Similarity of Symbolism in the "Otto Prints" and Other Works

The large number of the engravings which are known to art historians today as the “Otto Prints”,  can safely be attributed to Baccio Baldini and his studio assistants.  They are classical and allegorical in subjects, containing numerous  sources for their symbolic content.  Oftentimes, both floral and animal imagery appear.  They range in size, although most are rounded.  They were produced from gold plates, numbering around forty.  Though small, they are some of the finest works produced by Baldini. 

            Many of the symbols and inscriptions seen in the “Otto Prints” recur throughout the series.  Cupid or Eros dominates many of the scenes, firing arrows at unsuspecting lovers.  In one subgroup of the “Otto Prints”, he is shown engaged in different activities, much of the time, he is in the water, an aspect which ties each print together.  In the second member of this subgroup, the bound Eros is seated on a rock in the middle of the ocean, balancing out the preceding engraving, which depicts him seated upon a dolphin.  The further significance of this is not known, but the same image appears in the earlier roundel with love scenes, also an “Otto Print”.   This could be in association with the  bound Eros, but now in reverse, a popular trick for artists of the Italian renaissance, who wished to copy a certain pose or setting.  He  is surrounded by a scroll which reads:  “DVM FATA SINVT” (“While the fates permit”). 

            This, in turn, is surrounded by a border of fruit, upon which is wound another scroll, this time bearing the phrase: “AMORE VVOL FE E DOVE  FE NONNE AMOR NON PVO” (“Love requires faith, and where there is no faith, love is powerless.”).  It was especially common on rings and jewelry.  This was a popular saying in sixteenth-century Italy, and appears, in many different forms, in engravings and paintings of the time.  In its full form, it is shown in two other “Otto Prints” (Couple with an Armillary Sphere and Reclining Woman Holding Scroll), and once again, abbreviated.  This work shows the results of faithless love, resulting in the bound and helpless Eros at the apex of the circle.  Scenes of desire-driven lovers surround a central medallion, divided by symbolic animals.  Most vivid of all the images is that of a woman ripping out a man’s heart: the danger of a woman’s lust. 

            We see this same moral, echoed in yet another round etching, this time dominated by the figures of Aristotle and Phyllis, with Eros poised to fire an arrow.  In the center of the print is a common image: a woman riding on the back of a kneeling man.  This was taken from an entertaining story told around the world from the medieval period into the high renaissance:  Alexander the Great was so deeply in love with his wife, Phyllis, that he cast away all his kingly duties in order to be with her, until Aristotle, the court philosopher, was forced to beg him to return to managing his country.  In punishment for this, Phyllis made Aristotle fall in love with her, and commanded him to allow her to ride on his back, as a show of his faithfulness.  As unlikely as this story is, it brought laughter to the faces of many a fifteenth and sixteenth-century man.  In Baldini’s print, we see two parts of the story: Eros, on Phyllis’ command, causing Aristotle to fall in love, and Phyllis’ plot to shame Aristotle.

            Imagery from this tale was usually set in humorous, lighthearted contexts.  Many Aquamanilia, such as the one in the Robert Lehman collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showed Aristotle bearing Phyllis on his back.[1]  It shows here the very popular subjects used in Baldini’s “Otto Prints”, and the widespread entertainment of the story.


 Some of the symbols which were used and reused by Baldini, appear beyond the context of the “Otto Prints”.  In his more serious and sinister works, Death, a skeleton, appears behind the lovers.  In Death and the Lovers and The Fight for the Hose, he is shown opposite a fool, symbolizing the connection between foolishness and death.  The  subjects for these two pieces were almost certainly inspired by Northern engravings of the time.  Paintings of ill-matched lovers, and scenes of foolish love, presided over by Death, were slowly growing in popularity in the Netherlands and Germany at this point.  However, Baldini added his own touch to this work with the decorative wreath and putti for The Fight  for the Hose.  Also, he adds plain and geometric tile floors to increase the drama of the perspective. 

                  In The Fight for the Hose, we see young women engaged in a violent struggle for a male undergarment, which hangs as a trophy from a wreath.  On the garment of the woman in the bottom-left is the word AMOR. Above that is the emblem of a piece of sail, blown in the wind.  This symbol could serve two similar purposes.  Firstly, it could allude to Fortune, and therefore to the fortunes of love, or it could be a reference to the popular  Dutch tradition of representing the course and nature of love by showing a ship on either a gentle or  wind-blown sea.  In both cases, the predicament of the woman who bears the cloak is an ominous sign. 

            Across from this figure is yet another symbolic device, placed on the cloak of a more successful woman.  The meaning of this allegorical scene is unknown, although it appears in several other works by Baldini.   It shows a hawk swooping down onto an unsuspecting ermine.  This may have some significance with the appearance of Death and the Memento Mori theme, since it is shown in both The Fight for the Hose and Death and the Lovers.  


We now return to the previously mentioned roundel with love scenes.  It, too has similarities in symbolism with works other than the “Otto Prints”.  Some of the imagery here is used in earlier works such as the so-called “Planet series”.  The couple in the bath on the far right, are similar to those in The Planet Venus.  However, in the earlier print, we see a more righteous pair of lovers, anointed by another man.  Their positions mimic those of the couples in the bottom left and right corners, who are represented in the same mirror-image style as the figures in the roundel.  Below the image is an inscription which reads in English:

Venus is a feminine sign located in the third heaven.  She is cold and moist, temperate, who has these properties: she loves beautiful vestments adorned with gold and silver, and songs, and mirth, and games, and is lascivious and sweet-spoken; she is lovely in her eyes and in her face, is delicate in body, fleshy.  She is of medium stature, given to all things concerned with beauty, and she rules brass…

            The scenes which take place above this description seem to mimic the character of Venus.  “Beautiful vestments, adorned with gold and silver” are found throughout the scene.  Also, “songs, and mirth, and games” are predominant, not only in the physical aspect of the work, but also in its spirit.

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[1] Aquamanilia were objects used by laymen to wash their  hands before meals.  Usually, they took on whimsical forms, such as scenes from popular tales.