vico: ignota latebat

Another image figures in the mystery of The New Science (1744), Giambattista Vico's enigmatic account of the origins and development of human culture. This is the "impresa"or title-page image. Because of the motto engraved on the plinth at the figure's right, the image is called "Ignota Latebat,"or, "She Who Lay Hidden."

Who is this "she" and why did she "lay hidden"? Donald Phillip Verene, Mario Papini and others have written extensively on the meanings and role of this image.

Presuming that the allegorical figure is Metafisica (winged temples, surmounting a sphere), the issue focuses on the relationship among the objects she holds and occupies.Specifically, the Metafisica's eyes gaze into a mirror to seethe reflection of a triangle (also known as a builder's (mason's or carpenter's) "square" she holds in her right hand.

The mirror takes up the role played by the jewel in the "dipintura" image, and Metafisica's own eyes replace the divine eye. The plinth and globe are also shown in the dipintura, but in a different spatial relationship. The whole of The New Science is now contained in this female personification, customary in the emblem traditions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We must think through the relationship of Metafisica's winged temples and the helmet of Hermes; the mirror and the anamorphic jewel; the triangle/square and the acute-witty-angular structure of human institutions and history. There are many issues surrounding this image and its ideas. This review covers ONLY those that relate to the presumed Möbius-band relationships that seem to arise out of the gaze, the mirror, and the objects in the view of Metafisica.

pre-bolagram annotation of Vico's(reversed) "impresa"


The impresa image, "Ignota Latebat,"is organized like in a Möbius-strip fashion that demonstrates several Lacanian ideas:

  1. The letter always reaches its destination. This is a short-hand expression for the way in which teleology (fate, determinism, law, etc.) is "back-projected" from the circumstances that seem to embody it. Zizek uses the example of the little girl who comments that "Daddy was born in Manchester, Mummy in Bristol and I in London: strange that the three of us should have met!" Teleology, in reversing the temporality of experience to discover hidden within it a causality "proven" by its improbability, is "always right." Authority is projected out of the ambiguity of appearances – an ambiguity imposed on appearances by the symbolic quality of human thought and perception. This "symbolic quality" is, in turn, simultaneously metaphoric (representational) and constructural (metonymic). Because metonymy is given its own significance as representation, things "become" their attributes" (see the "Groucho fractal" bolagram).

  2. Between the two deaths. The division of the subject into fixed "victim" ($) and mobile "fictim," who is able to peer at an angle into the anamorphic contents of appearances is the fictional element (Ø) between what Lacan terms as "the two deaths." Using popular culture to elucidate this point, Zizek points to stories and films that portray the "improper burial" that provokes episodes of haunting, the grisly appearances of angry corpses, etc. Stephen King's Pet Sematary could be considered the paradigm exemplar. The "deaths" in Vico's case are between the certum, or "making certain" accomplished through cultural institutions and even individual perception; and the verum or "science" made possible by grasping the double nature of the objects of experience.

  3. The object-cause of desire. The Other, back-projected by consciousness, has a surplus that is anamorphically preserved in the structural (non-representational) content of appearances. This is the cause of desire, that operates through the symbolic network of cultural relationships, but it is also the source of jouissance of the displaced observer who, escaping and gaining perspective on the "Promethean" fixed order of culture, sees that it is the reversal of the metonymic "artifact" that forms the "hinge" of teleology and chance (= metaphor and metonymy). Lacan points out that the "repressed always returns" in reversed order. The "meaning" of culture is backwards from the "message" it first composed to achieve order. Vico invents a fourth order, a form of "scholarly universality," to cover the discovery of this form and aligns the scholar with the hero, history's phallic traveler who also negotiated a "dry line" between the hot/dry of aggression and the cold/dry of melancholy reflection.

  4. The real, the symbolic, and the imaginary. Lacan specifies a triangular relationship between the real, the symbolic (the network of relationships binding societies together), and the imaginary as an escape from those relationships. Vico's version of this would be that the "real" is the object of the scholar's quest, embodied in the jouissance of the surplus value of the Other constructed collectively and personally by the human subject. The imaginary (Ø) is, in relation to this, the account of the three stages of cultural development, the ages of gods, heroes, and men. There are different ways of interpreting this triangular structure depending on what level of critical theory is being addressed. At the "ground level" of initial events of human culture, the imaginary is Vico's image of Homer, the universal "first poet" who imagines fables about the gods, heroes and men before these have become historical eras. The myth provides all mankind with an anamorphic view of life, an enjoyment of the metonymy of experience, grounded in the jouissance that lies outside the network of symbolic cultural relationships. This same structure serves the "last man," the scholar who searchers for the real surplus, the Real of culture, anamorphically concealed within the metonymy of human institutions, language, and behavior.



Vico gives the main clues to his discovery process in his Autobiography. In that work, he plants several deliberate lies (the dates of his birth and an inaugural address) that the astute reader may paste together to see Vico's self-reconstruction as a melancholy hero who vacillates between the humors of choler and melancholy – the humors of the classical hero, Herakles, for whom madness and divinity were two sides of the same coin.The centrality of a "Hermetic" view for Vico and the readers of The New Science is evident by his placement of the helmet of Hermes in the dipintura. This is the only object in that image that is not paired with commentary. Its place as an empty signifier points to the generic function of wings on heads: to indicate the power of thought to transcend its immediate circumstances.

Jouissance is mentioned directly in The New Science as the object of the text. The reader is instructed to "narrate the New Science for himself," to take on the role of author, just as Vico has taken on the role of the traditionally divine author of the human world. The divine eye is the position of the reader, who inverts the metaphors of mythic and heroic mentality to read their reversed metonymical "messages."The reader will "feel a divine pleasure throughout his body"in the process of seeing the "necessity" of the ages of the gods, heroes, and men. This is because the reader is able to see the teleology that generated this structure as transparent,its necessity as one self-projected by the collective human subject in their "Promethean" desire for authenticity.

Vico's "code" to the "reader-insider"was couched in key terms and references that would have been generally recognizable in the eighteenth century – a lore of philosophically interpreted humors, Stoicism, and Epicureanism enriched with classical erudition and broad reading in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The modern reader's reading is enriched, when it is, with psychologisms,scientisms, and terms of mechanical economics, but the results can be the same if the Möbius-band structure is intuited.These make the search for pleasure in the text and in theory very much the same from age to age, and allow the same "anamorphic"wry insight into cultural institutions now as then.

Selected Bibliography

Battistini, Andrea. Teoria delle imprese e linguaggio iconico vichiano. Bollettino del centrodi studi vichiani 14-15 (1984-85): 149-77.

Papini, Mario, Il geroglifico della storia: Significato e funzione della dipintura nella 'Scineza Nuova' di G. B. Vico (Bologna: Capelli, 1984).

Papini, Mario. IGNOTA LATEBAT:L'impresa negletta della Scienza Nuova. Bollettino del centro studi vichiani 14-15 (1984-85): 179-214.

Verene, Donald Phillip. Vico's Ignota Latebat.' New Vico Studies 5 (1987): 77-98.

© 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved