Print page












The technique of the Alexandrinian paegnion, after some sporadic attempts, now lost, by Latin authors, Naevius and a few others, was taken up again by Porphyrius, who composed three noteworthy poems, two in the shape of the syrinx, that is panpipes, and of water organ, by which he takes up and develops the same theme as Theocritus; the third one shaped like an altar which recalls Dosiada ( see the chapter  “Versus intexti”).

Centuries later, in a Greek manuscript of the tenth century “Acts of the Apostles” (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris), we find about a thousand little paeignia shaped like a variety of objects, spearheads, pyxes, tabernacles and so on, among which the cross is the most frequently recurring shape. (P. 1)

The so-called “Bible of Niketas”, Byzantine, containing many elegant paeignia, shaped like parallelepipeds, concentric circles, columns, belongs to the same century (Cod. Laur. V 9, fol. 203r, Laurenziana, Florence; and cod. GKS 6. fol. 53r and 78r, Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen).

Still in the tenth century the Saxon Julius Hyginus drew up an astronomic manuscript  (London, British Museum) containing the  “Phainomena” by the Greek poet Aratus of Soli (315 ca – 240 ca b. C.) transcribed and illustrated by a mixed technique, figurative and at the same time  paegnion like, representing the signs of the Zodiac. (P. 2,3,4)

Paegnia were later to reappear in the Renaissance and carry on in the baroque period, but were heralded in by the  “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” an allegorical work (1499) by Francesco Colonna, where many poetic-figural devices are inserted in the body of the prose text, the  theme of which is the description of the P. itself. Even though the  paegnion is not actually performed, it is as if all the constituent elements for its creation were ready and available.

In the whole work there is no interruption between the verbal and the iconic language which connects together technical drawing, narration,  vignette, description, allegory and emblem, while the artificial and bombastic style embeds terms of the most diverse traditions into a florid over elaborate syntactic structure. (P. 5,6).

In this period, between 1550 and 1600, the production of paegnia and calligrammes (for which see the  chapter of that title) is so rich as to compel us to divide the material according to the various patterns, beginning with the traditional Alexandrine ones- the altar the ax, the syrinx, the egg – and continuing with those of the cross, the columns, the musical instruments, the pitchers and bottles, of goblets and so on, including also geometrical shapes: squares, triangles, rectangles, circles.

Before we go on to examine the various patterns, we would like to mention, at least, the schoolboys of Dôle, the students of a Jesuits’ boarding school who, at the end of the 16th century undertook a series of imitations-reinventions of the Hellenistic paegnia, later collected into the anthology “Sylvae, quas vario carminum genere primarii scholastici collegii Dolani obtulerunt” (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris), dedicated to the count of Vergy and printed in1592. Every performance was signed by the student who had effected it. The result is a summa of rare intellectual liveliness and brilliant solutions which, in the course of our review we shall often have the opportunity to quote.



                                                     The  Wings



To begin with, let us mention the pattern of the wings which echo the prototype of Simmias from Rhodes and we find the “Aelles” by Melin de Sainct-Gelais (1481-1558) (P. 7), the wings in Greek by this pupil Frédéric de Chaviré and in Latin by René Chevétron (q.v.) (P. 8), “Les ailes d’amour aux dames vertueuses” by Jehan Grisel (“Premières œuvres poétiques” 1599) the “ Easter Wings” (P. 9) by the English Mystical poet George Herbert (from “ The Temple, sacred poems” , 1633); a paegnion of Cupid’s wings by Antonio Telesio from Cosenza (“Poemata”, 1524) ; by Lancino Curzio,  a poet who wrote both in his dialect and in Latin, five paegnia  with Cupid’s and birds’ wings plus a picture of Priapus and a double order of wings (“Epigrammaton libri decem”, 1521); and finally in modern times the wings by E. E. Cummings, “To stand alone” as vision of the celestial infinite (in “95 poems”, 1958). (P. 10)



                                                      The Altar



For the pattern of the altar, from the prototypes by Dosiada, Besantinus and Porphyrius, here is the altar in Greek by Antoine Tabot and in Latin by Philippe Merceret (“Sylvae”,  q.v.) (P. 11); “The Altar” a penitential psalm by George Herbert (P. 12) ; the bitter one entitled “On Turncoat”  by an anonymous English poet ( in “Facetiae musarum deliciae”, 1656) (P. 13), the text of which is the imitation of an astonishing  Latin gravestone inscription of the imperial age;  the one by William Bosworth (in “ The chaste and lost lovers”, 1651) (P. 14); the one by Samuel Speed (from “Prison pietie”, 1677) (P. 15)



                                                    The  Axe



For the picture of the axe, from Simmias of Rhodes, we have the axe in Greek by Antoine de Besanceuf de Vesoul and the “Hache d’arme antique” by Jehan Grisel (“Sylvae”, q.v.) (P. 16,17); by Fortunio Liceti the beauticul double axe paegnion in “L’eroica e incomparabile amicizia”, (1640). (P. 18).



                                                The Egg



For the pattern of the egg, also derived from Simmias of Rhodes, the eggs in Greek and Latin by Jehan Grisel (“Sylvae”, q.v.) (P. 19); “Les oeufs de Pasques” by Angot de l’Eperonnière (in “Chef d’Oeuvre poetiques”, 1634) (P. 20); a paegnion by Valeriano Bolzani in honour of Daniele Barbaro in “Amorum libri VII”, (1549).



                                                The Syrinx



For the pattern of the syrinx, or panpipes, from the prototypes of Theocritus and Porphyrius, the earliest of the examples that follow are the versus intexti by Eugenius Vulgarius, dedicated to the emperor Sergius (see the entry Vulgarius in “Versus intexti”) then the syrinx in Latin , undecipherably signed in “Sylvae” (q.v.) (P. 21); then the one shaped like an organ and a lute by Johann Helwig in “Noris the nymph” (1650) (P. 22).  And so we enter the field of the various musical instruments with an elegant paegnion shaped like a guitar combined with a calligram of J. Praetorius in “Satyrus etymologicus” (1672) (P. 23); the “Lut de Minerve” by Angot de l’Eperonnière (q.v.) (P. 24). Giovanni Battista Pigna, from Ferrara in his “Carminum libri quattuor” (1553) repeats three times the picture of the syrinx with metric variations after the fashion, respectively, of Theocritus, Catullus and Horace.



                                               The Cross



For the pattern of the cross we have, first of all the very beautiful cross by Venantius Fortunatus (530-600 A.D.) devised with the technique of the cube (see “Versus Intexti”)  Hereunder we list the cross constructed with the picture of the labyrinth by José da Silva da Nativitade (P. 25); the cross by Frei Francisco da Cunha in “Oraçao Académica” (1743) (P. 26).  Both these authors are Lusitanian. In France we find the cross by Angot de l’Eperonnière (P. 27). Then the series of crosses made with canon scores  by A. Gumpeltzhaimer (1559-1625) (Bayerische National Bibliothek, Munich) (P. 28). In the shape of the cross are also the pathetic “Camino del Nada” by an anonymous Portuguese author of the seventeenth century (P. 29) and the crosses by Fortunio Liceti (in “Allegoria peripatetica de generatione…”, 1640) (P. 30) and by Geoffrey Tory (in “Champ fleury”, 1625). Then we quote the cross by Pascasio di San Giovanni in his “Poesia artificiosa” (1674); then the one by the English poet Robert Herrick in his “Poetical Works”,  modern edition 1936, London  (P. 31); we go on to quote the German S. von Birken (“Teutsche Rede-bind”, 1679). Then we list the one by the Italian G. Casoni in his “Ode” (1602,1626), the one by Eugenio di San Giuseppe in “Castrum doloris” (1657); then we go on to the cross by G. Pochet in “Apollini spiritualis oraculum” (1658), and lastly the elegy in the shape of the cross by Anna Sibylla Ruland (1669) (Bayerische Staat Bibliothek, Munich). (P. 32)



                                          The Pyramid



Examples of the pattern of the pyramid are the beautiful calligramme-paegnion by Pascasio di San Giovanni (q.v.) (P. 33) and the elaborate structure of the pyramid on wheels, a paegnion combined with acrostics (in “Castrum doloris”, 1657) by  Eugenio di San Giuseppe (P. 34). In the period of Portuguese baroque we find many pyramid paegnia, like the obelisk-pyramid acrostic anagram by Mendoza (P. 35) and an “epitaphium piramidatum” (in “Protheus doloris”) by Father Rafael Bluteau for the Portuguese queen Maria Elisabetta (1683) (P. 36); the extremely elegant “Piramide literaria” by Antonio Leyte Pacheco Malheiro,  (17th century); the maze with a double descending pyramid by an anonymous Portuguese (1760). (P. 38)



