Item of the month: Valeriano’s Hieroglyphica

A post by Collections Assistant Hannah Cartwright

This month, we delve into the Renaissance world of hidden symbols, religious fervour, and lost languages with Pierio Valeriano’s Hieroglyphica. Our copy of the Hieroglyphica is part of our Bamburgh Library collection, a library initially collected and curated by the Sharp family in 18th century.

First published in 1556, Valeriano’s Hieroglypica is designed to be a dictionary of hieroglyphs. Divided into 60 chapters, each one went into depth about the meaning of each hieroglyph, what it looked like, and how it could be used. Accompanying these descriptions were beautifully detailed drawings illustrating the hieroglyphs.

There was but one problem: Egyptian hieroglyphs had not yet been deciphered.

Valeriano’s Hieroglyphica cannot be used to decipher any Egyptian text or inscription – a fact Valeriano himself admits. Yet this book was popular enough to be reprinted 7 times, and, eventually, have a copy reach the shelves of Sharp’s library.

So, what was the purpose of Valeriano’s Hieroglyphica, a dictionary of hieroglyphs that could not, in fact, translate hieroglyphs?

Illustration in Valeriano’s Hieroglyphica, Bamburgh E.3.41

Valeriano was born in 1477. Raised in relative poverty, he was given the opportunity to study through his uncle, Fra Urbano Bolzanio, and eventually took Holy Orders. He was introduced to contemporary scholars at the forefront of the study of Classical Antiquity. Valeriano, as part of this community, became fascinated with Egypt and its elusive hieroglyphs.

The wave of enthusiasm for Ancient Egypt during the Renaissance, which Valeriano was swept up in, was sparked by the rediscovery of a 5th century treatise explaining the meaning behind 186 Egyptian hieroglyphs – Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica. It was this work that led to Renaissance scholars identifying the curious ancient obelisks scattered around Rome as Egyptian in origin, and promised to help translate the enigmatic symbols decorating their surface.

Unfortunately, Horapollo’s work was not comprehensive or accurate enough to allow for any meaningful translations of the Egyptian script. However, Horapollo, alongside a few other ancient authors, were key in shaping Valeriano’s views about hieroglyphs. Valeriano came to view hieroglyphs as the perfect script, a ‘universal language’.

This ‘universal language’ theory was based upon the idea that the Egyptian hieroglyphs were an allegorical script. This is where each symbol represents an idea, in contrast to our Latin alphabet, where each symbol represents a sound. Theoretically, to understand Egyptian hieroglyphs, you would not have to learn an Egyptian language. You would only have to learn the meaning behind each image.

The idea of a script that could break across language barriers to communicate with everyone was deeply attractive to Valeriano on a philosophical and religious level. Renaissance Christian scholars believed that God communicated through visual imagery and symbols in His own ‘universal language’. Some even believed that the Egyptian priesthood had learned some of these truths and had written them in hieroglyphs. To study Egyptian hieroglyphs, then, could bring Christian scholars like Valeriano closer to understanding God.

But Valeriano’s ambitions go even further beyond understanding Ancient Egypt, Horapollo, or even his own God. Valeriano, with the Hieroglyphica, wanted to reintroduce the concept of hieroglyphs, and a ‘universal language’, back into Renaissance society. He wants to create a new visual language, his own ‘universal language’.

Therefore, Valeriano doesn’t just translate Horapollo into Latin, but expands and embellishes Horapollo’s vague descriptions in order to give precise instructions on how to create certain hieroglyphs. He also includes new, non-Egyptian hieroglyphs dreamt up by Renaissance writers such as Francesco Colonna. Each chapter of the book is dedicated to a friend or patron, whom he encourages to use hieroglyphs to represent themselves and others.

Illustration in Valeriano’s Hieroglyphica, Bamburgh E.3.41

The Hieroglyphica, for a book that cannot translate hieroglyphs, is nevertheless designed to be remarkably practical. It takes the knowledge of the past and fuses it with contemporary philosophical and religious thought in order to encourage looking at the world in a new way. Thus, aspiring artist could use the book to create hidden imagery in their work, and a Renaissance scholar could use the book to interpret the hidden imagery of the art around them.

Our 1579 copy of the Hieroglyphica is held at Palace Green Archive and Special Collections, available to be seen by appointment.

Illustration in Valeriano’s Hieroglyphica, Bamburgh E.3.41

Images reproduced with permission from the Lord Crewe’s Charity

Leave a Reply

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: