Santa Costanza in Rome and San Michele Arcangelo in Perugia

Sant’ Agnese fuori le mura is my favorite church in Rome. I treasure memories of cool early morning visits on otherwise hot summer days (figure 1, 2011), and I likewise treasure the memory of introducing this complex of ecclesiastical buildings to classes of students I’ve brought there.

Figure 1. Staircase descending to the narthex of Sant’ Agnese f.l.m., 2011. Photo: author.

This is emphatically not the place to try to teach you about this (aptly named) complex, which illuminates a great deal of social, political, archaeological, ecclesiastical, and art history of the late antique and early medieval periods. But I will expend a few paragraphs showing you one of the gems of the complex, the imperial mausoleum of Constantine the Great’s daughter, Constantina, now called the church of Santa Costanza. We see today the relatively intact remains of a second phase of the building that dates to around 350 CE.

Figure 2. G.B. Piranesi, engraving showing the remains of Sant’ Agnese fuori le mura. Le antichità Romane. Tomo II, tav. XXII. // Opere di Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francesco Piranesi e d’altri. Firmin Didot Freres, Paris, 1835-1839. Tomo 2. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

The mausoleum can be seen in Piranesi’s engraving from Le antichità Romane (figure 2). It’s the cylindrical structure with labels G, H, P, and R. Two cylinders form the nucleus of the building, a taller central one surrounded by a lower, wider one. An annular concrete vault (with wonderful original mosaics) runs between the two cylinders. The inner cylinder is not solid but stands on a series of columns like stilts. Just where the inner cylinder rises above the roof of the annular vault running between it and the outer cylinder there are clerestory lights that give the interior a luminous quality. The inner cylinder is capped with a cupola. Opposite the entrance is a sort of apse of rectangular plan that rises above the level of the clerestory. But this is all very dry prose. Your heart should beat a little faster when you see the interior (figure 3).

Figure 3. Santa Costanza, Rome. Interior from entrance. Photo: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro. CC BY-SA 4.0. Wikimedia Commons.

The point of view is from the entrance while standing under a portion of the annular vault I mentioned. The furthest wall you see at ground level with various niches in it is the outer cylinder. Twelve pairs of columns, arranged radially, support the inner cylinder, which spans the columns with arches. The clerestory lights can be seen above. The gray-streaked ring of pavers marks the footprint of the inner cylinder were it to come all the way down to the floor.

The radial central plan is typical of the direction late-antique architecture was taking; there is a surviving major church with a central plan, Santo Stefano Rotondo, not far away in Rome. It dates to the middle of the fifth century CE, a hundred years after Santa Costanza (figure 4).

Figure 4. Santo Stefano Rotondo, Rome. Interior. Photo: Lalupa. CC BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

Characteristic of late-antique, and especially paleochristian architecture, is the reuse of parts from earlier buildings. Close examination will reveal irregularities betraying such reuse even in the relatively low resolution images in figures 3 and 4. There are various practical and symbolic reasons for such reuse which needn’t occupy us here. What is important here is that on the splendid paired columns, which are unique in their radial arrangement in classical architecture, we find what are called composite column capitals (figure 5).

Figure 5. Composite capital, Palace of Justice, Budapest. Photo: József Rozsnyai. CC BY_SA 4.0. Wikimedia Commons.

Composite means here a fusion of features of Ionic and Corinthian capitals. You see the acanthus leaves that so strongly mark the Corinthian, and above them the scroll-like volutes, with egg-and-dart molding between them, of the Ionic. Such capitals carry a notion of triumph about them, as they are typical features of Roman triumphal arches. An example from Santa Costanza can be seen in figure 6.

Figure 6. Santa Costanza, Rome. Detail: pair of columns. Photo: author.

The close observer will note that this pair actually has only one composite capital; the outer (left) column is the sole example of a regular Corinthian capital in the colonnade. Even imperial builders couldn’t always command a perfect used set of 24 capitals. If you go there, it’s fun to point this out: it’s the second pair as you go around the ambulatory to the left from the entrance.

There is another church that bears a more than passing resemblance to Santa Costanza. That is San Michele Arcangelo in Perugia, also called Sant’ Angelo, which dates to the 5th or early 6th centuries, CE. Here is a cutaway drawing (figure 7):

Figure 7. San Michele Arcangelo, Perugia. Woodcut: Holzschnitt aus den Mittheilungen der kaiserl. königl. Central-Commission zur Erforschung und Erhaltung der Baudenkmale Band 5, 1860. Beitrag von Wilhelm Lübke mit dem Titel: „Reisenotizen über die mittelalterlichen Kunstwerke in Italien“, 1858/1859, gemeinsam mit Karl Schnaase. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Sant’ Angelo is a bit larger than Santa Costanza, quite a bit smaller than Santo Stefano Rotondo. Rather than having Santa Costanza’s concrete annular vault, the Sant’ Angelo architect employed a series of buttress-like arches to span the space like tendons between the two cylinders that make up the bones of the structure. Like Santa Costanza, the central cylinder is supported on columns, but this time single ones, not pairs. Over every other column similar ribs spring to form arches that support a timber roof above the drum. In these last features the church resembles Santo Stefano Rotondo more than Santa Costanza.

Sixteen reused columns, an ill-sorted lot, support the drum in Sant’ Angelo. They are nevertheless attractive colored marbles and granites (figure 8).

Figure 8. San Michele Arcangelo, Perugia. Interior colonnade. Photo: author.

The Sant’ Angelo architect had to content himself with Corinthian capitals, since he was in the boondocks and composite capitals are comparatively rare. Yet in looking over the interior when I first saw it in 2015, I noticed that there was one example of a composite capital in Sant’ Angelo. More interestingly, in a church of the same basic plan and dimensions as Santa Costanza (they’re both about 80 feet in overall diameter, not counting lost external colonnades, etc.), we find that one composite capital is atop the third column along on the left when you start from the axis of the original entrance (figure 9 shows column 3 with composite capital and column 4 with a Corinthian capital).

