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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Whittle

Guest blog - Andrew Whittle: Ten Days in Rome (A Letterer’s Pilgrimage)

When I first started teaching lettering in the early 80s I was casting around for good examples and managed to make a contact with Nicholas Biddulph who had recently set up the Lettering Record at Central Saint Martins with Nicolete Gray. Nicholas kindly showed me around and gave me four photocopies of inscribed lettering taken from images of a memorial on the Via Appia dating from 50AD. Later I discovered that this was the memorial to the children of Sextus Pompeius Justus.

Over many years I referred back to these copies as the ideal Roman form much preferring them to the more well known exemplar at the base of the Trajan column. I have been to Italy a couple of times over the years but never managed to take the trip out to the Via Appia. Having recently made two trips to North Africa in search of Roman inscriptions I decided that it was at last time to go and see my favourite classic Roman brush letter in situ.

I was delighted when my good friend and exemplary letterer Nicholas Sloan agreed to accompany me on the trip, a lot of time was spent planning to ensure that we didn’t miss any obvious collections of inscriptions. The largest being the Lapidary Gallery in the Vatican, sadly closed to the public. Initially I had planned to walk out to the Sextus memorial but then realised that the better choice was to get a bus out to beyond it and walk back in towards Rome. On the second day we hopped off the bus and walked back towards Rome on the (mostly) original paving of the Via Appia, a beautiful day umbrella pines and cypress lining the road dotted with inscriptions. I wondered how many people had walked that road two thousand years ago full of anticipation, hoping to find their fortune in Rome. An hour later I was finally standing in front of the inscription that I had wanted to see for so long, it did not disappoint, the letters are deeply carved and beautifully drawn — they were initially marked out with a square ended brush. The layout of the elegiac inscription in alternating long and short lines is masterful.

The rest of the trip was a blur of museums and sites, the Forum and the Capitoline Museums — a lapidary gallery, Centrale Montmartini — amazing carvings set amongst gargantuan machines, the Vatican — very disappointing the gallery closed and what lettering there was so badly painted that you could hardly make out the forms, the old port Ostia Antiqua — a wonderful day out from Rome with sadly another closed lapidary gallery, a random catacomb (San Callisto) and finally the Musee delle Terme in the Baths of Diocletian where we found a wonderful collection of lettered memorials, statue bases and markers in two courtyards and an exhibition inside of lettered objects over three floors.

We also found time for some churches under strict instructions from Nick’s friend Elinor, they were all stunning but one in particular, Bernini’s masterpiece the Church of St. Andrew on the Quirinal was truly amazing, I have rarely had such an instant and physical reaction to a space.

Andrew Whittle 2023


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