Symbols and Mottoes: The Renaissance Impresa

Ursula Georges, alias Ursula Whitcher

What is an impresa?


The impresa is a late medieval and Renaissance art form. "Impresa" is an Italian word which means "device"; but though imprese can be superficially similar to heraldic devices, there are several important differences.

What exactly is an impresa? In 1605, William Camden gave this definition:

In other words, an impresa is a combination of a picture (body) and motto (soul). It's used for individual self-expression, the picture should be fair, and the motto should be witty and in a foreign language.

The individual nature of an impresa is particularly important. One person might use many different imprese to express different ideas and moods, or to commemorate different occasions.

How imprese were used

Imprese first appeared in the French and Burgundian courts in the late fourteenth century. They rapidly became popular among European nobility: for a time, displays of imprese seemed to outnumber displays of heraldry. Imprese were embroidered on clothing, displayed at tournaments, painted in portraits, described in literature, and even carved into wooden ceilings. A discussion of some of the most common uses follows.

How can I make my own?

A Renaissance set of rules

In the illustrated edition of his Dialogo dell'imprese, published in 1559, Paolo Giovio set forth the following six rules for an impresa. (I follow Alan Young's translation.)

  1. There should be a proper proportion between soul and body [motto and picture].
  2. The impresa should be neither so obscure that the Sibyl must interpret it, nor so obvious that every plebeian can understand it.
  3. It should have a beautiful appearance, making use of stars, the sun, the moon, fire, water, green trees, mechanical instruments, strange animals, and fantastic birds.
  4. It should contain no human form.
  5. It should have a motto, which is the soul of the body, and should be expressed in a language other than the native language of the bearer, so that the meaning may be more obscure.
  6. The motto should be brief, but not so much that it creates uncertainty. Two or three words may be enough, unless they are in the form of verse.

These rules weren't always followed-- several of the imprese mentioned above contain human figures, for instance, and the motto wasn't always in a foreign language-- but they're a good start for your invention!

Other ways to create a motto

Composing an impresa could be intellectually taxing, and not everybody who wanted or needed to display one felt up to the work. Here are some authentic ways to choose mottoes and find design ideas without a vast classical education.

Selected Imprese Mottoes

The following list of sample mottoes is taken from Alan Young's extensive collection, The English Tournament Imprese.

My sufferan remedy (English, My sovereign remedy) 1614.
In te e la nostra speranza (Italian, Our hope is in you) 1610.
Dum placeo pereo (Latin, While I please, I perish) 1614.
Serviet aeternum dulcis quem torquet Eliza (Latin, He whom sweet Eliza tortures will serve eternally) 1582.
Aut solve aut scinde (Latin, Either loose or cut!) 1610.
Tempestas (Latin, Storm) 1610.
Tu mihi principium numeri (Latin, You are the beginning of numbers to me) 1610.
Sans remedy (French, Without remedy) 1522.
Tremet et ardet (Latin, He trembles and burns) 1595.
In prison I am at libertie, and at libertie I am in prison (English, In prison I am at liberty, and at liberty I am in prison) 1522.
Loialte/ Bi pen, pain nor treasure, truth shall not be violated (English, Loyalty, by pen, pain, nor treasure, truth shall not be violated) 1527.

Bibliography and Suggested Sources

General Imprese Information

Alan Young, The English Tournament Imprese, New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1988

Alan Young, Tudor and Jacobean Tournaments, London: George Philip, 1987

Michel Pastoureau, Traité d'Héraldique, 2nd ed., Paris: Grands Manuels Picard, 1993

François Velde, "Imprese,", 2000

William Camden, Remaines of a greater worke, concerning Britaine, the inhabitants thereof, their languages, names, surnames, empreses, wise speeches, poësies, and epitaphes, 1605, Early English Books Online,

The motto section of my webpage,

Other Motto Sources

Alciato's Book of Emblems,

"More Mottoes from Sixteenth-Century Sources," Jeff Lee,

The Perseus Project,


Marilee Cody, "Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and her courtiers,"

Drea Leed, "Examples of Masque Costume in the late 16th & Early 17th Centuries,", 1997-2000

"Welch Chapter 2 Materials and Methods",

By Ursula Whitcher, alias Ursula Georges

ursula at yarn theory dot net