Figure 9. San Michele Arcangelo, Perugia. Columns with composite (left) and Corinthian (right) capitals. Photo: author.

Santa Costanza’s twelve pairs of columns are spaced at 30 degrees, whereas Sant’ Angelo’s sixteen columns sit at 22.5-degree intervals. That’s not quite precise, but it will serve for this argument. Do the calculation and you’ll find that if we take the radial axis bisecting the original entrance as zero degrees and count rotation (and columns) clockwise, the sole Corinthian capital in Santa Costanza, number 2, lies at 45 degrees, whereas the sole composite capital in Sant’ Angelo, number 3, lies at 56 degrees. The position of number 2 in Santa Costanza, at 45 degrees, bisects the difference between numbers 2 and 3 in Sant’ Angelo, 11.25 degrees from each. What this means is that an architect wanting to “cite,” as it were, his design source at Santa Costanza, could not have put his one outlier capital closer to where Santa Costanza has it than where he did, as it is a 50-50 split between columns 2 and 3 in Perugia.

I might add, though it is common enough that it would not have convinced me of a deliberate citation of Santa Costanza by itself, that the intercolumniations on the principal axis and the cross axis are slightly wider, and the arches on those axes slightly taller than the rest. This privileging of the principal axes, imposing a notional cross on the radial plan, is something Santa Costanza famously does as well. Indeed, even the use of arches over the colonnade was hardly inevitable. The Santo Stefano Rotondo architect uses a massive architrave, for example. In all of these details the Perusine architect further cited his Roman source, and the sole off-kilter capital makes sure we get the correct reference.

Of course, if you look closer, you can find all sorts of differences, too. I’d expect that, as the amount of money the Perusine architect had to work with was almost certainly dwarfed by that available to an imperial commissioner; I suppose peculiarities of the site may also have played a role, as well as the provincial location of the building and origin of its workers. Still, when I mentally did the math for the radial position of those one-off capitals while I was in Sant’ Angelo, I was convinced that our architect had studied Santa Costanza as a model, used its basic plan, and left a winking citation in the composite capital. Some day I’ll go back with a tape measure, check historical records, and work the argument out precisely, but it’s too fun not to publish an anteprima here.

The slender resources of the interwebs on Sant’ Angelo suggest that no one else has seen this before—but you never know, almost every idea has occurred to someone else before . . . .

The holy grail: Scott U.S. # 233a

I wish my Dad could have seen the two stamps above (figures 1, 2), which live in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Postage Museum next to Union Station in Washington, D.C.

The stamp in its usual form is an ultramarine engraved image of Columbus’s fleet issued, with the other values of this large commemorative series, on 03 January 1893 (figures 1, 3). Figure 3 is a nice photo of a fresh copy which may have been edited to enhance the color a little. The photo I took in the poor light of the museum (figure 1) is closer to the shade I am accustomed to see in routine copies of the stamp. It always looks a little faded to me.

Figure 3. U.S. Postage, 1893. 4-cent Columbian Exposition issue, Scott # 233. Photo: Gwillhickers, Wikimedia Commons. Stamp: public domain.

My father would have loved seeing it because he treasured his (incomplete: he did not have a lot of money) collection of the great Columbian commemorative postage stamp series that accompanied the famous 1892-93 exposition in Chicago. In this he was led by Lester G. Brookman, whose monumental The United States Postage Stamps of the 19th Century (1967) treats the series in its third volume. Here’s Brookman on its significance:

Few if any series of stamps are so sought after by U.S. collectors as the “Columbians.” The degree of completion of the Columbians in any collection is one yardstick by which a collection is measured.

Lester G. Brookman, The United States Postage Stamps of the 19th Century, v. 3 (1967), p. 50.

The different denominations in the series were printed in different colors to facilitate distinguishing between them. Also for the beauty of it, of course. The American Banknote Company printed the stamps, and though the U.S. had been printing stamps for some fifty years by 1893, it was still a rough-and-tumble age of stamp production. Variants of the shades of the different denominational colors are quite common.

It turned out that at least two sheets of the ultramarine blue 4-cent stamp were instead, and erroneously, printed with a striking dark blue that is reminiscent of the bright blue of the 1-cent denomination. As you can see in the image gallery contrasting figures 4, 2, and 1, the color in the error is even darker than the blue of the 1-cent issue.

Brookman again:

Many collectors have thought they had the 4c Error of color but the truth of the matter is that few of them ever have or ever will see one—let alone own one. The shade is very different from the normal ultramarine and once seen it is not likely to be forgotten. The usual statement that it is like the color of the 1c is not exactly accurate. It is much more like the 1c than it is the normal 4c but, if such a phrase means anything, the color seems to be a richer and more lively color than that of the 1c.

One error pane was found by J.V. Painter of Cleveland and bore the plate number D17. It is almost certain that at least one more pane of these existed in this shade and that the used copies come from this other pane. We understood that Theodore Steinway of New York found a used copy on mail received by his father. When J.V Painter found the sheet he sold half of it to George Worthington while most of the balance was purchased by J.W. Scott, Sr. It is not known what became of the half sheet sold to Worthington as these were not found among his stamps when his estate was sold.

A superb mint block of this 4c error was in the Col. Green Collection and there was a very fine mint block of 4—not the same block as was in the Green Collection—that was sold at the Robt. Laurence Sale of September 17, 1940. We have seen a third block of four in a western collection and have seen several mint singles but we have never seen a used copy although they are known to exist. An Imprint Plate Number strip of 4 of the error was sold by Harmer, Rooke & Co. in 1962.

Lester G. Brookman, The United States Postage Stamps of the 19th Century, v. 3 (1967), p. 62.

The 4-cent blue errors command prices in four or five figures, as compared to the more famous “inverted Jenny” upside-down biplane airmail stamp that commands prices in the low seven-figure range for single mint copies. Still, the 4-cent blue is a very rarely seen error. I have seen inverted Jennys now and again at prominent exhibitions, and there’s one in the Smithsonian. Still, everybody’s seen a picture of one, and the nature of the error is obvious to all. The relatively obscure color error of the 4-cent blue Columbian, while striking to a collector in the know, is a connoisseur’s error and so much the greater pleasure to actually see so that one can understand what Brookman was talking about when he discusses the shades of blue.

Also a client . . . .

Figure 1. Bucher monument. Greenmount Cemetery, San Diego, CA. Photo: V. Bucher.

There’s always a risk, when you write criticism, that you’ll come off as though you thought your office as a critic put you above what you write about, as though an ironic detachment implies a belittling attitude. I love the monuments even—especially—when I find them cockeyed. This is true of my professional interest in Roman monuments, and true also of my personal interest in American ones.

And it gets very personal. See the flat lawn monument for my parents (figure 1). I last saw it in maybe 2003; my mom recently died, and I’d never seen the updated “finished” product until my brother sent me the photo here.

It hardly deserves to be called a monument. It is a marker, and while these types of flat markers are common, you see them most in those lawn-style cemeteries where vast expanses of open lawn are supposed to exert a calming effect on those grieving. I suppose that those lawn cemeteries make their money with the sale of plots and coffins and maximize revenues by lowering the costs of upkeep: it’s a cinch to mow right over these flat markers, but as you can see on the Bucher marker, no one comes to trim the crab grass that grows horizontally over the stone.

As you’d expect, this is a case where I know the details behind the decision to get this marker. My dad was suddenly diagnosed with cancer in late August 1997, one day before I headed out by car to Minnesota to take up a job at Gustavus Adolphus College. I flew back for the funeral, but my mom, with my brother’s help, had had to take care of the burial arrangements. Her work as a caregiver in the final month precluded her going out to take care of things in good time. Rather, things progressed in unexpected jerks until my dad went into hospice a day or two before the end. Only then did my mom have a chance to shop for a plot, coffin, and tombstone.

As I had known but learned experientially during my mom’s final crisis, at the end the caregiver is exhausted physically and emotionally. Just when some mighty important decisions need to be made, many responsible for arrangements have only the energy to take the path of least resistance, guided by grief, distress, sentiment, and a need to act quickly.

And so my parents ended up with a marker with bare anagraphic data and the cliché of clichés, the praying hands. At least it doesn’t say “Gone to Jesus,” which no doubt they have, but to insist on it seems to imply a nagging doubt. A floral scroll brackets the surname. The sandblasted cutting is cheap but not inexpensive. I do admire the grain in the gneiss, brought out nicely in the polished sections.

There is, therefore, something to be said for the old idea that you should make your arrangements ahead of time, and that puts me in mind of one of my very favorite Latin epitaphs. Its fancy name is “CIL VIII 1027 add. 929″, if you want to look it up. It is of Vitalis, whose name means “lively.” Beware, the verse is shaky at best, and at times the poet has been extry bold in using false quantities for vowels:

Fl. Antigona                                             Vitalis Aug. n.
vivit et convivatur        d.m.s.             tabellarius
                                                                    vivit et convivat.
dum sum Vitalis et vivo, ego feci sepulchrum,
adque meos versus, dum transseo, perfruo et ipse.
Dip[l]oma circavi totam regione pedestrem,
et canibus prendi lepores et denique volpes.
Postea potionis calices perduxi libenter;
multa iuventutis feci, quia sum moriturus.
Quisque sapis, iuvenis, vivo tibi pone sepulchrum.

A loose translation:

Flavia Antigona                                     Vitalis, postman of our emperor
while living and having fun               while living and having fun
                                    Sacred to their memory
While I am Vitalis and alive, I have built a tomb,
and while I pass by it I can’t help but admire my own verses.
I made the rounds of the whole region on foot with the imperial diploma,
and I hunted hares and even wolves with dogs.
Afterwards I happily raised cups of drink;
I lived my youth fully, because I’m going to die.
Whoever you are, young man, if you are wise,
erect for yourself a tomb while you are alive.

Two poems in Rock Creek Cemetery

The attractive Thompson-Simms monument features on its face (figure 1) some marvelous carved roses, including the one flower, snapped off and fallen, symbolizing life cut off. The sincere sentiment with which Helen Ceasar Thompson-Simms was bidden adieu is suggested by the subscript:

We will love and miss you forever

But in a classic proof that one must always ‘double-tap’ and look at the rear of a monument, we find a long, almost certainly original, poetic composition there (figure 2). I mark stresses.







It’s iambic, by and large, with cadences familiar from greeting cards. I do not say that to disparage; rather, it is to me interesting to see a commemorator draw upon skills unconsciously learned from the environment and applying those rules in a forgivably undisciplined way.

The poet mostly sticks to three beats per verse. Here and there an extra unstressed syllable begins or ends one (vv. 1 and 13, for example). However, the poet has also refused to divide words even when the transition from one verse to the next occurs at mid-word. That’s daring and may tempt the unwary reader to think the poet less skilled than they in fact were. So, for example, in the second stanza, the metrics work like this, I think:


See also WÓB- /B LY STÉPS in the third stanza. It could be, however, that the poet consciously wanted, perhaps as a desperate measure (so to speak), to intersperse a tetrameter as needed, i.e., in lines 6, 7, 10, 12, and 13). It almost looks as though the poet was seeking to maintain an iambic rhythm without being too concerned about where verses might begin or end. Alternatively, I wonder whether the ordinator was not thinking poetically but in accordance with convenient placement on the stone. To my ear, if we take the tetrameters to be deliberate, the rhythm is made hard to follow by the beats suddenly appearing at the head of the verse/line.

The epigraph is maybe prose, like the first line, but it works as the last three feet of a hexameter, and so I’ve marked it.

