An impresa (plural imprese) is a variant of the badge which became particularly popular in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Pastoureau (in his Traité d'Héraldique, 2 ed., pp. 218-9) places badges in parallel and sometimes opposition to heraldry. The use of figures such as an animal, plant or object, to symbolize an individual or lineage was quite ancient and preceded heraldry (e.g., the broom plant of the Plantagenet); eclipsed by heraldry, it made a come-back in the 14th c. and gained great importance, perhaps as a way to individualize what had become a fairly formal and rigid system.
Starting in the 15th c. the badge was often accompanied by a short motto, and this gave rise to what are called in Italian impresa (plural: imprese), in which a figure called the body of the badge is combined with a motto (in Italian, "word") called the soul, usually the former illustrating the latter, the latter explaining the former, both alluding to the individual who chose them. These were very popular in the 15th-17th c. in Italy and by imitation in France, but also elsewhere. In the 16th c. books were written on the subject of imprese, such as Ercole Tasso: Della realta e perfettione delle Imprese, and Paolo Giovio: Ragionamento delle Imprese; providing rules on how to compose them and listing examples. Giovio's rules are:
Imprese were sometimes used by a whole family, but many times they were individual, and indeed the same individual might have several at the same time or in succession. Crollalanza cites a large number of impreses, among which:
The Gubbio studiolo, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is typical of Italian Renaissance decorative arts in that it incorporates several imprese of the owner of the place, Federico da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino (1422-82). Among them are:
Impreses of the Gonzaga
The Gonzaga family ruled Mantua from 1328 to 1707, with title of marquis from 1432 and duke from 1530. Here are some of their imprese.
I got tired of copying these, but all the successive Gonzaga rulers down to Charles II (d. 1665) had their imprese. What is striking is that, in the 17th century, the figures become more and more complex scenes with human figures, depictions of mythological episodes or events. They resemble more and more the allegories commonly found on medals of the 17th and 18th centuries, rather than the laconic, compact imprese of the Renaissance. This list also illustrates the variety of languages used, the multiple imprese used by each individual, the fact that an impresa could be re-used by a descendant but were usually individual, and the fact that their meaning can be very obscure (no one knows what EPO stands for, or the meaning of the enigmatic lynx, an impresa clearly designed to puzzle since its motto was "enigmas" in Greek!). Imprese were used abundantly in interior decoration, but also on coinage and medals. The Mount Olympus became the crest of the Gonzaga dynasty, and the motto "fides" inscribed on the rim of the ducal crown they used.
The Gonzaga imprese come from Giancarlo Malacarre and Rodolfo Signorini: Monete et Medaglie di Mantua e dei Gonzaga dal XII al XIX secolo. They relied on Simbola divina et humana pontificum imperatorum et regum, Frankfurt, 1642. The information on the Gubbio studiolo comes from an article in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (1994). Otto Neubecker devotes a couple pages to illustrations of various badges and imprese. Pastoureau cites a couple references:
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