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The Ringling News

16 October 2023

Giuseppe Mitelli and the Visual Representation of Proverbs

by The Ringling

The Ringling Art Library has an impressive and growing collection of emblem books, a popular genre in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that was particularly prevalent in The Netherlands. The books included proverbs and sayings that sought to teach the moral lessons of the time and the correct behavor in certain social situations. The format was almost always the same: a motto, a text or poem to explain the subject, and an accompanying engraving to illustrate the meaning of the writing. Through the generous funding of the Frank E. Duckwall Foundation, the Ringling rare book collection has recently acquired its first Italian emblem book, Proverbi figurati, from 1678.

The artist who created the engravings for the book is Giuseppe Maria Mitelli (1634-1718), a prolific Bolognese engraver, sculptor and painter of historical and religious paintings that are still present in a number of churches in Bologna. He was also known as an iconophor, an artist who creates works of art around a specific letter of the alphabet. Mitelli was also known as a designer of games and Tarot cards, such as with a self-portrait.


Mitelli was the son of painter, Agostino Mitelli. One of the reasons why this particular book is a significant and appropriate addition to the Ringling Art Library, is that Mitelli was a student of two artists—Guercino and Francesco Albani, whose paintings can be seen in the The Ringling’s galleries.

This newest book in the Ringling Library’s rare book collection, Proverbi figurati, is difficult to find in public collections, especially one in as superb condition as this copy with all forty-eight of the original signed and numbered engravings. Most existing copies have some missing plates. What makes the Ringling copy even scarcer is the addition of the etched dedication leaf addressed to Francesco Maria de Medici, not included in copies offered for general sale at the time.

The visual representation of proverbs dates to the sixteenth century in various countries in Europe, but Mitelli’s version addresses Italian proverbs that especially represent the intent of the Counter-Reformation in Italy. Figures are often playful and caricature-like, a genre for which the artist was also known.


This engraving the motto: “The large fish eats the small one”

The engraving has the motto: “The large fish eats the small one:” Based on an ancient Latin proverb, this image references a world where the powerful prey on the weak.

Some of the book’s interior scenes are settings for commentary on gender roles within the home and attempt to use comedy to portray misogyny. This motto illustrates: “Unhappy is the house in which the chicken crows and the rooster is silent.”

Proverbi figurati is available for viewing by appointment. Please contact Head of Library Services, Elisa Hansen at 941-358-2701.