Unearthing truth

"See what you look at" and ask, "What is the significance?"

Even as terra-cotta cornices and ornaments fall off New York City’s older buildings, they are showing up again, more safely attached, as fiber-reinforced concrete on new buildings to meet a renewed public affection for neoclassical architecture, according to The New Yorker (12/4/2000).

Perhaps more than any living scholar, archaeologist Lucy Shoe Meritt ’27, M.A. ’28, Ph.D. ’35, understands the deep appeal of these forms that express the foundations of western civilization. "The world has decided again that it has to have some classical elements," she said last fall during a reception in her honor at Bryn Mawr. "We’re pasting little bits of cornice onto the outside of our fiberboard houses and plate glass boxes because we can’t live without them. We stick them onto walls so that as you go by on the street you can tell where each course, each story of the building, is on the inside."

During a visit to Philadelphia’s Memorial Hall in 1915, 9-year-old Lucy Shoe was heading for the stairs to look at a carriage when she stopped short at stereoscopic dioramas of the ruins of Pompeii and some of the restorations.

She determined then and there to learn about the evidence for these restorations, pursuing her childhood interest at the Philadelphia High School for Girls and at Bryn Mawr College, where she earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in classical archaeology and Greek (see sidebar).

Her profound knowledge of classical architecture, combined with a sensitive feeling for the subject and a passion for unearthing the truth, led her to an extraordinary discovery. It seems an absurdly simple observation, yet she insists it was possible only because of her Bryn Mawr training.

Taught that profiles of Greek mouldings do not differ, but also taught to "see what you look at" and "ask what is the significance," she noticed on her first trip to Greece in 1929, as a Fellow of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, that they differed, wildly. (Mouldings in classical architecture can be simple curves, flat surfaces or combinations of both; they are used to decorate the "order" or style of a building, which is composed of a column and the horizontal parts at its base and top.)

For a year, she kept quiet, too shy to tell the formidable Rhys Carpenter, director of the School, and mentioned her findings only to another Fellow, Homer Thompson, who would also become a preeminent archaeologist. Finally, she approached a younger architect and archaeologist, Prentice Duell, who was to replace Carpenter for a year. Duell told Carpenter, who summoned Shoe to his office and thundered, "Why haven’t you been telling me what you’ve been looking at all year?" Duell offered to finance her investigations, and the School renewed her fellowship so that she could continue her work. "What’s that phrase everybody uses, ‘The rest is history,’ " Meritt says.

Her exhaustive documentation and analysis, published in 1936 as Profiles of Greek Mouldings, showed that they change over time according to a predictable pattern, and provided a chronological tool for dating ancient buildings and for eliciting the personalities of individual architects.

She was subsequently awarded a Fellowship in the School of Classical Studies of the American Academy in Rome as one of the few women Fellows before World War II. (Only classical fellowships were open to women in the Academy). After the war she was again awarded a fellowship, at which time both fine arts and classical fellowships were open to women, to investigate the architecture of the Greek colonies and Italic sites in Italy. There, she was again startled by the ancient Italian mouldings she saw: "These weren’t Greek! They had nothing to do with Greece whatsoever! And yet I had been taught that Etruscan architecture was based on the Greek, and the Roman based on the Etruscan ... Something must be wrong somewhere."

Her research in Italy showed that there are fundamental differences between the principles of Etruscan and Greek architecture. The main Etruscan profile, called the "round," is a single convex curve, a bold form well adapted to the soft stone, often local volcanic tufa, from which the mouldings were carved. Unlike Greek mouldings, the Etruscan round does not show chronological development, differing instead by city or region.

Although Rome had finally adopted Greek orders by the 1st c. B.C., the Etruscan native forms persisted in old Etruria proper, as "the extraordinary expressions of a people with a tradition of their own." Meritt writes: "Only in the Empire with the final disappearance of any Etruscan entity does the Etruscan round, after some six centuries of power, go underground to emerge again from Tuscan soil in the days of the Renaissance to keep company with her old rivals, the Greek profiles, also renewed." (Etruscan and Republican Roman Mouldings, 1965)

Thanks to the support of many scholars and institutions, Meritt has for the last five years been working on a reissue of Etruscan and Republican Roman Mouldings that will include full-scale drawings of profiles, further analysis byMeritt, and a chapter by Ingrid Edlund-Berry, Ph.D. ’71 on new discoveries of mouldings in Italy.

Now Professor of Classical Archaeology and Visiting Scholar of the Department of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, Meritt has conducted active research for more than 70 years. (Her husband, Benjamin D. Meritt, who died in 1989, was a distinguished scholar of Greek epigraph, internationally recognized for his contributions to the understanding ofGreek history.) Revered as an editor, beloved as a teacher, she was honored at Bryn Mawr on September 29 in conjunction with a traveling exhibit that documents the important results of her work as a scholar and teacher. She says she "can’t think of anything happier to spend her life on" than her work.

Distinguished classical archaeologists, many her students and Bryn Mawr alumnae/i, gathered for a reception sponsored by the Alumnae Association and a Classics Colloquium lecture by Russell Scott, Doreen Canaday Spitzer Professor of Classical Studies and Latin. "Those people of the youngest generation here, today’s students, haven’t had her direct mentoring and friendliness, yet you have through the tradition of Bryn Mawr and of the individuals who have studied with her over the years," Edlund-Berry told the throng standing in a circle as Meritt prepared to speak.

The exhibit was first shown at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, in conjunction with the 101st Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in 1999, and at the Architecture and Planning Library of the University of Texas at Austin in 2000. It includes a few examples of Etruscan research with ties to students and scholars affiliated with Bryn Mawr, all of whom acknowledge their great debt to Meritt’s guidance and friendship.

