The Monument, or, Christopher Wren's Roman accent.

Author:Moore, John E.
 
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The dumbnesse of it (vnlesse the letters be worne quite away) speakes; that it was not any worke of the ROMANS. For they were wont to make stones vocall by inscriptions. - [Edmund Bolton], 1627(1)

Irridenda est eorum socordia, qui praesenti potentia credunt se [sic] extingui posse sequentis aevi memoriam. - [B. and Y.], 1683(2)

(The present political power being what it is, the stupidity is ludicrous of those who believe that the memory of the succeeding generation can be extinguished.)

The Monument, built in London to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666, has been relegated to the status of a minor work in the scholarly literature on Christopher Wren and his architecture. That interpretation, however, does not correspond to the structure's erstwhile importance as one of London's proudest landmarks: a skyscraper in its own time, it was the first and is still the tallest of all the colossal columns in that city [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. From the time of its unveiling in 1677, commentators - whether writing guidebooks in the eighteenth century or modern scholarly monographs - have been content to point out the relationship between the Monument and the triumphal columns of Roman antiquity and to analyze Caius Gabriel Cibber's west dado relief. The other three faces of the pedestal, consisting of Latin inscriptions dating to 1677-78, have been transcribed and translated in some cases, in most simply summarized. Wren, a polymath and a consummately trained humanist, and two other prominent scholars made up a committee whose task was to compose inscriptions for the Monument. More than a score of specific citations from Latin literature, most tellingly, passages from Tacitus's account of the Great Fire of Rome, appear in their work.

The extensive writing on the Monument constitutes an overlooked example of epigraphy in London, a city where monumental Latin inscriptions, in gracefully proportioned Roman majuscules, were rarely found on the exteriors of public buildings, whether secular or ecclesiastical. That lack of inscribed writing - "stones [made] vocall by inscriptions" distinguishes seventeenth-century London from other capital cities such as Rome, Turin, Paris, Vienna, or Prague, in which Latin inscriptions - long or short, votive or commemorative, and often quite tendentious - learnedly announce to readers in the street the cherished martial victories or building projects of their monarchs or proclaim the triumphant primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, among other things. The surviving Latin words on the Monument self-consciously recall both the inscriptions of ancient Rome and those carved during the reign of the great builder-pope Sixtus V (158590), whose interventions in the fabric of the Eternal City set the European (and European colonial) standard for urban design. These officially sanctioned texts, for an audience able to read Latin, powerfully imbue architectural and urban forms with an enhanced range of references and meanings.(3) The very words of the inscriptions on the Monument embody intimate, often verbatim connections to the admired and minutely studied history of ancient Rome, connections that have failed to be recognized or sought out.

In the 320 years that have elapsed since the inscriptions for the Monument were carved, commentators have almost without exception failed to link the fires of London and Rome, not least because the authors of the numerous poems, pamphlets, broadsides, and tomes that appeared in the aftermath of the former disaster largely did not themselves draw the comparison.(4) This lack of comparison requires explanation. How can it be that the analogy provided by the most spectacular conflagration of Greco-Roman antiquity did not occur to anyone? The Great Fire of 1666 brought the catastrophes of biblical and ancient history to the moralizing minds of many contemporary writers, who had for some ten years previous scanned history for minatory exempla. Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jerusalem were named as condign prefigurations of London's destruction. The flames consumed thousands of books that had just been expressly stored for safekeeping, causing one observer to remark that a loss of like scale had not occurred since the burning of the library at Alexandria.(5) Numerological portents were also brought to bear. It was noted that if the seven letters used to write Roman numerals were placed in descending order - MVCLXXI - they corresponded to the year of London's undoing. This coincidence prompted one author to suggest that to commemorate the fire, Londoners begin to count with Roman numerals in a different way, using that fateful year as a starting point.(6) Finally, in 1670 the Puritan divine Thomas Brooks remembered that "[t]here was a great fire in Rome in Nero's time... as all know, that have read the History of those times."(7) When it came to fashioning Latin inscriptions, Wren and his colleagues lost no time to return to and use just that history.

Forging direct links with the Roman past in explicitly linguistic terms was typical of humanist learning, historical writing, and political affairs in seventeenth-century Europe. Words, phrases, and narrative strategies borrowed from Latin literature, however, were not mean t to exist in a vacuum but to resonate and to call their origins to the minds of knowledgeable readers. Yet all texts, verbal and visual, come with contexts. An established line of inquiry exists among modern historians who have studied the contentious nature of reading and using Tacitus in seventeenth-century England.(8) Similar analysis has not been applied to works of architecture, but the Monument calls for it, since Tacitus's words figure so clearly on its pedestal. Although few artists knew Latin, Wren's redoubtable command of that language was a crucial determining factor in his practice as an architect, a fundamental point not made in the scholarly literature. Furthermore, I shall argue here that Latin epigraphy and history - the inscription on the Column of Trajan and a passage from the late fourth-century writer Ammianus Marcellinus - and not just the surviving triumphal columns of Roman antiquity inspired Wren to design elements of the Monument as he did. His process of conceptualization and his expressive ends will remain obscure if we fail to consider the inscriptions as elements integral, not incidental, to the work of art. In other words, the inscriptions on buildings call not only for more than mere transcription or translation but also a thorough linguistic and contextual analysis. Here, then, the principal tasks are: first, to broaden our understanding of the romanitas of the Monument, both visual and verbal; second, to reconstruct lost frames of reference; and third, to suggest why particular echoes of the Roman past, rather than enter the collective consciousness of learned contemporary observers, fell, if not on deaf ears, then certainly into oblivion.

The Monument: Genesis, Construction History, Formal Quotations, and Use

Today, Christopher Wren's Monument has to be retrieved from a densely built-up urban context. Once a dominant and immediately recognizable element of the London skyline, the fluted Tuscan Doric column still stands vigilant on Fish Street Hill, which passed in front of the church of St. Magnus the Martyr (rebuilt by Wren) and onto Old London Bridge. When London Bridge was rebuilt to the west, the Monument lost the prominent position it once occupied along the principal north-south axis within the City, where those on foot, on horseback, or in horse-drawn vehicles often came very close to it, yet it gained an attractive distant view.(9)

The Monument recalls, in the words of a Venetian envoy, "an accident [that would] be memorable through all the centuries."(10) At 25 Pudding Lane, on September 2, 1666, a fire broke out in the shop of baker Thomas Farynor, not to be extinguished until four days later, by which time five-sixths of the square-mile City had been reduced to rubble, with smoldering ashes still igniting six months afterward. Despite the widespread destruction, Londoners remained calm, thanks to "the prudence, vigilance, and charity" of Charles II and his privy council; indeed, the Tuscan resident minister remarked that only the ruins made one believe that there had been a fire at all.(11)

On February 14, 1671, the London Court of Common Council approved the "Draught or Modell... of the Pillar."(12) As foundation work was apparently complete in November 1671, construction must have begun soon thereafter.(13) On September 21, 1675, Robert Hooke, professor of geometry at Gresham College, a close friend and professional colleague of Wren, climbed to the viewing platform on top of the abacus. It took nearly four years to raise the column because the executing mason, Joshua Marshall, often had to wait for stones of proper dimensions to be procured.(14) A poem entitled "London's Index," purportedly written by a thirteen-year-old boy, celebrates the nearly complete Monument. Its very title evokes both a finger pointing insistently to the skies and a measure of extraordinary achievement. The poem must date to the second half of 1676, as it refers to the urn raised into position at the summit on July 15 of that year,(15) According to the author's literary conceits, the column, "London's Standard," surpasses "Rome's Amphitheatre" and three of the seven wonders of the ancient world, "Th' AEgyptian Pyramids," "The Rhodian Coloss," and "Mausolus Tomb."

So intent were the curious to experience the unique panorama from the top of the Monument that residents in the immediate vicinity complained to the City Lands Committee in June 1676 "of the danger of the falling of the Scaffolds ... by the Continuall concourse of people that come to see the same."(16) Workmen also found themselves constantly "letting up People and Weighting upon them," which caused delays in finishing the structure. The Court of Aldermen...

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