Poggio Bracciolini, an Inscription in Terranuova & the Monument to Carlo Marsuppini: A Theory
NOTE: This is the text of a short talk that I gave at the CAA Calligraphy/Epigraphy Session of the College Art Association 104th Annual Conference in Washington, DC on February 5, 2016. The session, officially entitled Forming Letters: New Research in Renaissance Calligraphy and Epigraphy, was chaired by Debra Pincus and included presentations by David Boffa, James Fishburne, Roberta Ricci, Philippa Sissis and myself with William Stenhouse as the respondent. Jonathan J.G. Alexander added a tribute to Albinia de la Mare whose work was one of the spurs that encouraged Pincus to create the session.* My talk is an outgrowth of an article I wrote several years ago with the misleading title “Poggio’s Epitaph” (Alphabet [Summer 2008], pp. 11–17). The issue can be ordered from The Friends of Calligraphy.
Poggio Bracciolini, an Inscription in Terranuova and the Monument to Carlo Marsuppini: A Theory
The strangest Renaissance inscription is the dedication plaque of Poggio Bracciolini in the church of S. Maria in Terranuova Bracciolini, a small Tuscan town located between Florence and Arezzo. [fig. 1] The lengthy (18 line) text, describes a story in which a “certain Roman citizen, needy and in poverty” complained to God about his situation, and then had a series of dreams in which an apparition told him to demolish the altar in a church built by Sixtus II in order to find treasure. [fig. 2] The man did as he was told and found only “a little marble box, in which there were three glass containers”. He was frustrated at not finding any treasure, and was told by the apparition to demolish the altar further. When he did this he discovered two boxes of marble, one of which contained “a small glass vase” which in turn housed extremely precious relics, among them a bone of St. Lawrence. The man brought the relics to Rinuccio da Castiglione (Rinuccio Aretino), a papal secretary and humanist, and asked for help. Rinuccio gave the relics to Poggio who, after helping the man with his poverty, placed them in a new chapel he had built in Terranuova, his birthplace, in 1438.  The chapel was destroyed when the church was rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries. The only surviving elements from it are the reliquary bust prepared to hold the relics of St. Lawrence, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the inscription.  The events of the story occurred in 1433, in the fourth year of the pontificate of Eugene IV, according to the text. The inscription gives the date for the deposit of the relics in the chapel (built in 1429) as “anno aetatis mead LVIII” or in the 58th year of his life. Since Poggio was born in 1380, the deposit is dated to 1438 and the inscription is assumed to have been made the same year. 
What makes the Poggio inscription strange is its letters that metamorphose over the course of the full eighteen lines from a contemporary Florentine sans serif to a very close recapitulation of the capitalis monumentalis of Ancient Rome. I know of no other inscription from the Quattrocento—or even any other era or place—that contains letters that shift as these do. While that alone would make the inscription worthy of study, it is the nature of the transformation that is truly intriguing as well as the author of the text. [fig. 3]
B.L. Ullman has called Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459) the “inventor” of the scrittura umanistica or humanist bookhand c.1402/1403. He has also suggested that Poggio’s manuscript majuscules played an important role in the Renaissance revival of Roman capitals. Although his evidence for this claim is not convincing, his idea of Poggio’s broader importance is strongly supported by the Terranuova inscription.  Manuscripts copied out by Poggio have pen-made letters with minimal or no serifs; and those copied by scribes at his behest often contain initial letters similar to the inscriptional letters found in the sculptural work of Ghiberti, Donatello, Michelozzo, Luca della Robbia and others from 1412 through the 1440s. [fig. 4] Ghiberti called his capitals lettere antiche but they, and Poggio’s initials, were actually indebted to Carolingian and Romanesque capitals rather than anything from Ancient Rome. These letters are marked by thick-to-thin stroke contrast, terminals that are either wedge-shaped or flare, and an absence of serifs. [figs. 5 & 6] The latter characteristic led Nicolete Gray to dub them Florentine Sans Serif.  Such letters play a role in the Terranuova inscription.
