The Workshop of Typographic Memories

Posted inEllen Shapiro
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Although I associate it with writers, once among the world’s most brilliant, who drank themselves into self-parody and premature death, Via Margutta is my favorite street in Rome. Whenever I’m lucky enough to visit, I make a point of looking up at the balcony of Number 30, where—if what Truman Capote wrote in his memorable 1964 short story, “Lola,” is true—his pet raven perched on the stone balustrade and took her daily bath in a silver soup dish.

After a moment of sprightly immersion in the shallow water Lola would spring up and out and, as though casting off a crystal cloak, shake herself, swell her feathers; later, for long, bliss-saturated hours, she drowsed in the sun, her head tilted back, her beak ajar, her eyes shut. To watch her was a soothing experience.

It is still a soothing experience to stroll through this quarter of Rome, between the Piazza del Popolo and the Piazza di Spagna, where I stayed for a few days in July. Just a few blocks from the Corso, throbbing with traffic and tourists, Via Margutta is a quiet, leafy, narrow, cobblestone street lined with antique shops, art galleries, and boutiques—places where you can poke around in old maps next door to high-end designer jewelry. There, I discovered at Number 53-B La Bottega del Marmoraro, where Enrico Fiorentini and his son Sandro carve typographic aphorisms in marble.

Enrico Fiorentino in his shop. Note the beautiful hand-carved ligatures in the tile which reads, "Beautiful is the evening made of things accomplished." All photos except the street sign by Andrea Cipriani Mecchi.

The bust is holding a sign that says, “Bread is Providence’s gift. You will become aware of its worth someday when, God forbid, you will not have any.”

The shop is truly a bottega, a workshop. Enrico and Sandro—reputedly the last two people on earth who carve like the artisan who did the iconic lettering on the Column of Trajan—will carve the words of your choice into a marble tile. Their style is classic Trajan with a lighthearted twist. The window alone is like a candy store for anyone who loves letterforms and ligatures. Inside, the tiny space is crammed with tiles carved with inscriptions in Roman dialect, busts of emperors, cherubs, bas-reliefs, and the father and son’s large collection of stonemasons’ tools.

Translations of a few tiles (all translations in this post courtesy Dr. Antonella De Gennaro): "Accurate information"; "Envious people die, but the envy never dies"; "The smell of wine is better than that of holy water."

Philadelphia-based photographer Andrea Cipriani Mecchi, who took most of the pictures you see here, bought a tile with the phrase “L’amore è eguale per tutti,” (Love is the same for everyone), which, she learned, is a play on the motto displayed in every Italian courtroom: “Legge è uguale per tutti” (The law is equal for all). A friend ordered a custom tile carved with the phrase: “If you want to be happy for a day, drink a bottle of wine. If you want to be happy for a year, get married. If you want to be happy for life, grow a garden.” Small tiles in stock sell for about $20; larger custom-carved signs go for about $80.

But my real interest is the typography, not the aphorisms. On my first visit to Rome, right after I started working for Herb Lubalin and learning the fine points of letterspacing and ligatures, I was transfixed by the lettering on the Column of Trajan, carved in the first century A.D. The inscription at the base of the column is still regarded as the model for ideal letterforms: perfect symmetry, balance, proportion. Attributed to a carver who first painted the forms on the stone with a brush—thus innovating the concept of a stroke terminated by a serif—the inscription has influenced the development of the Roman alphabet and of typeface design for the last 2,000 years. It is said that the height of the capitalis monumentalis letter is approximately eight and one-half to nine times the width of the vertical stroke, an ideal ratio. These letterforms are still inspiring type designers, including Carol Twombly, who released the Trajan font for Adobe in 1989, and Mário Feliciano in Lisbon, who designed Garda Titling in three styles, all with ligatures.

Sandro Fiorentino in his workshop. "No entry," says the round tile. "And no favors."

I would like to think that Herb Lubalin—and even the visionary who carved the Column of Trajan—would be delighted to set headlines and create typographic ligatures and flourishes in Adobe Illustrator with Trajan Regular or Garda Titling #2. But they might be even more delighted to walk down Via Margutta, discover the hand-carved marble tiles, and meet the two lively men who are keeping the ancient art of carving letterforms in marble alive.

Planning a trip to Rome? The festival 100 Pittori in via Margutta (100 painters on via Margutta) takes place every year at the end of October and the beginning of November.

A sign on Via Margutta: "Here lived and worked the old master Vincenzo Ottono Petrillo, artist from the beginning of the origin of the universe. He dreamed of preserving Rome suspended in a crystal urn." — (from) All his friends. Photo by Ellen Shapiro.