Renaissance (I)

Thanks to the wonders of O2 Broadband, we’ve only recently got regular internet in our flat. (#firstworldproblems — see the excellent Chris Addison for ‘half an hour between miracle…and BASIC HUMAN RIGHT’) On a recent visit to The Far North (yes, sub-Watford-Gappers, the country does extend above Leeds), I spent some time reading Charles Nicholl’s 2004 biography of fifteenth-century painter, sculptor, designer, engineer, mathematician, botanist, anatomist, and general…jack of all trades,* Leonardo Ser Piero da Vinci; the next few posts follow on from this. (Any mistakes of transcription, interpretation, etc., are entirely mine: I didn’t make extensive notes.)

* The title of this post, and that of subsequent entries, may or may not be a reference to this. And a cunning reference to the fact I haven’t blogged for half a month.

Donatello David

Carved on the base of a statue (above image not necessarily accurate) in the Palazzo Medici in fifteenth-century Florence was (possibly still is: I’ve not been) the inscription ‘Regna cadunt luxu surgunt virtutibus urbes’. The translation of this, provided by Nicholls, got me thinking: ‘Kingdoms fall through luxuries; cities rise through virtues’. [Nicholls actually punctuates this short sentence with a comma, not a semi-colon, but I’ve corrected his insufficient uniting of these two clauses. {Grrrr, comma splices, grrrrr…is it time for my medication?} In any case, the following applies. As you were.]

I apologise to the classicists of the world (or, more probably, the one who’s most likely be reading this) for any errors in this transcription, but my central point is that the Latin original doesn’t contain punctuation — and it doesn’t need to. The ‘regna cadunt luxu’ bit refers to the ‘kingdoms fall through luxuries’ part of the translation, and after this there is a turn in meaning: the endings of nouns and verbs throughout indicate that it is the cities of the second part of the sentence — and not the initial kingdoms — who are doing the rising.

(Ok, most of you can wake up, now: I’ve mostly finished talking about Latin grammar. Mostly.)

So why am I making this — admittedly long-winded — point? I suppose it’s just a comment on the necessity of punctuation in English. There are always those who argue for the importance of evolution in language who mock Lynne Truss et al. for what they see as unnecessary grammatical fuddy-duddy-ism. But if we are to use a language without the declensions and tenses that make phrases like the above motto so elegant in Latin (and I’m not for one moment suggesting that Latin would be preferable), then we need punctuation. It’s not a case of grammatical pedantry; punctuation marks preserve the rise-and-fall tone that is at the heart of clear expression.

That, after all, is what language is all about.

[8\10\12 Ed.: Latin spelling mistake (I knew there’d be at least one) corrected.]


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