Puzzling pictures: Crowned Porcupine and Honey Bees from a Lion Carcass - solving Emblemata Riddles of 16th Century Coinage in Ferrara and France


Savants of the Renaissance loved shrewd riddles. They called those rebuses “emblemata”. This podcast demonstrates how to solve Renaissance riddles.

Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in the upper Italian city of Ferrara. We are somewhere between 1505 and 1534 A.D.


What a strange picture! A man with a helmet is sitting in a captain's chair. In his right hand he is holding a lion's head which has bees flying out from it. In front of him there is a tree stump with a snake coiled around it. What seems to us to be a puzzle, was also intended as a puzzle by the creator of the coin. He was challenging his educated contemporaries with this picture.


The technical term for such a pictorial puzzle is an emblem. An emblem is a symbol which consists of three components: a picture, a motto and the explanation. Even at the time they were made, most contemporaries did not understand the emblemata. So educated people drafted lexicons containing the puzzles and their solutions.


We will take a coin released by Louis XII of France around 1500 A.D. as an example. It features a porcupine. A crown is pictured above it. What this is supposed to mean, is not immediately clear.


If you wanted to know what it meant, you looked it up in a lexicon. There you found a motto to the picture: Cominus et eminus. This translate as: from near and afar, which doesn't make it any clearer.


Motto and picture indicated the epigraph, which read: just as a porcupine fights with his spears in close combat and from a distance, a good king should be strong in his words and deeds.


With the crowned porcupine, Louis XII therefore declared his idea of good governance: a true king must carefully consider every resolution, but then implement it energetically.


Now you could ask yourself how the poor porcupine was supposed to fight with his quills from a distance. But back then the educated person would have read the Physiologus, an unfailing source of unverifiable knowledge on animals which had only been seen alive by very few people at the time. And the Physiologus stated simply that the porcupine could hurl its quills like arrows.


With regards to the bee, the Physiologus reported that it was an industrious creature which could do great things collaboratively. In Ovid it said that bees lived virtuously. Their reproduction was by a curious method: you had to kill a bull without spilling its blood and store it in a closed house. When you opened the doors after three weeks, a swarm of bees flew out from the carcass.


The creator of this emblem and everyone who contemplated it knew these reports. Knowledge of the classical authors was common knowledge to an educated person.

Just as the old and new testament were. The story of Samson and the lion featured there. Samson slew a lion and he later found a beehive in its carcass. He took the sweet honey to his parent.


Alfonso d’Este, who commissioned this coin, designed his emblem from these motifs: a warrior is holding the head of the slain lion in his hand and bees are rising from its mouth. That is why the motto is written there: DE FORTI DVLCEDO, translated "the sweetness out of the valour". You can interpret it something like this: first comes war, and after victory, the sweetness of peace. The snake which is coiled around the tree trunk represents the astute forethought that the ruler needs to exercise in order to achieve peace.


So when Alfonso d’Este invited his social peers, artists and writers to his court, he may occasionally have tested their general knowledge by giving them such a coin and asking them to interpret the picture. Whoever could perform this task gracefully, and interspersed it with a bit of princely praise, could count on the protection of the lord of Ferrara.


Because he was generous and could afford it. Alfonso d’Este had built up a very powerful army, which he equipped with modern firearms. This is how he was able to keep his little duchy Ferrara independent from the great powers. He became a coveted ally who was even wooed by the Pope. Alfonso married the notorious daughter of the Pope, Lucrezia Borgia, but we might tell you her story another time.

Signet Sunflower Foundation