The fourth stanza breaks down, of course. Perhaps the poet wanted to have the sentiments in the final line to conclude the poem and the fourth stanza. It cannot be adapted to do so as written (internal logic requires a line rhyming with ‘say’), so it was kept apart at the end. Still, one can think of nice ways to end the fourth stanza in keeping with the poet’s sentiment:



We could alternatively break down the poem into units marked by terminal rhymes and anaphora in ‘first’:





Even taken thus—and it solves a number of problems—there is the wobbly verse 3 which seems to demand BÉFORE, and the weak rhythm of verse 7, especially leading with the unstressed monosyllable EYES which really takes so long to pronounce that it is effectively stressed.

Still, this poet had an intuitive feel for anaphora, and verse 8 is a respectable tricolon crescendo.

Figure 3. Diamantstein monument. Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

Diamantstein, possessor of an enviably interesting name, gets credit for having verses of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses on his monument (figure 3). His story is not much discernable from the interwebs—at least those parts of it not behind paywalls—except that he was successfully pursuing a degree at UNC in 1980. Ben seems to be a middle name here, not a filiation like Benjamin or Ben Gurion. It does seem to me a gesture toward Jewishness, which is seconded by the star of David on the stone. We can only guess at the reason for the cross, which does provoke interest in juxtaposition with the star.

The tree is known by its fruit.

“For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. For every tree is known by his own fruit.”
—Luke 6: 43-44.

In an evening ramble through Rock Creek last night my friend Brien, who has a keen eye, spotted the Tree monument (figures 1, 2) with its onomastic play. The inscription on the front (figure 1):

BORN OCT. 14 1799 DIED DEC. 19 1881
BORN JULY 4 1804 DIED JULY 3 1860

The Latin at top is a paraphrase of Luke 6:44, “A tree is known by its fruit.” I think it was felt by Tree to be more “Tree is known by his fruit.”

One imagines Tree’s good works were at least part of his fruits. But looking at the rear face, his more literal fruits are tallied up (figure 2):

BORN JULY 15 1845. DIED DEC 4 1881.
BORN MAY 28 1839. DIED JUNE 6 1908.

Either being a son, or being a doctor, or being the first to die of the two children listed here led to Charles Tree being above his older sister on the rear face of the monument. I don’t know when the monument was erected, but see that Lambert and Charles died days apart in 1881, which would have provided a good occasion to erect the monument, leaving a blank area for Ellen when the time came. The serifed font for the name Tree seems right for the 1880s. The different punctuation habits between the front and rear face might argue for different hands, different times of carving, or both.

The Kates monument in Laurel Hill

The inherently interesting Kates monument in Laurel Hill sheds light on the “Interesting and malleable monument type” about which I published a post here on 26 October 2019.

There’s no need to repeat the detailed description of the monument type I gave last October. I’ll assume you’ve read that post in what follows, and I do assure you it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

Basically, we have a tall rectangular slab monument snuggling within four tuscan columns. Above the columns is a canopy and below a multi-tiered base. It’s useful to compare the Kates monument to the Joh and Watts monuments in Baltimore (cf. figures 1, 4, 5).

The Joh monument (figure 2) is closest in scale and feel, even though the Kates monument (figure 1) lacks a human figure. The Laurel Hill monument is simplest of the three and the same can still be said if we enlarge the group of comparanda to include the Shipley (Green Mount, Baltimore, 1904) and Painter (Druid Ridge, Pikesville, 1906) monuments, not illustrated here.

The Kates monument (figure 1) lacks the Joh monument’s (figure 4) swag atop the slab and the dentils in the attic although it does have tuscan column capitals rather than the Joh monument’s ionic ones which cap the latter’s polished columns of darker granite. Similar tuscan capitals feature in the Watts monument (figure 5), and the two also share a Greek fret pattern with a central patera-shaped flower as the top border of the slab (figure 6).

Of the three monuments illustrated here, the Watts monument represents what I consider the be the most fully developed form of the type, differing in its highly wrought ornamentation and in the adjustment of the base to accommodate a sitting human figure. One also notes that three of the four Baltimore-area monuments have a bit of funerary doggerel on them (only the Shipley monument lacks it), while the Kates monument has two separate epitaphs on it, one for each of the main commemorated figures (figure 6).

Figure 6. Kates monument. Detail: anagraphic slab. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: author.

Still, it seems to me obvious that these monuments—and perhaps a few more I could mention—emerged from the same atelier. The Shipley monument was erected by William A. Gault & Son, a then-prominent local firm which let contracts to quarriers for major jobs. It is possible that the great similarity of the monuments under consideration here betokens the unifying thread of Gault & Son moving variants of a successful product among the burghers of Baltimore. Yet the presence of a quite similar monument in Laurel Hill seems to confirm that the basic design was owed to the quarry from which the monuments came—the single atelier I mentioned above.

I would not have known of the Gault & Son connection without an explicit attribution in an article on recent work in The Monumental News of 1908. But the Monumental News article also states that the monument in question (the Shipley monument in Green Mount) is made of Westerly granite, sourced in Westerly R.I. This is a very distinctive stone that tends to run from gray to buff to slightly dirty pinkish. On a bad day, and dirty, it can look greenish; on a great day, clean and in good light, it is buff or even bluish. By my reckoning, on the basis of having seen all of the monuments under discussion, all are out of the Westerly quarries. That is why the Kates monument is so wonderful: the contractor allowed the quarry to place its mark upon the foundation of the monument. That was the Smith Granite Co. of Westerly R.I. (figure 7).

Figure 7. Kates monument. Detail: maker’s mark, Smith Granite Co. Westerly, R.I. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: author.

Smith, according to the Pedia of Wiki, was in operation from the 1850s and was incorporated from 1887. They contracted out to produce monuments to local firms all over the northeast and had a number of subcontractors who worked for them. You can see the finished Borden monument in Fall River’s Oak Grove Cemetery and the really interesting order from Smith’s ledgers for it in Shelley Dziedzic’s post here on the Friends of Oak Grove web site. Figure 8 shows a Smith ad for just this kind of work in the 1904 Monumental News, p. 745.

