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Sparrow, Visible Words (abstract)

  • John Sparrow. Visible Words: A Study of Inscriptions in and as Works of Art. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969. Ch. 1, "The Evolution of the Inscription," 1ñ35; ch. 3, "The Inscription as a Literary Form," 101ñ35;  "Conclusion," 136ñ44.
THIS BIBLIOGRAPHIC WORK charts and examines the evolution of the inscriptionóparticularly as a literary formóand its transition from stone to paper, by investigating the production of some "key" texts. Surveying these works, Sparrow identifies significant  changes from century to century. Until the fifteenth century, most inscriptions were factual and formulary. The rediscovery of classical inscriptions and the disappearance of the inscribed verse epitaph heralded the extended prose epitaph (12ñ13). In the sixteenth century, epigraphists examined the lineated lapidary inscription (lapidary having been defined by Emanuele Tesauro in Il Cannochiale Aristotelico (Venice, 1655) as "half-way between the oratorical and the poetical" [192]). In the seventeenth century the inscription began a process of transference from stone to paper (25). The development of the inscription was also affected by the custom for erecting temporary monuments on important occasions (102), and by the fashion of witty writing or argutezza (103). By the end of the seventeenth century the lapidary form had died; epigraphists thereafter confined themselves to stone, wood, or canvas (131), and texts came to be excessively lineated with little regard to meaning (131). 
     This popularity of the lapidary during the seventeenth century allowed a freedom of composition  (136) and the opportunity to display Baroque wit (137). Whilst suggesting that it is commendable that the laws of "how prose is to be printed" were challenged by the lapidary, and two hundred years later by Mallarmé, Sparrow concedes that the "literary effect that can be achieved by visual presentation [is] limited" (144). (Julia Bleakney.)

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Michael Hancher

Department of English, University of Minnesota

URL: <http://umn.edu/home/mh/txtimjb2.html>

Comments to: mh@umn.edu

Created 24 December 1997

Revised 2 January 1998