Painting from Stone

Of all of the experiences I had with design and art on this last trip to Rome, this particular moment was possibly the most impactful. I was quickly walking through the museum, more likely to get a view of the entire collection, a strategy i learned while I was studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Instead of focusing on individual works, I would rapidly move through the museum frequently, since we had a free pass every day to the museum while at school there. Of course, I would, on some days, spend time with individual works, but it was really cool to essentially just run through the entire space, cutting through tourists and darting through entire epochs of human history. It really changed my view of art. Art was something to be seen in the entire context of human history, not just technique and individual intentions of artists.

In this spirit, I moved so quickly through the experience in Italy that I began to completely ignore the works of art in and of themselves. Most of the photos I took were of walls, architectural details, and then when I saw this hand painted typeface, I was completely transfixed. I can’t remember the name of the artist who made this, or of the rest of the subject of the painting. It was an essentially 17th Century painting. It looked Delft, but probably was just dark for the sake of it. It was definitely Italian.

The font has a flourish at the beginning, in a small gold cloud like spiral, which interacts with the frame of the work itself. I wondered if the frame was chosen before the type was made on top of it, and if the type was made by the same painter of the scene. It was a roman font, echoed in the rest of the city by Roman inscriptions. It feels imperial, chiseled and elegant, and it is really interesting how much restraint it is being used in by being painted in oil.

In theory, a painted, hand drawn font could literally be anything. It could be wild and flowing. It could have incredibly flourished and expressive initial caps like an Ed Fella poster, but here it is so restricted. This was not a lazy type decision, and must be looked at from this vantage point. It is an absolute exercise of power from the state to the artist, with normative type emphasized. It’s interesting that we saw this in the same site that has some of the earliest forms of graffiti, which are now so much more common in our culture. A freedom of line and expression must not have been in this case extended to the artist.

I’m fascinated by the control that the hand painted type has in its delicate lines, mimicking the physical restrictions chiseled type would have had simply because of the way the chisel works against stone when making a serif. This is neoclassicism in a nutshell: a specimen of philosophy and dedicated control. It’s beautiful, but there’s a sense of conformity and utopianism apparent in this delicate font on the surface. The moment that for me that strikes a balance with these concerns though, is the craftsmanship of the ornamental frame and the flourish, the mathematical spiral that is rendered with emotion and care, a delicate moment that kept me looking for detail throughout the rest of my time in Italy.

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