Sensory studies arises at the conjuncture (and within) the fields of anthropology • sociology • history • archeology • geography • communications • religion • philosophy • literature • art history • museology • film • mixed media • performance • phenomenology • disability • aesthetics • architecture • urbanism • design

Sensory Studies can also be divided along sensory lines into, for example, visual culture, auditory culture (or sound studies), smell culture, taste culture and the culture of touch, not to mention the sixth sense (however it might be defined)

Picture Gallery >> Gluttony

Gluttony in Emblem books

The picture reproduced here is an engraving printed in an emblem book published in the 16th century by Andrea Alciato. Alciato is considered to be the inventor and remains the most famous author in the genre of the emblem book. His works, translated in many different languages, enjoyed great success throughout Europe during the early modern period. The emblem is a particular genre that combines text and image, both being complementary and equally significant. Regarding the presentation of the emblem, it generally starts on a fresh page and consists of three important features: a title or motto (inscriptio), a picture (pictura) below that and a verse text or epigram (subscriptio). An emblem is thus a symbolic picture with accompanying text.

The picture reproduced here comes from the second French translation of Alciato’s Emblematum liber or Emblemata.1 In this edition, the emblems are organized in groups, based on commonplace themes. The image above appears in the section entitled “gueule” [mouth], within which we find six emblems, all of them related to gluttony. The same picture is actually printed twice in this edition of Alciato’s emblems; it opens and closes the section related to the mouth. It is however in each case accompanied by a different title and a specific epigram.2

This emblem is a clear representation of gluttony, which is indicated by all three components of the genre. The title of course makes this very obvious, but the idea is also clearly indicated by the image itself. In this picture one can see a man with a big belly and a long neck, holding a bird in each hand, and in the background there are birds flying in the sky. The big belly is the traditional representation of the glutton. But other details of the picture are also significant. The long neck of the man – as well as the long necks of the birds – is also a reference to gluttony, especially to a famous glutton named Philoxene. The story of this comedic character was commonplace in the 16th and
17th century. The story relates how Philoxene wished he had a neck as long as a gull’s, since this would allow him to eat more, in addition to prolonging the taste, and hence the pleasures of food. This story is a classical cultural reference to gluttony, the real topos that runs from Antiquity and was very popular during the early modern period, for the way it underlined the excessive and ridiculous overindulgence of eating. The birds reproduced in the picture are also significant since they are traditionally considered to be voracious creatures. This is also confirmed by the epigrams, which refer to the “loir” and “butor” as two particularly greedy birds.

An emblem is not only represented by a picture. Depending on the title and the epigram with which it is associated, the same image can sometimes have alternate – or additional – meanings. In this case, for the same image, printed twice in the same section, we have two different titles and epigrams. The first time, the emblem, entitled “Gourmandie (sic)”, seems to refer mostly to gluttony, as signified by the neck of a gull, the big belly and gluttony of birds. It also mentions two famous gluttons of history, Apicius and Dionysus II, tyrant of Syracuse.3

In the second case this picture appears, when it closes the section, it takes the name “Contre ung bavard glouton”, which tends to link overeating with verbosity. This is also another reason explaining the presence of birds within the picture, birds being at the same time greedy and noisy creatures with their strident cries, as recalled also in the verse text below. Eating and talking are indeed two different functions fulfilled through the same organ – the mouth, which is the sectional theme. Excesses in one domain were naturally thought to lead to excesses in the other. Overeating – and of course, excessive drinking – liberates speech, troubles good manners and causes disorder. People tend to talk a lot more, speak louder, and discuss inappropriate subjects when gorging or drunk. This double function of the mouth carries a certain number of dangers: for the soul, for health and for the social reputation of the person who is too undisciplined to control their mouth – revealing the animal part of human beings. Actually, all emblems related to the section “gueule” underline the excesses of eating, presenting the mouth as a dangerous door opened to disorders when it is not carefully controlled.


Viktoria von Hoffmann, Chargée de recherches F.N.R.S (Université de Liège)


1    Alciato A., Emblemes d’Alciat, de nouveau translatez en françois, vers pour vers, jouxte les latins, ordonnez en lieux communs avec briefves expositions et figures nouvelles appropriées aux derniers emblemes, par Barthelemy Aneau, Lyon, M. Bonhomme, 1549, p. 112 ; 117. Centre for emblem studies (University of Glasgow), Glasgow Emblem Studies, [online],, last update 27/07/2010.


2    The first time, the emblem is entitled “gourmandie” (sic) [gluttony] and this is the epigram written underneath: “A col de Grue, & grand ventre de Tor / Ung homme tient, ung Loir, & ung Butor. / Telle forme est des Denys, & Apices, / Et tous gourmans par friandes delices. // Les friandz desirent long col, pour plus lon- / guement sentir la saveur des bons mor- / seaulx, & les Gourmans hont grand ventre, / & grasse panse.” [“With a crane’s neck and the big belly of Tor [OR: of a bull], a man holds a gull and a pelican. Such is the image of Dionysius and of Apicius, and of all [known as] gluttons on account of their sweet-toothed/greedy pleasures. The greedy want a long neck so that they can experience the taste of dainty morsels for longer, and gluttons have a big belly and a fat stomach.] The second time, the emblem has the motto “Contre ung bavard Glouton” [Against a talkative/garrulous glutton], followed by this verse text printed bellow : “A gousier large, hydeux cry, qui l’air rompe: / Bec comme ung nez ou pertuysée trompe, / Le Butor pinct ung grand cryard figure, / Qui seullement de gueule, & ventre ha cure. // Cest Embleme se explicque soy mesme, par le Bu- / tor oyseau de grand, & long, & large bec, de grosse / & ample gorge, & de cry tel comme d’ung asne / rudissant, figurant ung gourmand cryard, qui n’ha / que le cul, & le bec.” [With a gaping throat and a harsh cry which pierces the air, a beak like a nose or a many-holed trumpet, the pelican paints [=displays] a huge ranting figure which thinks of nothing except its mouth and its belly. This emblem is self-explanatory, the pelican bird with big, long, gaping beak and thick wide throat, and a cry like a donkey braying, signifying a ranting glutton, thinking only of his arse and his belly.] The woodcut in the 1549 version is not really the correct one for the emblem “Contre ung bavard Glouton”. We presume that Bonhomme had not yet received the correct one which will appear in the 1550 Latin edition, although the earlier one continues to be used in French editions. I would like to thank Alison Adams for pointing this to me, and also for her help in translating the verse epigrams and their comments into English.


3    Apicius is known as the author of the De coquinaria, first cookbook preserved (that is actually a compilation of several other works published under his name during the 4th-5th century). He was also a famous and extravagant gourmet, that spent his fortune on food items, and that supposedly decided to kill himself when he discovered he wasn’t rich enough anymore to satisfy all his desires. Dionysus II is another crazy glutton of history, who was assumed to have died of being overweight.