30 May, 2008

Roman tragedy

A decade ago the great collection of Roman inscriptions at the Museo Nazionale in Rome, not far from the Termini railway station, was expertly reorganized. The inscriptions are now beautifully shown in a context that explains their purpose, and a very full guide is available, the work of Rosanna Friggeri, one of the organizers of the new display.
To many former visitors one of the most visible treasures of the Museo Nazionale had been the fragmentary inscription dedicated to Epaphroditus, the freedman who served the Emperor Nero, which can on that account be dated to about the end of the 1st century (Hermann Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae selectae, Berlin 1892–1916, 9506). It had been discovered in the early 20th century and was therefore largely unweathered. It was displayed in the open air, and the natural lighting made every detail appear beautifully crisp. (There is something depressing about the Galleria Lapidaria of the Vatican Museum, where the incised forms of the letters of the inscriptions, many of which have been clumsily and fairly recently daubed with red, can hardly be made out in the diffused lighting.) The image at the head of this post is from a slide that was made in December 1977, in clear, soft winter sunshine. The image (clicking will enlarge it a little) does not do full justice to the quality of the original, but gives some idea of what it looked like then.
However the location was worrying, since the pollution of the urban atmosphere in Rome, as elsewhere, was becoming increasingly unfriendly to its monuments, and many of those that could be moved, like the bronze equestrian statue of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius on the Capitol, were brought indoors, and a good facsimile was left in their place.
The Epaphroditus inscription can now apparently be seen in one of the larger spaces of the museum, mounted on a wall.

But any visitor who knew it before will be puzzled to see that it looks grey and indistinct, and also half as thick as it was. In fact what you see is not the original stone at all, but a reproduction that has neither the lovely colour of its model nor its sharpness.
So where is the original? The sheer number of the inscriptions in the possession of the museum is clearly a problem, and to one side of the space in front of the main building, where some gardens have been created, there is a kind of dump, formed from the inscriptions, mostly large ones, for which there was presumably no room in the interior display.

Among them is the original Epaphroditus inscription. It is hemmed in closely by others, so that it is now impossible either to see properly or to photograph clearly.

However it is all too easy to observe that since the slide was made, the surface of the stone has been badly bruised. (This bruising is in several places, but is most clearly visible over letter O in the second line on the right.) A crack that was hardly visible in 1977 has now advanced across the letter P. And the surface is now heavily stained in streaks by the dirty rain that continues to wash over it. These images were made in 2005.
The sight is a distressing one, evidence of a public abandonment of all responsibility on the part of the museum for a work of art in its care. In a bizarre inversion of the policy that removed the Marcus Aurelius statue to safety, visitors to the museum are offered an inadequate copy while the original, having been damaged, is allowed to decay still further. One possible explanation – but this is simply guesswork and any information will be welcome – might be that it was indeed intended to display the original inscription and that, having been damaged, it became too embarrassing to show.
Why is this inscription, among so many, important enough to make so much of? It’s worth trying to explain, even though – judging from the evidence provided by its display and its publications – it may be hard work to get the museum’s authorities to understand.
At some date in the first century BCE, the appearance of Roman inscriptional lettering changed dramatically and permanently, and the results are still with us. ‘Monoline’ letters, that is letters made up of strokes of uniform thickness, gave way to the thick and thin strokes that we know from the shapes of the capital letters of many of our printing types. Exactly why this happened is still unclear. It is sometimes said that the increasing use in Rome of marble in place of the coarser tufo or travertine made it possible for ever finer letters to be cut. That may be so, but when the Greeks cut their letters on marble four hundred years earlier, they made them small and geometrical – and monoline. What seems to have happened in Rome is that a highly sophisticated calligraphic tradition, the existence of which was hardly suspected and for which very little evidence has survived, had suddenly entered the permanent medium of letters cut in stone.
The following passage was written by W. R. Lethaby, founder of the Central School of Arts and Crafts, in his editor’s introduction to Edward Johnston’s writing manual of 1906:
‘The Roman characters which are our letters today, although their earlier forms have only come down to us cut in stone, must have been formed by incessant practice with a flat, stiff brush, or some such tool. This disposition of the thicks and thins, and the exact shape of the curves, must have been settled by an instrument used rapidly; I suppose, indeed, that most of the great monumental inscriptions were designed in situ by a master writer, and only cut in by the mason, the cutting being merely a fixing, as it were, of the writing’.
Nobody had ever said this before. Now it is accepted without question.
Not long after Lethaby wrote, in 1914, brush lettering was discovered that had been painted on the walls of Pompeii in 79, when it was covered by the volcanic ash and preserved. Pompeii was a sophisticated and lively little town, and the publicity for the contested local elections was painted, mostly at night, by the light of lanterns or the moon, by brilliant signwriters, working sometimes in teams and sometimes alone, who signed their names. (Aemilius Celer was one of the loners, often working by moonlight: Speedy Aemilius. Banksy under the shadow of Vesuvius.)