The Terranuova inscription is 59 cm (23.25 inches) high by 138 cm (54.33 inches) wide. The text is eighteen lines long, flush left, ragged right, with the last line centered. The letters vary in height from 23 mm to 25 mm depending upon the line.  Word spacing is so tight that it often seems non-existent. The massing is enabled by the liberal use of a variety of Medieval space-saving strategies: ligatures (including a few three-letter combinations), nested letters, overlapping letters, tall letters, abbreviations, and a Z-shaped Tironian et. [fig.] . (Tironian notes are a form of shorthand invented by the scribe Marcus Tullius Tiro, secretary to Cicero.) Beginning with line 10, puncti, a feature of classical inscriptions, are present between most, though not all, words.  Light guidelines for the tops and bottoms of letters are visible (e.g. line 11). All of this suggests an inscription struggling to escape the Medieval world and enter the Ancient one. That sense of transition permeates the letterforms.
In comparing Ancient Roman inscriptions carved in Imperial Roman capitals and Renaissance inscriptions carved in Florentine sans serif capitals, there are six letters whose form is especially significant: E, G, M, N, Q and R. In this discussion I am using the influential inscription on Trajan’s Column and others in the Trajanic mold as model for monumentalis capitals [figs. 7 and 8] and Luca della Robbia’s Cantoria as an exemplar of the Florentine sans serif. [figs. 9 & 10]
The first line of the Terranuova inscription has Florentine M and R; Imperial E, G and Q; and an ambivalent N. The M has straight sides, a short vertex and flat apices. Its thick/thin distribution of weight alternates from stroke to stroke. The R has a curved leg. [figs. 11 & 12] Both letterforms can be found in Luca della Robbia’s Cantoria (1431–1437). The E has horizontal strokes that terminate in brackets or serifs; the G has a seriffed jaw stroke; and the Q has a long, curved tail. The N has three evenly weighted strokes, but the apex is flat. The ambivalence displayed here becomes more pronounced as the inscription progresses with the N and R fully evolving into Imperial forms; the M changing only partially; and the E (and its relatives the F, L and T) shifting back and forth from a Florentine form to an Imperial one before settling on the latter. The G and Q remain Imperial throughout. By line eighteen the only letter in the alphabet that has not fully shed its Florentine shape is the M which becomes splayed but retains its short vertex. [fig. 13]
The Terranuova inscription (especially lines 12–18) can be described as the first instance of revived Roman Imperial capitals in the Renaissance, predating such well-known claimants for that title as the tomb of Martin V (now dated to the early 1440s), Donatello’s signatures (OPVS DONATELLI / FLO) on the statue of Gattamelata (c.1453) in Padua and the statue of Judith and Holofernes (c.1457–1464); the painting of S. Eufemia (1454) by Andrea Mantegna; the Alphabetum Romanum of Felice Feliciano (c.1460); the tomb of Cardinal Ludovico d’Albret (d.1465) by Andrea Bregno; and the sepulchre of Giovanni Rucellai in S. Pancrazio (1467) by Leon Battista Alberti.  [figs. 15–21]
Although Poggio’s Terranuova inscription is unusual, it is not anomalous. Surprisingly, there is an extremely close visual connection between it and the inscription on the monument to Carlo Marsuppini in S. Croce. [figs. 23 & 24] All of the Marsuppini letters, with the exception of the K, closely match the “final” ones of the Terranuova inscription in their proportion and key features. The A begins with a flat apex (lines 1-3) but eventually becomes pointed (lines 4–6); the E is narrow with strokes ending in clearly bracketed serifs; the G has an overhang; the M is splayed with a short vertex; the N is Trajanic; the Q has a long, curved tail; the R has a slightly curved diagonal leg; the S struggles to stay upright; and dots are used as puncti (though only at the end of lines). There is also a Tironian et, though it is the standard 7 form. What principally separates the Marsuppini inscription from Poggio’s inscription is the consistency of its serifs, the higher quality of its carving and its airier layout (abetted by a much shorter text of only six lines). [figs. 27 & 28]
How can the similarities of these two inscriptions—carved two decades apart—be explained? I believe the link is Poggio. He was a friend and humanist colleague of Marsuppini and his successor as chancellor of the Republic of Florence.  Although he is not mentioned in the literature as being involved in the plans for Marsuppini’s monument, I believe that upon returning to Florence from Rome to take up the post of chancellor he took an active role in its epitaph. The authorship of the epitaph is a mystery and debate between the Martelli and Medici families over it has led to conflicting opinions among contemporary art historians as to the completion date of the monument.  I am not suggesting that Poggio wrote the epitaph—though such an act would have mimicked Marsuppini writing the epitaph of Leonardo Bruni, his predecessor as chancellor—but that Poggio was involved in its visual appearance.
There is no indication as to who carved the Terranuova inscription, though the constant mutation of letterforms points to a single individual.  Furthermore, the shallowness of the carving—it might better be called gouging since there is no V-cut and there are multiple striations within the strokes—and the varying widths of strokes suggest someone with minimal experience cutting letters. I theorize that Poggio, who had carefully studied Roman inscriptions during his tenure as a secretary for the Church and begun to gather his research into a sylloge towards 1430, wanted the inscription to be cut in true Imperial Roman capitals rather than in the Florentine sans serif that had become popular. The difficulty facing Poggio was how to convey the form of these ancient Roman letters to a Tuscan sculptor or stonecutter who had probably never been to Rome.
In the 1420s Poggio successfully taught scribes to write the scrittura umanistica, in some cases so well that scholars have mistaken the manuscripts for those copied out by Poggio himself.  But, judging from his sylloge, he lacked the drawing skills necessary to accurately render the subtleties of Imperial Roman capitals, something which stumped even Jacopo Bellini.  Furthermore, his eyesight was deteriorating after 1425 which would have made it even harder to draw precise model letters. Instead, Poggio probably made rudimentary sketches and showed the carver some of the Roman inscriptions he had collected for the garden of his country house in Terranuova. But the carver must not have fully grasped the importance of the details (e.g. serifs) of the letters or lacked ancient Roman models for some of them. For the latter he turned to the Florentine sans serif, especially as found on the recently installed Cantoria in the Duomo [fig. ?]. This would explain the M and R.
Poggio must have continually looked in on the carver to see his progress and, unhappy with the Florentine sans serif letters, begun to coach him on the proportions, forms and features that distinguished classical capitals. Under Poggio’s tutelage the letters of the epitaph slowly moved toward being true Imperial Roman capitals in all aspects, including the presence of bracketed serifs. This progress must have been painful at times as the carver was instructed to fix some letters, and to do so he had to recarve strokes, thus making them heavier and, in some instances, clumsier (e.g., RELLIQVIAS in line 17). Despite the difficulty of the work, the unknown carver—with Poggio’s guidance—managed to achieve the first credible letters in the manner of the capitalis monumentalis in the Renaissance.
The close similarity between the letters of the Terranuova and Marsuppini inscriptions cannot be a coincidence. The latter has no other precedent and no successor. Although the monument to Carlo Marsuppini has frequently been compared to the monument to Leonardo Bruni (1449–1452), their inscriptions have not been. [fig. 25] The only discussion of either has been by Millard Meiss who praised the Bruni inscription for having letters of “impressive symmetry and balance,” a view which I would challenge.  The Bruni letters are unique among Renaissance inscriptions for their extreme lightness, a feature that gives them an elegance that disguises their Florentine sans serif roots. But individually and en masse they are inferior to their Marsuppini counterparts. [fig. 26]
Although there is no documentary evidence of his involvement in the planning of the Marsuppini monument, the letters of the inscription strongly suggest Poggio’s influence. As a close friend of Marsuppini as well as his successor as Chancellor of Florence, Poggio would have had an interest in seeing the epitaph set out in Ancient Roman capitals as both a fitting testament to Marsuppini’s classical erudition and as a worthy—if not superior—companion to the Bruni monument.  He would have been able to show the carver of the epitaph the Terranuova inscription as a model.  With a clear exemplar in mind, an experienced lettercutter (as the Marsuppini scalpellino clearly was) would not have needed the close supervision that Poggio exercised with the carver of the Terranuova inscription. Poggio would have been the facilitator of the inscription and its final arbiter.
