European studies blog

02 July 2015

The senses emblematised

Ver, oir, oler, gustar, tocar; empresas, que enseñan, y persuaden su buen uso, en lo politico, y en lo moral; que ofrece el hermano Lorenço Ortiz .. En Leon de Francia : en la Emprenta de Anisson, Posuel y Rigaud. A costa de Francisco Brugieres, y Compañia, 1687. British Library RB.23.a.22596

A very Jesuitical book, this: meditations on the five senses of man and the rightful uses to which they should be put.  And the genre it belongs to is one close to the heart of the Society of Jesus: the emblem book.

The emblem typically consists of a picture, a motto and a commentary, the daddy of the genre being the Emblemata of man of law Andrea Alciati, first printed in 1531. The briefer the motto, the better; the more obscure the picture, the better. The commentary, sometimes a poem, sometimes in prose with verse quotations, had to be clearer. And ever since its birth, the emblem was erudite: any sort of classical or biblical knowledge could be marshalled.

Father Ortiz begins his book of emblems with an emblem to orientate the reader (below). Look at your hands: they have five fingers, as you have five senses. And if your right hand is rightful, your left is sinister.

There follow five chapters on the senses.  Let’s focus on Taste.

So, a picture of a hand (a right one) picking a fig from a dish.  

We learn that Xerxes king of Persia went to war with the Greeks because he loved to eat their figs. There follow examples of the gluttony of the banqueters of antiquity, such as Dionysius Tyrant of  of Sicily, who made his palace into a ‘bodegón’, a still life of groaning tables loaded with delicacies. Mention of the tongue leads Ortiz into thoughts on speech and its vices (see blog of 24 September 2014).  Nowhere is so far away that it can’t furnish an improving example: the Hoitzitziltot bird (the humming bird) teaches us not to be overdelicate in our tastes, as it dies in summer when the flowers which are its favourite food wither. Ortiz then invents his versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (frequently allegorised in the 17th century): a glutton turned into a dog; a fusspot turned into a cat; the excessive abstainer turned into a chamaleon (they lived on air, you remember), etc. etc.

And the motto?  After 40 pages of disquisition on taste, Ortiz ends with a poem whose final line forms the motto in the picture: ‘O si bien loco, general empleo!’, which I take to mean ‘Oh, taste, you are good but foolish, and common to all’.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

Glasgow University Emblem Website:

Pedro F. Campa, Emblemata Hispanica : an annotated bibliography of Spanish emblem literature to the year 1700 (Durham, NC, 1990), pp. 67-68.   Open Access Rare Books and Music Reading Room RAR 704.946


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