The first alphabet was developed on the coasts of the Eastern Mediterranean by modifying the cuneiform (wedge-shaped)
syllabic alphabet used in Mesopotamia. The Phoenicians, who first established trading routes in the whole Mediterranean
Sea, spread it to other countries who adapted it to their language: the word alphabet comes from alpha, beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet.
In Central Italy the Etruscans developed an alphabet which was eventually adopted with some variations by the Romans. In the Roman alphabet all letters were formed between two parallel lines and they all had the same height. The letters show a prevalence of straight lines rather than curved ones. This has to do with the way Romans wrote: in our modern society we tend to regard paper as an easily available commodity, but in the ancient world this was not the case.
The Egyptians had developed a complex process to obtain paper from the stem of papyrus, an aquatic plant growing in the marshes near the Nile; but this writing-material became available to the Romans only when they expanded their possessions to the Eastern Mediterranean. The other prevailing writing-material was parchment, obtained from the skin of sheep or goat through a process developed in Pergamum, a town on the Asian coast of the Aegean Sea. Eumenes II (197-159 BC) expanded with the support of the Romans the kingdom of Pergamum and founded a library of perhaps 200,000 rolls of papyrus. The Egyptians, in what can be regarded as a sort of trade war, envious of the role acquired by Pergamum, blocked the export of papyrus, a move which eventually led to the development of the technique for obtaining paper from skins of animals. The last King of Pergamum, Attalus III, bequeathed his possessions to the Romans in 133 BC giving them a crucial base for their expansion in the region. Parchment however remained a very expensive writing-material.
Usually the Romans wrote on a diptych, a hinged two-leaved writing tablet with waxed inner sides: they used a stilus, a small rod with a pointed end, to scratch the wax. The rod had at the other end a spatola, a blunt end used to obliterate wrong words or figures (which is the same, because some letters of the Roman alphabet were used to act as numbers: 1(I), 5(V), 10(X), 50(L), 100(C), 500(D), 1000(M)).
Scratching on the wax straight lines was rather simple and this explains why the Roman alphabet made such use of them.
Saepe stilum vertas, iterum quae digna legi sunt scripturus (Horace, Satyrae, I, X, 72-73) - Turn the stilus (to erase and rewrite) often, if you wish to write something worth being read - this sentence written by a great Latin poet, contemporary of Augustus, tells us that papyrus or parchment were used only for the final formal version of a literary work or a letter.
Ponte Fabricio shows one of the oldest inscriptions on a Roman monument: it is written twice on each side of the bridge and it celebrates a man holding a rather modest position in the "organization chart" of the Roman Republic: he was a "CUR.ator VIAR.um" in charge of street maintenance; anyhow he knew how to build a bridge, because Ponte Fabricio has resisted 2000 years of floods. The Romans made use of abbreviations, so their inscriptions are sometimes difficult to understand. Piramide di Caio Cestio is another early monumental inscription: it is interesting also because it provides in the smaller inscription in the lower part some information about the time it took to build it (330 days): OPUS ABSOLUTUM ... DIEBUS CCCXXX.
The Pantheon was built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, son-in-law of Emperor Augustus, but it was heavily damaged by fire in 80 AD. In 118-25 it was rebuilt in its current shape by Emperor Hadrian, who chose to put a large inscription which makes reference to the first builder of the temple. At that time the simple engraving of the inscription was regarded as not significant enough for such a temple, so it was covered with bronze letters, which improved the readability of the inscription. However bronze became a precious material in the dark centuries which followed and the letters of this and other inscriptions were stolen. The inscription of the Pantheon was taken as a model for designing similar inscriptions on Renaissance churches and later on most civil buildings.
Inscriptions play a major role in the design of Roman triumphal arches. Arco di Tito was dedicated by Emperor Domitian to his brother Titus: DIVO TITO DIVI VESPASIANI F.(ILIUS - son of) VESPASIANO AUGUSTO. Domitian, however, to mollify the resistance of the Senate to his attempt to divinize his family, did not make any reference to himself and gave prominence to the word SENATUS by using a larger size and by placing it first. The holes in the inscription were caused by the pulling out of the nails supporting the (lost) bronze letters.
Porta Maggiore shows a very large inscription; actually three large inscriptions. All of them make reference to the aqueducts Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus. The top one celebrates Emperor Claudius who completed the aqueducts in 52 AD; the lower ones make reference to the emperors Vespasianus and Titus who in 71 and 81 respectively restored them. The inscriptions give some details about the origin and the length of the aqueducts.
Arco di Costantino was erected in 315 to celebrate Constantine's 313 victory at Ponte Milvio. Most of its statues and reliefs come from previous monuments erected in honour of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian: the long inscription shows the signs of the decadence of Rome: the alignment of the words is poor, the same letter is sometimes engraved in slightly different ways, the letters are rounder, the words are poorly separated (see below).
IMP. CAES. FL. CONSTANTINO MAXIMO
S. P. Q. R. stands for SENATUS POPULUSQUE ROMANUS (the Senate and the people of Rome).
The inscription makes a clear reference to Maxentius (TYRANNO tyrant) and his supporters (EIUS FACTIONE his faction): this reveals the
inconsistency between the inscription and the decoration of the arch, chiefly the beautiful statues of the Dacian prisoners, taken from a monument to Trajan.
At that time, although the Roman Empire was still resisting the pressure of the barbarian tribes on the Rhine - Danube border, Rome was no longer the centre of its political life and the emperors set their residence in other cities of the empire.
S. Giovanni in Laterano - The "sweating stone"
The decadence of Rome also pervaded its schooling system: the level of literacy fell to such a low level that Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) recommended painting the walls of the churches so that
"ut qui litteras nesciunt saltem in parietibus videndo legant quae legere in codicibus non valent" those who cannot read, by looking at the walls might be able to learn what they are unable to read in books".
This led to a reduced use of the wax tablets; writing was mainly confined to monasteries where religious books were written on parchment by using a new kind of pen: the quill-pen which allowed the drawing of nice curved lines: the letters of the Roman alphabet acquired a
square format and some straight lines were modified into curved lines: the new "script" was called "onciale" because the letters had the size of an inch; in the IXth century Charlemagne favoured a cultural development centered in the Rhine valley,
which was marked by a new script called Carolingian. Overall these different scripts made even more difficult learning to read, because the same letter could be written in different ways.
The inscription shown above was written immediately after the year 1000 and it shows that some letters, even in the same word, are written differently: this is very evident in the letter "E" which sometimes is written by using straight lines and sometimes by using curves.
The inscription was most likely dictated by Pope Sergius IV (1009-12) to celebrate Pope Sylvester II (999-1003). According to the tradition this pope Homagium itaque cum fecisset diabolo, ut sibi ad votum omnia succederunt made an agreement with Evil so that all (the cardinals) elected him and because of this and of his fame as a magician, his tomb was thought to signal the forthcoming death of the pope. Cum ossa colludit, tympanum pulsat. Si sudet Sarcophagus, obitu lacrimatur Pontificis: unde mortalibus omnibus sit hora mortis incerta Pontifici excepto Romano. When his stones collide, the (upper part of the) tomb moves. If the sarcophagus sweats, it is necessary to start weeping for the pope: while the hour of death is uncertain for all mortals, there is an exception for the Roman Pontiff.
The sentences in Latin are taken from "G. Palazzo - Gesta Pontificum Romanorum" a history of the popes printed in Venice in 1688: modern books on the same topic tend to omit these gruesome details.
There are very few medieval inscriptions in Rome with the exception of those on tombstones, usually limited to the name of the deceased. So the long inscription above
the entrance of Casa di Pilato has a major relevance in the study of Roman epigraphy. The building was erected between 1040 and 1065 by Nicholas Crescenzi. The curved marble slab
was taken from a nearby circular Roman temple and most of the reliefs decorating the building have a similar origin.
The inscription is so long that few spend time trying to read it: clearly Nicholas Crescenzi was not aware of communication tools and strategies: it is a pity because the message is not what one would expect:
NON FUIT IGNARUS CUIUS DOMUS HEC NICOLAUS QUOD NIL MOMENTI SIBI MUNDI GLORIA SENTIT
(Nicholas, whose house this was, was not unaware that the glory of the world in itself is of no importance, but in building his house he was moved not so much by vanity, but by the desire to restore the ancient decorum of Rome.+ In (your) fine homes be aware of the sepulchre and be sure you will not stay there forever. Death comes flying, for no one life is eternal, our task is light and its journey is short. If you were to escape the wind, if you were to shut (yourself behind) a hundred gates, if you commanded a thousand sentries, you would not go to bed without Death. If you were to barricade yourself in a castle reaching the stars, (well, Death) more easily takes whom she wishes from there. +The great house first built by the great Nicholas faces the stars: (it was erected) to renew the decorum of (our) fathers. His father was Crescenzio, his mother Teodora. This large house, erected for his beloved son, the father who built it to David to whom he dedicated it).
The script is consistent with the aim of the building, i.e. to renovate the glory of Rome and the letters and also the technique used for engraving them follow the pattern of the ancient Roman inscriptions.
Casa di Lorenzo Manilio
The economic and cultural recovery of Italy reached Rome only in the XVth century. Pope Nicholas V, Tommaso Parentucelli, bishop of wealthy Bologna, took possession of the Vatican in 1447 and he was appalled to learn that its library had scarcely 300 volumes. It is said that the pope devoted himself to making the Vatican Library a key institution of the papal state. He relied on the help of Lorenzo Valla, a great humanist who had demonstrated the falsity of Donatio Constantini, the assumed act by which the Emperor Constantine had donated some
territories to the Pope and which was used to justify the Papal State. In 1453 the fall of Constantinople brought to Rome many erudite Greeks and in a matter of
few decades Rome replaced Florence as the main cultural centre of Italy.
A fine 1477 painting by Melozzo da Forlý (it opens in another window) portrays Pope Sixtus IV while he is appointing Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library, a sign of the importance reached by this position.
In 1468 the antiquarian Lorenzo Manili or Manilio gave an example of the new philological attention which was paid to the memories of Ancient Rome. The gigantic inscription on his 1468 house in Piazza Giudia is a careful recreation of those of Ancient Rome, both owing to the Latin text and to the careful engraving of the letters. The inscription is dated MMCCXXI (2221) from the foundation of Rome (753 BC).
In those same years German typographers brought to Italy the first printing machines designed by Johann Gutenberg: his books made use of fraktur, a script with enhanced Gothic features, which Italians did not easily read. It was in Venice that our current way of writing and printing was developed: the Venetians typographers combined the Ancient Roman letters with the Carolingian letters developed in the following centuries. The former were used as capitals (hence they are called Roman Capitals), while the latter became what we call lower-case letters.
Guillaume d'Estouteville (1402-1483) from Rouen was a very powerful cardinal in the second half of the XVth century;
he had been appointed cardinal in 1439 and in a way he was the representative of France in the Sacred College: he
took part in five conclaves and, because the election of the pope was often the result of bribery, he amassed a great fortune.
He bought the land near Piazza Navona and then convinced Pope Sixtus IV to transfer there from the area below Piazza del Campidoglio the
fruit and vegetable market, increasing the commercial value of his land, upon which later on several French institutions
were built (S. Luigi dei Francesi and the nearby hospice and hospital). He left to his natural son (Girolamo Tuttavilla, a blunt Italianization of d'Estouteville) the fiefs of Nemi,
Genzano and Frascati.
This explains how he managed to pay for the erection of S. Agostino, a very large church, one of the first and best examples of Renaissance architecture in Rome.
The fašade was built with travertine stones fallen from the Colosseo: it is not the only link with Ancient Rome as the cardinal, having in mind the inscription of the Pantheon, decided to leave his name on the church, an example followed in the coming centuries by many other cardinals and popes.
The inscription makes reference to his being bishop of Ostia (which meant he was the oldest cardinal in charge), his town of origin - Rothomagen.(sis) from Rouen - and his (very lucrative) position - Camerarius (camerlengo, treasurer ).
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