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:

  1. adequate correspondance of body and soul (figure and motto),
  2. neither obscure nor too obvious,
  3. pleasing appearance,
  4. no human form,
  5. the motto not be in the vernacular of the person who chose the impresa, and brief without being ambiguous.

Other available references, in Italian and French, include:

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:

Mount Olympus with an altar
fides (faith)
Olympos (in Greek letters) was long a motto of the Gonzaga family, and inscribed on the ring of their coronet as dukes of Mantua.
Luigi il Rodomonte Gonzaga
the temple of Ephesus burning
alterutra clarescere fama
An allusion to the destruction of this wonder of the antique world in 356 BC by Eratostrates, who was seeking fame for himself. It worked...
Francesco Sforza
a greyhound (veltro) in repose
quietum nemo impune lacessit
Variation on a well-known motto used by Louis XI and the kings of Scotland.
Cosimo I Medici
a tree with a branch broken off
uno avulso non deficit alter (with one torn away the other isn't missing).
He also cites the impresa of the Colonna family and then four imprese of four different family members.

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:

  • a stork with motto: ich kann verdauen ein grosses Eisen (I can swallow a big iron), which had been used by Federico's grandfather Antonio (d. 1404) on whose tomb it appears.
  • an ermine, the animal, surrounded by mud, with the motto non mai (never): the animal being reputed to prefer dying to soiling its immaculate coat.
  • several other emblems, but without mottos: a horse-bit and a horse-brush (used for restive and for odedient horses, symbols of good government borrowed from Francesco Sforza), a stork holding a stone in its lifted claw (a medieval symbol of vigilance), a bursting grenade.

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.
holder corpo anima remarks
Ludovico a sun assente
Francesco I two winged claws holding a ring assente
a white dow on a green pasture before a red background, looking up to the sun bider craft (wider Kraft, against force) white = faith, green = hope, red = charity
a turtle-dove on a round branch in the center of which some water vrai amour ne se change the liber de natura animalium claims that a turtle-dove that has lost its partner ceases to drink water and alight on branches; Ludovico II's favorite impresa
a mountain or rock with a diamond in the middle amômos (Greek: flawless)
Gianfrancesco a door knocker, a Great Dane assente
Ludovico II sun par un [sol] desir (by one desire) pun on "sol" (=one in French, sun in Latin)
Hydra assente
a gauntlet buena fe no es mudable
hedgehog noli me tangere (do not touch me)
a lynx seated in front of an obelisk and surrounded by a bow, arrows, a sword enigmata
Federico I the letters EPO, mirtle assente
Francesco II a muzzle cautius allusion to Vergil, Aen. 11:153
crucible on a fire with a bundle of metal rods being melted domine probasti (Psalms 138:1) adopted in 1495 after accusations that he betrayed the Italians in the war against the French, after the battle of the Taro
the bull of Phalaris imbuit autor opus
Federico II Mount Olympus fides (faith) became the main emblem of the Gonzaga dukes
salamander quod huic deest me cruciat what it misses torments me (fire)

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:

  • M. Praz: Studies in seventeenth century imagery. Rome, 1964-74.
  • A. Henkel and A. Schoene: Emblemata: Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts. Stuttgart, 1967. 2d. ed., 1976. (This is a huge illustrated collection of imprese drawn from contemporary sources, with an index by motto and figure, but not by name of holder.)

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François Velde

Aug 02, 2000