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Girolamo Ruscelli
Italian, 1500–1566
and Nicolo Nelli
Italian, 1530–ca. 1580
Le Imprese Illustri, Venice, 1566
Division of Rare and Manuscripts Collections, Cornell University Library


This very scarce volume of emblems contains the imaginary devices of Henri II, and his beloved mistress Diane de Poitiers. The Venetian engraver employed for this book was Nicolo Nelli, the author of a portrait of Ruscelli now in the Art Institute of Chicago. Ruscelli plays with the notion of incompleteness as the source of (restrained) desire, in both love and politics.  About this device, he writes:


“Henri used the half-moon as his symbol to convey his commitment to a lady named Diane: his intention was to tell her, and the whole world, that, since she could not become heiress to the throne, he himself was unable to show the full measure of his love: similarly, the Moon shines at its brightest only when it is perfectly full.”


The motto, Donec Totum Impleat Orbem (= until [the sun] fills its orb), says Ruscelli, “refers to the Sun. The elevated soul will never cease to strive for brilliant achievements—until God fills it to the brim with His divine light.” This dual symbolism of moon (feminine)/sun (masculine) was a cliché of Renaissance iconography. The solar emblem for Kings was by no means an invention of Louis XIV; however, we can witness the mixed feelings generated by the rise of absolutism: Henri II’s glorification is limited by the fear of hubris. The crescent became a topos or cliché of the courtier poetry (Olivier de Magny, etc.).