Figure 8. Smith Granite Co. advertisement. The Monumental News 1904: 745. Public domain.

This brings me to the point where I think I can tentatively try to identify the cutter of at least two, and probably three of the figures (Shipley, Watts, Joh) in Westerly granite under consideration here and in my “Interesting and malleable monument type” post. I’ll title that post “The baby-fat sculptor,” because a bit of attractive adipose marks his work in the statues I’ve seen.

Slifer my God to thee

The Titanic reference refers to how the handsome Slifer monument in Union Cemetery in Flourtown, PA (a hair north of Philly) is sinking into the earth. You know me well enough to surmise that at first I hoped it would turn out to be a seated portrait, but it turns out to be a conventional figure of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, very much in keeping with this kleinbürgerlich cemetery.

Figure 1. Slifer monument. Union Cemetery, Flourtown, PA. Photo: author.

There is no curb around the complex showing the property lines, but there is a more than normally weighty threshold to the plot. The actual step into the plot is beveled with the name Slifer in high-ish relief.

If you look closely you’ll see that the serifed letters, in caps, are not square like the name on the base of the monument proper. My photo only shows half of the letters, but they are more of a curvy art nouveau font. Different again is the font of the giant ‘S’s that mark the two front sides of the threshold stone; not as squiggly as the nearby Slifer, they are not as square as those on the monument.

The carved caps on the edges of the threshold stone have what look like lobes of some sort exuding from a prismiform top. The lobe-y form is seen here and there, as in examples from Hollywood, West Laurel Hill, and Forest Lawn Cemeteries (figures 2, 3, 4): its organic form seems to stem from Art Nouveau.

Turning to the monument proper, it consists of a die with a modestly complicated cap and an interesting series of indented lines in the curved molding below. From the sides of the die, and adding visual weight to it, extend wings consisting of three torus moldings that have been worked into a rustic texture and a beveled cap atop them. The base and foundation support wings and die (which are monolithic).

Anagraphic data is pared down on the die, where the font is a simple, easily legible sans-serif font, though the letters do grow a little fatter in their extremities. This contrasts strongly with the chunky nineteenth-century font for the surname on the base, and again with the monogram ‘S’ on the cap below the statue. The latter has an organic quality.

The headstones are made of the same stone (I think it’s Westerly granite), but that’s about where any coherency ends. I suppose the small central extension in front of the lower molding below the scroll in some way might be taken to mirror the way the die of the monument stands out from the wings, but it’s a reach to think that intentional, I believe. In any event, the notion is that scrolls on the beveled face of the headstones bear the names of the deceased, and atop those have been laid flower offerings. The font is again different from any of the others in this ensemble.

Figure 7. Slifer monument. Detail: die and statue. Union Cemetery, Flourtown, PA. Photo: author.

As for the statue (figure 7), it is a classic ‘Good Shepherd’, although there is a little anecdotal story surrounding it, I think. The Christ figure has been reading—teaching, one supposes—from the book propped on his right leg. He’s just grabbed it to keep it from falling off, or has let it fall from his left hand. Seen from the side, the figure is somewhat hunched over, and this appears to be because he has just taken up the needy little lamb from the flock symbolized by the one sheep at his feet. So we catch the figure in mid-motion, in a nurturing gesture. The flock would stand for Christians, and I suppose the needy little lamb is the newly dead Slifer, taken up for just reward. So It’s not just conventional, as I said above, except that it is a bourgeois religious sentiment; but in fact the artist has taken the trouble to tell a little story. It’s clearly the product of a good company.

Two final observations. The monument, if reduced to its abstract geometry, is a stepped pyramid. And lastly, what of the six quite different fonts here? It’s hard to know when the various parts of the ensemble were put together, but the lack of control in the fonts suggests that the creation was piecemeal. Still, there are three different fonts on the die alone, and I don’t suppose they were carved at different times. I guess that Eliza, who went first, was the reason for the erection of the central monument with statue, and she was envisioned by Charles as the lamb, gone to Jesus. This also explains the lack of anagraphic details such as birth and death dates on the die: he couldn’t put his on yet, and so he left such details to the headstones.

I suppose the ‘S’ could have merited a “heraldic” font, its organic forms reminding us of a family tree. The name on the base is in big chunky nineteenth-century broadside font which shouts at us. The font on the die proper is, with its sort of organically swelling tips of the letters, maybe sort of closer to the Art Nouveau spirit we find elsewhere.

But why on earth not have the surname on the plot threshold in the same font as the one on the base of the monument? And why have initials ‘S’ on the sides of the threshold which don’t match the one on the die? And why not reuse any of the fonts on the headstones?

Guessing again, I suppose when Slifer died, his commemorators might have organized the plot (perhaps by Slifer’s wishes), but they just told the monument company to do something suitable, and no one was interested enough in quality control to insist that there be uniformity anywhere.

In any event, the Slifer monument with its plot is by far the most complex and grand in this little cemetery, and it just goes to show you that even in small, not too well-off gilded age communities we see posturings among the better-off citizens.

A bit of the old ultra-rustic

There was a time in the last third of the nineteenth century—i.e., in the late romantic era—when rustic cemetery monuments reigned supreme. Stone cairns and vast withered tree trunks were commissioned everywhere. Some examples are better than others; the Hunter monument in Laurel Hill Cemetery (figures 1, 2), at about 10 feet tall, is a noble, landmark example of the rustic stone look; I think it dates to about 1895. A few comparative examples will show how outstanding it is.

Monuments carved to resemble a pile of stones —I’ll just call them ‘cairn monuments’ are quite common. In marble, the stones tend to look just a little too neat (figure 3), though sometimes, as in the Barranger monument (figures 4, 4a) one finds labored diagonal patterns meant to give visual interest and boost the feel of rusticity.

