Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews  entry Mar 2011

Cryptic Plaques & Inscriptions — Who Knows?

photo of plaqueThere are many newer inscribed plaques on the buildings of Naples: This City Councilman Lived Here; That Journalist Died Here; Great Painter Had His Studio Here. Long or short, such plaques are self-explanatory and are records of at least some of the cultural identity of many cities in the world. In Italy for many years, at least since the unification of the nation in 1861, most such civic inscriptions have been in Italian. Older Latin inscriptions are also quite common in Naples —not Roman Empire old (although those do exist), but medieval and even relatively recent inscriptions. Most of these are in or on churches, bearing witness to the long history of Latin as the ecclesiastical language of the Roman Catholic church. Most of these, too, are clear and self-explanatory if you have a dictionary, a bit of patience and an erudite friend.
Yet there are a few inscriptions scattered around town, usually on old churches, that defy interpretation. It is vexing to read them and understand the words and yet not know what they mean. Do they have to do with the arcane and magical traditions of Naples in the Middle Ages? — maybe inscribed by the same types who even today regularly consult psychics?— or believe that their dreams can predict winning lottery numbers? — or who put scribbled votive slips of paper near sacred relics and statues? Anything at all like that? Who chiseled the plaques into place? Why? When? Who knows?

There is one such inscription on a plaque (photo, above right) on the facade of the church of San Domenico Maggiore, to the right of the main entrance in the main courtyard. (The photo on the left is the rear entrance to that church. It faces on the square of San Domenico Maggiore, a site marked by the presence of a tall monument spire, a so-called "plague column," the top of which is visible at the lower right of the photo.)

The inscription reads:

Nimbifer ille deo michi [sic] invidit osirim imbre tulit mundi corpora mersa freto invidia dira minus patimur fusamque sub axe. Progeniem caveas troiugenamque trucem voce precor superas auras et lumina celo crimine deposito posse parare viam sol veluti iaculis itrum radiantibus undas si penetrat gelidas ignibus aret aquas.

This is what I have found in the way of translations (see large green info box, below):

That bearer of storms was envious of my sun, sacred to Osiris, and with the rains washed away the bodies buried in the waters of the sea. Now we suffer fewer fierce calamities. Beware the evil progeny of Troy found beneath the heavens. I beseech with my voice the light of the higher spirits that when sin has been banished they may clear our way to heaven as does the sun sending forth its rays anew to penetrate and melt the frozen waters with warmth.

It is totally cryptic. The first word, Nimbifer, storm-bearer, might be a metaphor of trouble or mishap. I have inserted sic after the fourth word, michi, to show that it is correctly cited (I saw and photographed the inscription — sorry about the photo, but the plaque had a magical and potent bit of scaffolding in front of it), but I am not aware of a Latin word, michi. In context, it should be mihi (dative case of ego; i.e., to, with, of me). (It might be non-standard Latin or a mistake, but it's engraved in stone, a poor place for a typo! If it's a mistake, it might argue for a very late inscription when no one knew real Latin anymore. Or it might be a very recent restoration by cousin Pasquale, your friendly Neapolitan stone mason and classical scholar.) Who knows? (Much more in the box below, after which the original article continues.)
added Sept. 5, 2018  
scio me nihil scire*

 Who Knows? Some people are working on it!

When we say "Latin" we mean different things. We might mean the language spoken by the Caesars and the people of Rome and large parts of the Roman empire. There is an entry in these pages on that Latin and modern attempts to keep it up date so the Vatican can issue encyclicals in Latin on matters of current interest such as birth-control and drone gun-ships. That Latin is jocularly represented by the image on the left. On the other hand, we might also mean the Latin of the "cryptic inscription" at the top of this page; that is, the Latin written between the fall of the western Roman empire and into the 1500s, when national (many Latin-based) languages came into their own. We can gloss that period as "medieval Latin" and represent it with one of the many books such as the one in the image on the right. We see that we are talking about a considerable period of time. (I will spare you the little-known and rightly so English poets after Shakespeare who insisted on writing poetry in Latin because they were convinced that English was not a suitable vehicle for literature, like the Romans who thought they had to keep writing in Greek!)

As far as the general article on this page (above and below this box) is concerned, we are dealing with the Medieval Latin of the kind described in the image at the top right. (I am indebted to a number of persons for their enthusiastic willingness to help me write about this.)

