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:
An imprese, as the Italians call it, is a device in picture with his Motte, or Word, born by noble or learned personages, to notifie some particular conceit of their owne . . . . As for example: Wheras Cosimi Medici Duke of Florence had in the ascendent at his nativitie the signe Capricorne, under which also Augustus and Charles the fifth, two great and good Princes were borne: he used the celestial signe Capricorne, with this Motte; FIDEM FATI FORTUNA SEQUEMUR, for his Imprese, particularly concerning his good hope to prove like unto them . . . .
There is required in an Imprese (that we may reduce them to few heades) a correspondence of the picture, which is as the body, and the Motte, which as the soul giveth it life. That is, the body must be of fair representation, and the word in some different language, wittie, short, and answerable thereunto neither too obscure nor too plaine, and most commended, when it is an Hemistich, or parcell of a verse.
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.
Imprese were an important part of the lavish pageantry of late medieval and Renaissance tournaments. Special shields were carved and painted with the imprese pictures, and knights often dressed themselves and their entourages to match an impresa's theme. From the time of Queen Elizabeth's reign onwards, a participant in an English tournament was required to compose an impresa. Before the tournament, the knight's page presented the impresa to the Queen (or later to King James). The impresa was usually accompanied by an explanatory song or poem.
One fifteenth-century Flemish impresa shield showed a man standing between a Grim Reaper-like figure and a maiden. The motto was "Vous ou la mort," or "You or Death."
A pageant shield by Antonio Pollaiuolo from the 1470s shows the mythical athlete Milos of Croton. The athlete's body is molded in gesso and then gilded. A motto is painted around the edge of the shield.
Inigo Jones designed the settings for Prince Henry's Barriers at Whitehall in 1610. One of Jones' costume designs, which may be for this event, shows knight dressed à l'antique and carrying an impresa shield. The tiny shield is obviously designed for display, not for combat.
Knights often commemorated their participation in tournaments by commissioning portraits. Such portraits often included imprese; the impresa picture might be incorporated in the sitter's pose, or inset as its own design.
One such painting is a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard which shows George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, in tournament armour. Behind him is a stormy sky. The motto "Fulmen aquasque fero," "I bear lightning and waters," which is painted along the rim of the miniature.
A full-length portrait of Sir Edward Hoby, painted by an unknown artist in 1583, includes insets of both his arms and an impresa. In the impresa, a lady stands before a castle; in the foreground is a pile of cast-aside armour. The lady holds a twisting scroll with the motto "Reconduntur non retunduntur," "Laid aside, not blunted."
Impresa portraits weren't limited to knights; one portrait of Queen Elizabeth shows her holding a rainbow. The motto "Non sine sole iris," "No rainbow without the sun," is inscribed above the rainbow.
Embroidered imprese appeared on bedcovers, clothing, tapestries, and more.
Mary Queen of Scots embroidered some particularly memorable imprese, which, as well as being beautiful, expressed her political goals. One showed a tortoise climbing a crowned palm tree, with the motto "Dat Gloria Vires," or "Glory Gives Strength." The tortoise represented her ambitious husband Darnell.
Books about imprese, such as Paolo Giovio's Dialogo dell'Imprese Militari et Amorose, first published in Rome in 1555, fed the art form's popularity and encouraged its spread.
Imprese appeared in other sorts of books as well. One Elizabethan book about tournaments includes a drawing of jousters in which the men's imprese appear above their horses. Most of the imprese in the manuscript are taken from Giovio's book. Imprese also appeared in emblem books. (Emblems are similar to imprese, but discuss general moral truths, and do not belong to a particular person. Henry Peacham's book Minerva Britannica, published in 1612, included a woodcut and poem based on one of the Earl of Essex's imprese, which may have been used in a tournament in 1586 or 1590.
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.)
- There should be a proper proportion between soul and body [motto and picture].
- The impresa should be neither so obscure that the Sibyl must interpret it, nor so obvious that every plebeian can understand it.
- 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.
- It should contain no human form.
- 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.
- 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.
Hire a poet.
One of the simplest ways to find a good impresa was to pay someone else to do it.
- In 1613, the Earl of Rutland paid Shakespeare 44 gold shillings to compose an impresa.
- Ben Jonson wrote speeches for the Rich brothers to use in the presentation of their imprese; he probably composed the imprese, as well. (However, Jonson also wrote a satirical poem about knights who couldn't create their own imprese!)
The writer of this article is quite willing to follow in such illustrious footsteps.
Choose one from a published list.
- The knights in the Elizabethan manuscript on tournaments mentioned above are shown using mottoes taken from Giovio's Dialogo.
Alan Young's book The English Tournament Imprese contains an exhaustive list of tournament mottoes from Tudor and Jacobean England. Emblem books provide a convenient source: the mottoes used in Renaissance emblems were often similar to (or borrowed from) imprese mottoes, and collections such as Alciato's Book of Emblems may be found online.
Borrow from the classics.
Imprese often quoted famous texts such as the Bible and the works of the Latin writers Ovid and Vergil. An impresa might allude to a particular story, or create a complicated joke by leaving out certain words.
- One Elizabethan impresa quoted Vergil's Eclogues: "Iam redit et virgo," "Now the virgin returns," in a compliment to the Queen.
- Another impresa quoted the Aeneid, "Aut spoliis laetemur opimis," "Either let us rejoice in rich spoils . . ." while omitting the second half of the quotation (or enjoy a glorious death.)
- In his 1605 book Remaines . . . concerning Britain William Camden quotes an imprese with the motto "Amor est medicabilis herbis," "Love can be cured by herbs," which refers to Ovid's Epistulae. Ovid's text states that herbs and potions cannot cure love.
- In 1610, Lord Compton bore the tournament device "Nisi dominus," "Unless the Lord . . ." This refers to Psalm 127:1: "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain to build it."
Online sources such as the Perseus Project include both Latin texts and English translations; by comparing the two versions, even someone with little knowledge of Latin could choose an appropriate motto from Vergil, Ovid, or the Vulgate.
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," http://www.heraldica.org/topics/imprese.htm, 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, http://eebo.chadwyck.com/home/
The motto section of my webpage, http://yarntheory.net/ursulageorges/motto/
Other Motto Sources
Alciato's Book of Emblems, http://www.mun.ca/alciato/
"More Mottoes from Sixteenth-Century Sources," Jeff Lee, http://www.shipbrook.com/jeff/mottoes2.html
The Perseus Project, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/
Marilee Cody, "Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and her courtiers," http://www.marileecody.com/eliz1-images.html
Drea Leed, "Examples of Masque Costume in the late 16th & Early 17th Centuries," http://costume.dm.net/masque/, 1997-2000
"Welch Chapter 2 Materials and Methods", http://www.philipresheph.com/a424/gallery/course/welch/ch2.htm
By Ursula Whitcher, alias Ursula Georges
ursula at yarn theory dot net