I suppose the difference is one between a cairn imagined made from manicured blocks as opposed to one made on the spot in nature. The artist’s skill and temperament, tools used, and type of rock imagined will all have their part to play, as well. The Barranger monument carries the rustic look through with admirable consistency by adding a cross made of a lopped trunk. The cupid is just a bonus.

The Hunter cairn is carved almost to evoke the feel of living rock. It’s clearly a heap of granite boulders, their roughness notionally keeping them together despite the strong diagonals in stacking favored by the artist. You can see a more modest granite cairn here and reproduced in figure 5. Sometimes the rustic look finds expression in a single massive boulder as in the Bertolette monument in Arlington National Cemetery and the clever Bates boulder in Druid Ridge in Pikesville, MD.

The Hunter cairn’s laughably vast polished scroll with anagraphic data, tall as a grown human, forms here, as in several other examples I’ve cited, a neat contrast with the matte roughness of the cairn itself. The artist has achieved a sort of ‘crunchy’ effect with the surname, which stands out in polished rectilinear font against a rougher, matte register behind it and the rustic boulders immediately behind that.

Still, the big payoff in the Hunter cairn is its towering excess, comparable, I think, to the deep investment of the Lloyd family in the rustic tree style in their family plot in Hollywood Cemetery. Anything done to such excess is inherently interesting, and the Hunter monument goes so far beyond the norm that I think it falls into the category of unintentional camp.

Trompe l'oeil in Laurel Hill

Figure 1. Fitler monument and plot curbing. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: author.

In Laurel Hill Cemetery yesterday I revisited an old favorite, the Conarroe plot. As one passes along the street of most gilded-age cemeteries one sees any number of landscaping solutions designed to tidy up (or assert) plot boundaries such as we see in the Fitler plot (figure 1), likewise in Laurel Hill. The Fitler obelisk is arguably the grandest of the million billion trillion obelisks in that great boneyard, and the staircase/threshold is quite grand, as well. The plot sits alone in an area privileged by being circumscribed by a path.

The Fitler curbing and threshold is typical, however, in that it has subsided and is all tilty. Still, you can see that the name of the principal deceased is carved on a bevel of the threshold, and this threshold was axially aligned with the center of the principal monument, the name of the deceased being echoed directly above that on the threshold as you look from the street. It is more normal to have only the surname on the threshold.

Figure 2. Conarroe plot threshold. Orthogonal view from street. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: author.

The Conarroe threshold, which is the subject of this post, comes upon the viewer suddenly, as one rises on the road leading from the bridge that comes over from the main area of the cemetery (figure 2). At first glance it looks all tilty, but after about a second one sees that it is a trapezoid. The view in figure 2 looks directly along an axis perpendicular to the edge of the road and also to the long sides of the threshold. The letters and edges of the bevel in which they are carved are deliberately tilted at an angle which respects the angles of the trapezoid.

Figure 3. Conarroe plot. Axial view from threshold to monument. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: author.

A threshold implies a plot, and a quick survey will turn up the Conarroe monument proper, half hidden behind a bush. The monument (with its plot) appears to date to around 1905. The overgrown bush was once part of a symmetrical landscaping solution, but the bush on the right died and went to tree heaven (figure 3). You see, of course, that the angle of the trapezoid was chosen to have the short sides of the threshold establish an axis that perpendicularly bisects the monument. Still, the letters look obviously tilted.

Figure 4. Conarroe threshold. Optimal view. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: author.

The trompe l’oeil effect falls into place when you find and stand in (and take a photograph from) a privileged point established by the architect (figure 4). In this case, that spot is in the road rising from the entrance to this part of the cemetery—the privileged direction of approach. This is to the left of the threshold as you look at it from the street. See how the threshold looks as though it is rectilinear with respect to the road, and the carved letters have snapped into an apparent conformity with that rectilinearity (figure 4).

See that the two pieces of curbing framing the steps are of uneven width (figure 3); the one on the right is wider. But from the privileged point of observation the wider one is the further one, and that corrects the imbalance.

Unfortunately, the overgrown bush hides the monument from the optimal viewpoint, something that was clearly not intended by the landscape architect. You’re meant to see the threshold and the axial path to the monument which is diagonal across the plot—and therefore designedly longer than the approach could have been made had it been on axis with the plot. See in figure 3 how the left hand boundary stone points right to the bush that survives. The latter is squeezed into the left-rear of the plot. The other boundary stone can be seen to the right of the threshold in figure 4, and you can see how the plot goes in directly from the street whereas the threshold-monument axis is on a diagonal.

The stone to the immediate right of the threshold is not a boundary stone but protects it from errant drivers or snow plows. You can see how the threshold has been clipped on the uphill side—the side on which a driver obeying the right-side rule would approach (figures 2, 3, and 4).

Figure 5. Conarroe threshold. ‘Reverse’ optimal view. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: author.

I also show how the angle opposite the optimal one, i.e., to the uphill side of the plot, gives a more or less coherent perspectival view (figure 5). It doesn’t work quite as well as the view from downslope, but it works well enough that the the image, were it to be taken at face value, would look orthogonal to the street. I sidled back and forth a number of times, but the view never quite crystalized like the optimal view does.

The unknown landscape architect had a lot of fun here, though I presume he or she presented it as a practical solution to maximize the axis between threshold and monument to the buyer. But props to the buyer, too, for seeing that the proposed solution was interesting and worth investing in!

The Darians, the Eloi, and the Golgafrinchans

I just rewatched the Space: 1999 episode Mission of the Darians for the first time in about 40 years. As a boy I certainly missed what was interesting about it when it aired in the U.S. about a year after it first aired in the U.K. on 30 October 1975. Though made on a shoestring budget and further cheapened by taking many time-saving narrative shortcuts, the episode is one of the series’ best and on the whole stacks up well against a Joan Collins Star Trek episode. So what is so interesting about it? I would point to three things: 1) its sources are interesting and prominently signaled in several cases; 2) it has a grand scope even beyond the norm for a space-opry-esque series; and 3) it is remarkably adult in its writing.


