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We intend to limit the story of the labyrinth pattern to the baroque mannerist period, a time of deep crisis in Renaissance culture, which brought its contemporaries to view the world as a labyrinth in whose enigma one gets, Hamlet-like, lost.

The Jesuit father Ivan Nierenberg in  his “Curiosa y occulta filosofia” (1643) notes that “Plotinus called the word God’s poem. I add that this poem is a labyrinth if read in all its parts…. A panegyric of a thousand labyrinths”. (P. 1)

Gustav René Hocke in “The world as a labyrinth. Mannerism in European art from 1520 to 1650”  stresses the importance of the metaphor of the mirror, which in the baroque changes into the bewildering icon of death or of time and through the mirror the world is multiplied and recombined”.  Hocke quotes the famous self-portrait with a convex mirror by Parmigianino as  prototype of European Mannerism.

The idea of the impermanence of all values and of  bewilderment leads us to the image of dream and of the world seen as a theatre,  to the point that the baroque is synonymous with theatricality and is the century of the great Spanish, Elizabethan and French theatre: as Diderot said, “things are at the same time told and represented”. Not for nothing the relationship word-image in Alciati’s emblems gained so much popularity.  Thus the visualization of the word is carried out through a series of devices – acrostic, palindrome, anagram, calligram, echo picture, rapportatio  - among which the labyrinth is certainly not one of the least frequently used.

Originally the labyrinth was probably an architectural structure consisting in a complicated system of rooms and of intricate passages such as to make it difficult to get out. The most common image of the labyrinth is that of a series of paths with various degrees of complexity only one of which is the right one and so we are impelled to look for the motive for which the labyrinth has been constructed. The labyrinth is a structure both physical and symbolic and according to some scholars some labyrinth patterns are to be found engraved on stones dating as far back as the second millennium B.C., from the Caucasus to India to Indonesia. Erich Neumann thinks that the labyrinth is an archetypical symbol that played an important role in ancient societies.

The labyrinth may be natural, a grotto or another type of hollow –  or  artificial and in that case it may be conceived as a castle, a system of fortifications, a palace, a temple, a catacomb. Some think that the idea of the labyrinth derives from the darkness of a cave, thus giving the symbol an ancestral character bound to the earth and to the bull.

One may also consider it as a system of spirals, which leads us to the Greek image of the meander.  The spiral in almost all cosmologies indicates the dynamic link between the microcosm and the macrocosm, that is the idea of movement in the dialectics between centripetal and centrifugal forces. (P. 2)

The spiral is also referred to by the paradigm of mysteric path, the ritual dance for the achievement of a goal. Movement is the key factor which dominates the construction of verbal labyrinths.  The best-known ones are the circular inscriptions, called the devil’s snares, that is magic formulas written spiralwise leading to the centre where the demon is ensnared.

As to the etymology of the word, one thought of the great temple in Egypt, north of Hawara in Fayum,  the grandiose foundations of which were discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1888 : twelve courtyards and three thousand rooms, a temple built under Amenemhet III (twelfth dynasty, 2300 B.C). The word labyrinth, translated from the Egyptian is supposed to mean “temple at the entrance of the lake”.

Also the word “labrys” was thought of, in Greek double-edged axe, typically Cretan, or “Labrainto” a Carian word for labrys, or again “labra”, originally “a cavern”.

The very ancient dance called “of the cranes” or “Ariadne’s dance” is described in many texts (Plutarch, “Life of Theseus”) as a dance consisting in many pirouettes imitating the twists and turns of the labyrinth.

The  poetic labyrinth in the baroque manneristic period was theorized by a certain number of men of letters; one of them was Juan Diaz Rengifo, the author of “Arte poética española” (1592) which had as many as ten editions; another one was the Portuguese Manuel de Faria e Sousa, author of the anthology “Fuente de Aganippe” in two versions 1627 and 1646; then is was also theorized by the Jesuit Caramuel de Lobkowitz, the author of “Primus calamus ob oculos ponens metametricam…” (1663-1668). The poetic labyrinth may be divided into three main types: verse labyrinths,  letter labyrinths and cubic labyrinths or cubes.


Verse labyrinths


Verse labyrinths may be figurative or written in the form of linear poetry.  Of this latter type we may quote a certain number of texts which might trace their origin and descent from poem XXV by Optatianus Porphyrius which, to be exact in terms is actually a proteus (see under “proteus” in the glossary), that is constructed by a series of permutations, starting from a basic text of four hexameters. It is a singularly modern text, just as the “Labyrintho, queixando – se do mundo” by  Luis Vaz de Camões (in “Rimas”, 1595) consisting in five stanzas of ten lines each. The device of this labyrinth poem consists in the repetition of the lines according to the following scheme: the first line of the first stanza is followed by the first line of the second and so on; in a second variation, the first five lines of the first stanza are followed by the first five lines of the second stanza, and so on… But the whole of the basic text may undergo analogous variations.  It is in fact the case of permutations of lines instead of words, as in the case, instead, of the text by Porphyrius. (P. 3) The pattern of the labyrinth is therefore entwined with techniques based on the “Artes combinatórias” which date back to Raimundo Lull,  and were later used by Kircher and the great mathematician Leibnitz and are based on the multiplicity of the possible readings of one text.

The two instances by Porphyrius and by Camões are examples of non figurative verse or word labyrinth, but they can also be figurative if the lines or stanzas are transcribed on a square or rectangular surface in a manner analogous, mutatis mutandis, to the sixteenth and seventeenth century music tablatures for the lute, the organ, the cymbal and the like.

One of the earliest examples is by the Portuguese Fernão Alvarez do Oriente (in “Lusitánia Transformada”, 1607)  where the possible readings are no fewer than 5500, as it can be read in the recto, the contrary, the diagonal, by jumps, like the horse’s move in checks and so on or according to particular directions. (P. 4)

Another type of labyrinth is the “metric labyrinth”  perhaps by Luis Nunes Tinoco (P. 5), a tablature  the reading of which must start from the centre. “Carmine concelebret”, in the diagonal vertical, horizontal etc… but not mirrorwise.  The author fixes the number of its readings at 14.996.480 combinations. This labyrinth is to be considered as belonging to the category of figurative labyrinths.

And here is, accordingly, the example of the labyrinth, by an anonymous author “al modo de el juego de el axedrez”, consisting in twenty-five stanzas of five lines each, the readings of which, by following in succession all the possible directions would amount to 5050. (P. 6)

Manuel de Faria e Sousa is the author of the labyrinth on the name of Isabel, of which we are providing also the linear reading by stanzas of five lines each, interesting because all the stanzas are tautogrammatic. (P. 7 and P. 8)


                                                Letter labyrinths


Letter labyrinths may be cross-shaped or square. If they are cross-shaped the reading may be mirrorwise or starting from the centre  rightwards, leftwards, upwards or downwards.  The text is distributed either symmetrically for the four sections of the mirrorwise pattern or with four different texts etc…. (see the example by Venantius Fortunatus in “Versus intexti”).

If it is in the square shape the reading of the labyrinth is analogous to that of the crosswise labyrinth, but the distribution of the poem may also be made with two texts disposed in different corners, suggesting a pyramid with a square base or a lozenge. (P. 9)

Letter labyrinths may also have other patterns, like this “spheric acrostic sonnet” (P. 10) dedicated to Queen Marie Therese of Austria. Its author is Frei Francisco da Cunha (“Oraçam Academica Panegyrica”, 1743).


Cubic labyrinths


Cubic labyrinths are generally cubic or rectangular in shape (P. 11). The initial and only line, is repeated with successive shifts, as if it were written spiralwise on a rotating cylinder, so that the graphic form of the line changes little by little into its opposite. The text “Entrata di Josè Trionfante”, by an anonymous Portuguese author of the seventeenth century, takes on a dynamic aspect, as the eye perceives a text that is moving, a real triumphal entry (P. 12).

Even more evident is the kinetic effect in the labyrinth, probably by Luis Nunes Tinoco (in “Oraçam Academica Panegyrica”, 1743) with the subtitle “alius difficilisimus III” to point out its complexity. (P. 13) It is the front reading of a wish to the Queen “Maria Theresa, felices annos” starting from the central “F”, a very peculiar visual game in which the pattern of a cube formed by the  letters is deformed in an ante litteram “cubist” sense, of a cubism which is moreover dynamic.

