Saturday, December 18, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Florence Vuilleumier Laurens, Pierre Laurens, L'âge de l'inscription: La rhétorique du monument en Europe du XVe au XVIIe siècle. Le Cabinet des Images. Paris: Les belles lettres, 2010. Pp. 290. ISBN 9782251443867. €47.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Jacqueline Austin, London, England

[Chapter titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This is a beautifully presented book which, since it is in a sense a book for the historian of the book, is a good start. Its sturdy cover has a generous four-edged turn in – useful for place-holding – and it is attractively illustrated with large painted capital letters - in the second case with handwritten notes - taken straight from Felice Feliciano's manuscript Vaticanus Latinus 6852 (also reproduced in grey-tone in Plate 4), of which more below. Thus the presentation is inviting and attractive; a quality I found not altogether consistent with the content, which is, on the other hand, erudite and demanding of the reader. This is a serious book, thick with further references, which refuses to provide translations for its extensive, and lengthy, Latin language quotations. In addition, it lacks a general bibliography (a great shame). This forces the reader to backtrack through very long footnotes, which often quote other texts at length, in search of the source of repeated instances of 'ibid.' and 'op. cit.' – a tedious and time-consuming procedure. There is, usefully, an index.

The book's contents clearly represent several years' work for both scholars, but perhaps particularly for Florence Vuilleumier Laurens, from whose early article (which appeared more than 20 years ago) the present work developed. Seven of its 12 chapters (IV, VI, VII, XI, X, XI, XII) are re-workings of earlier articles by either one or both of the two authors, while five are presented for the first time here.

The Laurens duo have produced a work that understands the word 'inscription' broadly, as did John Sparrow Visible Words (1969) (Cambridge: CUP, p.11), as: "a sequence of words designed to be read with the eye". Thus, this is the study of a visual genre that far outgrows its early stone medium, and the book traces the early development of the inscription as a literary form, but also, in later chapters, as a cultural conceit. It recounts, using specific examples, the vivid interest in classical inscriptions which, beginning in the Humanist period, was common to so many scholars, thinking men and artists of all types. That history is followed through into the 17th century. Books, architecture, painting, civic occasions, visual and literary culture generally - all these subsumed the classical inscription in some way and yet also transformed it, each in their way, into something beyond itself, something new.

The early humanist scholars and their deeds are the chief subject matter of Chapter I and the book, to my mind, is worth having for this chapter alone, for its treatment of the birth of modern epigraphy as a discipline is unusual and welcome. At 36 pages in length, Chapter 1 is the most substantial of the 12 chapters and the book would undoubtedly be poorer without it. Its account provides grounding and is a starting point for all that is to follow. Here for example, the authors illuminate, often relying on primary sources to do so, the world of Felice Feliciano. This man lived in a micro-society of humanist friends and artists alike, all of whom communed over inscriptions in a mixture of idealism and decadence, of enthusiasm for Antiquity - the splendours of which they relived in their imaginations - and of love of nature, whose charms they described in glowing terms. They practised scientific inquest even while they sought out utopia.

Feliciano himself was the author and scribe of the oldest treatise on the form of the Roman letter which has been preserved in the precious codex Vaticanus Latinus 6852. In the manuscript it is followed by his equally pioneering treatise on the making of pigments for inks and colour paints. Feliciano, in a manner typical of the age in which he lived, observed closely the Roman lettering that he encountered. Having noted that the early carvers made use of geometrical instruments in their constructions, he did the same in his lettering. His approach was analytical and forensic, but it had a great influence on the beauty of the Roman letter as it was to be produced by Humanist scribes and stone carvers, who used the antique models but added something to it of their own. Feliciano's work was followed and imitated by many later theorists, several of whom are well-known names in their own right: Luca Pacioli, GiamBattista Palatino, Albrecht Dürer and Giovanni Francesco Cresci, for example.

