Lunar Refractions: A Monumental Life—in Letters

Monulifeins02_2 The moon’s orbit has been a bit odd as of late, but today brings a floodtide in anticipation of tomorrow’s new moon. Yes, my dear readers, it’s been awhile, the days are growing short, and I’m glad to be back. The full title for today’s Monday Musing is “Monumental Life: Tout bien ou rien.” Both title and subtitle came to me on a recent visit to Baltimore, Maryland. The former appeared in grand gold letters atop a rather imposing insurance company building downtown, and the latter was one of many mural panels commemorating early European and North American publishers, interspersed with printers’ devices, in the Enoch Pratt Free Library just a few blocks away from the first.

Toutbien While this second idea (roughly translated) that “everything must be [done] well or nothing [done] at all” is admittedly a little severe, these are severe times we’re living in. For me, this past month has proven somewhat cyclical, in many different regards; the uniting thread is that it’s all related to letters and lettering. First, an old colleague and friend who’s a visiting professor at MICA invited me as guest critic for his printing and paper class, and I’d not been to Baltimore in almost seven years, so it was a welcome return. While there, I took some walks to scout out architectural lettering for a New York–based colleague who gives tours and lectures on lettering (more on this later). Second, after three years missing the Frankfurter Buchmesse/Frankfurt Book Fair, my schedule and the recent financial rollercoaster coincided, in an odd way, to help me decided that this was the year to return—who knows what state publishing will be in next year? Third, a return to the Buchmesse meant a return to Mainz and a visit to the Druckladen at the Gutenberg Museum to work with their master hand-typesetter and printer for a day. Finally, on Sunday, this month of eternal (or is it temporary?) returns culminated in a walk around parts of Midtown Manhattan, with my aforementioned colleague and the Society of Fellows of the American Academy in Rome to look at curious lettering, much of which I regularly pass by without much pause. Everything was familiar except the interior of Saint Bartholomew’s, which turns out to be as richly lettered as the exterior, pleasantly anomalous amid all those glass box skyscrapers along Park Avenue.

Never On Sunday

B_neveronsunday I spent a Monday and Tuesday at MICA and its impressive Dolphin Press. After classes in the studio building were done, I took a walk downtown, past the extreme luxury of the past and the rather more checkered condition of the city’s present. One of the first signs I encountered, after “MONUMENTAL LIFE,” was a corner restaurant/bar called “Never on Sunday.” Not knowing it was a 1960s Greek (now the colors make sense…) movie and song, and without entering, I assumed the place was a dive bar boasting its corrupting talents, luring people in to do everything they’re generally forbidden from doing. Moving on, a few blocks up I encountered several curious bronze statues atop marble bases just before running into the prestigious Peabody Institute.B_peabodyint B_peabodystair_2 I wandered in to find an elegant spiral staircase, some enticing ephemera from the collections, and an amazing skylight that provided most of the natural light needed by readers in the covered courtyard; another such skylight lit the indoor courtyard of the Pratt Library, and made me think yet again of how much of our contemporary architecture depends upon artificial systems for light, air, and access—all things firmly grounded to the natural environment in former architectures. Not to mention how bare most contemporary architecture is of lettering; when it does make the rare appearance, it’s almost always rather generically spit out of a computer with a few fixed faces and default settings, a far cry from the sensitivity of the professional letterers who used to have a stable spot in architectural firms. From humble bar to grand public library to myriad mansions, the city overflowed with the sort of lettering and signage that New York mostly rid itself of long ago, and continues to clear away today—be it in the name of progress, or perhaps because New York can afford to demolish its more heavily mortared past for a glassier, less lasting present, or any of the many other hypotheses that came to mind.

Publish and PerishMz_druckladen0801

Jumping from Baltimore across the Atlantic to Europe, I come
to the heaviest subject in an otherwise light celebration of letters. Italian author Roberto Saviano made a brief appearance, accompanied by a minimum of three bodyguards, at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The reason for the bodyguards was the fact that he’d received the first death threat of several just a few days before, on 13 October 2008—promising he and his protectors would be dead by year’s end—for his book Gomorra and the movie based upon it. The title is a play on words (though the idea of “play” hardly seems suitable here), with Gomorra being the biblical sister city to Sodom and Camorra being a network of organized crime, the Neapolitan branch of Sicily’s Mafia/Cosa nostra, Calabria’s ’Ndrangheta, and Puglia’s Sacra Corona Unita. Salman Rushdie has suggested Saviano take care because the Casalesi threat is, he claims, worse than any fatwa—and countless Nobel Laureates and others have lined up in his support. While in Frankfurt Saviano finally announced he was considering leaving Italy, and the statement was followed by major reactions internationally, both for and against such a move. You’ll find endless coverage of the case, and I can say little else until I finish the book, so this chapter is left hanging.
    To segue into the next, however, I will note that his exchange of G for C is particularly intriguing and informed, as the alphabet the ancient Romans inherited from the Greeks (via the Etruscans) had no actual g as we know it, just a gamma (velar g) and various pronunciations of what we’d see as c and k; needing a written form to distinguish between palatalized and velar s and c, the g came into being. Had the book been published a couple millennia ago, the wordplay between Gomorra and Camorra would’ve been entirely lost on its readers.

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Love That Word

To end on a slightly lighter note, the highlight of this sunny Sunday (yes, letter-gazing is allowed, always, and especially on Sunday) was a walk through midtown; although I found nothing as varied or dense as I did in Baltimore, iNyc_stbartslovethatwordn terms of block-by-block letter populations, New York nevertheless has a lot to offer. Between stops (the above images are from Saint Vincent Ferrer), I spoke to an alumnae of my own alma mater I’d just met, who confirmed that a course in lettering was part of the core curriculum when she attended, alongside 2-D, 3-D, and drawing. Times have changed, but we can still find ways to follow the encouraging façade inscription—which I’m intentionally taking out of its religious context here—at Saint Bartholomew’s: LOVE THAT WORD.

Previous Lunar Refractions can be found here. Thanks for reading, and have a great week.