September 29, 2006

Basoli’s Alphabet

In Bologna, in 1839, the decorative artist Antonio Basoli published his Alfabeto Pittorico, ossia raccolta di pensieri pittorici composti di oggetti comincianti dalle singole lettere alfabetiche (‘Pictorial Alphabet, or, a collection of pictorial thoughts composed of objects beginning with the individual letters of the alphabet’). This was an album of twenty-five elaborate lithographs, each one featuring an alphabetical character cast in some fantastic architectural form, in a setting contrived to illustrate any number of figures and objects for which there were Italian words beginning with that same letter. A commentary in Italian and French explained the contents of the plates. Below are details from the lithographs representing the five vowels from this alphabet (plus one other additional image), scanned from a reproduction of the Alfabeto Pittorico issued in 1998 by Ravensburger, with translations of Basoli’s text into German and English, and with additional commentary and notes by Joseph Kiermeier-Debre and Fritz Franz Vogel.

Detail of a lithograph from the 'Alfabeto Pittorico' of Antonio Basoli (1839), featuring the letter 'A.'

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Detail of a lithograph from the 'Alfabeto Pittorico' of Antonio Basoli (1839), featuring the letter 'E.'

We find the acute-angled A, then, in an Arabian orangery (aranciera), two ancient ploughs (aratri antichi) adorning the feet of the initial, atop which is an eagle (aquila). The E adjoins an exedra in a garden near ancient Herculaneum (Ercolano), whose vegetation supposedly includes ivy (edera), mustard (eruca), (h)ellebore, endives, spurge (euforbio), heather (erica), and wild radish (erisimo). The I is in a hippodrome (ippodromo) on the island of Ithaca in the Ionian sea, whereas the O, presumably fashioned of oyster-stone (ostricata), writes Basoli, is set in Oriental gardens (orti) where patrons with umbrellas (ombrelli) stroll, admiring the obelisks and sundials (orologi solari). By the time we reach U, Basoli seems to be flagging a little: he writes that this letter stands in a university town in ‘Hunnish’ (unnico) Germany—perhaps, although Basoli doesn’t mention it, this structure is in urban Ulm…

Detail of a lithograph from the 'Alfabeto Pittorico' of Antonio Basoli (1839), featuring the letter 'I.'

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Detail of a lithograph from the 'Alfabeto Pittorico' of Antonio Basoli (1839), featuring the letter 'O.'

Further to the twenty-four letters he illustrated, Basoli also executed one additional lithograph depicting an ampersand, which, he writes, ‘functions as a kind of index to the work, or rather a visual pot-pourri in which a multitude of objects whose individual names all begin with one of the 24 letters of the alphabet shall appear to be united.’ Basoli (1774-1848) was born in Bologna, where he studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti, thereafter gradually making a name for himself as a specialist decorator and scene-painter. He is known to have travelled to Venice and Ferrara in 1803, and to Florence, Rome and Milan in 1805. The latter journey included an inspirational visit to La Scala, then apparently a centre of scenographic excellence. In the years that followed, Basoli did a great deal of scene-painting and production design for the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, endeavours which were recorded in two books published in 1810, and 1821. Basoli also published a treatise on domestic decor in 1827, and a volume of a hundred vedute of Bologna, in 1833. Beginning in 1803, he taught at the Accademia where he had studied, at length being appointed ‘Professor of Ornament’ there.

Detail of a lithograph from the 'Alfabeto Pittorico' of Antonio Basoli (1839), featuring the letter 'U.'

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Detail of a lithograph from the 'Alfabeto Pittorico' of Antonio Basoli (1839), featuring the ampersand symbol.

Click on the images above to see them enlarged and in full. I have written about two other of the same series of books by Kiermeier-Debre and Vogel before, specifically those about Johann David Steingruber’s Architectonisches Alphabeth, and about the alphabets of the brothers De Bry.

Posted by misteraitch at September 29, 2006 11:18 AM
Comments

Delightful.

As an aside, I was surprised to read about 'Hunnish' (unnico) Germany -- or maybe unnica? The reason is that received wisdom goes like this: 'Germans as Huns' dates back to British WWI propaganda denigrating the Germans, a characterisation itself harking back to the time of the Boxer War in China, when Kaiser Wilhelm wished godspeed to the German regiment encouraging them to be 'as ruthless as Huns' -- or something to that effect.

Posted by: Loxias on September 29, 2006 12:11 PM

Wow, fantastic--that's more like it! Esp. the O.

Posted by: Conrad H. Roth on September 29, 2006 12:20 PM

Loxias—yes, I guess it would be unnica, although, checking back against the book, I see I misquoted. Basoli wrote ‘Suppone l’autore che il di Lui fabbricato rappresenti una grande Università di architettura Alemanna, o Unna…’ His text seems a little confused: after implying the building is a German one, he adds ‘Sibbene alcun che era a dirsi della istoria degli Ungari o degli Unni, supponendosi l’edificio esistere in una Città delle lore terre…’ so perhaps he actually meant the University to be an ’Ungarian one, but, given that ’Ungary was under German-speaking governance at that time, it was all the same to him to call it German?

Posted by: misteraitch on September 29, 2006 09:47 PM

In the beginning was the word...