Chapter II treats the new art form made of the prose inscription by Pontano in his building, the Tempietto, which he erected in 1490 and which contained stone epitaphs to his dead wife and children. These inscriptions were transcribed by visitors to the site and they appeared also in printed collections of inscriptions. They were prose epitaphs specifically composed to be engraved upon a memorial and their content was often self-referential. In them, Pontano had created a new lapidary style which would itself, two centuries' later, be highly influential upon the form of the book. His epitaphs mark the stage that the prose inscription had reached by the end of the 15th century, but by the 17th century, the medium for the inscription is not the stone, but the printed page. This story, or part of it, is taken up by the Laurens in their book. The third part of the book treats a phenomenon which had consequences for literature as much as for the history of book-form: the definition of a new literary genre, the elogium, intermediary between prose and poetry. A fourth part describes the rivalry, on one or the other side of the Alps, between 'an aesthetic of magnificence', and an 'aesthetic of gravity and simplicity', as the authors put it, the latter, the more tenuous and longer-lasting, resulted in the exchange, in the France of Louis XIV, of Latin for French. This was to herald a new era for the inscription at the centre of the modern state and this relationship too is examined.

It is this return to base, as it were, that allows the authors to claim that their book follows a 'chronological arc'. The final chapters describe a new discovery and use of the inscription in the 18th century, while their first had treated its earlier rebirth four hundred years earlier in the era of Poggio Bracciolini (claimed here as the founder of modern epigraphy) and Ciriaco d'Ancona. The book is about copying and re-copying, as it traces the relationship between the inscription and its copy (or copies), its re-inscription and re-institution in culture. An original text may be hard to tease out of a later copy, and inscriptions, like the manuscripts which contain them, do not come directly to us but are embroidered by the generations of scribes, artists and scholars, all of whom have admired and cherished them.

The brief is ambitious and the book's scope is wide. While the learning of its two authors is undoubtedly wide and impressive, their work does not open itself easily to naive and enquiring readers (say most students of inscriptions as art-form, literary genre or cultural phenomenon) and thus its audience is probably chiefly restricted to specialists. This is a pity. Furthermore, the book, to my mind, lacks overall coherence and it is perhaps most comfortably broken down into separate chapters each of interest to historians of particular periods. Thus, while three early chapters analyse the original exploitation of epigraphic material in the literary work of Pontano, of Francesco Colonna in the 'Songe de Poliphile', and in the invention of André Alciat, the following chapters abandon the literary theme to explore instead the political relationship set up by inscriptions, at first at Rome, and later with the development of ephemeral rituals in the courts and the towns of baroque and monarchical Europe.

Rather charmingly and providing visual reinforcement to the argument at times, this book also has plates, 34 in total. These are grey-tone, non-glossy photographs, mostly of pages from manuscripts discussed in the text, but some of monuments of one sort or another. Plates 30 – 32 are, exceptionally, in full colour and focus upon the glorious lettering (here from Versailles). However the illustrations, while illustrating the storyline up to a point, are largely inserted into the text silently without either receiving specific discussion or being explicitly used in the ongoing argument. While they are necessary to the argument, since so much of this discusses visual form, they are too little used in the narrative and this suggests that they were somewhat arbitrarily selected.

List of chapter titles:

Naissance de l'épigraphie moderne
II. Un des premiers cycles d'inscriptions modernes: le Tempietto de Giovanni Gioviano Pontano à Naples
III. La rêverie épigraphique dans l'Hypnerotomachia Poliphili de Francesco Colonna
IV. L'invention de l'Emblème par André Alciat et le modèle épigraphique
V. Le modèle romain
VI. L'image du roi dans la Pompa introitus Ferdinandi à Anvers en 1635
VII. La pédagogie des vertus royales dans les décorations funèbres
VIII. L'inscription dans le livre. Naissance d'un genre littéraire: l'elogium
IX. De la pratique à la théorie: le Cannocchiale aristotelico lu comme un traité de l'inscription héroïque
X. L'orateur et le monument dans l'Ars epigraphica d'Ottavio Boldoni
XI. Le débat sur la langue de l'inscription: l'arc de triomphe du faubourg Saint-Antoine
XII. Le chantier de Versailles et la péripétie des inscriptions latines, puis françaises à la lumière des récentes découvertes

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