First of all, there are a great number of books on classical Latin, the language of ancient Rome. If you studied "Latin" in high school or college, you had one of those books as a text. They are countless. But, there are a surprising number of books (in addition to the one in the above image) dealing with the study of how Latin changed once the official "language glue" of empire had dissolved.

So, you have a number of Latin "tracks" to consider. There has always been an official, classical Latin path (including within the Vatican) of those who wanted to preserve classical Latin, say, for questions of global church unity. But there were also great writers such as Petrarch, (who lived in the 1300s and is often called the last great writer of Latin in Europe. He wrote in classical Latin as well as early Italian.) And Dante was quite capable of writing in the language of ancient Rome, even though he is famous for touting the vernacular.
His De Vulgari Eloquentia was revolutionary in defending the common everyday language of the people. (Amusingly, he had to write it in Latin, saying, in other words, “Stop writing in this language you are now reading.”) This attention to how language changes over the centuries once left to its own devices is fascinating. It's almost as if we had kept track of what happened to Gothic as it changed. We did, but we used names such as Middle High German, Anglo-Saxon, Middle-English, etc. There is a certain magic of "unity" in keeping the name. The Greeks of today do not understand classical Greek just as Italians do not understand classical Latin (or any other kind); but the Greeks of today still call it all Greek. It has to be the case that whoever wrote the inscription described on this page (writing in my guess around 1200) could not converse with Augustus Caesar. (They may have been able to pass notes back and forth.)

Is there a way to make any of this more than a guess? Maybe, but it's difficult. Those who trace the history of Latin divide it into four tracks, not necessarily four separate consecutive periods because there is a lot of overlap. Roughly, Classical Latin runs from around the first century BC to the years 200 AD. Late Latin goes roughly from 200 - 550. Changes in language over time include pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. In Late Latin, there was a large influx of Greek vocabulary and the beginnings of the disintegration of the case system (that is, words with the same meaning but having different forms depending on what they do in a sentence
are they subjects? objects? and so forth,  such as I-me / he-him / she-her, etc. If you have ever heard "just between you and I" or "Me and John went to the movies" and did nothing to correct those egregious howlers, congratulations(!) for contributing to the breakdown of our case system, you scoundrel!  Late Latin thus marks the beginnings of pre-national native languages now termed "Romance" languages, such as Italian, Spanish, French, etc. (Quick, what is the fourth official language of Switzerland?) The third and important overlapping track ever since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (the 4th century) has been Christian, or Ecclesiastical, Latin. It's not at all as conservative as you might think; this track brought a flood of new ideas, new vocabulary (largely Greek in origin), and a new way of writing into the language, partially from the influence of Greek and early Latin versions of the Bible, which of course then influenced generations of authors through the King James Version of the English Bible. The fourth track is Popular, or Vulgar, Latin, really a logical extension of Late Latin. That is the stage where we use the modern names of languages if the popular forms have become recognized. We say Italian, Spanish, French, Spanish, etc., in the same fashion as we say English and not Vulgar Gothic. There is a Latin proverb, usually used in the law, that could apply to this whole process of how language changes: communis error facit ius -- roughly, if everyone makes the same mistake, then it's no longer a mistake. In language, we might say "usage denotes correctness."

So, through all of this, there are many thousands of pages written by scholars that detail exactly, in the case of Latin, how vocabulary changed or how prepositions replaced cases, or whatever, over the course of 2000 years. There is, indeed, an interesting local website dealing with the church of San Domenico Maggiore. A section of the site contains different possible translations of this Latin inscription into Italian and also a few comments from erudite contributors, such as:
The whole epigraph scans strangely. The first 2 verses seem to describe a primordial situation with the appropriate uses of the perfect tense forms. Then, in the next two, the writer moves to describing an actual situation to those to whom the epigraph is directed by the use of two present tenses (the first in the reality mode, that is, the indicative, and the second in the exhortative subjunctive). These four verses are followed by another four, which are in the same fashion, subdivided into two pairs. There is a prayer [to powers on high] to prepare the way (those are the first two verses), followed by a magnificent metaphor that explains the sense (if you can call it that). There are so many questions.
Indeed. For one what's an "exhortative subjunctive"? (Was I kidding about "erudite"?) All I can say is, you really shouldn't worry your pretty little heads about such things.

One source writes and says: "The line from the Aeneid that came into my head as I was reading that text is Progeniem sed enim Trojano a sanguine duci (Bk. I, l. 19.)  I wonder if it was somewhere in the author's conscious or subconscious mind when he wrote the inscription. That line translates, indeed, as

a race was springing from Trojan blood..."

It's hard to know what that line means because there are any number of cities in Italy that claim to have been founded by the losers from Troy. Could it refer to enemies of Rome and Rome certainly had a lot of enemies right here on the peninsula! (See the last paragraph in this box, below.)

If the sample is long enough, you (certainly not me
agghh! I mean,  certainly not I) might be able to place that inscription within a reasonable time frame. I'd like the century. A source writes,
I certainly cannot pin down the century when the inscription was written, but my guess is that the author was attempting to mimic Classical Latin, particularly Vergil's Aeneid... There are Vergilian echoes in Progeniem sed enim Trojano a sanguine duci"(Bk. I, l. 19) -- but "michi" indicates a later age than the Classical.  I tried looking at the meter of the verses.  Some are dactylic hexameter -- echoes of Vergil once again -- but not all are. The site where I found comments on that website calls the inscription L'epigrafie sibillina, yet another reference to the Classical.  But which Sibyl?  And what was she warning about?  And why is a plaque referencing Osiris at the portal to San Domenico Maggiore?
Finally, the real problem is that it's far too short a sample. Linguists call this a "meager sample" but here "meager" is being generous. Take that "magnificent metaphor." Please.

Part of the solution can be found contextually. If you go to this link for Piazza San Domenico Maggiore (also in line 1, paragraph 3 of the main article above this box) you read:

The church one sees today incorporates a smaller, original church built on this site in the tenth century, San Michele Arcangelo a Morfisa, a Byzantine church that housed the Basilian monastic order. The original entrance is still visible to the left in the square at the top of an outside stairway... After the Schism between Rome and Constantinople, that church became a Benedictine monastery in 1116 and then passed to the Dominican order in 1221.
Thus, the enemy of Rome being warned against in the inscription has to be the Byzantine builders of the original Byzantine (Greek) church, put there after 1054 (the year of the great East-West Schism), probably slightly after 1116, when the whole thing became a western Benedictine monastery. See how easy that was? But might that inscription have also been written much later by Dominican monks just to drive the point home that they were now in charge? If so, why doesn't anyone in the whole monastery know how to write classical Latin? Who knows? See how easy this still is not?

notes and sources:

scio me nihil scire -  Socrates may have said "I know that I know nothing," but who really knows?
- Millenium, A Latin Reader A.D. 374-1374, F.E. Harrison, Oxford University Press, 1968.
- Medieval Latin (typescript),  A.W. Godfrey, Lecturer in Classics and Comparative Studies, (SUNY, State University of   New York).
The use of osirim is interesting. The Egyptian god, Osiris, was seen as the force of Good (as in the eternal struggle between Good and Evil) in Egyptian and later mythology. I don't know why Osiris, instead of "God," would be inscribed on a Christian church. As a matter of fact, I don't know that the plaque was originally meant for the church in the first place. San Domenico Maggiore is one block from a statue to a presumed river-god of the Nile. The statue was in what was the Alexandrian (Egyptian) quarter of Greek Naples. The fact that the plaque is broken in the middle might mean that they found it in two pieces elsewhere and moved it to the facade of the church. Maybe they found it in one piece and simply dropped it along the way? Who knows?
The part about the rain washing away the bodies is perplexing. Is it a reference to The Flood? — or perhaps something much more recent? There is an historical episode from the late-1600s in Naples when rains washed thousand of human remains out of makeshift graves in a hillside where they had been dumped after the Plague. (That event was the proximate cause of the foundation of the cult of the Fontanelle.) Who knows?

Finally, "Beware the evil progeny of Troy" sounds similar to Virgil's line in the Aeneid, "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" ("I fear the Greeks even when they bear gifts") but in the expression about the Greeks, the gift was the famous wooden horse full of Greek soldiers who thereby entered Troy treacherously and won the war. The losers were, of course, the Trojans, one of whom, Aeneas, according to legend and Virgil, sailed away and founded Rome. So beware of the evil descendants of those who founded Rome? Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows?

My head hurts.
[This is vaguely related(!) to the entry on modernizing the vocabulary of classical Latin. What? Yes.]

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