Moonbase Alpha encounters a vast spaceship twenty miles long and five miles wide broadcasting a distress signal. A visit to render aid goes awry as one of three teams gets captured by troglodytes, one gets lost, and one encounters the elfin masters of the ship, the Darians. It transpires that the ship is a multi-generation ark carrying the remnants of the incredibly ancient Darian race to a new world for the usual reasons. Alas, the ark ship has suffered a calamity, in that its nuclear reactors, or all but one, exploded nine hundred years before. Still, the ship seems to be on course for a landing in a hundred years.

The majority of the ship is wrecked, contaminated, and gone wild. It is now inhabited by the troglodytes I mentioned above. These are the survivors of the nuclear accidents, and are called ‘survivors’ by themselves and by the Darians. In reality, they are, of course, the distant descendants of the original survivors and have fallen deeply into barbarism. Everyone on the ship is a Darian, but I’ll conventionally keep the names used in the script.

The story has three plots that come together at the climax. Koenig and Bergman encounter the Darians and over time learn the truth about the situation on the ship. Russell and a red shirt named Bill Lowry are the ones captured by the troglodytes. Finally, Morrow and Carter wander through abandoned sections of the ship.

Koenig and Bergman meet Kara and Neman, the latter the captain of the ship.

Figure 2. Space: 1999, Mission of the Darians. Neman, Kara, and Koenig examine the Darian gene bank.

The Darians, who number but 14, have been working to repair the ship; Kara, played by Joan Collins with her legs on exploitative display, is in charge of this. Neman is captain and also the figurehead of a religion the Darians have implanted among the survivors to help mitigate their barbarism. Koenig is welcomed and asked if perhaps the Alphans would want to join the Darians, their resources ensuring them a stake in the new world to which the ark is traveling. Bergman starts an analysis with readouts of the ark’s resources and discovers that the ship’s stores have not had nearly enough to supply the Darians on a day-to-day basis, much less over a 900-year span.

Russell and Lowry fare poorly amongst the troglodytes who apparently inspect everyone they run across for mutations (nuclear disaster, remember) and euthanize them immediately if they are found to be such. ‘Clears’, as they call them, can presumably either stay or get sacrificed to the god Neman, whose picture appears on the door from which suited helmeted figures emerge to collect the sacrifices. The high priest is played by the great Aubrey Morris. In any event, Russell is designated for sacrifice.

Morrow and Carter meanwhile have been wandering the ship giving us a chance to see its ruined great spaces (thanks to matte paintings). They discover the troglodytes just as Russell is being spirited away by the suited figures; in the melee, Morrow gets into the inner sanctum following the suited man carrying Russell, whereas Carter, taken prisoner by the survivors, manages to turn the tables by showing that the other suited man is not an angel but merely a man. Carter raises up the equivalent of a torchlight mob of survivors angry at having been duped and they all enter the sanctum.

Koenig meanwhile has had a number of ugly surprises. He has discovered that there are survivors besides the Darians; that Neman seeded a religion among them to keep them in line and instill some knowledge and science in them; then that the Darians have been cannibalizing the survivors in the absence of other resources; and finally, in the rescue of Russell from a vivisection lab, that the Darians have been harvesting organs to keep themselves alive because they are sterile (nuclear accident, don’t y’ know). The one thing keeping them going is their sense of mission in transporting the collected gene bank of their race to the new world (figure 2). So Neman is the original captain of the ship from the time of the accident, 900 years old. Even with transplants he looks pretty good, Joan Collins even more so.

At about this point the torchlight mob crashes in and in the fight Neman’s head is crushed along with his hopes by being driven by a survivor through the physical structure of the gene bank.

Figure 3. Space: 1999, Mission of the Darians. Kara and Koenig look on at the dead Neman and the destroyed gene bank. They should have kept it in a closet.

There is a tableau at the end: Kara declares they’re all as good as dead now, and Koenig basically tells her to put on her big-boy pants and make common cause with the survivors, who were always their resource. She eyes the leader of the trog mob thoughtfully, and just before cutting to the final scene the trog leader casts an appraising glance at her.

On the eagle heading back to Alpha, those in the cabin contemplate the empty seat of Lowry, while in the cockpit Kano asks Carter what happened and Carter, in no mood to revisit the unhappy past several hours, tells him to remind him to tell him some time. Then Carter asks Koenig what he would have done if he were in command in a situation like the Darians’. Koenig thoughtfully gives Carter the same answer Carter had given Kano.

MISSION OF THE DARIANS: the story sources.

Figure 4. The Starlost. Title screen with Ark ship.

When Bergman hears that the spaceship Daria is an ark ship, Neman adds, having scanned the Earthers’ minds, that he believes Earth, too, had an similar ship. Bergman smiles and notes that yes, it is like Earth’s Ark spaceship. This is a nodding reference to the Canadian SF series The Starlost, of 1973. There, to make a long story short, the spaceship Ark (figure 4) transports different cultures from the dead planet Earth to a new home but a disastrous accident has crippled the ship, killed most of the crew, and left the various cultures in segregated domes retaining no knowledge that they are aboard a ship. There is of course an antecedent in the Star Trek episode For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky, too, but the Star Trek episide, while obviously a source, is not a direct one.

At three points that I recall, we are shown matte paintings exhibiting the vast size of the Daria. At one point or another we see a vast machine room.

Do you see it? The composite image (figure 7) of human actors walking within the framework of matte painting? Does it remind you as much as it reminds me of the analogous scene in Forbidden Planet of Morbius and the men of the C-57D in the Krell machine?

Not convinced about this passing reference? Consider that at the beginning of the Mission of the Darians Bergman comments on the Daria as the Eagle approaches: “Twenty miles long by five miles wide,” and Koenig replies, “One hundred square miles of space ship.” The specification is, in my opinion, another passing reference to Forbidden Planet, when Morbius notes the dimensions of the Krell machine (I condense): “Twenty miles.” “Twenty Miles.” “A cube twenty miles on each side.” “… a minor alteration was performed throughout the entire 8000 cubic miles of its own fabric.” I argue no more than that the writer of the Space: 1999 episode (Johnny Byrne) was familiar with Forbidden Planet and planted these Easter eggs to give the pleasure of spotting them.