And now we come to the Portuguese figurative epithalamium dedicated to Marquis Luis de Castro and to Duchess Joana Perpetua de Bragança, recited by the author Jeronimo Tavares Mascarenhas de Tavola (1738). (P. 14) The visual text is shaped as a fan with a very fine verbal embroidery. The reading is by set  but also by optional paths. The set paths are determined by the names of the bridal couple in capital letters: “Joana” starting from the central sun outwards while “Luis” is read from the outside toward the centre, an example of prodigious invention and ability to dominate forms. (P. 15)

A great number of poems of this type lie in Spanish and Portuguese archives. (P. 16) We may add that this type of stylistic taste corresponds in a way to the system of variations in the field of counterpoint music, a kind of music for the eyes, of optophonic music.

One further variant is the spiralwise labyrinth like this example by Johann Casparus Zetsching (PAN Library of Gdánsk, Poland, 1666). (P. 17) The lines are set beamwise starting from the outside towards the centre and support the spiral parts which develop little by little contrariwise from the centre to the outside.

One case apart is the labyrinth by Yan Amos Komensky (1592-1670) a Moravian philosopher who in his “The labyrinth of the world and the paradise of the heart” (P. 18)  gives a labyrinth like image of the city of evil. The pilgrim  in search of truth reaches its centre only to discover the Demon there: “Retrace thy steps towards the house of thy heart and close the door behind thee.”  This path  is represented in a table by Abbé A. Gordonowski. The words “a Paolo Pluto decedit dictis arena” signify the victory over the world. Curiously enough the pattern is a labyrinth, but is also a rare instance, for that period, of versus intexti and as such, it has none of the dynamism of figurative labyrinths.

Dick Higgins in his “Visible language” (1986) writes: “the metaphors of secret truths in the manneristic period become aesthetic truths”. For example a composition where no verbal elements appear, substituted by images – hearts, circles, roses, pentagrams – as this one by Caramuel (P. 19) (“Metametrica”)  can be also understood as imitation of the cabalistic diagrams or directions for composing labyrinths.

The Jesuits paid a lot of attention to the metaphysics of the language and of the symbol and Juan Caramuel de Lobkovitz (1606-1682) was a Jesuit. He is the author  of “Primus Calamus ob oculos ponens metametricam…” first edition  1663, second edition 1668, known for short as “Metametrica” which is not only the most outstanding case of figurative poetry in Italy, but also the richest source of information on Italian ikonic poets, to quote Giovanni Pozzi (“La parola dipinta”):

 “ Caramuel belongs to that international net of ecclesiastics who took over Catholic Europe carrying out political, pastoral and scholarly duties. The corporation was everything for the men who belonged to it: chair, fatherland and church; tied to no nation and no home but led by what in monastic parlance is called “obedience” to move frequently and over distances that even today we find astonishing, these men, stateless before the world, were naturally inclined to a learning which was encyclopaedic because it was not enclosed within disciplinary confines, and extemporaneous because intended for  quick and immediate intervention on the most widely debated questions. Their language was Latin, though  they shared the knowledge of many other languages, including the oriental ones…their lodestar was theology… a body of knowledge which amounted to a sort of pansophy which amalgamated the novelties of modern nature studies with the heirlooms of Pythagorism, of mnemotechnique, of the cabala, of hermetism and of Lullism. Chain-linked doctrine is one of their distinguishing traits: he who happens to be in possession of one link possesses the whole chain; the units of each branch of learning would be interchangeable and therefore the encyclopaedia could be easily dominated through  the control of combinations; hence the keen interest for apparently minor branches of learning, such as metrics that in a mind of that kind  became, as was only to be expected, “Metametrics” that is an art which, being founded on mathematics, must identify abstract prosodic and rhythmic patterns which, once clothed in words, can be multiplied into an enormous number of concrete lines” (G. Pozzi,  already quoted).

Another similar and contemporary personage was the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) in whose collections of matters for study consists nowadays the Kircher museum  at the Collegio Romano.

Caramuel’s “Metametrics” is also a vast collection of texts by various authors as well as by Caramuel himself, which is no small matter, both from the historic and the anthologic point of view.

