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Rome is brimming with antiquities, each one tucked away in unexpected corners. As I roamed the streets in search of these locales, all connected to the world of letters, it turned into an engaging quest. Organizing a guided tour on the history of letters, showcasing places where visitors can witness or even interact with live examples from various periods, could be a fantastic idea.

The preceding section was exclusively devoted to Via Appia Antica. The next one will encompass all the other captivating spots featuring historical inscriptions.

This one is particularly intriguing. According to “The Eternal Letter,” it’s mentioned that “The distinctive Damasian capital letter, used for tables memorializing Christian martyrs, was designed by Furius Dionysius Filocalus, secretary to Pope Damasus I (reigned 366–384).”

I came across them in the Basilica S. Sebastiano Fuori le Mura (which, by the way, is located on Via Appia Antica) and inside the adjacent early Christian catacombs. The plate in the photo dates back to the 4th century.

Take a look at the details! The serifs have such a playful shape, and the bowl and leg of the “R” are not connected. There’s almost no contrast in the bowls of “R”, “P”, “B”, and of course, the ligatures are beautifully crafted. One could contemplate them for quite a while. In terms of proportions, these letters don’t exhibit as noticeable a difference as the Roman capitals do.

Basilica S. Sebastiano Fuori le Mura, Via Appia Antica, Rome.

A lavish and splendid inscription within the basilica S. Sebastiano Fuori le Mura. It appears to have been crafted in the early 18th century, representing a “modern” interpretation of the Imperial Roman capitals. To be more precise, it reflects the evolution of the Baroque tradition (I intend to showcase more intriguing Baroque inscriptions later).

Take note of the gracefully arched and distinct shape of the serifs, the pronounced serifs at the apexes of “N” and “M”, the nearly square “M”, the more uniform proportions, and the slightly compressed “O”.

This inscription commemorates Joannes Maria Gabriellius Tifernas in S. Sebastiano Fuori le Mura, where his heart is burried, dating back to the 18th century.

Basilica S. Sebastiano Fuori le Mura, Via Appia Antica, Rome.

We’re still in the basilica S. Sebastiano Fuori le Mura. The inscription in the first set of photos was created in the 17th-18th centuries. In fact, it’s a reproduction of another inscription from the 5th-6th centuries, which you can observe in the last set of photos. The letters and line spacing in the latter inscription do appear rather peculiar. Interestingly, this isn’t the first inscription from that period that I’ve come across exhibiting such characteristics. Could the fall of the Roman Empire be to blame? :)

Turning back to the replica, it boasts lively letterforms. Take note of the playful “S” (each one is unique), the varying thickness of the horizontal strokes (e.g., “E”, “F”), the distinctive leg of “R”, and the shape of “P”s’ bowl.

Basilica S. Sebastiano Fuori le Mura, Via Appia Antica, Rome.

A little bit of Greek for a change.
Approx. 1st century BC.

The Tomb of Caecilia Metella, Via Appia Antica, Rome.

This inscription dates back to approximately the 1st century BC. I find its dynamics particularly captivating. The shapes of certain letters, such as “R” or “S”, strike me as surprisingly modern. Additionally, take note of the dot between words — it features four rays instead of the classic three. That detail is also quite appealing to me.

The Tomb of Caecilia Metella, Via Appia Antica, Rome.

What a charming inscription crafted in Rustic Capital letters. Observe the condensed shapes of the letters, the gracefully curving crossbars in “F” and “E”, and the distinct leg of “R”. The inscription itself exudes a radiant and flowing quality, reminiscent of a wedding invitation.

The Tomb of Caecilia Metella, Via Appia Antica, Rome.

Since we are in Rome, I could not help but post this inscription!

Senatus Populusque Romanus.

Capitoline Hill, Rome.

A truly remarkable inscription, executed in Rustic Capitals, caught my eye in the museum within the Colosseum. Take a moment to appreciate the sharp and distinct crossbars, the elegant serifs and swashes, the open “P” bowl, and the overall dynamic quality of this inscription. The interplay of light and shadow adds an even more dramatic effect.

It's fascinating to observe how distinct the character of this inscription is compared to the other Rustic one I shared a bit earlier.

Colosseum, Rome.

The Wind Rose from St. Peter’s Square features these brand new plates, dating to circa 1852. You can observe a clear example of Didone typeface: high contrast, uniform letter width, and no slant in the “O”. Take note of the ball endings on the serifs. It’s possible that their appearance is influenced by the cutting technology, adding a touch of softness.

And yes, I do recall the Wind Rose from the movie “Angels & Demons”! It’s always intriguing to see familiar places in film. :)

St. Peter’s Square, Vatican.