Who was the carver of the Marsuppini epitaph? Its high quality of execution—the forms are well-balanced and consistent, the V-cut is clean and crisp—rules out the anonymous carver of the Terranuova inscription. Although Desiderio da Settignano (c.1430–1464) is acknowledged as the sculptor of the monument, it is unlikely that he had a hand in the inscription. The lettering on other works attributed to him, such as the bust of Olympias, Queen of the Macedonians (c.1460–1464), is squarely in the Florentine sans serif tradition. [fig. 29] Since Settignano had apprenticed with the bottega of Bernardo Rossellino he may have hired someone from there to do the lettercutting. If so, that carver would have required oversight from Poggio to avoid lapsing into familiar Florentine sans serif forms since those, with the notable exception of the Bruni inscription, were the stock style of the Rossellino workshop well into the mid-1460s.  [fig. 30]
The completion of the monument to Carlo Marsuppini, a few months before his death, meant that Poggio lived to see the classical Roman capitals he had studied and copied over a half-century earlier finally reappear in public in Florence.
Over a half-century ago Millard Meiss, in “Towards a More Comprehensive Renaissance Paleography” in The Art Bulletin, vol. 42, no. 2 (June 1960), urged Renaissance art historians to pay more attention to lettering. Although some progress has been made since (e.g. the conference publication Un Pontificato ed una cittá Sisto IV (1471–1484): Atti del convegno, Roma, 3–7 dic. 1984 and the work of Christine Sperling) there is still very much to be done in this area. The session Forming Letters: New Research in Renaissance Calligraphy and Epigraphy at the 104th annual conference of the College Art Association is a small but important step towards achieving Meiss’ goal. With the advent of digital photography and the Internet, I look forward to not only more work on Renaissance paleography and epigraphy, but better work—work that transcends the pioneering efforts of Meiss, Albinia de la Mare, J.J.G. Alexander, Nicolete Gray, Dario Covi, Giovanni Mardersteig, et al.
1. Poggio bought the country house in 1427 while serving as the principal Papal Secretary to Martin V. The town of Terranuova was renamed in his honor as Terranuova Bracciolini in the 19th century.
2. See “A Reliquary Bust Made for Poggio Bracciolini” by James R. Rorimer in Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 14 (1955–1956), pp. 246–251. The lettering on the reliquary has been described as Florentine sans serif of the Donatello school style by Christine Sperling, but in my view is closer to medieval lettering and has little relevance to the capitals of the Terranuova inscription.
3. The chapel and reliquary are mentioned in the Testament Poggius of 19 October 1443. See Ernst Walser, Poggius Florentinus: Leben und Werke (Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1974) [orig. 1914], Document 56, p. 362 supra: “Item ultra predicta voluit,… dictus testator si ipse hoc vivens non fecerit, quod infra unum annum proxima futurum a die mortis dicti testatoris fiant et fieri debeant in dicte et pro dicta cappella….” in Section 7. The inscription has been transcribed by Fubini. See “Inscriptio in Privata Capella Ecclesiae S. Mariae in Terrannova” in Riccardo Fubini, ed., Poggius Bracciolini, Opera Miscellanea Edita et Inedita (Torino: Bottega d’Erasmo, 1966), p. 861 note and p. 863 transcription. Debra Pincus has called my attention to a discrepancy in the dating of the events described in the text. The text says they occurred in May 1433, yet the fourth year of the pontificate of Eugene IV was 1434. I don’t think the discrepancy has any bearing, however, on the making of the plaque.
4. B.L. Ullman, The Origin and Development of Humanistic Script (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1960), Chapter II: The Inventor—Poggio Bracciolini. Ullman (pp. 54, 56 and 63) argues that Poggio’s majuscules were closely based on Roman inscriptions but Nicolete Gray disagrees, correctly pointing out that they are pen-made and not related to carved letters. Nicolete Gray, A History of Lettering: Creative Experiment and Letter Identity (Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1986), p. 122.
