Alfabeto Pittorico, ossia raccolta di pensieri pittorici composti di oggetti comincianti dalle singole lettere alfabetiche (“Pictorial Alphabet, a collection of pictorial thoughts composed of objects beginning with the individual letters of the alphabet”) (1839/1998)
Facsimile edition created by Joseph Kiermeier-Debre and Fritz Franz Vogel (1998) as part of the boxed set Alphabets Buchstaben Calligraphy, published by Ravensburger Buchverlag. H275 x W255 mm, 144 pages. Acquired from Antiquariat Terrahe & Oswald, 14 March 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The Ravensburger Alfabeto pittorico is like a “Black Forest Cake” — a lot of ingredients. The recipe starts with Antonio Basoli’s design of monuments based on letters of the alphabet and his original Italian and French descriptions. To this, the chefs Joseph Kiermeier-Debre and Fritz Franz Vogel add German and English translations. Then, alongside Basoli’s inventions, they place reduced versions of Antonio and Giovanni Battista de Pian’s contemporaneous alphabetical/architectural fantasies. And sprinkled throughout, providing comparative context to Basoli’s career in Bologna as a professionally and academically recognized scenographer, there are dozens of reduced versions of lithographs of opera settings by the more renowned scenographers associated with Vienna, Milan, Venice, Naples and Munich. It is entirely a pudding in the spirit of Basoli.
Basoli creates densely illustrated scenes based on each letter of the alphabet. For each view, his goal is to incorporate the letter structurally or ornamentally in a central building, which in the most successful attempts would begin with the letter. For instance, the large A-shaped building is an orangerie (as in arancia for oranges). B hints at the Tower of Babel and the destruction of the Babylonian empire. C stands for catafalque (or “crypt”) and the Capuchin monks attending to a burial.
Setting a further standard of success, the artist populates each scene with people, activities, objects and symbols that begin with the designated letter. Around the orangerie, agricultural attrezzi (“implements”) are strewn, stone aquile (“eagles”) perch on the building, alms are being distributed by a man in Arab dress, trees beginning with the letter A forest the background and pop up from pots, and the whole setting evokes Arabia according to the 19th-century perception of the region encompassing “Persia, Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia”.
As Kiermeier-Debre and Vogel point out in the preface and afterword, this scene and many others reflect the time’s preoccupation with the Orient and antiquity from the not-too-distant Napoleonic campaign in Egypt (1798-1801) that spawned the archaeological industry of Egyptology. They also reflect the scenography arising from a half century’s operas such as The Escape from the Seraglio(1782), The Caliph of Baghdad (1800), Abu Hassan (1811), Ciro in Babilonia (1812), L’Italiana in Algeri (1813), Il Turco in Italia (1814), Semiramis (1818), Maometto (1820) and Belsazar (1836). Drawing attention to the alphabetical scenes’ evidence of the wide range of Basoli’s cultural, historical, mythological and religious insights, Kiermeier-Debre and Vogel rightly conclude that the work is as much an encyclopedic pictorial dictionary as abecedary.
The author who provided the original commentary on Basoli’s scenes was G.C. Lossada, an art historian. He, too, notes Basoli’s erudition, but on the artistic success of each scene, he swings between acclamation and deprecation. Here is his concluding paragraph on the letter C:
Despite the fact that the shape of the letter C, the theme of this picture, does not lend itself to the main object that is depicted, and the larger part of the building actually lies outside of the initial, such that the whole design could well exist without it, despite all this the perspectives and proportions are so well thought out that this picture can be acclaimed as one of the best in the collection. P. 110.
Equally balanced in their appraisal of Basoli, Kiermeier-Debre and Vogel rank him behind his contemporary scenographers such as Karl Friedrich Schinkel but rate his alphabetical architecture over that of Giovanni Battista de Pian. The latter may be a matter of color and taste. Even reduced, Pian’s scenes draw the eye over Basoli’s, and if the criteria for ranking include a consistency in integrating concept, subject, technique and material, Pian’s letters strain less in their achievement. The letter C certainly takes the cake for Pian.
Basoli does, however, gain a point over Pian with his concluding ampersand. As Lossada remarks, in recapitulating the alphabet and images emblematic of each letter, Basoli’s “&” is entirely a scenic etcetera. The ampersand can be viewed online with the complete alphabet, thanks to the Civic Museum of the Risorgimento in Bologna and also RMR Productions (video, 7 June 2014; accessed 5 April 2021). Neither replicates the clarity of the Ravensburger reproductions.
“Abecedaries I (in progress)“, Books on Books Collection, 31 March 2020.
“Architecture“, Books on Books Collection, 12 November 2018.
“Federico Babina“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.
“Giovanni Battista de Pian“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.
“Jeffrey Morin“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.
“Richard Niessen“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.
“Paul Noble“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.
“Johann David Steingruber“, Books On Books Collection, 20 2021.
Côme, Tony. “The Typotectural Suites“, The Palace of Typographic Masonry. Accessed 5 April 2021.
de Looze, Laurence. 2018. The Letter and the Cosmos: How the Alphabet Has Shaped the Western View of the World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Macken, Marian. 2018. Binding Space: The Book as Spatial Practice. London and New York: Routledge.
McEwen, Hugh. Polyglot Buildings. 12 January 2012. Issuu. Accessed 13 March 2021.
Tsimourdagkas, Chrysostomos. 2014. Typotecture: Histories, Theories and Digital Futures of Typographic Elements in Architectural Design. Doctoral dissertation, Royal College of Art, London. Accessed 13 March 2021.