Manutius printer’s mark actors are a dolphin and an anchor. The same allegory is also found in two charts in Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. And not to illustrate a popular proverb.
The legendary dolphin coiled around an anchor has iconographically accompanied Manutius’ publications in Renaissance Venice. It wasn’t just a tribute to the Italian lagoon city: Desiderius Erasmus says that Pietro Bembo gave Manutius a Roman silver denarius minted by the emperor Vespasian and then the latter decided to adopt it as his brand.
In the Greco-Roman era, a dolphin winding around an anchor was a symbol to indicate the popular saying Festina Lente, that is to say, as Desiderius Erasmus translated it in his Adagia, an oxymoron meaning “make haste slowly”. In any case, it means, in its various combinations, the need for slowness and accuracy, the anchor, with that of industrious speed, the dolphin. Which had probably inspired Vespasian’s coiners, or better the emperor himself since it seems that he often used this motto as an exhortation to the commanders of the Roman army, intending to spur them to zeal. A family tradition, apparently given that his son Domitian adopted a similar coinage.
Basilius Valentinus in his Currus Triumphalis Antimonii, or Triumphant Chariot of Antimony, mentions Andrea Alciato’s Emblem 144 (CXLIV). He writes: “… Festina lente pingit Alciatus, et ancora Delphinus Implicat. Run slowly paints Alciatus and the dolphin winds around the anchor”. Emblemata by Alciati was a progenitor book of the philosophical emblems genre and was so successful that it had many editions. I don’t know which edition Basilius consulted, I propose here a woodcut from Emblemi di Andrea Alciato Huomo Chiarissimo dal Latino nel volgare Italiano, Padova, 1626.
As we know, Emblemata, or collections of moral teaching emblems with a philosophical background, appeared for the first time in Augsburg in 1531. And since then it enjoyed an extraordinary diffusion, with hundreds of editions and translations into Italian, French, Spanish, German, and English. The great success was essentially due to the use of subjects taken from classical mythology, which was new. Certainly not for mere exercises in spreading trivial virtuous teachings, but to cover up ancient teachings, and thus avoid their disappearance. From 104 emblems, present in the first edition, we passed to 190 in the Venetian edition of 1546, up to 212 in the Paduan edition of 1621.
But let’s go back to emblem 144: the dolphin coiled at anchor. The title reads: “Princeps subditorum incolumitatem procurans”, the prince who ensures the safety of his subjects. The motto underlying the woodcut runs along similar lines: When the Titan brothers disturb the sea with fierce winds, then how useful, once dropped, is the anchor to the miserable helmsman. The dolphin, pitying the man, then embraces it, to make it safer in the silty bottom of the sea. So the king should do for his people.
Andreae Alciati emblemata cum commentariis Claudii Minois I. C. Francisci Sanctii Brocensis & notis Laurentii Pignorii, Padova 1661 is a voluminous edition of Alciati’s Emblemata accompanied by the comments of Lorenzo Pignoria, Claude Mignault, and a Francesco Brocensus. On page 615, we can find the same woodcut portraying a dolphin and anchor. Apart from the sobriety of the baroque frame.
Commentators limit themselves to collecting erudite quotations on the subject, without putting anything into it. They begin by attributing to Aldus Manutius the repechage of the motto Festina Lente, which apparently had fallen into disuse in the centuries following the end of the empire. However, they do not mention Hypnerotomachia; rather they look for documented similarities. A quotation from Pliny suggested: “the king must imitate the speed ( truly extraordinary) of the dolphin”. And, in this regard, they quote Ovidius, Metamorphoseon, 14, when the poet speaks of winds: Dicuntur autem Titanii Fratres venti, a Titane avo: fuit enim Aurora Titanis filia, quae mista fratri Astraeo peperit illi ventos, gigantes robustissimos... And the Titans are said to be the brothers of the winds, from their grandfather Titan: because Aurora was the daughter of the Titans, who, united with her brother Astraeus, gave birth to the winds, the strongest giants.
Pius erga homines delphin, id est amicus hominum, the dolphin is man’s good friend, and it has pity on man… De pietate delphini in homines plura diximus emblem 90, about the pity of the dolphin we will tell more in emblem 90.
Anchora Iacta, drop the anchor. Commentators furtherly point at a detail few pay attention to; namely, the anchor must be dropped into the sea. They quote the proverb “to loose the sacred anchor”. And further “anchora quod nautis”, the anchor is for sailors, not for dolphins who can only twist themselves around at most. Therefore, something is anchored and fixed, and the dolphin dances around it. But, in a gesture of love, it keeps the man tied to his life, to his body. And this, carrying it in the right wind.
In the end, a sentence from Plutarch: “a dolphin was painted on Ulysses’ shield”. Perhaps that was why he was saved from the malice of Poseidon the Stormy.
Leafing through Alciato’s work, there are other examples of dolphins but without the anchor. For instance, in the aforementioned Andreae Alciati emblemata cum commentariis on page 703, emblem CLVII 157, we find a dolphin alone. A single ferocious-looking dolphin seems to want to land to make some victims. The title reads “In Eum, qui truculentia suorum perierit” Besides that, he was ruined by his own cruelty. The motto below the image runs along similar lines: “The dolphin forcibly pushed me to the shores, for me to be an example of how insidious the dangers of the sea are. If even Neptune does not spare his pupils, who can think that men are safe on ships?”
Neptune/Poseidon is the deity of waves in the broadest sense, not just the sea (for example he was also the god of earthquakes). In any case, we know that the initiates, or the dead, are those who symbolically throw themselves into the sea from the cliffs. An initiatory journey not without dangers thinks of Ulysses, hated by the god of the sea who condemns him and never to return home.
In the body of the comments, there are many literary references to dolphins rescuing people at sea, and for this reason, defined as pitiful fish. Then the force demonstrated on the ground by the dolphin is analyzed, and to corroborate their statement they quote Plutarch. But immediately below they cite Pliny, who disagrees with this and states that the dolphin would die out of the water.
The speed and agility of the dolphin are also analyzed. Thus, as you can see, nothing that is not trivial is added. Ultimately, we can assume that the dolphin represents a symbolic rescue for the shipwrecked person on his perilous journey.
Also in Emblematum libellus, on page 79, I found the image of a dolphin on its way to the dry land accompanied by the title “In eum qui truculentia suorum perierit”. Except that, in this woodcut, the dolphin seems already stranded on the beach and gasping on its back.
The above-mentioned edition of Alciati’s Emblematum libellus was the first and limited edition, published in Augsburg in 1534, and emblems may be somewhat different from those of later editions. For example, in the woodcut on page 15, we see a putto astride the fish while playing a harp. As for the dolphin, it’s taking the putto to the rocks. If you remember, we have already seen the scene of a little boy riding a dolphin embossed in the decorations of the Gundestrup cauldron.
Should we think the musical instrument represents an anchor point in the sea? We recall the importance of music in Alchemy and how often the ocean is understood as an expanse of fluctuations.
In the last line of the motto, we read: what is snatched away by men is saved by fish. But the first line is “Delphini infidens vada caerula sulcat Arion”, Arion, trusting the dolphin, crosses the blue ford. Arion was a poet and musician of ancient Greece, mainly known for the legend according to a dolphin saved him.
As we have seen, Alciati presents variants of the dolphin symbol, but never mentions the adage Festina Lente, neither in the titles nor in the mottos under the woodcuts. That remains for his commentators.
To be pedantic, one can find another picture of dolphins in Alciati’s Emblematum libellus. And, if you notice, it looks a lot like a similar one in Hypnerotomachia.