One of Caramuel’s formal  novelties consists in introducing between the letters, that form the diagram, an intermediate text, thus giving origin to a novel kind of interwoven poem. In the poem dedicated to P.F. Passerini (table XVIII) the initial wording “Ama Fama” is written leaving between one letter and the next some spaces of equal size, filled with verbal matters so a to produce an hexameter. (P. 20).

Likewise (P. 21) the poem with the wording  “Iure Merui”. And the same goes for table XXII to Basilio da Aerea with the basic word “aerea “ or table XXIII to the Abbot of Altemburg,  basic words “Sua Laus”, or table XXI, basic word “Suus”, and so on.  

But what makes Caramuel particularly interesting and places him among the most significant moments of figurative poetry, has its climax in the structure of the permutational poem,  linking him to the Spanish and Portuguese expressions of the same period, on the idea of the permutational labyrinth.

Caramuel was not really interested in creating a text but rather in constructing a machine which, by interchanging the objects of the  speech , might automatically  build up a series of poems. Hence his interest for structures such as the “cubus metametricus” (P. 22), tridimensional, a cage of wires suitable to house an interchangeable poem, or for prosodic patterns like this module for a cylindric poem (P. 23) or this other one for a poem of circular type (P. 24) or yet again this pattern for an intablature for composing interchangeable sonnets (P. 25). To which we can add this pattern for a permutational poem with 71 possible paths.

So we can identify the heart and the hub of the interests for this singular author in the creation of systems of interchangeableness fit to recreate the cosmos starting from the word.



                                         The permutation


The permutation is one of the total orders that may be given on a whole of ‘n’ elements. The use of this model in the artistic field dates back much earlier, to the art of the fifteenth century so called Flemish formalists, the creators of the counterpoint technique  which through the generations can be traced to Bach.

But to remain in the Renaissance period, we find a surprisingly similar case in Dutch music for bells, with tables that give us the number of possible changes of bell and on the basis of several sets where, for instance, with the number of twelve bells, we get the number of 479.001.600 changes for a total time of 37 years and 355 days.

An acquaintance of Caramuel’s is the author of a circular permutational poem (Niccolò da Lucca in “Cynosura Mariana” (1665) which was later taken in hand and perfected by Caramuel. (P. 27)

The cubic poem   (“Poesis artificiosa” 1674) by Pascasio di San Giovanni is a piece of remarkable elegance in style. (P. 28)

A permutational poem shaped as a labyrinth is by J. Roch von Hegnan (1748) (in Gaistlicher Irr-Garten”, 1742). (P. 29)

The pattern of the labyrinth lends itself also to elegant calligraphic variations; see this one by Johann Neudörffer the Elder (1497-1563). (P. 30)  Or look at this one, by Anonymous, a labyrinth written for the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War (1620). Also this “Irr-Garten”. (P. 31)

Another labyrinth is this one, by Johann Agricola (1530-1590) printed at Wittemberg in 1568. (P. 32). And what about this one by Mathias Quad (1557-1609) a spiritual labyrinth probably written in the early years of the 17th century.  And look at this one, by E. Kieser (1612) a spiritual  labyrinth that is a verse prayer by an unknown author which begins at the centre and ends on the left-hand bottom. (P. 34).

The pattern of the labyrinth reappears in our time with the “Rund Scheiben” (verbal wheels) by Ferdinand Kriwet, a German author (1962), a series of concentrical circles which from a crowded centre undergoes little by little a thinning out towards the periphery. (See Glossary, concrete poetry).

A cubic labyrinth is, instead,  “meditation III” by Emmett Williams, an alphabetic path starting from the central vowel “a”. (P. 35)

Finally there is a pattern that makes of the word the matrix where the combination of linguistic variants takes place just starting from the letters contained in it, and is the anagram. The anagram breaks up the word, changing the disposition of the letters in order to obtain other words and is the methodic putting into practice of the permutation in the body itself of the word. It is the metamorphosis of the word and it handles it in the absolute arbitrarity of the name in its relationship to the named. The anagram breaks up the language and breaks it down, altering it in its phonematic elements even to destroying it in the loss of its identity into senseless words: it is the pattern of the hiding within the word, just as the labyrinth is on the iconic plane of the outside.



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