The emblem is thought to have its roots in the impresa; that device by which people of wealth created a peculiarly personal mythology by selecting an image and a corresponding motto to represent their character, personality, or aspirations.
In the 1530s Andrea Aliciato, a Milanese jurist, extended the impresa’s combination of visual and textual symbolism to general and societal, rather than personal themes in his Emblematum liber, a book of 'speaking pictures'. By the end of the 16th century emblem books were being composed and published throughout Europe, and had become an important means of disseminating the ideals of Renaissance society.
One of the most popular of the English emblem books was George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes (1635), targeted at the new middle classes with a strong emphasis on images and mottoes that encouraged thrift, endurance, diligence, and honesty.
It is the engravings of the 'speaking pictures', not the explanatory prose, that are of the most interest to garden historians.
The emblem books reflected the material culture of their time, and the detailed engravings found in Wither’s Emblemes are a fascinating microcosm of period costume, architecture, activities, and especially gardens. Because many of the emblems are portrayed in an outdoor setting, around them can be seen garden structures such as arbors and trellises, formal planting and bedding schemes, fountains, seats and statuary. Practical horticultural practice is evident in the edgings and enclosure of flower and vegetable beds as well as the presence of laborers who are engaged in plowing, planting, harvesting, and tending. Even the social use of the gardens is visible, as the backgrounds are peopled with characters strolling, eating, flirting, playing at sports and listening to music.
The speaking pictures also provide inspiration for the modern gardener seeking to introduce meaning into their landscape: the ivy growing round the obelisk symbolizing weakness supported by strength, and what is more beautiful than the tree that symbolizes a patient heart?
View the whole poesy text associated with the speaking pictures at The English Emblem Book Project of the Penn State University Libraries' Electronic Text Center. Kudos to them for making Withers, and many other emblem books, available online.