                                    The Bottle and Goblet



For the lovers of Bacchus’ juice here is the famous paegnion of the “Dive Bouteille” from the fifth book of Rabelais’ “Pantagruel” (P. 40) the initiator of a merry series of paegnia shaped like a jug or a bottle: from “Aux amis des Muses” by Robert Angot de l’Eperonnière (q.v.) (P. 41) to “Le chant de la carafe”, by Anonymous (1708) (P. 44),  followed in the series of goblets initiated by Rabelais: the  glass by Aldo Manuzio (Venice 1499) (P. 42) in “A whimsy anthology” by H. C. Dodge, (1693) to the “Bouteille” by Charles François Panard (1694-1765) (P. 43), to the “Bouteille” by Pierre Capelle (in “Contes anecdotes”, 1818)  and to the “Thèière et verre” by Anonymous (in “De nieuwe Nassuwse…”,1708) (P. 44), followed by the series of the goblets, once again starting from the earliest example by Rabelais: Aldo Manutius’s goblet (Venice 1499) , the rococo “Verre” by Panard (q.v.) (P. 45) and the one by P. Capelle (q.v.). They are followed by J.R. Karst’s goblet (1667) (P. 46), the one by D. Gessner (Zurich, 1668) (P. 47);  an elegant paegnion  combined with mesostics representing a drinking cup and a cross (P. 48) by F. Weiss (1678) and finally, to end by an ironic homage to the haenologic tradition in the  goblet pattern entitled “Pièce fausse” by André Breton (P. 49).



                                                      The Column



The production of paegnia in the pattern of columns is very rich, starting with those of the Byzantine bible by Niketas (tenth century). Many are the columns of lists of objects or actions which Rabelais constructs in his “Gargantua” (see glossary under Columns).

“The pillar of  fame” by Robert Herrick (P. 50) (in “Hesperides”, 1648) is well-known; George Puttenham’s double column in honour of a certain Lady Diana  (P. 51) (in “The Arte of English Poesie”, 1589) is worth quoting; so is Thomas Watson’s column “My love is past” (in “Echatompathia”, 1582) (P. 52); King James VI of Scotland created a column with an acrotelestic key (in  “The Essayes of a prentise”, 1585). An imposing paegnion in the shape of a column  is the one by M. Kelner in “Epaenodia ad P. Giron ducem Assunae”, 1650) (P. 53). Lastly we have to quote the various column–like shapes in the English translation of the “Septmaine ou la création du monde” by Guillaume de Bartas (1579). (P. 54)



The Sun and the Stars



There are many specimens of sun-shaped and star-shaped designs. First of all the sophisticated contraptions by way of commutation poem aiming at representing a sun-cosmos.  One of them is the “Cynosura mariana” (P. 55) by Nicolò from Lucca (1657), which was repeated by Caramuel in his “Metametrica” (q.v.); another is the commutation poem in the shape of astronomic system (P. 56)  by Pascasio di San Giovanni in his “Poesis  Artificiosa” (q.v.)  which matches with the commutation poem by Caramuel in his “Metametrica” (q.v.) representing the several planetary systems (P. 57).We shall come across many more examples of P.s of the sun and of stars as calligrammes in the chapter devoted to this type of creation. 



                                            Geometrical Patterns



As far as geometrical shapes are concerned, here are the triangle, written in Greek, the several concentrical circles in Latin by Claude Sachot ( in “Sylvae”, q.v.) (P. 58); the triangle written in Latin by Antoine Rousset (id.) (P. 59); the Diamond written in Greek and Latin by François Cornu de Charoles (id.); the rectangle and parallelogram written in Greek by Claude Gillebod d’Arbois (id.) (P. 60);  the square and lozenge written in Greek by the  author of the illustration of Pythagoras’ theorem (“Sylvae”). (P. 61)

By the English author George Puttenham we have a collection of geometrical patterns  used for figured verse (“The Arte of English Poesie, q.v.). Still about geometric patterns, here is the “Rota septenaria” (Cod. Wind 1548, Vienna) with eight concentric circles (P. 62); the psaltery with beams forming a circle having the face of Christ at its centre (Ms, Arundel 83, II, British Library, London) (P. 63). An oddity is the “Carmen infinitum” (in “Quinquennium primum imperii…”, Vienna 1717) in honour of the Emperor  Charles VI (P. 64). The circular shape has also suggested to a German concrete poet, Ferdinand Kriwet, the series of the “Rund Scheibe” (P. 65,66); a speech that develops in concentric circles analogous to the maze-like  creations by the German  calligrapher I.C. Hiltensperger of the early eighteenth century (P. 67). Urban Wyss created a calligraphic maze with a circular shaped center. (P. 68).