The elephant in the room is Wells’ Time Machine. If you look at figures 2 and 4 you’ll see that the Darians are costumed as elves or maybe as Greek gods. This analogizes them to the Eloi in the Time Machine, the race of elven people evolved (thanks to rigid class barriers) from the upper classes of England. The survivors bear similarities to the Morlocks, evolved from the brutalized lower classes. Byrne of course knew better than to borrow beat for beat, and in fact subverted expectations by reversing the situation in the Time Machine to good effect. There, the Morlocks prey on the Eloi for food, that being the price for the Eloi’s otherwise untroubled existence. Wells also displayed his sense of black humor in having the traditionally exploited class now exploiting the exploiters. The Eloi seem aware of the facts of life, but refuse to talk about or face the unpleasantness. Here, it is the Darians who have used religion to manipulate the survivors into ceding to them bodies untainted by radiation poisoning. These, of course, provide organs and the leftover bits food.


Mission of the Darians is a morality play like Wells’ Time Machine. But where Wells made pointed commentary on the class system, Byrne focuses on how far an overpowering sense of mission and how desperate but also self-serving choices can make a hell of existence. The Darians clearly see themselves as something like the Greeks of the galaxy, their high culture being worth preserving and their race, via the poorly protected gene bank, self-evidently worth saving and propagating. It’s interesting to note across roughly contemporary science fiction that the objects of this overwhelming desire to preserve end up being destroyed, often along with their would-be preservers. In Forbidden Planet, the Krell data bank is destroyed by Morbius as being too dangerous to live. In Star Trek the preservers tended to be computers which lacked the humanity of their programmers and went astray with a cockeyed view of their own mission (The Return of the Archons, The Changeling, etc. etc.). I also recall Dominic Flandry‘s arch nemesis Aycharaych in Poul Anderson‘s Terran Empire series of stories, who indeed pled to Flandry in the 1974 Knight of Ghosts and Shadows not to destroy his home world because, though he was the last surviving Chereionite, his planet was a testament and shrine to the ‘Greeks of the galaxy.” (See the text surrounding a search for ‘Greeks’ here.) The general theme appears to be “at what cost do we preserve this treasure.”

One might think that the Darians are manufactured to be two-dimensional baddies. Cannibalism, amiright? Vivisection! Yet Byrne (and the director, Ray Austin) play a more sophisticated game. Just as the Eloi don’t want to admit to themselves what their situation really is, so, too, the Darians are more or less in denial. We are invited to put ourselves into the shoes of the Darians in the wake of the disaster, guided by the purpose of preserving and propagating the gene bank, yet sterile and unable to repair the badly damaged multi-generation ark ship. With dwindling resources, and always guided by the purpose of survival so as to accomplish their mission, they made one decision after another, each shaving away some of the distance between the good done in their eyes by preserving their race and the evils they wreak keeping themselves, and their dream, alive. And of course, it’s self-serving that carrying out their mission at any cost meant keeping themselves alive at any cost.

But you can see how reluctant the Darians are to reveal the truth, and how Koenig or events pry layer after layer of the ugly truth—false religion, euthanizing of mutants, cannibalism, vivisection—out of them. They are embarrassed and quick to offer justifications. And they are mortified by being seen through the eyes of others for what they’ve done and become. The episode uses some strategic (and modest) nudity in the vivisection room to bring home the horror of the body processing factory. Yet the euthanization appears to be consciously humane (the bodies’ brains are evidently switched off), and Neman claims that they have given religion to the survivors not just to facilitate the cleansing of the mutants away and the supplying of ‘resources’, but to distribute some knowledge. In a word, Byrne and Austin work overtime to make us sympathize with the Darians, and not just see them as two-dimensional opportunists who saved themselves to everyone else’s cost. To be sure, the story sees their actions as deeply immoral, and there is a plot point that they had invited the Alphans to join them for the sake of “resources.” They have fallen deep into moral corruption.

Yet when Carter asks Koenig what he would have done were he in the Darian captain’s position, he evades answering in the same way that Carter had signaled his pained unwillingness to relate the story to Kano back in main mission. As I read it, Koenig does wonder what morally unacceptable things he might do in the face of an overwhelming moral imperative (like thinking a gene bank must be saved and delivered) and a failure of resources. Or, put another way, he is a leader and knows humans well enough to know it could happen to anyone.

The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy—I mean the tv show, which is close enough to the book—parodied the ark ship theme with the Golgafrinchan segment in its sixth and last episode. There, Adams envisioned a planet in which the thinkers and the doers of the population concoct a ridiculous story of a giant space goat coming to devour the planet in order to con the useless middlemen, not smart enough or lacking enough common sense to see through the sham, to voluntarily board an ark spaceship for a new world (figure 10).

Figure 10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Explanation of the Golgafrinchan Ark.

The joke is that the Golgafrinchan Ark crashes on Earth and becomes the nucleus of the human race. It punctures the ark subgenre in about three ways, and it shows its cards by having Aubrey Morris, erstwhile high priest of the Darian ark survivors, as the rather merry captain of the Golgafrinchan Ark who spends all his time in a bath tub on the bridge.

Figure 11. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Aubrey Morris as the Golgafrinchan captain.

Morris’s presence—any actor could have played the captain—seems to me hardly a coincidence. He was chosen to show us that, like Byrne, the makers of the HHGTG episode were up on their ark ship subgenre history.

A note on the images. These images, taken from screen captures published here and there on the interwebs, are the copyrighted property of the makers of the relevant tv shows and movies. Here I have limited myself to images necessary to illustrate this critical discussion and rely on a fair use justification for their presence.