Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.05.05

Lucy T. Shoe Meritt, Ingrid E. M. Edlund-Berry, Etruscan and Republican Roman Mouldings. A Reissue of the Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome XXVIII, 1965 by Lucy Shoe Meritt (including preface and new chapters).   Philadelphia:  The University Museum, 2000.  Pp. 256; pls. 78, figs. 45.  ISBN 0-924171-77-4.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Paul D. Scotton, University of Washington (
Word count: 1306 words

It is a misnomer to call this publication a reissue of Lucy Shoe Meritt's MAAR volume. Granted, the majority of the book is precisely that. There are, however, fifty-six pages of new material and, just as important, the profile drawings by Charles K. Williams II are now reproduced at a scaleable 1:1 format. For those with an interest in Etruscan and Roman architectural design and detail these additions are welcome, and this seminal work is now even more significant.

The book is in two volumes, I text and II plates. The first volume includes a current bibliography and two new chapters: "The Study of Architectural Mouldings" by Shoe Meritt and "Etruscan Architecture and Architectural Mouldings: New Discoveries and Interpretations from 1965 to Present" by Edlund-Berry. The evidence is presented in six categories: Funerary Monuments, Etruscan Round, Cyma Reversa, Cyma Recta, Republican Orders, and Terracotta (a new addition), each with a general discussion, observations, and catalogue entries.

Although I have been using the MAAR version of this book for over twelve years, I confess that this is the first time that I have read it from cover to cover. It is clear to me now that this was long overdue. Previously, I had used it as a source for comparanda and discussions of particular architectonic details. As many know, although the work is the best source for such use, this is a seriously limited view of the value of Shoe Meritt and now Edlund-Berry. Rather, this investigation provides insight into the philosophy of design employed by Etruscan and Roman architects. For the Etruscans, it is argued that buildings were conceived as a steady vertical and inward progression except for the necessarily projecting eaves and pediments. The mouldings are presented as an extension of this philosophy. This is perhaps best evidenced in the difference between the treatment of the podium crown by the Etruscans and that by the Romans. Often, as with the "Ara della Regina" at Tarquinia, the crown was a large, receding round topped by a smaller, receding round. When the Etruscan crown did project (whether to balance the profile of the base or to protect the vertical plane of the podium), that projection and the transition from vertical to horizontal was softened by the use of the cyma reversa. The Romans, on the other hand, were inclined to use a more cornice-like crown, emphasizing the projection and hence the separation between podium and building proper.

The evidence of the catalogue points to many things, but three overriding conclusions drawn by Shoe Meritt and key to the general philosophy of design deserve special mention: 1) The basic design element of Etruscan mouldings is a large, convex round, with quarter and half rounds being most common: 2) the differing Etruscan design schemes are far more recognizable as regional than chronological or evolutionary; and, 3) in spite of the heavy influence of Greek and Etruscan antecedents, Roman mouldings and design should not be viewed as merely an amalgam of the two. Rather, choices were made in the arrangement and application of detail that were purely Roman. These observations may seem commonplace now, but the reason they are so is due largely to the observations of Shoe Meritt in this very work. Our debt to her is great.

As with any work, even those of the magisterial stature of this one, questions can and should be raised. What follows, however, in no way diminishes my admiration of this book and its authors.

My most substantive reservation is a general lack of absolute quantification of object and observation. Often the catalogue entries are without dimensions. These can be determined by measurement from the plates but this is cumbersome. With consistent listing of dimensions, one could quickly deduce, for example, if there is a typical size for an Etruscan sima or if it is entirely dependent upon other factors such as the scale of the building. As for observations, empirical data would substantiate and amplify other major contributions of this work (for example, the observation that the cavetto on a strigil crown is often roughly half as deep as it is tall). Metrology and statistics are not a panacea, even in architectural studies. For a discipline where design is based upon module, proportions and ratios, such data can establish overall proportional schemes, the parameters employed, and the tolerances allowed. With the publication of the 1:1 scale plates, the means to determine that quantification is available to us all through measurement and calculation. But, I regret the absence of a synthetic overview of these metrological data by such perceptive observers as Shoe Meritt and Edlund-Berry.

Although the 1:1 scale drawings are a major improvement (I cannot overstress the importance of publishing architectural drawings in a scaleable format), within the first five minutes of any comparative work involving the plates, a reader will seek out his or her copy of the MAAR edition. In the reissue, the plates are quarter folded and stored in the box that is Volume II. To use a plate one must sort through the stack of 78 plates to find it and then unfold it. A single search for a single plate is not an issue; multiple searches soon reveal the shortcomings. The advantage of the MAAR edition is that a reader can move rapidly back and forth from plate to plate, profile to profile. Often that is sufficient, for example to follow the arguments presented in the text. For close study of particular profiles, the reissue is the solution. What I found myself doing was to begin with my copy of MAAR and when detail was needed to turn to the 1:1 versions.

Related to the comparative study of the profiles is the recognition of the limitations of traditional publication and a possible solution provided by electronic publication. That is, the profiles depicted on the plates are organized according to type, i.e., one of the six categories cited above, location/city, and, when possible, date . This is quite sensible. I soon wished, however, to view the profiles under other organizational schemes. That is, in the discussion of funerary monuments I wanted to distinguish between profiles of rectilinear space and curvilinear space to see if overall shape had any influence over the detail employed in the profile. Another example is comparing crowns from Orvietto, be they funerary monuments, podia, or altars and regardless of whether they are Etruscan round, cyma reversa or cyma recta. Or, where the podium base, podium crown, column base and capital from a single monument are all included in this publication, to view them all together. In these cases the looseleaf format of the reissued plates is an advantage as it facilitates mixing them up as one sees fit. The size and the number of the plates involved, however, make the task difficult. These are not insurmountable problems; scholars have coped with similar problems for years. But, I suspect that future publications of catalogues such as this will include a searchable CD- or DVD-Rom to enable the scholar to configure, view, and print data as he or she sees fit. Such a disc would make this work all that more accessible and valuable.

Finally, as a reissue, roughly 80% of the text is a faithful reproduction of the original. As a consequence, this includes all of the typos of the MAAR edition as cited in the Errata. I suspect that even with TrueType fonts and electronic manipulation of text such emendations are not foolproof. Still, it is regrettable that the typos are perpetuated through another generation of publication.

In conclusion, with this publication a seminal work is now of even greater value. Shoe Meritt and Edlund-Berry can view their work with justly earned pride. The rest of us can and will pay them the best compliment of any scholarly work: frequent reference and use.

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