5. Nicolete Gray, “Sans Serif and Other Experimental Inscribed Lettering of the Early Renaissance” in Motif 5 (1960).
6. The overall dimensions come from Christine Margit Sperling, “Artistic Lettering and the Progress of the Antique Revival in the Quattrocento” PhD dissertation, Brown University (1985), p. 166. She says the letters are 2.5 cm high but my measurements indicate the size varies from line to line. The inscription is difficult to properly photograph and due to a deposit of wax on the surface from the racks of votive candles located in front of it. It also makes it impossible to do a rubbing of any quality [fig. 32].
7. The puncti are diamonds in lines 10 and 11, but with line 12 they change to dots. Sperling uses the form of puncti to separate Florentine inscriptions into Ghibertian and Donatellian schools. However, neither form accurately reflects Roman epigraphic practice which used a triangular punctus in various guises. Triangular puncti appear in Romanesque and Medieval inscriptions as well as in the works of the bottega of Bernardo Rossellino.
8. Dario Covi refers to “perfected” Roman capitals. Dario A. Covi, “Lettering in Fifteenth Century Florentine Painting” The Art Bulletin XLV, 1963, p. 8 describes the letters of Donatello’s signature as close to classical perfection. The St. James inscription, which reads in full T · PVLLIO / T · L · LINO / IIIIIII V [obscured] / AV [obscured] / ALB [obscured], was copied, either from an antique votive stone formerly at Monte Buso (CIL, part V, no. 2528) or from Jacopo Bellini’s drawing of it. See Four Roman Tombs (c.1450) in Paris, Louvre, Bellini book of drawings, fol. 44. The St. James fresco was destroyed in World War II and Mantegna’s painted inscription is only known to us from photographs. For a fuller discussion of this debate see Starleen K. Meyer and Paul Shaw, “Towards a New Understanding of the Revival of Roman Capitals and the Achievement of Andrea Bregno” in Andrea Bregno: Il Senso della Forma nell a Cultura Artistica del Rinascimento eds. Claudio Crescentini and Claudio Strinati (Rome: Maschietto Editore, 2008), pp. 276–331.
9. See The Social World of the Florentine Humanists 1390–1460 by Lauro Martines (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963).
10. Francesco Aretino (Francesco Griffolini, 1420–c.1465) has been proposed as the author of the epitaph. See Alfonso Lazzari, Ugolino e Michele Verino: Studii Biografici e Critici (Torino: Libreria Carlo Clausen, 1897), p. 14, note 3: “L’epitaffio del Marsuppini fu composto nel 1459 da Francesco Aretino, per incarico dei Medici. Ciò si ricava da una lettera che costui scriveva da Mantova a Piero di Cosimo il 19 luglio del ’59 (Vio Archivio di Stato, Firenze, Archivio medico av. il. princ. filza XIV, n. 47. Cfr. Fabroni, Magni Cosmi Medicei vita Pisa, 1789), II, 219. Anne Markham Schulz also cites this letter in arguing for a dating of the monument to the summer or later of 1459. Anne Markham Schulz, ‘Glosses on the Career of Desiderio da Settignano,’ in Verrocchio and Late Quattrocento Italian Sculpture (Florence: Le Lettere, 1992) eds. Steven Bule, Alan Phipps Darr and Fiorella Superbi Gioffredi, eds., Florence: Casa Editrice le Lettere, 1992, pp. 180–181. However, the correspondence of Francesco Aretino only indicates that he proposed two epitaphs for Marsuppini—neither quoted—to Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, not that the epitaph as carved was his. Tommaso Mozzati challenges Schulz’s interpretation of the document in Desiderio da Settignano: Sculptor of Renaissance Florence eds. Marc Bormand, Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi and Nicholas Penny (Milano: 5 Continents Editions, National Gallery of Art and Musée du Louvre Editions, 2007), p. 118: “…the text inscribed on the tablet, despite the elegance of the characters, is not centered or uniform, thus suggesting that the letter-cutter was obliged to adapt the epitaph to a space that had been planned for those years.” I disagree with his conclusion. The decision to center a text would not be affected by the limitations of a predetermined space. Any difficulties in adapting the epitaph to the space would have appeared either horizontally as crowded letters—as in the Bruni monument—or vertically as crowded lines.
