WRITING MATTERS: Presenting and Perceiving Monumental Inscriptions in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Edited by Irene Berti, Katharina Bolle, Fanny Opdenhoff, and Fabian Stroth

De Gruyter (2017) h/b 395pp £81.99 (ISBN 9783110529159)

The question of what happens to a text when it is inscribed is currently receiving a surge of attention in scholarship; increased interest is being paid to the context and circumstances of display, and what this meant for the viewer and how a text was received. This volume is part of this trend, and is based on a conference that took place in Heidelberg in 2013, focused on the materiality of inscriptions in their physical contexts. The result is thirteen papers (ten in English, three in German) that approach this topic from a number of angles, examining different types of texts as well as different historical contexts. The title is slightly misleading, as not all the texts covered can be described as ‘monumental’, notably the chapters on graffiti in Pompeii and the surrounding areas (the contributions of Viitanen and Nissin, and Benefiel) or the use of signatures on works of art (Keil). However, the range of case studies, covering the epigraphic culture of Athens in the fifth century BC through to the use of text in churches and grave monuments of the Medieval period, is admirable. There is plenty of food for thought for scholars working in some way with the display of writing.

Inscriptions were embedded in a specific social and cultural setting, and the editors stress in their introduction that the aim is to ‘recontextualise inscriptions as artefacts within their original social and spatial surroundings’ (p. 3). The volume is divided into four thematic sections, with the contributors adopting a number of different approaches; unfortunately, there is not the space here to elaborate on each paper individually. The first deals with the theory behind materiality and text, thinking about how to develop new ways to approach physical texts, or, in the case of Lieb and Wagner’s paper, whether metatexts can offer insights into how inscriptions could acquire cultural meaning. The second theme is the spatial distribution of texts in certain urban or architectural settings. For instance, Berti and Kató examine how inscribed lists were employed in Hellenistic civic spaces to represent different aspects of communal organisation; Pallis discusses how texts could be used to differentiate space in Byzantine churches and how this would be received by different audiences. The next section focuses on the arrangement of texts on particular monuments, and their link to memory. The interplay between text and sculpture is explored both in the contribution of Shear, discussing the honorific statue erected in honour of Demosthenes in Hellenistic Athens, and by Melfi, focusing on the stelai honouring Polybius found in different cities of Arcadia. The final section focuses on the perception of inscriptions, with Rhoby proposing that certain Byzantine texts had an artistic value in and of themselves.

Overall, this is an interesting and thought-provoking collection, though it can seem at times disjointed, and more cross-referencing between contributions would have been beneficial, particularly when addressing similar themes and/or periods. A standout paper is that of Meyer, who considers the use of columnar inscriptions on monuments in Classical Athens, and successfully explores the interaction between the physical monument and the text. She argues that this format developed from the use of post monuments in the early fifth century BC; in this way, the physicality of the original monuments dictated subsequent choices over layout, and it was from these predecessors that the columnar format acquired its meaning.

The specificity of a number of the case studies may make this volume more suitable for a specialised audience, rather than a general reader. Nevertheless, it covers an impressive array of approaches to the materiality of text and will be of interest to anyone engaged with the topic of inscriptions as physical objects.

Naomi Carless-Unwin

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