These contributions to current Etruscan archaeological studies include two excavations, at Murlo (Poggio Civitate) near Siena, and at Poggio Colla (Vicchio) north of Florence, a publication of the Roman architect Vitruvius’ De architectura, and a re-installation of the Etruscan and Roman galleries at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia.

Excavations at Murlo (south of Siena) began in 1966 under the aegis of Bryn Mawr College, and the architectural importance of the site was recognized immediately by the director, Kyle M. Phillips, Jr. (a student of Meritt’s). In addition to remains of Orientalizing and Archaic monumental buildings, the site has produced large quantities of terracotta decoration, including terracotta frieze plaques. Lucy Shoe Meritt published a study of the mouldings of these frieze plaques in 1970, and has continued to follow the work at the site. Bryn Mawr dissertations based on material from Murlo have beeen written by Ingird Edlund (’71), Erik Nielsen (’74), Greg Warden (’78), Jon Berkin (’93) and Danielle Newland (’94). Several master’s theses and scholarly articles on the site have been the work of a multitude of other Bryn Mawr scholars. The long and fruitful connection of Bryn Mawr with Etruscan archaeology was celebrated in the memorial volume for Kyle M. Phillips, Murlo and the Etruscans (1993) edited by T.D. De Puma (Ph.D. ’69) and J.P. Small (A.B. ’67).

The Etruscan settlement at Poggio Colla has been excavated since 1995 under the direction of Greg Warden (Ph.D. ’78) of Southern Methodist University, with the assistance of Karen B. Vellucci (A.B. ’73). The research design aims at the cultural reconstruction of a settlement that spans most of Etruscan history, from the early 7th century to the 2nd century B.C. Excavation of a series of monumental buildings on the fortified hilltop of the settlement has yielded reused architectural elements, including column bases and podium blocks, currently studies by Ingrid Edlund-Berry in collaboration with Meritt. Alumnae excavators at Poggio Colla include Kate Blanchard, Jessica Hollander and Kate Topper (all A.B. ’00).

A new English translation by Ingrid Rowland (Ph.D. ’80) of Vitruvius’ De architectura libri decem (1999), with a commentary and illustrations by Thomas N. Howe (Southwestern University), also acknowledges the inspiration of the tradition of the study of Greek, Roman and Etruscan mouldings established by Lucy Shoe Meritt.

In the Etruscan and Roman galleries to be opened at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Fall, 2002 (Jean MacIntosh Turfa, Ph.D. ’74, consultant), Etruscan and Roman architecture will be illustrated by terracotta revetments from Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Orvieto and Minturnae that were studied by Meritt.


Center: several types of mouldings; right and left: variations on Roman Ionic
mouldings from Etruscan and Republican Roman Mouldings, 1965.

‘Build your life on truth and good.’
After the September 29 lecture and receptions in her honor, Meritt warmly thanked the crowd circling her in Rhys Carpenter Library, then began impishly:"You’re all a little bit confused... What you are really doing this afternoon is to commemorate the 75th anniversary of something very important that happened on the first day of classes in 1925, in the back corner lecture room on the second floor of Taylor Hall, where a few students were gathered, sitting upright in their chairs, waiting anxiously for the appearance of Rhys Carpenter, the man who was known as the most exciting lecturer on the campus.

"He entered, put something down on the table, looked at us, and said ‘Good morning. Now I’m going to bore you.’ We all sat up a little straighter. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘You might just as well be a plumber and go to work without your bag of tools as come to discuss architecture with anybody without the tools of the proper terminology, so you know what you are talking about, how each element of the building connects with the other, and so what the meaning of it all is. All right?’ And with that, he descended underground, built up for us from the lowest foundations, course by course, structural element by structural element, telling us what it did, what its Greek name was, what the connections were until he got us up to the heavens. And then he said, the hour being pretty close to the end, ‘Now before I go any further, I want you to be sure you have all this in hand, so we can talk about it. Go and learn these in the proper order with the relation to each other, so that if I woke you up in the middle of the night and asked you, you could build it up from the ground to the cyma (projecting moulding) or the other way round. Thank you. Good morning.’ With that he left. Do you think any of us in the room that day ever was the same again? We rushed over to the library and found plenty of books but none that explained it the way we’d had it explained to us. Well, we were rocking back from that, I particularly because it was the architecture that I knew I cared about most of the things we were going to do.

"The next morning Mary Hamilton Swindler [Ph.D ’12] came. And Mary introduced us to the topography of Rome. ... "Mary sat, with that door of hers always open, at the end of the corridor under the guarding arm of Athena. Her door and her heart were always open for everyone, to see that we did what was right for each of us.

"It was Rhys who said, ‘See what you look at.’ And then showed us how to see it, but Mary who said, "Yes, but what is the significance?’ No wonder.... we feel the way we do about what they have given us, not just for those years we were here as undergraduates, but for the rest of our lives. With that kind of force behind us, you couldn’t not do it. You looked and looked, and what you saw all over the Greek countryside and in the excavations was not what you’d seen in the books in Bryn Mawr. You saw that difference because of the way they taught you. ...

"That’s the story of why I’m here with you today, thanks to what happened in that room 75 years ago, and to the general atmosphere of the whole College created by that remarkable president, Marion Edwards Park. If ever I sat down and did nothing about something, if I had any wit or strength left, I would feel that beloved face and voice behind me, breathing down my neck, ‘Shame on you! Shame on you as a Bryn Mawrter. You must build your life on truth and good, then act on it. You must do something in this world, something worthwhile. You must never just sit and do nothing.’ To the glory of Bryn Mawr!"

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