I love this! The letters that make the world, the sense of half-hidden mysteries, the glimpses of a world fantastic and limitless--the whole joyful concept of the alphabet as containing an infinite and magic world, an idea that shines out from the images, without ever being explained.

Thank you, Mr. H. (After the initial A, I was expecting I T C H! But why A E I O U & with no sometimes Y?)

Posted by: marlyat2 on September 30, 2006 03:53 PM

These plates are amazing! They show a stage designer’s unique knack for making imaginary worlds seem tangible. Perspective is the key, I think. Winsor McCay, who was obsessed with perspective, had a similar gift.
Loxias: ‘hun’ as disparaging term for German is not used in Italian. As an aside: in Italian we say crucco. The term was previously used for Slavic soldiers; supposedly from the Serbo-Croatian kruch, bread, since such soldiers were always starved. But this is probably folk etymology.
The confusion between Huns and Germanic people may go way back. I just read the Volsunga Saga, where Atli (Attila) King of Hunland is just another king; no ethnic distinction is made with the other characters (Burgundian, Goth, etc.) in the story.

Marly, never ask Y ;-)

Posted by: Michelangelo on October 1, 2006 11:22 PM

Desiring my own pictorial alphabet, I went hunting and found that there are only two used copies for sale on the planet...

Michelangelo,
that falling-out-of-bed panel makes such a beeline to Sendak. & G, I C Y U B ;-)

Posted by: marlyat2 on October 2, 2006 04:26 AM

marly—there are a few more copies of the German reprint editions of the book listed at amazon.de. The vowels were an arbitrary choice… & I have a peculiar partiality for ampersands.

Posted by: misteraitch on October 2, 2006 09:24 AM

fabulous !!! thanx so much

Posted by: t on October 2, 2006 05:42 PM

Those vast, distant views behind the letters make you wonder what else may go on in a world that harbours such buildings.
When I was a child, I read a French comic book whose absurd story—a map informed the reader—took place on the first “A” in Océan Atlantique. I thought it was a pretty clever setup; I wish I could remember the title.

Posted by: Michelangelo on October 2, 2006 08:48 PM

A partiality for ampersands! How marvelous.

Posted by: marlyat2 on October 2, 2006 11:28 PM

but, given that ’Ungary was under German-speaking governance at that time, it was all the same to him to call it German?

Probably not. Our view of 'pre-nationalism' Central Europe as an undifferentiated, German-dominated 'Holy Roman Empire' was not shared by the Empire's contemporaries, who always seem to draw clear distinctions between unidentified obscure fiefdoms and identifiable territories, such as Duchies like Burgundy, Saxony and so on, within the Empire.

Even for someone writing (and etching) after Napoleon's defeat and the sequestring of Europe under less than a dozen states, the memory of (former) sovereign Kingdoms with a very long existence like Poland, Hungary and even Bohemia would be very vivid.

I would agree then that 'Unno would most probably stand for 'Ungarian here...

Posted by: Loxias on October 3, 2006 10:06 AM

Ah! I found the French comic I was referring to earlier. Not sure if anyone cares but it’s a real Madeleine for me: it’s Philémon, by Fred. As I recalled, the adventures take place on letters. The site I am linking to is in French and the homepage uses what web designers call mistery meat navigation (you have to hover all over the place to find the links). Nice drawing though.

Posted by: Michelangelo on October 5, 2006 01:34 AM

24 letters? I'm curious to know what they were in 1839. I thought contemporary Italian had only 21 letters, with 5 imports for foreign words.

Example, with incomparable illustrations.

Posted by: Ria on October 7, 2006 06:08 AM

Ria—this alphabet includes K, X and Y; but not J or W. Basoli writes that ‘I decided that in each case the letter I was to draw would form the central motif of a building and that all the ornamentation, the figures and eberything else should bear names beginning with the same inital or at least have a corresponding epithet; for the sake of completeness, I resorted to proper names from other nations for the letters H, K, Y, Z and &.’

Posted by: misteraitch on October 7, 2006 07:59 AM

Architecture begins with A....Thank's for your A Basoli study which prouve it.

Posted by: Patrick on October 10, 2006 06:54 PM

but, given that ’Ungary was under German-speaking governance at that time, it was all the same to him to call it German?

Probably not. Our view of 'pre-nationalism' Central Europe as an undifferentiated, German-dominated 'Holy Roman Empire' was not shared by the Empire's contemporaries, who always seem to draw clear distinctions between unidentified obscure fiefdoms and identifiable territories, such as Duchies like Burgundy, Saxony and so on, within the Empire.

- Not my view certainly. Hungary was never part of the Holy Roman Empire, which in any case had ended thirty years before Basiati's work. It was ruled by the Hapsburgs as in a separate capacity as Kings of Hungary (after they took it back from the Turks). I don't think Europeans at that date had any difficulty distinguishing it from Germany. The Duchy of Burgundy was not in the Empire either btw, but the "County of Flanders" which the Dukes picked up by marriage was.

Posted by: JohnB on October 16, 2006 01:44 AM

This post is showcased in Carnivalesque XX.

Posted by: Carnivalesque XX on October 22, 2006 05:49 PM
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