Anna Merlini - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Anna Merlini

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Anna Merlini

PhD student; Associate Lecturer

Thesis: Symbolic images and the construction of knowledge: Encounters between scholars and artists in 16th-century Bologna

Supervised by Dr Guido Rebecchini

Funded by AHRC CHASE Doctoral Scholarship

My project revolves around the book of emblems Symbolicae Quaestiones, published in 1555 by Achille Bocchi, the influential Bolognese scholar and founder of Accademia Hermathena. Bocchi’s project will be interpreted as the culmination of the search for a new symbolic language for the communication of knowledge that engaged various Bolognese intellectuals in late 16th century; the Quaestiones will form the primary reference point from which to analyse this complex phenomenon. Arguing that the book of emblems represents the crystallisation of a virtual, ever-expanding web of socio-cultural associations, I will examine it using the anthropological and semiotic framework of the network.

The contextualisation of Symbolicae Quaestiones will lead to the articulation of an interdisciplinary study method that intrinsically mirrors the multi-layered structure of the book examined. Starting from the observation of specific symbols of the books, my analysis will begin to retrace the latent multitude of iconographic and textual references and human figures, scholars and artists evoked by the visible yet hermetic juxtaposition of texts and illustrations. In particular, my thesis will explore the following topics: the emblematic representation of the self in the portraits of humanist authors; the interpretation of real and fantastical animals between nature and metaphysics in the works of Ulisse Aldrovandi; the adaptation of emblems as biographical narrative in the decorations of Cardinal Giovanni Poggi’s aristocratic palace; the legacy of Achille Bocchi’s unique theory of symbolic knowledge for the emblem books of Joannes Sambucus, Hadrianus Junius, Paolo Maccio, Jean Jacques Boissard. Adopting a research perspective that emphasises the notion of agency, my project will discuss the emblematic combinations of words and images traceable through books, artworks and architecture as simultaneous products and producers of culture and knowledge.


  • 2015 – present: PhD Candidate, The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • 2013 – 2015: Laurea Magistrale in Arti Visive, Università di Bologna
  • 2012 – 2013: MPhil in Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge
  • 2009 – 2012: BA in Anthropology, Goldsmiths


Associate Lecturer

  • 2017-18: BA 2, Questioning the Italian Renaissance: Art in Italy 1470-1527 (Seminar: Renaissance Art Theory)

Teaching Assistant

  • 2017-18: MA Core Methodologies
  • 2016-17: MA Core Methodologies

Other academic activity

  • Editorial Board, Immediations – Volume 4, Number 2 (2017)


Research interests

  • Emblems in art and literature
  • Symbolism in Renaissance arts
  • Book culture in 16th-century Europe
  • Natural history, museums, and collecting practices in the Early Modern period
  • Theories of agency applied to art history

Recent conference papers

  • ‘A journey through the labyrinth of symbols: Tracing a social network across Achille Bocchi’s Symbolicae Quaestiones, 1555′, presented at the conference “The Art of the Network 1400-1600”, The Courtauld Institute of Art, 29 April 2017.  
  • ‘An emblematic framework for the description of nature: Tracing intersections between the work of Achille Bocchi and Ulisse Aldrovandi’, presented at the conference “Emblems and the Natural World (1500-1700), University of Münster, 17-19 December 2015.


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