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A Harmonic Connection of Body and Soul
A Harmonic Connection of Body and SoulMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Last year, in my fourth and final column on heraldry (1), I promised that in a later issue I would suggest, for those of you wishing to have a personal emblem, a viable alternative to using a coat of arms connected to your family name (both improper and illegal if you aren't a direct descendant of the first bearer) or to having a coat of arms designed and registered (a difficult and generally expensive endeavor).
In the Renaissance, heraldry was already a very complex field, vast and specialized. Besides, Coats of Arms were family-related, and the possibilities of greater personalization were next to nil. People began to look for something different, something simpler and very personal that when seen would tell the viewer that he was dealing with. For instance, Francesco Gonzaga, not just a generic Gonzaga scion, and at the same time let him know something specific about Francesco's personality. This was the origin of imprese (2).
An impresa is a personal emblem, chosen by the bearer for its meaning. It can be absolutely individual or shared by all or some members of a family. It is also temporary—during the course of one's life, as the bearer goes through different experiences he or she may bear many different imprese.
The practice of using personal badges, distinct from Coats of Arms, had started as early as the fourteenth century. A century or so later a short motto was commonly added to the badge, thus giving birth to the impresa proper. The fad spread quickly from Italy to France and beyond. In the following centuries books were written on the subject of imprese, detailing their properties and requirements and giving illustrious examples for those who wanted one but needed some sort of template to go with, The most often quoted among these books is Paolo Giovio's Ragionamento delle imprese. (3)
Giovio's rules are fairly straightforward regarding both the image (the so-called corpo, or body of the impresa) and the motto (or anima, meaning soul).
1) There must be an adequate correspondence of body and soul.
2) An impresa should be neither too obscure (so that a sibyl is needed to explain it) neither extremely plain (so than any passer-by can interpret it).
3) Should be pleasing in appearance.
4) Should not contain the human form
5) The motto should not be in the vernacular of the person who chooses the impresa and should be brief without being ambiguous.
In a famous example mentioned by Camden:
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 (sic), for his Imprese, particularly concerning his good hope to prove like unto them … (4)
Imprese had a variety of uses. They were embroidered on clothes, bedcovers or horse's caparisons, appeared in portraits, in frescoes and carvings.
In Tudor England the creation of imprese became a sort of intellectual game for the aristocracy. Special shields were carved and painted with the imprese pictures and in tournaments knights often dressed themselves and their entourage to match the theme of their impresa.
From the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First onward, any knight taking part in a tournament was required to compose an impresa (usually accompanied by an explanatory song or poem), that the knight's page would present to the sovereign before the beginning of the joust. It goes without saying that quite a few poets and literati found their skills in high demand at the time (5).
So, how is an impresa created?
When my husband and I started thinking about making ours, we first decided a few points:
1) We wanted our imprese to be individual but show somehow a family relationship
2) They would be referring to shared passions and facts of our life together.
First of all we decided the charge: we liked the idea of an animal, and did not want anything that could be constructed as boastful or exaggerated. Being life-long ailurophiles we settled on a cat, in two different poses.
Next it was the motto's turn: following Giovio's rules it was not to be in Italian … what more classical than Latin? Pondering on feline abilities and our own family history of impending disasters turning out for the best it wasn't difficult to come up with one:
In pedes cado—that is, "I fall on my feet".
Next, the actual drawing. We decided we wanted a background (a field is neither required nor forbidden in imprese, it is the bearer's choice), and that the color and enamel used would be the same, but inverted.
And this is the result. The shape is a roundel because we preferred keep clear of the heraldic shield to avoid confusion with Coats of Arms, shape, though, can vary according to use.
If we want to, imprese can be turned into forum avatars, seals, ex libris or rubber stamps, can be embroidered on items of clothing or used as an alternate signature on works of art. Applications, now as in the sixteenth century, are almost infinite.
This is all for this month. If you have any questions or curiosity about imprese, or have a favorite topic you would like to see covered in this column, please feel free to contact me through the Letters page.
(1) August 2006
(2) Impresa is the singular, imprese the plural form, an English translation could be device.
(3) Paolo Giovio: Ragionamento sopra i motti, e disegni d'arme, e d'amore, che communemente chiamano imprese (1556)
(4) In contemporary English it reads: "Since Cosimo de Medici was born under the Capricorn that was also the birth-sign of emperor Augustus and emperor Charles V, two great and good princes, he used as his impresa the sign of the Capricorn with the motto fidem fati fortuna sequemur to mean his good hope to prove to be like them." If my source’s quote is correct, Camden had the motto wrong. According to Giovio and others it should be fidem fati valore sequemur, meaning "with valour we follow fate’s promise", while Camden’s version sounds "fortune willing, we follow fate’s promise", not very in character for the energetic Duke Cosimo.
(5) For instance, both Shakespeare and Ben Johnson were hired to compose imprese.
Imprese composed by the author and Tiziano Baracchi. The heraldic cat images are copyright-free clipart available at www.heraldicclipart.com, rights to use the whole images as personal impresa are reserved.
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