant.65 This emblem consists of picture and motto and directly refers, as an Alciatian emblem might do when transformed into a badge or brooch, to Pyrocles’s effeminization by love.

In the emblem, the word and the image are mutually supporting, but in theory each could function coherently without the other; the fully developed verbal-visual emblem is essentially pleonastic. The emblem, moreover, deals in the locus communis or the sententia, in already-known cultural données. It transmits tradition and universal truths rather than new or unique ideas. Nothing about an emblem is novel; it is always recognizable and universally available to the understanding. Thus, as with Sidney’s uxorious palms, the emblem comments on a narrative situation by alluding to a well-known analogy.

A related emblematic device, the impresa, is a coterie version of the emblem and differs markedly in being unique to its bearer and to the occasion. Unlike emblems, which were constantly recycled by authors and printers,66 many imprese (from the Italian imprendere, to undertake) could be used only once and by one person, because they expressed “our disposition, either to Love, Hatred, Clemencie, Justice, Pietie, our Victories, Misfortunes, Griefes, and the like: which perhaps could not have beene openly, but to our praejudice revealed.”67 They are, in other words, occasional and refer to personal identity; they are not “common,” as emblems are. The impresa is characteristic, both in real life and in literature, of early modern courtly behavior, where it was closely associated with the ceremonial display of armorial bearings and advertised the individuality of its bearer rather than the commonality inherent in emblems; it “exposeth the rare conceipts and gallant resolutions of its Author, far more perspicuously, and with more certainty, then Physiognomy can.”68

The impresa also differs structurally from the emblem in conjoining word and image contingently: neither has any meaning if divorced from the other. The structure of the impresa appealed, for this reason, to notions of wit and functions as a type of conceit—not one in which unlike things are yoked together, but rather where word and sign become almost indistinguishable as distinct categories. Francesco della Rovere’s well-known impresa showing a palm tree with a branch weighted down by a stone and the motto Inclinata resurgit refers to the flexibility of palm fronds, able to snap back into their former place and shape (a piece of natural knowledge of an exotic plant that was reserved to the elite and the learned), a flexibility that in turn alludes to the ready ambitions of the Duke of Urbino (also a reserved sphere of information)69 (see Figure 8). Although the weighted palm is a common symbol of patience, here its significance for the individual bearer is both veiled and exposed by the “word” accompanying it.

Word and Image in the English Renaissance

Figure 8 Inclinata resurgit (impresa of Francesco Maria della Rovere) (Girolamo Ruscelli, Le Impresi Illustri, Venice, 1565)

(The Bodleian Libraries, the University of Oxford, Douce R 204, p. 256 [detail]).

Sidney’s own imprese were celebrated: speravi [“I used to hope”] was a rebus written on his shield in a tournament that occurred shortly after key dynastic births had displaced him as the heir to the titles of his Warwick and Leicester uncles, and could only have been intelligible to those who knew the history of and recent change in his status and could construe the Latin.70 In these high courtly circles, wit governed the construction of imprese, so much so that the structural contingency of word and image could not be separated. Sidneian heroes and antiheroes wear imprese on their armour that refer to their private feelings and their intentions, and even disclose at times their disguised identities.

The verbal-visual relations that deeply interested early modern English writers were those that offered them technical resources in the form of rhetorical figures, each a tour de force that, in apparently appropriating the powers of the pictorial, allowed them to display their skill. The virtuosic quality of pictorial writing is itself part of the texture of sixteenth-century English literature, but that pictorialism is heavily informed by a moral-aesthetic philosophy that required imaginative writing to justify its sensory delights and a theological climate in which the pictorial capabilities of the word might supply the delightful images of divine instruction that had supposedly become debased in the pre-Reformation church. The paragone established the terms of reference for that league of the verbal and the visual; two rhetorical figures, ekphrasis and blason, furnished the poet with tools to make advantage from that league; and the emblem and impresa developed as practical arts for the display of the abstract in the pictorial, and were in turn the subject of many ekphrastic descriptions. Above all, the persistent early modern discussion of word and image was informed by developing theories of language and the triumph of English itself as a language of art.


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(2) Philip Sidney, A Defence of Poetry, in The Miscellaneous Prose of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jan van Dorsten (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 85.

(3) W. J. T. Mitchell, in Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, however, argues that the distinction between word and image is really only a practical rather than a metaphysical one (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 69.

(4) See Patrick Collinson, From Iconoclasm to Iconophilia: The Cultural Impact of the Second English Reformation (Reading, UK: University of Reading, the Stenton Lecture, 1986); and Margaret Aston, England’s Iconoclasts: Laws Against Images (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).