Among a great deal of excellent rapid writing in the style to which later palaeographers gave the name ‘rustic’ there is one piece in Roman capitals that link directly to the new style that was now beginning to be cut in stone:

The proportions are not identical with those of the so-called ‘square capitals’, of which the lettering of the inscription at the base of Trajan’s Column has become known as the archetype. But there are other stone-cut inscriptions of which the drawing is no less masterly which are very closely related indeed. And Epaphroditus is one of these.

There is room here to compare only the two letters A, and to note how in the Pompeian example the right-hand stroke shows the angle of the laying-on of the brush, a slight swelling of the line as it descends, and a very slight curve too, and its rapid lifting away at the foot to make a serif – and to observe how closely the Epaphroditus letter catches this dynamic calligraphic movement.
Much of Roman epigraphy is dull stuff, turned out soundly enough as a matter of civic duty. Happily there are exceptions, inscriptions that are full of life and beautifully drawn and cut. These in turn inspired the antiquarii of the 15th century, like Felice Feliciano, who drew them and passed them on to their contemporaries. Their work is known to us from inscriptions on the buildings of the Italian Renaissance and printing types that were cut by punchcutters like Francesco Griffo who worked for Aldus.
The Epaphroditus inscription ranks with these inspirational models. It may lack the nervous refinement of the Trajan letter, but that example is increasingly inaccessible, having suffered from nearly two thousand years of weathering, and, as visitors to Rome are all too well aware, our view of it is now almost permanently obstructed by scaffolding and green plastic. (To add to this dismal catalogue, it should be borne in mind that the two letters RI are all that remain at Pompeii of the SATRI inscription shown above, and they are faint and ghostly after nearly a century of exposure to sun and rain: all the rest of the plaster was blown from the wall by bombing in 1943.) The brilliance of the Epaphroditus inscription offered us a direct link to the master writer who was its ordinator (writer and designer) and perhaps its sculptor (cutter) too. It deserves more care from those who are responsible for it, and we have some right to ask them to apply it, however belatedly.

This is the English edition of the guide book referred to above: Rosanna Friggeri, The epigraphic collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano at the Baths of Diocletian (Milan: Electa, 2001). The English translation of the text is an obstacle to readers (to call it inexpert would be too kind), but the illustrations are excellent. However, the Epaphroditus inscription is neither mentioned nor illustrated. There is a section on the making of inscriptions that is headed ‘Epigraphy: workshops and culture’. It sets out some useful basic information, but offers no analysis of the forms of letters.
Joyce S. and Arthur E. Gordon wrote on page 80 of their Contributions to the palaeography of Latin inscriptions (Ann Arbor, 1957), ‘The origin of shading’ [that is, the use of thick and thin strokes] ‘obviously has to do with several questions, principally How? Where from? and When? To the first two the answer is that we do not know, and to the third the answer is the same, except that the shading appears in Latin lettering in Rome by about the time of the death of Julius Caesar’ [44 BC]. They added, ‘This problem of the origin of shading needs a careful and extensive investigation.’ The assertion of Jean Mallon, in his Paléographie romaine (Madrid, 1952), that, ‘[la capitale est] la fixation calligraphique, à un moment donné, d’une écriture vulgaire déterminée, qui a continué sa carrière en dehors d’elle’ is a remark that has lost none of its resonance; but so far as I am aware, the question of the introduction of ‘thick and thin strokes’ to inscriptions cut in stone still awaits the serious attention of scholars. The modest monograph by Giancarlo Susini, Il lapicida romano (Bologna, 1966) did not attempt to address it, and its English version, The Roman stonecutter (Oxford, 1973), is obscured by the imperfect translation of some technical terms.
A good account of the painted electoral notices of Pompeii is given in: Romolo A. Staccioli, Le elezioni municipali nell’antichità romana, con particolare riferimento ai ‘manifesti’ elettorali di Pompei (Roma: Edizioni Palatino, 1963). The group of notices of which one was reproduced above are described in the Notizie degli scavi di antichità, xi (1914), pp. 104–6, which include notes on the signatures of the writers, and can be read online.
An earlier note that I wrote about the fate of the Epaphroditus inscription was published under the heading ‘Inscription under threat’ in Forum, the journal of Letter Exchange, issue 13 (April 2007).