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Achille Bocchi and the Emblem Book as Symbolic Form.

Elizabeth See Watson. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 48 figs. + x + 299 pp. $75.

This book seeks to explore the life and work of Achille Bocchi (14881562), a Bolognese humanist rather ambiguously characterized in a summarizing paragraph which precedes the frontispiece as "one of the sixteenth century's greatest intellectuals" and "a somewhat shadowy and ambivalent figure" (ix). Bocchi's manifold activities as a teacher of rhetoric at the Studio (University) of Bologna, local historian, poet, publisher and in the 1540s founder of the Accademia Bocchiana, are carefully analyzed in part one, "Achille Bocchi: A Life in Its Context" (1-77). In this section, due to the lack of objective information on many of Bocchi's activities during key periods of his life, Watson's predominantly contextual approach proves to be the best, if not the only, means of constructing a full biographical narrative. The author's supporting evidence is based on wide-ranging and intimate knowledge of many aspects of intellectual and social life in Renaissance Italy in general and sixteenth-century Bologna in particular. This is supplemented by her acquaintance with numerous unpublished manuscript sources, conveniently listed on pp. 246ff. Achille Bocchi's life and work thus emerge firmly embedded in the context of the time and therefore become less "shadowy". Among other things, Watson makes a convincing case against Bocchi's supposed hereticism. Despite her assertion that she will not "provide a psychological portrait of Bocchi" (4), the author offers the reader several amusing glimpses into her subject's personality (13-15).

There is no doubt that Bocchi's posthumous fame harks back to the publication of his Symbolicarum Quaestionum ... Libri Quinque in 1555 and again in 1574 (and not 1572 as it appears erroneously in the first citation [ix]). Bocchi's book is not just another occasional exercise in the "trendy" genre of emblematics, but the result of a lifelong personal investment, closely intertwined with its author's private life and manifold intellectual interests. The Symbolic Questions is shown to be a truly "symbolic form" generated by forces that were both personal and public, topical and perennial. This point is most effectively demonstrated in those passages where Watson elaborates on an analogy between Bocchi's emblem book and his Bolognese palace (64, 9294, 148-52) Since this is one of the most original, deeply learned and personal emblem books ever published, it doesn't come as a surprise that another book-length study, by Karen Pinkus of Northwestern University, is currently being prepared for publication. The Symbolic Questions are analyzed by Watson in part two, "The Generic Mix and Bocchi's Symbol Construction" (79-152), while useful information about the production of the book is found earlier (66-70). In a sequence of four consecutive chapters Watson dutifully discusses sixteenth-century poetics, ancient and Renaissance theories of symbols, and a plethora of visual/verbal genres practiced in the cinquecento, always with the intention of establishing the type of influence they exerted on Bocchi's emblems. Whether the results are fruitful or inconclusive, Watson's analysis often tends toward tedious circumstantiality, following as it does the step by step processes of the author's research, a frequent flaw of published dissertations.

As the author states in the preface, the book has been conceived as "an introduction to Achille Bocchi and his Symbolic Questions rather than a definitive study of the emblems by themselves" (ix). Given their quantity and importance, however, it seems that Bocchi's emblems, in spite of the number of pages devoted to them, have been given somewhat short shrift. Watson is more interested in intellectual history and literary theories than in emblems as a peculiar combination of verbal and visual elements. Thus, nowhere in the book do we find a profound discussion of how the images were conceived and employed by Bocchi. And the reader interested in specific images must make his or her way from them to the text by using a not always reliable index. Despite these criticisms, Watson's book does fulfill her stated purpose well.
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Author:Konecny, Lubomir
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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