Emblematic of the Lost Art of Nürnberg | Newberry

Emblematic of the Lost Art of Nürnberg

An emblem from the Emblematica Politica illustrates “festina lente,” epigrammatic wisdom urging one to “make haste slowly.” Image courtesy of Emblematica Online.

Newberry Fellow Mara Wade has discovered a previously unknown copy of an emblem book first published in 1617. The copy she holds here contains manuscript notes shedding new light on the Nürnberg Great Hall paintings that had been inspired by the emblems (and that were destroyed during World War II).

Georg Rem’s personal copy of Emblematica Poltiica contains his notes, which shed new light on the book’s emblems and their place within a long trajectory of art and empire in Nürnberg.

For centuries, beautiful allegorical paintings decorated the Great Hall in the Nürnberg Town Hall. Unfortunately, the paintings were destroyed during World War II; and though the Old Town Hall was reconstructed after the war, the decorative allegories were never restored.

Evidence of the Great Hall’s original art lies in an emblem book published in 1617, soon after the lost paintings were first added to the civic landmark. Newberry fellow Mara Wade, an expert on emblems, had been familiar with this book. But she was thrilled when on just her second day in residence at the Newberry this past fall, she discovered a previously unknown manuscript copy that can tell us more about the complex cultural and historical context of the Nürnberg art.

The paintings originated as emblems by Georg Rem, who designed these combinations of symbolic imagery, poetic epigrams, and mottos for the Great Hall. Emblems typically illustrated virtuous ideals for individuals to emulate and discuss; Rem’s focused on civic virtues, depicting Nürnberg and its place within the Holy Roman Empire. Visitors to the Great Hall would see these images, promoting the glory of Nürnberg, just as visitors to modern-day city halls often see art and sayings reflecting the prestige of their own municipality. Engraver Peter Isselburg considered the emblems so important that he quickly engraved and published them as Emblematica Politica.

The book Wade discovered while at the Newberry is in fact Georg Rem’s personal copy of Emblematica Politica. Rem had the engravings re-bound with additional pages for his own extensive commentary, which fills in many other details concerning the long trajectory of art and empire in Nürnberg.

Through discussion of triumphal architecture, civic monuments, commemorative coins, and public institutions, Rem’s manuscript places his emblems for the Great Hall in a complex narrative of civic pride and accomplishment. He also describes the other decorative schemes within the Great Hall. This includes a detailed description of Albrecht Dürer and Willibald Pirckheimer’s work, “The Triumphal Chariot of the Emperor Maximilian,” which had originally covered an entire wall! This new information paints a more complete visual and political picture of the Great Hall as it was in 1617.

Periodically, public debates in Nürnberg center on restoring the paintings of the Great Hall. The Newberry manuscript is important not only because it describes the decorative scheme of this historic space, but also because it situates these decorations in a much larger historical, artistic, and political context. It may even move some of these public debates in new directions.


While the subject of the discovery is interesting and important, I wonder about the process of discovery. How did Wade "find" this at the Newberry and where did it come from? Are there that many things at the Newberry that no one knows about?
Good question. Sometimes it takes readers who can recognize the significance of an item to "discover" it in our collection. In this case, Mara looked up the catalog record for the emblem book she had come across before; but the record showed that our copy had been tagged as a "manuscript." It turned out that manuscript notes had been added to the printed book, providing additional context for what was inside. The "manuscript" note in the catalog record tipped Mara off that the copy in our collection might be unique, and she was right!
Kathleen, there are untold treasures like this one in every research library. For a work acquired, say, a century ago or as part of a bulk purchase, the cataloging can be minimal. It takes the right person, asking the right questions (in their research), requesting the right item in the reading room to uncover a hidden gem. It's one of the thrills of being a scholar!
The discovery has to do with an item first being findable and then knowing what it is you are looking at. I knew that the NL had a copy of "Isselburg's" emblems. Before going to a conference in Nürnberg, I wanted to check it over. The online catalogue revealed two copies of Isselburg, one, previously unknown to me, described as a copy of Isselburg bound with a commonplace book. This is the volume I "discovered." The item needed more elaborate cataloging and a scholar who knew what the contents mean. Many prestigious libraries have under-cataloged rare books. Extensive rare-book cataloging is not "sexy," and therefore often does not attract outside funding. It requires considerable expertise and time. This is another reason why all major libraries need an injection of external funding to make their works findable. This volume now has extensive cataloging.
Georg Rem happens to be one of my ancestors so I am much interested in having a copy of this manuscript. I have got one of the emblemata politica but without notes. Is there a chance of getting a photocopy of the noted pages. I would be much obliged.

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