(5) Catherine Belsey observes that “the rich visual culture of early modern English households still goes widely unacknowledged” in “Invocation of the Visual Image: Ekphrasis in Lucrece and Beyond,” Shakespeare Quarterly 63, no. 2 (2012): 180. This is the argument implied by, among others, Lucy Gent, Picture and Poetry, 1560–1620 (Leamington Spa, UK: James Hall, 1981); and Alison Thorne, Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare: Looking Through Language (Houndmills, UK: Macmillan/New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000). It is doubtless the case in the later early modern period, less so in the earlier. See Anthony Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: The Influence of Continental Prints (New Haven, CT: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art/Yale University Press, 1997); and Tara Hamling, Decorating the “Godly” Household: Religious Art in Post-Reformation Britain (New Haven, CT: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art/Yale University Press, 2010). See also John Phillips, The Reformation of Images: The Destruction of Art in England, 1535–1660 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974); and Norman K Farmer Jr., Poets and the Visual Arts in Renaissance England (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984). On English Bible illustration, see John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982), 152.

(6) Gent notes that “the English tradition has no place, no words, for artistic drawing, for composition, perspective, design and chiaroscuro” (Picture and Poetry, 21).

(7) On the influence of printing and continental painting in England, see Arthur Hind, Engraving in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1952); Edward Hodnett, Image and Text: Studies in the Illustration of English literature (Menston: Scolar Press, 1982); and David Bland, A History of Book Illustration: The Illuminated Manuscript and the Printed Book, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969). On the Dutch centers of painting and engraving, see Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1983); and Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, 9–125.

(8) On the Tudor tapestries, see Thomas B. Campbell, Henry VIII and the Art of Majesty: Tapestries at the Tudor Court (New Haven, CT: The Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art/Yale University Press, 2007). On Leicester’s collection of art, see Elizabeth Goldring, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the World of Elizabethan Art: Painting and Patronage at the Court of Elizabeth I (New Haven, CT: Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art/Yale University Press, 2014). See Hamling, Decorating the “Godly” Household, and Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, for abundant examples of pictorial domestic items. See also Belsey, “Invocation of the Visual Image: Ekphrasis in Lucrece and Beyond,” 182–183.

(9) Edmund Spenser, “Colin Clouts Come home againe” (1590), in Spenser: Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912; repr. 1979), 544, lines 776–780.

(10) Plato, Republic, trans H. D. P. Lee (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1955), bk. 10, sec. 605 (382).

(11) Aristotle, Aristotle’s Poetics, ed. and trans. James Hutton (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), sec. 7 (53), sect 15 (61).

(12) Plutarch, De Gloria Atheniensium, in Moralia, trans. Jeffrey Henderson (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Editions, 1936), 4:501.

(13) In fact, Horace is actually noting that some poetry, like some paintings, bears repeated readings. Ars Poetica or “Epistle to the Pisos,” in Horace: Satires, Epistles, Ars Poetica, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Editions, 1926), 480.

(14) On this early modern misreading and the subsequent discussion it engendered, see Clark Hulse, The Rule of Art: Literature and Painting in the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 16–62; Laura M. Sager Eidt, Writing and Filming the Painting: Ekphrasis in Literature and Film (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2008) 12; Thorne, Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare, 32–33, 57–58; Robert Campo, Ronsard’s Contentious Sisters: The Paragone between Poetry and Painting in the Works of Pierre de Ronsard (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literature/University of North Carolina Department of Romance Languages, 1998), 57–84; and Wesley Trimpi, “The Meaning of Horace’s Ut Pictura Poesis,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 36 (1973): 1–34.

(15) Samuel Daniel, “To the Reader,” in The Worthy Tract of Paulus Jovius (1585), A1v.

(16) Paragone, until the end of the seventeenth century, meant a comparison or competition, but was not used to refer to the contest between the arts. The debate was a recognized topos, however, and is alluded to by early modern writers as a standard theme of disputatio.

(17) John Lyly, Queen Elizabeth’s Entertainment at Mitcham: Poet, Painter, and Musician. Attributed to John Lyly, ed. Leslie Hotson (New Haven, CT: Elizabethan Club/Yale University Press, 1953), 23–24.

(18) Leon Battista Alberti, Della Pittura (1435), bk. 2, ch. 26, in On Painting, rev. ed., trans. John R. Spencer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966), 64.

(19) Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della Pittura, in The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. Jean Paul Richter and Irma Richter, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), 52. See also Thorne, Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare, 44.

(20) Leonardo, Trattato, 58. The inventor, investigator, and scientific theorist likens painting to scientific method: it explores and reproduces nature in order to understand it, making disciplined observations and records of it. The visual artist is a kind of empirical investigator, whose work can bear empirical scrutiny and authorize empirical conclusions as an observational substitute for nature itself. The Trattato (before 1519) remained in manuscript until 1651, so it cannot have directly influenced any other theorists at the time.

(22) The Defence may have been a riposte to Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse (1579), although there is no certainty about this. Sidney’s primary defense is of fictionality and the potentially idolatrous and deceiving mental images it prompts; he is also justifying the technical capabilities and merits of vernacular English imaginative writing.

(23) Lodovico Dolce, Dialogo della Pittura [known as Aretino] (Venice, 1557), in Dolce’s “Aretino” and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento, ed. and trans. Mark Roskill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press/Renaissance Society of America, 2000), 96.

(25) Paolo Lomazzo, A Tracte Containing the Artes of curious Paintinge Carvinge & building, trans. Richard Haydocke (1598), 95.

(28) Arcadia, bk. 1, ch. 13, 57.

(29) Defence, 83–84. One of many ironies in Sidney’s delivery of the argument is that even dessicated philosophy and earthbound history are fictionalized as personages, another point scored for poetry.

(30) Defence, 85.

(31) Ben Jonson, Love’s Triumph through Callipolis (1630), in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, ed. James Knowles (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), VI:331.

(32) Ben Jonson, “To the Reader,” in Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (1623), vol. V of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, ed. James Knowles (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

(33) See Ernest B. Gilman, Iconoclasm and Poetry in the English Reformation: Down Went Dagon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), ch. 2; and James Simpson, Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo American Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), chs. 2 and 3.

(35) “Iconic” in this sense is Hagstrum’s term; see Jean H. Hagstrum, The Sister Arts: The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 18.

(36) See Leo Spitzer, “The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ or Content vs. Metagrammar,” Comparative Literature 7, no. 3 (1955): 203–225; James A. W. Heffernan, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashberry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 3; and Murray Krieger, Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 8; see also Page Dubois, History, Rhetorical Description and the Epic: From Homer to Spenser (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1982), 3; Belsey, “Invocation of the Visual Image: Ekphrasis in Lucrece and Beyond,” 176; John Hollander, “The Poetics of Ekphrasis,” Word and Image 4, no. 1 (1988): 209; Hagstrum, Sister Arts, 18n34. On the recent development of this definition of ekphrasis, see Mack Smith, Literary Realism and the Ekphrastic Tradition (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 12; Campo, Ronsard’s Contentious Sisters, 39; Jaś Elsner, “Introduction: The Genres of Ekphrasis,” Ramus 31, no. 1/2 (2002): 1–2.

(37) My definition of ekphrasis as prompting us to read descriptions like pictures even if the object is not a work of representation goes against much current writing about early modern ekphrasis, but there is no evidence to support the limitation in early modern or classical practice to the description of artworks, which is merely a subset of the ekphrastic. Further limitations are ahistorical: it must be intended as an ekphrasis (Heffernan, Museum of Words, 4); it must be spoken by a work of art (Hagstrum, Sister Arts, 18n34). More accurate treatments include John Bender, Spenser and Literary Pictorialism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), 40–57; and Claire Preston, “Ekphrasis: Painting in Words,” in Renaissance Figures of Speech, ed. Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 115–117.

(38) Leonard Barkan, Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 20; Mitchell, Iconology, 5–28; and D. P. Fowler, “Narrate and Describe: The Problem of Ekphrasis,” Journal of Roman Studies 81 (1991): 25. See also Wendy Steiner, Pictures of Romance: Form Against Context in Literature and Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 13–14. Synopses of the competing critical analyses of ekphrasis are found in Eidt, Writing and Filming the Painting, 13–15; and Heffernan, Museum of Words, 1–7.

(39) See, for example, Jean Seznec, “Art and Literature: A Pleas for Humility,” New Literary History 3, no. 3 (1972): 569–574. Since few classical paintings survive, it is impossible to judge when classical ekphraseis are iconographic.

(40) William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, 2.2.197–224 (references are to act, scene, and line), in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 1137–1138.

(41) On the ekphrastic pause, see Kreiger, “Ekphrasis and the Still Movement of Poetry; or Laokoön Revisited,” in The Poet as Critic, ed. Frederick P. W. McDowell (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1967), 3–26; C. S. Baldwin, Medieval Rhetoric and Poetic (New York: Macmillan, 1928), 19; Heffernan, Museum of Words, 5, Fowler, “Narrate and Describe,” 25.

(42) Shakespeare, Cymbeline 2.2.29 (1285).

(43) Walter J. Ong, Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason, 2nd ed. (New York: Octagon, 1974), 91.

(44) There are a few male blasons, such as Cleopatra’s of Antony. Antony and Cleopatra 5.2.78–91 (1162).

(45) Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 1.5.282–283 (786).

(46) Arcadia, bk. 1, ch. 1, 2.

(47) Spenser, “Colin Clout,” 542, lines 600–607.

(48) Spenser, “Colin Clout,” 540, lines 343–349.

(49) The power to fragment has been read as a form of dominion, even as a species of patriarchal, sexual, and colonial control over a female subject, and as a form of rhetorical rape. See, for example, Nancy Vickers, “Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme,” Critical Inquiry 8, no. 2 (1981): 265–279; Elizabeth Cropper, “The Beauty of Woman: Problems in the Rhetoric of Renaissance Portraiture,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret Ferguson et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 175–190; and Heffernan, Museum of Words, 70–79.

(50) Spenser, “Colin Clout,” 540, lines 344–347.

(51) Petrarcha, Petrarch’s Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Lyrics, trans and ed. Robert M. Durling (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), sonnet 77, lines 176–177.

(52) Nancy Vickers regards such meronyms as indications of spiritual and moral indescribability. “Diana Described,” 97.

(53) Shakespeare, Cymbeline 1.4.5–6 (1280).

(54) Shakespeare, sonnet 106, lines 13–14 (866).

(55) Walter J. Ong, “From Allegory to Diagram in the Renaissance Mind: A Study in the Significance of the Allegorical Tableau,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 17, no. 4 (1959): 425. Ong links the emblem to allegorical tableaux that include much later examples, such as the title page of Hobbes’s Leviathan, on which the motto (the title) yokes together the figure of the giant comprising a multitude of men and the city above which he towers.

(56) Edmund Bolton, Elements of Armouries (1610), 7.

(57) See Ernest B. Gilman, The Curious Perspective: Literature and Pictorial Wit in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978), 76.

(58) Horapollo was in fact teaching at Constantinople in the fifth century AD, and the “ideograms” were actually phonetic. See Rosemary Freeman, English Emblem Books (London: Chatto and Windus, 1948), 40; and Peter M. Daly, Literature in the Light of the Emblem: Structural Parallels between the Emblem and Literature in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1979), 11–16. Emblems long predate Renaissance humanism, of course—the Alexandrian writers had used them. Mario Praz, Studies in Seventeenth Century Imagery (London: Warburg Institute, 1939, 25).

(59) Paolo Giovio, The Worthy Tract of Paulus Jovius, trans. Samuel Daniel (1585), A1v.

(60) Guillaume de la Perriere, The Theater of Fine Devices, containing an hundred morall Emblemes, trans. Thomas Combe (1614), A5r-v.

(61) There is a long-standing debate originating with Praz and Freeman in the 1940s (almost a paragone, indeed) about the verbal versus the visual impulses of the emblem. Praz argues that verbal material (e.g., epigrams) was illustrated to produce emblems; Freeman, against this, prefers visual (including natural and pictorial) phenomena and objects that were moralized in words (Praz, Studies in Seventeenth Century Imagery, 25–26; Freeman, English Emblem Books, 28). Sidney appears to support Praz: the poet “doth not learn a conceit out of a matter, but maketh matter for a conceit” (Defence, 99).

(62) Shakespeare, Pericles, scene 5, lines 67–73 (1068).

(63) Andreas Alciati, Emblematum Liber (Augsburg, 1531), [A6r]; Thomas Wyatt, “The Pillar perished is whereto I leant,” in Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems, ed. Joost Daalder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), poem 160 (203).

(64) Arcadia, bk. 2, ch. 2, 103.

(65) Arcadia, bk. 1, ch. 12, 50.

(66) Geoffrey Whitney’s Choice of Emblems (1586), the first English emblem book, was completely unoriginal—the plates were borrowed from works by Junius, Sambucus, Paradin, and (natural) Alciati (Freeman, English Emblem Books, 56).

(68) Henri Estienne, The Art of Making Devises, trans. Thomas Blount (1646), 14.

(69) Girolamo Ruscelli, Le Imprese Illustri (Venice, 1580), II:209. The impresa is also found in Giovio, Worthy Tract of Paulus Jovius, trans. Daniel, E2r-v.

(70) Katherine Duncan-Jones, “Sidney’s Personal Imprese,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 33 (1970): 323. Rabelais mocked and disparaged such rebuses (e.g., a duck [“annadino”] as a plea to a mistress to refuse another suitor [“Anna di no”—“Anna, say no”]; a capital “S” to denote generosity [“largesse”]). François Rabelais, The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. J. M. Cohen (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1955), 58; Lodovico Domenichi, Ragionamento (1559), cited in Praz, Studies in Seventeenth Century Imagery, 63.