Word Screen Park
Kevin McMahon
Michelangelo's Marble Blog: epigraphic walls as pictures and samples of language

I first noticed walls assembled out of fragments of antique inscriptions during a trip to Rome. While I was admiring them, I assumed scholars had been writing about them for centuries and when I got back to L.A. I would be able to read all about them. But when I got back home, I discovered that nobody had ever written anything. There wasn't even a name for the things, so started calling them "epigraphic walls." And so I set to work.

My initial research was summed up in a 2011 paper for the American Society of Greek & Latin Epigraphy, which was published in 2014 in Ancient documents and their Contexts.

Since then, I have expanded my study of words on walls to include digital billboards, modernist poetry, subtitles, word art and other occasions where words get up off the page and wander around town.

From “Michelangelo’s marble blog”:


... epigraphic walls were built throughout Europe from the Czech Republic to Scotland. They were in vogue from the era of the Medici to the era of Mussolini.

Though ubiquitous, epigraphic walls are invisible. Epigraphists have analyzed individual inscriptions. Historians of the renaissance have studied inscriptions contemporary with the buildings. Architectural historians have studied the walls. Historians of collecting have studied the collections.

There are brief mentions of epigraphic walls in travelers’ narratives, visitor guides and other contemporary accounts, but there is no literature on the history or aesthetics of this practice.

Rome’s great epigraphic walls are no longer highlighted in the guidebooks—the long hallway of niches of the Vatican Lapidaria, the letters letters rubbed with red in the Sistine Rooms, the plaques in the Capitoline,. the portico of Santa Maria in Trastevere, San Paolo fuori le Mura … These places are not just beautiful: they embody epochal changes in attitude toward antiquity, language and public space. …

… The issues raised by epigraphic walls can be clarified by considering epigraphic walls a kind of quotation.

Philosophers since Frege have worried about quotation because they see in the everyday practice of it a troubling paradox—words being both mentioned (talked about) and used (employed in the ordinary way).

One view, articulated by Quine, is that quotations are pictures: “A quotation is not a description, but a hieroglyph; it designates its object not by describing it in terms of other objects, but by picturing it.”

Another view, articulated by Davidson, is that quotations are samples: “Quotation is a device used to refer to typographical or phonetic shapes by exhibiting samples, that is, inscriptions or utterances that have those shapes.”

This two-fold quotational structure of epigraphic walls is illustrated, in turn, by four practices:

  • The use of quotation in poetry (from classical intertextuality to Ausonious in the 4th century CE to Ezra Pound, David Jones, and Ronald Johnson)
  • The use of free typography in poetry (Whitman, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, the Brazilian Noigandres group of concrete poets, and Ian Hamilton Finlay)
  • The use of language in contemporary “word art” (Ben Vautier, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Lawrence Weiner, and Joseph Kosuth)
  • And with the development of digital technology in the 1990s a new kind of epigraphic wall has emerged: the walls have become screens, and images crowd the texts (urban TV screens, portable screens at celebrity funerals, “media skins” on buildings, outdoor digital billboard networks, and 21st century open-air movie screenings) ...