11. Fubini, p. 861 concluded that the change in lettering indicated that two men carved the inscription. Sperling, p. 168 argued that it was the work of one man, though she mistakenly did so on the grounds that the letters—other than M and R—are consistent throughout.
12. See Ullmann, pp. 49–51.
13. See the sketchbook of Jacopo Bellini in the Louvre (Accession number 401484), dated 1430–1460. Die Skizzenbücher Jacopo Bellini ed. Victor Golubew (Brussels: G. Van Oest & Co., 1908), vol. II, plates 43 and 44.
14. Millard Meiss, “Towards a More Comprehensive Renaissance Paleography” in The Art Bulletin, vol. 42, no. 2 (June 1960), pp. 98–99 contain his assessment of the Bruni inscription which unfortunately ignores letter- and wordspacing and individual letters such as the P with its large, open bowl and the peculiar G. The P and the triangular puncti indicate some classical influence on the carver of the inscription. An interesting aspect of the Bruni inscription that escaped Meiss’ notice is the presence not only of horizontal guidelines for the base and top of letters, but also of vertical guidelines for their width.
15. It is surprising that the author of the Marsuppini epitaph is not known. Marsuppini wrote the epitaph for Bruni, his friend and predecessor as Chancellor. It would have made sense for Poggio to have done the same for Marsuppini. This is the text with an English translation—and line breaks—by John Pope-Hennessy (Italian Renaissance Sculpture [London: Phaidon Press, 1996], p. 305):
SISTE VIDES MAGNVM QVAE SERVANT MARMORA VATEM
INGENIO CVIVS NON SATIS ORBIS ERAT
QVAE NATVRA POLVS QVAE MOS FERAT OMNIA NOVIT
KAROLVS AETATIS GLORIA MAGNA SVAE
AVSONIAE 7GRAIAE CRINES NVNC SOLVITE MVSAE
OCCIDIT HEV VESTRI FAMA DECVS QVE CHORI
Stay and see the marbles which enshrine a great sage,
one for whose mind there was not world enough.
Carlo, the great glory of his age,
knew all that nature, the heavens and human conduct have to tell.
O Roman and Greek muses, now unloose your hair
Alas, the fame and splendour of your choir is dead.
I believe that the text is deliberately not centered, but flush left/rag right with two lines indented to accentuate Marsuppini’s name and his death.
16. The only letters in the Marsuppini inscription that deviate significantly from classical models are the K, which is Greek in origin, and M. Other than the K and Tironian et, all of the letters in the Marsuppini inscription have close antecedents in the Terranuova inscription.
17. See the inscriptions on the tomb of the Beata Villana (1451–1452) in S. Maria Novella and the tomb of the Portuguese Cardinal (1460–1466) in S. Miniato as examples of the distinctive Rossellian version of the Florentine sans serif.
* The talks, in order of appearance, were: From ‘New’ to ‘Old’: Poggio Bracciolini’s Role in the Calligraphic Revolution of the Early Renaissance by Roberta Ricci (Bryn Mawr College); The Touch of the Artist: Niccolo’ dell’Arca’s Signature on the Dead Christ by David Boffa (Beloit College); Poggio Bracciolini, an Inscription in Terranuova and the Monument to Carlo Marsuppini: A Theory by Paul Shaw (Parsons School of Design); and Portable Monuments: Pope Julius II and his Medallic Epigraphy by James Fishburne (University of California, Los Angeles).
Unfortunately, Philippa Sissis (Universitaet Hamburg) was unable to attend the conference due to illness and thus her talk, entitled The Visual Acuity of Poggio Bracciolini and Niccolo’ Niccoli, was not presented. The discussant was William Stenhouse (Yeshiva University).
I would like to thank Prof. J.J.G. Alexander and Prof. Stephen Oakley for the translation of Poggio’s epitaph; Monica Dengo and Bronwen Job for their assistance in photographing the inscription; and Debra Pincus for not only organizing the CAA session but for her helpful critiques of my text.