‘What is genius?’ asked St Augustine in the fifth century AD. It has never been a simple question to answer – for two thousand years genius has been a changeable and subjective concept, and has never been confined to a single definition. A small selection of manuscripts and books in which genius is described, depicted or embodied illustrates some of the myriad ways in which it has been conceived over the centuries.

Renaissance mythographies, commentaries and emblem books described and depicted Greek and Roman concepts of genius, and its Greek relation, the daimon, finding a rich variety of definitions in the classical texts that had not been known to readers in the Middle Ages (cat. 4). Pilgrimage maps and souvenirs illustrate the sacred topographies of the great Abrahamic religions (cats 5 and 6) and while direct links cannot be drawn between the holy lands of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the classical genius loci, there is a shared belief that certain places are favoured by the spiritual.

A manuscript of a medieval allegorical poem, The Romance of the Rose, shows Genius as a winged priest who attends to Nature and acts as her energetic spokesman on earth; while in a manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy the author is depicted in Paradise with Gemini, his birth sign, to which he owes his talent (ingegno, derived from the Latin ingenium). Two centuries later the anatomist Vesalius portrayed a skeleton musing on ingenium while contemplating, Hamlet-like, a human skull.

In the early eighteenth century, as genius came to be considered the highest form of creativity, Alexander Pope commented on the consequent expectations and motives of critics. At the end of that century Magna Carta came to embody the distinctive national genius of Great Britain, while William Blake insisted that genius resided ‘in the human breast’.