From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 8 special issue (1988): 149-58.
Copyright © 1988, The Cervantes Society of America

Emblematic Aspects of Cervantes' Narrative Prose


THE VAST EXTENT to which emblem books captured the imagination and attention of Renaissance Europe was long ignored by most modern critics. The long hiatus between the work of Henry Green (1870) and that of Rosemary Freeman (1948),1 demonstrates the long lack of interest in the emblematic approach to the study of literature. It was not until Mario Praz's comprehensive bibliographical work2 that critics awoke to the existence of the many editions, translations and commentaries of Alciati's original Emblematum Liber of 1531. This, along with new evidence of the emblem books' wide readership led to the recognition that they were not simply a vogue or secondary cultural phenomenon —but rather that emblem books were depositories of aesthetic theories and an important element of the visual and literary culture of the Renaissance.3
     Despite the fact that Juan de Horozco's Emblemas morales of 1589

     1 Henry Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers (London: Trubner, 1870); Rosemary Freeman, English Emblem Books (London: Chatto and Windus, 1948).
     2 Mario Praz, Studies in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Imagery (Rome: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1964).
     3 Robert J. Clements, Picta Poesis: Literary and Humanistic Theory in Renaissance Emblem Books (Rome: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1960); see also Peter M. Daly, Emblem Theory (Nendeln: KTO Press, 1979) and Literature in the Light of the Emblem: Structural Parallels Between the Emblem and Literature in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1979).


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firmly established the emblem as a tradition in Spain, and that various studies have been dedicated to the origin and development of Spanish emblem books,4 an examination of Cervantes criticism discloses that no major attempt has been made to interpret his prose fiction in the light of emblematics.
     In recent years, articles by Selig and Riley5 have noted emblematic features in some episodes of Cervantes' prose narrative which point not only to his awareness of this dual-natured genre but also to its influence on his structure and composition. Their articles may be taken as points of departure for a consideration of the relationship between the emblem and Cervantes' narrative prose.
     It is well known that the emblem is a three part structure consisting of words, pictures, and words: (1) a short motto or inscriptio introduces the emblem, (2) a device or pictura depicts objects, persons, events, and actions, and (3) the subscriptio provides an explanation in prose or verse quotation. Emphasis is on the contribution of the individual parts to a total unity and the projection of a single idea.
     In passing, one observes that following Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Horace, in the Renaissance sight was considered to be the most important of the senses. Alciati had stated in his Emblem 4 that the purpose of the emblematist was to “commit to the mind by placing before the eyes.”6 Spanish theorists also recognized the primacy of the visual faculty and its direct access to “memoria,” “entendimiento,” and “voluntad.” And through the Canon Cervantes states in Part I of Don Quixote that “the enjoyment the mind feels must come from the beauty and harmony which it perceives or contemplates in the things that the eye or the imagination brings before it.”7 Some primacy must, therefore, be accorded to the emblematic pictura, not only because it is the res picta (or visual motif) which constitutes the

     4 Giuseppina Ledda, Contributo allo studio della letteratura emblematica in Spagna, 1549-1613 (Universitá de Pisa, 1970); Philip Lloyd-Bostock, “A Study of Emblematic Theory and Practice in Spain between 1580 and 1680,” Dissertation, University of Oxford, 1979; Aquilino Sánchez Pérez, La literatura emblemática española: siglos XVI y XVII (Madrid: Sociedad General Española de Librería, 1977).
     5 Karl-Ludwig Selig, “The Battle of the Sheep: Don Quixote I, xviii,” Revista Hispánica Moderna, 38 (1974-75), 64-72; “Don Quixote II, 16-17: Don Quixote and the Lions,” in Homenaje a Ana María Barrenechea (Madrid: Editorial Castalia, 1984), 327-32; Edward C. Riley, “Symbolism in Don Quixote, Part II, Chapter 73,” Journal of Hispanic Philology, 3 (1979), 161-74.
     6 Clements, p. 92.
     7 Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote, ed. Joseph R. Jones (New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1981), p. 373.

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fundamental res significans (or intended meaning), but because it is what the reader perceives first.
     Yet another point to remember when considering the pictura is that during the Renaissance there persisted the allegorical habit which invested the material world with a spiritual significance beyond its literal meaning. This symbolic view of the world survived in the conception and interpretation of the emblem. However, as a genre both literary and pictorial the emblem depended not only upon this symbolic way of thinking, but particularly upon a close relationship between the arts of poetry and painting. The creative interaction between poetry and the visual arts expressed in the Horatian concept of ut pictura poesis contributed both to its origin and development. It was Alciati, in fact, who brought about the definite union of pictura and poesis.
     The creative process of the emblem books demanded that the emblematists pay attention to visual images that would contribute to the realization of their intended purpose. Spanish emblematists tended to use existing picturae, or sometimes left to the presses the responsibility of their inclusion. There was, however, a reserve of pictorial emblems since the demands the genre made on the printing houses were new and difficult to solve. Practical consideration in the printing industry encouraged borrowing of illustrative plates and woodcuts, and it was the economical common practice to reuse them.
     Cervantes used some of these picturae to engage his readers' attention and to ready them for the reception of a moral lesson or a literary issue, and he availed himself of the rich illustrative material contained in the emblem to support his own subscriptio. The collections printed during his lifetime were mainly of a serious and moralizing nature, but emblem writers were as concerned as Cervantes with the aesthetics of the period, and many of their views were consonant with Cervantes' own perception of the function and aim of literature.
     A reexamination of some episodes of Don Quixote in the light of the emblem reveals qualities associated with this genre in Cervantes' verbal art. There is an emblematic relation between the visual images and Don Quixote's actions. A case in point is Part I, Chapter 18, the episode of the battle of the sheep. As Don Quixote proceeds on his quest for adventures, Cervantes creates a scene which borrows a visual image from the emblem tradition. The image of the “Insani Gladius” is Emblem 175 in Alciati's original work, and it appears again in Bernardino Daza's translation in the vernacular as “La espada en

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manos del loco”8 (fig. 1). The image alludes to the myth of Ajax who was driven to madness when Achilles' arms were awarded to Odysseus as a prize for bravery. Thinking they were Greeks, the deranged Ajax first slaughtered a flock of sheep and then, discovering his error, he turned his sword against himself.
     But Don Quixote is ruled by a different sort of madness. We are told that he charges into battle with “spirit and intrepidity” but he is restrained from further action as he rationalizes that “the malignant spirit had turned the squadrons of enemy into flocks of sheep.”9 Despite his initial aggressive impulse, reason reigns over Don Quixote's actions. The moral lesson implied in Alciati's original emblem is that man should restrain his anger and temerity. This is clear in Diego López's translation: “El que hace esto hace más que si solo venciera a un ejército de enemigos, porque ninguna victoria hay más insigne, ni mayor, ni más provechosa que aquella que alcanza el hombre de sí mismo cuando refrenando la ira, y cólera, viene a quedar victorioso.”10 In Don Quixote's journey from irrationality to reason, this adventure is one stepping stone towards self-knowledge for he has not departed from “el camino de la razón.”
     This episode concerns the moral life of Don Quixote; however, there are others which demonstrate how Cervantes uses the emblem to serve his purposes in the novel. Don Quixote as an “Insani Gladius,” or mad warrior with raised sword, also appears in the episode of the “vizcaíno,” where the narrative is halted and the visual image is introduced. Cervantes uses the fiction of a lost manuscript to fix this image in the readers' mind. Indeed, we may safely say that Don Quixote's very existence as a character and the recovery and identification of the manuscript which contains his “historia” is aided by Cervantes' conveniently placed visual clue. But the very fact that a visual image is chosen to help reestablish the narrative says something about how the verbal and visual registers are inextricably bound in Cervantes' mind and in the creation of the novel. Until this moment, Cervantes' narrative has focused on the description of Don Quixote's imagination and expectations as he prepares himself for a life as a knight errant. The episode of the windmills is a well

     8 Bernardino Daza Pinciano, Los Emblemas de Alciato traducidos en Rhimas Españolas (Lyon, 1549).
     9 Cervantes, p. 123.
     10 Diego López, Declaración Magistral sobre las Emblemas de Andrés Alciato, 1655 (Menston, England: Scolar Press, 1973), p. 601.

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developed antecedent of this scene with the “vizcaíno,” for it is not only Don Quixote's madness but his urgency to initiate his valiant deeds which impel him to act. In this scene with the “vizcaíno,” Don Quixote is, at last, encountering a foe, though an unsuspecting one. Cervantes is, in effect, creating an emblematic frontispiece for his novel, since in the Renaissance the inclusion of these visual images was not only to illustrate but “to translate into the form of pictorial art the author's intellectual and literary concepts.”11 What this particular pictura presents is a fundamental theme of the novel: the interaction of literature and life, and what follows is Don Quixote's attempt to reconcile his self-image with the real world. What may have been regarded as a comic image has a serious intention, for it contributes to the author's stated purpose: “to cause mankind to abhor the false and foolish tales of the books of chivalry.”12 Curiously enough, more than a decade before the publication of the first part of the Quixote, the Spanish emblematist Juan de Horozco had expressed the same reservations about the chivalrous literature entertaining the public of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by noting that the ancients took the head of the octopus to symbolize such literature: “La vana poesía como de caballerías y amores, que aún entonces se usaba pintaron por la cabeza del pulpo que al gusto es muy sabrosa, y después causa terribles sueños y da mucho desasosiego.”13
     Another instance in which the emblem can explain what might at first seem a strange adventure is the episode of Clavileño during Don Quixote's stay in the Duke's palace. The image of Don Quixote on the supposed flying horse would have reminded Cervantes' contemporaries of the myth of Bellerophon and his winged horse Pegasus, a story illustrated by Alciati's Emblem 14 “Consilio, et Chimaeran superari.” It later appears in Daza's translation as “Que con consejo se vencen los más fuertes y engañadores” (fig. 2). Bellerophon's encounter with the monster Chimaera is brought about by the love-smitten and rejected wife of the King, and by Bellerophon's desire not to be disloyal to one who has treated him hospitably. This adventure is more subtle than others for Don Quixote is, in fact, encountering the eroticism present in the novels

     11 Margery Corbett, The Comely Frontispiece: The Emblematic Title Page in England (London, Boston: Routledge K. Paul, 1979), p. 47.
     12 Cervantes, p. 830.
     13 Juan de Horozco, Emblemas morales (Segovia, 1591), f. 77.