This inscription serves as a wonderful example of Baroque capitals, which held prominence in Rome during the 16th century and beyond. It is one of many designed by Luca Horfei, who was responsible for numerous inscriptions on Roman monuments.

The style itself draws its foundation from the Imperial Roman capitals of the 1st–2nd century A.D. Here, the serifs are distinct and well-defined. The apexes of “M” and “N” usually carry serifs, though occasionally they may be pointed. “M” appears rather narrow, and the overall proportions are more evenly balanced compared to the original Roman Capitals. Notably, “R” exhibits a spacious bowl and an elongated leg with a flat terminal.

The Fontana dell’Acqua Felice, 1589. Rome.

The author of this exquisite Baroque inscription is none other than Luca Horfei, the same talent behind the previous one. It graces the apex of the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica and dates back to the year 1590.

The inscription reads: “To the glory of St. Peter, Pope Sixtus V in the year 1590, the fifth of his pontificate.”

An interesting detail to note is the variation in the dots between words.

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican.

We continue our exploration within St. Peter’s Basilica, where we encounter two more impressive high-rise Baroque inscriptions. The blue mosaic letters against a gold background grace the base of the cupola. These were skillfully designed by the calligrapher Ventura Sarafellini in 1605. As mentioned in “The Eternal Letter,” “the robust proportions and well-drawn serifs of the letters ensure that their shape is maintained against the halation of the brilliant reflective background.” Regrettably, I don’t have higher-resolution images of this inscription, so you'll have to take one’s word for it.

Moving on, we find other inscriptions encircling the central nave. While I lack specific information regarding their creation and authorship, their beauty is no less striking to me. These black mosaic letters, set against a gleaming golden backdrop, truly shine when touched by the sun’s rays!

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican.

This inscription holds tremendous historical significance. It is the Epitaph of Pope Hadrian I, commissioned by none other than Charles the Great himself, and crafted in the year 795 A.D.

During the reign of Charlemagne in the 8th century A.D., the Carolingian Renaissance marked the first concerted effort to revive Imperial Roman culture. This period saw the revival of Imperial Roman capitals, and according to Paul Shaw, this inscription stands as the most crucial example in stone one can find. Today, it is proudly displayed in the portico of St. Peter’s.

Personally, I find great fascination in examining the various ligatures it contains. Notably, there is no space between words at all.

The Epitaph of Pope Hadrian I, 795 A.D.

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican.

The expansive Baroque inscription that stretches across the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica is dedicated to Pope Paul V Borghese (IN HONOREM PRINCIPIS APOST PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX AN MDCXII PONT VII) and was designed in 1612.

It's intriguing to note that when one encounters these inscriptions on various buildings and basilicas, they initially appear quite similar. This uniformity stems from a significant period of renewal that Rome underwent in the 16th century, which impacted not only architecture but also the inscriptions adorning these structures. It was during this era that the standardized pattern of inscriptional capitals, now known as Baroque, was embraced. This style can still be found throughout Rome today.

St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican.

The Pantheon stands as a mighty and stunning testament to ancient Roman architecture. The same can be said for the inscription adorning its facade (M AGRIPPA L F COS TERTIUM FECIT), created in the 2nd century A.D. following the temple’s renovation.

On closer examination, one can discern a smaller inscription beneath the first one. It was added later, in 202 A.D., after another round of restoration. Regrettably, it’s barely visible.

I find the contrast between the robust and solid top inscription and the soft, light lower one to be quite captivating.

Pantheon, Rome.

This is the last one from Rome for now, but by no means the least.

The inscription was crafted by the sculptor Andrea Bregno in 1465, a period known as the Italian Renaissance. This era marked the second revival of classical Roman capitals in history (the first being in the late 8th century). The exact moment of the classical form’s resurgence in the 15th century is still a topic of debate. Several sculptors vie for the distinction of being the first, and Andrea Bregno, with this very inscription, is among them!

While the inscription may display a slight unevenness, I find its delicacy and plasticity quite appealing. Take a moment to observe the 'R' with its gracefully curved long leg, the intricate shape of the serifs, the elegant spur, and the diagonal serif at the “G”s’ vertical. The variations in the forms of “B” are also quite intriguing. Can you spot the two versions?

Prior to this period, the dominance of Florentine Sans Serifs prevailed, and we’ll encounter many examples of them in the section from Florence.

1465, Tomb of Cardinal Ludovico d’Albret S. Maria in Aracoeli, Rome.
This article is a part of the Instagram project @lettersearch, curated by Yulia Gonina. Through her extensive travels, Yulia meticulously collects and categorizes historical inscriptions, offering insightful descriptions alongside stunning visuals. For the latest updates follow @lettersearch!
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