Thursday 23 May 2024

Web-surfing and a C16th entrepreneur by Elisabeth Storrs


As an historical novelist, I encounter both joy and tribulation in researching via the internet. Surfing the web provides a plethora of reference articles with helpful hyperlinks to other pages. Woe betide the novelist who is tempted to click on one of these links! You can be transported down a wonderous rabbit hole but end up in the tarpit of research. Instead of writing your novel, you find yourself whiling away hours on fascinating sidetracks.

One example of this occurred when I was writing The Golden Dice, the second book in my A Tale of Ancient Rome trilogy. One of my central characters is Marcus Furius Camillus (pictured), the famous Roman stateman who came to be known as the ‘Second Founder of Rome’ (the metro train station ‘Furio Camillo’ in Rome is named after him). He initially gained fame as the general who besieged the Etruscan city of Veii for ten years, the legend of which forms the underlying story line in my series.

Researching Camillus involved reading classical sources such as Livy and Plutarch but, inevitably, I also surfed the web for other references to him. One page was illustrated by an image of a woodcut engraving in the form of a medallion depicting Camillus’ head. Underneath was a hyperlink to the source of the portrait…click! Down, down, down I went into the 16th century world of humanist, printer, bookseller and entrepreneur, Guillame Rouille.

Rouille was born in Tours in 1518, moving to Venice to complete his printing apprenticeship before returning to France and residing in Lyon. He is attributed as being the inventor of the pocket book format called sextodecimo with 16 leaves to the folio sheet. He gained prestige for producing iconography books which were popular in the C16th and C17th. Such books featured icons with mottos together with text explaining the connection between the two.

Rouille’s most famous book on iconography was Promptuarii iconum insigniorum à seculo hominum, subiectis eorum vitis, per compendium ex probatissimis autoribus desumptis or Promptuarium Iconum Insigniorum for short (roughly translated as ‘a compendium of icons of famous men across time’). Published in 1533, the book featured 828 woodcut engravings of famous people in the form of medallions. In 1577 a further 100 icons were added.

Frontispiece with Rouille's emblem

Promptuarium Iconum Insigniorum consisted of two parts bound into one tome but separately paginated. The first part included figures born before Christ starting from Adam and Eve. The second part featured people born after Christ ending with the French King Henry II. Examples are the biblical Abraham and Noah, the pagan deities, Janus and Vesta, together with heroes such as Romulus and Hercules. Even the minotaur scored a guernsey. Figures in the CE included Christ himself,  Pontius Pilate,  Roman emperors, Attila the Hun, Muhammad, early Ottoman sultans, and the Holy Roman Emperors.

Ever the entrepreneur, Rouillé published different language versions with an eye to courting favour with royalty by dedicating the editions to them: the Latin edition to Henry II of France, the Italian edition to Catherine de' Medici, and the French edition to Marguerite de Navarre.

The legendary characters (such as Camillus) were drawn from Rouille’s imagination based on his ideas about the person’s deeds and personality. As for the real personages, the portraits reflected images on paintings, coins, seals and intaglios. Unfortunately, there were was one glaring error. Rouillé mistook the portrait of the goddess Athena on the obverse side of a Macedonian stater coin as Alexander the Great.

Amazingly, the engraver’s name is, unfairly, not mentioned. Indeed, Wikimedia Commons still lists the images as ‘artist unknown’. Instead, it is Guillame Rouille who stands first and foremost. He saw the book as an entertaining collection of succinct illustrated lessons for a general audience. It became a bestseller in its era outstripping rival iconography books. And because the medallions had the appearance of coins, Rouille quipped in his preface he included fictitious images of individuals before the biblical account of the Flood so as not to be accused of spreading counterfeit money to the public!

Medallions featuring Adam, Dante, Olympias (Alexander's mother), 
Charles II de Orleans, Andromache, King Priam, Clovis, Cornelia Sinna and Camillus

Guillame Rouille may have faded into obscurity but I wonder what he would think about his book still being available at Abebooks for $1,000+ or Amazon for a more affordable prize. I imagine he’s grinning. If you’re interested in seeing more of the medallions, please visit here.

As for being diverted by hyperlinks, I will confess this blog post was supposed to feature Cornelia Cinna Minor, wife of Julius Caesar and daughter of Cinna, but when her Rouille medallion appeared on a search, I knew it was the C16th entrepreneur who beckoned me to tell his story first!

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tales of Ancient Rome series and founder of the Historical Novel SocietyAustralasia.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, in particular, Jenny Kirby History

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