We shall find more circular shapes in the chapter on commutation poems.



Other patterns



Many other paegnia show various other patterns of which a short list follows. By the English author Richard Willis we possess a pear-shaped paegnion (“Poematum Liber”, 1573); the hourglass shaped paegnion by G. Puttenham, whose upper part consists in the lament by the Persian sultan Ribuska  and the lower part in Lady Selamour’s answer (P.69,69b) (q.v.). The paegnia shaped like clover and like scales are by J. Praetorius (“Satyrus etymologicus” q.v.) (P.  70); the nail and the instruments of Christ’s passion by G. Casoni (“Le Opere”, 1626) (P. 71, 71 bis);  a concatenated calligramme combined with acrostic, representing a heart by Patrizio Fattori ( in Ampia e diligente relatione”, 1614) (P. 72); the paegnion calligram shaped like a cradle by J.R. Karst (“Deutschen-Dich Kunst”) (P. 73); the paegnion cum rebus representing a triumphal chariot with new year’s greetings by H.G. Spoerri (“Weil Sich das Neue Jahr…”, 1751) (P. 74); the crown shaped paegnion by S. Lepsenyi (“Poesis ludens”, q.v.) (P. 75);  the concatenated calligramme combined with acrostic and heart patterns by P. Fattori (“Ampla e diligente relazione”, 1614);  the series of paegnia representing the heraldic wheel and sixteen patterns including Mercurius’ talaria, a heart, a hat, a pen, by Baldessare Bonifacio (“Urania musarum liber XXV”, 1628) (P. 76a, 76b,77a,77b); the lunettes in Greek by Pierre Dolet de Baume and in Latin by François de Jussien (“Sylvae”, q.v.); the map of the world by Simon Bouquet (“Bref et sommaire recueil…. Au Prince Charles IX”, 1572) (P. 78); the linear poem changing into a key-shaped paegnion by Francesco Fulvio Frugoni (“Il cane di Diogene”, 1689) (P. 79);  the linear poem, seven stanzas of increasing length followed by seven more of diminishing length entitled “Les Djinns” in “Les Orientales”, 1829)  by Victor Hugo (P. 80). The famous mouse’s tale/tail in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) by Lewis Carroll is a beautiful paegnion; “Pablo Picasso” by Apollinaire (in “Sic” n° 17, May 1917) is a cubist paegnion: in it, in the body of the text, square, like the canvas of a painting,  empty spaces are cut out as though to represent objects,  creating a kind of still life made up of words (P. 82).

Fortunato Depero’s poetic style, much more compact than that of other Futurist authors may call to mind the idea of the paegnion, as in many other graphic solutions in the  book “Depero futurista” 1913-27) (P. 83). Two perfect  paegnia are  “The Trichter” – The two funnels” – by Christian Morgenstern in “Galgenlieder”, 1905) (P. 84) and Dylan Thomas’ hourglass in “Vision and Prayer” (1946) (P. 85); or yet again the tree thick with birds by Jack Kerouac (“okay birds, quiet” in “Old Angel Midnight”, 1959-64) (P. 86). The same can be said of the saucy “Girl au pair”, pear shaped by Jan Hamilton Finlay (1960) (P. 87) which can be matched with “Apfel Wurm” (“The worm in the apple”) by Reinhard Doehl (1970) (P. 88). The paegnion of the dove by Klaus Bremer (1968) is a pacifist paegnion. (P. 89).

Another modern paegnion is the “Type poem” “Corrida” by Ilse Garnier (1965), where the repetition of the word “corrida” which paints an exagonal space gives the idea of the plaza de toros and the  Rs printed in capital letters suggest the shouts of the spectators. (P. 90).

An interesting example of geometrical and abstract paegnion is offered by the Czekoslovakian couple J. Hirsal and B. Groegorova (“Jobboj”, 1967) (P. 91), a progressive expansion of the octagonal shape and its ensuing saturation.


<   Ο   >