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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Renaissance Heraldry

  • Author(s): Mackenzie, Jennifer Kathleen
  • Advisor(s): Ascoli, Albert R
  • et al.
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Heraldry is a well-defined and, almost by definition, narrow subject; a “feudal language,” with codified rules, attributes, and a history that has been told many times. Originating in medieval Europe around the invention of full-body armor, the culture of jousting and tournaments, notions of heredity, strong corporate institutions, and the practice of genealogy, it was common throughout the so-called ancien régime. Its fortunes are widely thought to have declined in the Italian Renaissance because of its incompatibility with some of the very features that have characterized the Renaissance as a distinctive cultural configuration and revolution, including the rise of the humanism, the emergence of the individual, the emancipation of the artist, and the return to classical antiquity.

Renaissance Heraldry calls these theses into question with evidence of the vitality of heraldic forms in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy; and with evidence that heraldry as we know it today was a construction of certain strands of Renaissance culture. This was tied to the construction of the very concept of the Middle Ages. Our point of entry into the subject is a popular fifteenth-century poet, who has been famously neglected in Italian literary history with respect to the scope of his accomplishments: Matteo Maria Boiardo (1441ca. - 1495). We approach the subject also from one of the off-center centers of the peninsula’s pre-modern political geography, where Boiardo was born and where he operated: the Este states, with their capital at Ferrara, and their centuries-long tradition of “feudal” rule under a single dynasty.

Specifically, Boiardo’s romance epic, the Inamoramento de Orlando (1482/3, 1495), and the history of its Renaissance reception are used as occasions here to investigate the competing discourses that circulated around a whole gamut of images relating to identity, property, authority, and the law, both in the Este states and elsewhere on the peninsula. The words these images were called by, the attributes they were said to possess, their histories, meanings, and the protocols governing their use, were actively questioned and contested. The technologies that eventually became known as philology and antiquarianism shaped the answers, and the means of arriving at them, that we are most familiar with today; our “grammars of signs,” as I call them. However, the Este dynasty nourished a humanism that brought different resources to the task of organizing the signs inherited from the past. This dissertation is invested in studying these resources, and in bringing them to light as essential contributions to the humanist tradition in the broadest sense.

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This item is under embargo until November 7, 2021.