HOMO BULLA EST
(MAN IS A BUBBLE)
This simple sentence is a metaphor: the idea is that a person (homo) may look very solid and substantial, but our life is as fleeting as a bubble (bulla), insubstantial, and completely fragile.
Images of bubbles were largely used in Vanitas, a type of symbolic work of art especially associated with 17th-century Dutch still life painting and also common in other places and periods.
Vanitas is loosely translated from Latin as the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity.
In the 17th century Dutch artists painted children blowing bubbles to convey the brevity of human life, the transience of beauty and the inevitability of death.
The most popular of all this painting is “Cupid Blowing Soap Bubbles painted from Rembrandt in 1634.
At the bottom of the page you will find some examples of this Vanitas
The Homo Bulla can be find often also in painting on glass in church (left: 1530)
and headstones or tomb decoration made especially during the 16-17 Century.
Later in the 18 and 19 Century, the connection between bubbles and their short life become more a motive of parody and it is possible to find many sketches of political satire, from this period, representing bubbles as speech of a politician (meaning something nice but with short life) a tradition that lasted until the 20 Century.
On left and right 2 clear examples of political satire
Today, more than for political satire, the metaphor is used in the world of business and economy, where a bubble that explode mean the end on an attractive (in the meaning of lucrative) but not so stable market.
In the 16 Century soap bubbles was not only a popular metaphor of life but also a very popular and already “old” kid game; so old to be included from Bruegel in his popular painting
“Children’s games”(1560) where all the most popular games are represented)
and also in a deck of tarot cards of the 17 Century, used at that time mostly as a game (The card representing the LIFE)
But the symbolism of homo bulla was already proverbial in the 1st century BC.; Varro (116 BC – 27 BC) wrote the following in the first line of the first book of De Re Rustica:
“quod, ut dicitur, si est homo bulla, eo magis senex”
(for if, as they say, man is a bubble, all the more so is an old man)
Demonstrating that the expression was already much known at the time.
However it is not sure that the therm, in this case, is referred to SOAP bubbles, as there are no painting or mosaic from this period where we see someone blowing bubbles...