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of chivalry which so much pleased Maritornes, but which was considered by Cervantes to be one of the worst qualities of the literature written for the mass public. In Part I the Canon had criticized the novel of chivalry for its amorality: “And then what shall we say of the ease with which a born queen or empress will fall into the arms of some unknown wandering knight,”14 he states. This is precisely the role which the damsel Altisidora is urged to play at the insistence of Don Quixote's hosts. Her advances and active pursuit of Don Quixote reintroduce the theme of sexual morality stated before in the episode at the inn where the skirmish with Maritornes took place. Here Don Quixote had fantasized that the daughter of the lord of the castle had fallen in love with him. Taking the fantasy to be a fact he “began to feel uneasy and to consider the perilous risk which his virtue was about to encounter.”15 Don Quixote resolves to be faithful to his lady Dulcinea, but in the episode in the Duke's house, he is not in control of the situation. Don Quixote is disturbed by Altisidora's wooing which fills him with a certain anxiety expressed by phrases full of concern about what he perceives may be a possible “assault upon his chastity.” When the visual image of the emblem is placed in this context Don Quixote is seen as a man fighting temptation: “Who knows but this privacy, this opportunity, this silence, may awaken my sleeping desires and lead me in these latter years to fall where I have never stumbled?”16 And though in her last song to the departing Don Quixote she disassociates herself from the evil image of the “dragon,” and describes herself as a “tender young lamb,” Altisidora is indeed the Chimaera, the monster representing “tantos vicios y tantos malos pensamientos, con que el mundo nos acomete,”17 and only a wise and prudent man can overcome them. The image of Don Quixote on Clavileño is a pictorial representation of the verbally presented situation which slowly unfolds; it is simultaneously anchored in myth and in Don Quixote's reality. Diego López supports this interpretation when in his commentary to this emblem he writes: “Más dificultoso le fuera a Bellerofón librarte de las manos de esta mujer que vencer la Chimera.”18
     The episode of Don Quixote and the omens may well provide a

     14 Cervantes, p. 373.
     15 Cervantes, p. 108.
     16 Cervantes, p. 686.
     17 López, p. 85.
     18 Ibid.

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final instance of the usefulness of an emblematic interpretation in elucidating Cervantes' theory of the novel. In the penultimate chapter of the novel, as he enters his village, Quixote is frozen in an image, seemingly drained of vital power, as he stands holding a hunted hare and a cricket cage. As in the case of the scene with “vizcaíno,” the narrative is briefly halted while Cervantes composes a visual image before our very eyes. Riley's statement that “the entire scene or part of it could comprise an emblem”19 leaves ample room for further speculation, and one cannot but wonder if Cervantes did not purposely exploit the pictorial quality of these scene to make a visual statement of considerable importance.
     Don Quixote is presented as intruding upon the scene of a hunt which one associates with the love chase since its symbolism is present in the Spanish literary tradition. The hare, as Riley notes, has numerous symbolical associations, predominantly of femininity. And though he states that each object stands for a symbolic substitute for Dulcinea, he admits that his “hopes of discovering emblematic or iconographic meaning in the picture . . . have not been realized.”20 However, in the emblematic tradition the crickets, which presumably once occupied the empty cage in the episode, are symbols of bad or minor poets, while the hare is associated with the “open,” since it is an animal that lives in the open. Hence, Cervantes may be stating in emblematic form a major literary concern. We know that the first part of Don Quixote enjoyed enormous popularity during Cervantes' lifetime, but that he also experienced the publication of Avellaneda's spurious second part. In light of this, Chapter 73 may well be a narrative turning point in Don Quixote: Cervantes is perhaps aware that, if left in the open—that is, in the hands of free and unrestrained minor poets—his hero's fate will not rest in the hands of his creator. One may hypothesize, therefore, that Cervantes might be emblematically expressing his desire not to leave his novel open-ended once again. Consequently, he returns Don Quixote to his place of origin prior to his peaceful death.
     These episodes briefly illustrate that Cervantes likely used the tradition of the emblem to state visually his purposes in the novel. Employing a genre which was in vogue during his own time, he presented to his readers both abstract moral qualities and virtues and

     19 Riley, p. 169.
     20 Ibid.

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literary issues in a visual language understood by all. The pictorial quality of these episodes invites us to try to recapture the ability to read his work emblematically and to discover deeper meanings in his images. In this sense, the widely read emblem books offer us a unique resource for the elucidation of all of Cervantes' literary creations.


Prepared with the help of Myrna Douglas
Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes