bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

A Stone-cutter’s Literacy

Posted in Epigraphy, Humanism by bonaelitterae on 20 September, 2022

Feast your weary eyes on this elegant funerary slab. It is to be found on the walls below the porticos of what is known as the Old Cemetery in the Alpine city of Bressanone / Brixen, between the parish church of St Michael and the Cathedral.

Memorial to Johann Riepper (d. 1539) in the Cimitero Vecchio, Bressanone

It memorialises the early sixteenth-century canon of the Cathedral, Johann Riepper, for whom there may or may not exist a portrait made in his lifetime, now in St Louis, Missouri. The inscription’s rendition of Roman capitals is masterly, with its use of nestling letters — see, for instance, ‘epistolis’, at l. 5 of the main inscription — and even playful (note the use, at the centre of the ‘scroll’ at the top, of an alternate M, with its arching final upright). This, though, is not the earliest use of this alphabet in the cemetery: while it records the date of 1539, one of its neighbours announces the year 1506.

Memorial to Canon Nicholas (d. 1506) in the Cimitero Vecchio, Bressanone

Nor is that the earliest sign of engagement with Renaissance humanist lettering in the vicinity: on the other side of the Cathedral (the south side) lie its cloisters, which are remarkable both for their range of mainly fifteenth-century frescoes and for the fact that many of the images are explained in painted texts. Here is one of them, in gothic lettering except for the g with its sharp angled neck and separated bowls, a sign of what I dubbed in my 2019 monograph (discussing examples from England) engagement with ‘humanist g-reform’.

Painted text in the Cathedral Cloisters, Bressanone, dated ?1463

These signs of acquaintance with developing Renaissance fashions in lettering may not surprise us in this Tyrolean location, when we remember that for over a decade its bishop in the mid-fifteenth century was Nicholas of Cusa, from 1450 until his death in 1464. It is not, though, on a sense of accomplishment that I want to concentrate but on this memorial’s quite striking slip. It may already have caught your attention as it did mine when I stood before it a fortnight ago: look at the first word on the scroll above the deceased’s head. It is meant to read ‘Gloria’ but the stone-cutter has provided two Os and two Rs, combining each of them together as a monogram and overlapping the curves of the O. This is highly unusual — if you know of other examples, please do give details in a comment.

In the absence of parallels, it seems to me that something else is going: the stone-cutter originally chiselled ‘Glroia’ and then had to correct it. There is a small detail which encourages me in this assumption: notice the difference between the two forms of R, the first with a longer diagonal becoming a tail, the second more restrained. The inscription below shows that the first form was the preferred one. The second, it seems to me, has been designed to fit the space available.

We can take this further: this was not the production of a moment’s distraction. If the chisel had begun to form R and the head behind the hand which held the implement had immediately realised the mistake, there would have been other remedies: given the nestling letters provided below, the O could have been carved smaller and placed within the arms of the preceding L. It is common practice for swiftly noticed mistakes to be resolved as work continues. As a result, they tend to look rather different, as this example from San Fermo in Verona shows.

Inscription on the lintel of a door in the south aisle of the Upper Church of San Fermo, Verona, dated 1528 – note the word ‘fecit’

In this Brixen case, it is much more likely that the error was only noticed when the word or the whole scroll had been completed. Yet, to provide ‘Glroia’ is not a minor mistake: it defies the basic expectations of word-forms in European languages. We can assume the stone-cutter’s mother tongue was a form of German, but ‘glr’ would be as odd a combination in that language as it would be to someone brought up in a Romance tradition or trained in Latin. Was this the result of a dyslexic moment? Perhaps, but there is another explanation: that the stone-cutter was not reproducing familiar words but was, instead, chiselling letters without conscious understanding. In short, the task this artisan was set tested the limits of their literacy.

This suggests a difference between those working in stone and those working on parchment: scribes were expected to be literate to a level of being able to engage with the text they were reproducing and to correct it when they found errors. Of course, if they made mistakes themselves, they had ways of making it right — erasure and rewriting for instance, or marking deletion by points placed below each letter. Jeopardy was rather higher for a worker in stone, an unforgiving surface where error stubbornly remains or, at the very least, leaves its mark. What is more, the mason was presumably employed rather for an ability in rendering a portrait in stone than for any reputation for literate skills.

My suggestion, then, is that while this monument looks the part, it is, in terms of its lettering, the work of someone more skilled in carving than in writing. In societies where only the minority were literate, we should not expect all artisans required to work with letter-forms to be fully conversant with the grammar of language. This has an obvious and important implication: for the stone-cutter to produce the inscription, there must have been a template which was intended to be followed, as it were, to the letter. Like Caravaggio’s St Matthew, the stone-cutter had the assistance of a guiding hand. In other words, this memorial is not a solitary effort: we can imagine a cleric providing detailed instructions, down to a layout of the letters, the stone-cutter chisels away and then another set of eyes — perhaps the same cleric or a colleague — checks what has been done, and in this case notices an egregious error. Just imagine the conversations that then occurred around it.

I focus on this particular example because it suggests a wider pattern. I am certainly not suggesting that this stone-cutter was particularly unlearned. On the contrary, my hypothesis is that the person was as literate as many others working in stone. We can find other cases of errors being made which at times might be signs of inattention but at others are more likely to be because the mason was challenged by the requirement to render words in stone. That said, what is remarkable is not that, on this occasion, such an obvious error was made but that such mistakes were not made more often.