Annals of elegant architectural language
Such a mistake! A few days ago, sitting alone in a Toronto café, typing quietly on my laptop, writing one of the entries in this column, I erred. I made so bold as to enter into conversation with one of what I thought were the more credible anthropoids at nearby tables. Yes, I’m a snob. So shoot me. Nu?
Like a basement pump after a flood, this citizen was sucking coffee from a two-litre mug. Quite a fashionable brew too. I think it was a latte tepidisimo e fresco dalle mammelle della vacca. There was some coffee in it too. He asked what I was writing. I said it was a paragraph about one of the words used in English whose sound I most enjoyed.
“What word’s that?” he grunted.
“Voussoir,” I said.
English borrowed the term from French. It’s what you call one of the stone wedges that make up an archway, an arch stone, a vault stone. He stared at me, scratched each of his armpits with a long hand like a chimpanzee and hurriedly bobbled out of the coffee shop in horror. Obviously to him, I had been freshly discharged from a mental hospital after a mistake by the Master of Lunacy. Or had I been deposited in the coffee shop to spy on carbon-unit earthlings by giant leafhoppers from the planet Nergon? Did I permit that shambling slackwit, that waste of protoplasm, his skull an ossified skillet of inspissated brain juices, to bother me? Briefly.
In order to carry some of the weight of the arch, voussoirs have narrowed sides rather like slices from a pie.
The street Latin root has not been found in any document but has been hypothesized to be *volsorium from an equally putative alternative past participle, *volsum, of the common Latin verb volvere ‘to turn,’ so that the sense is of stones turned toward one another.
Voussoir said aloud brings to mind all the mellow tunefulness, the euphony of English words that name kinds of marble. Here’s a sentence I wrote describing a doorway in a Roman museum: “Voussoirs of dappled porphyry comprise the arch, whose rondure so beguiles the eye that visitors to the room are seen entering and leaving and entering again, solely to re-view that splendid archway.” What a palace it was! In the corridor, wall veneers were plates of shiny black Lucullean marble fetched from the Greek isle of Chios. So was the ceiling. To walk the corridor was to glide down an ebony tunnel, flashing with tendrils of flame from lacquered candelabra flanking the passageway. The building possessed the most exquisite marble veneers I ever beheld. At the far end of the hallway, framed by fluted columns of Africano marble set on piers of travertine, was the altar, its approach across mazy creams of Peloponnesian marble flooring, long-veined, rippling, calling one forward. The altar room was domed, a coffered vault of exotic Euboean marble. From its lemon groundmass winked citron crystals of some strange, lynx-eyed mineral. Where the vaulting rested on support walls, their jointure was concealed by a frieze of acanthus scrollwork trimmed with Greek frets. Halfway down the wall were spaced plaster roundels deep printed with bucrania motifs: superbly content oxheads whose horns dripped daisy garlands, a pleasing pagan stain amidst all the high-wrought Catholic frippery.”
Surprise! No such building exists. Except for ornamental purpose, voussoirs would never be made of marble. I made it all up for a travel piece, merely to take my marble-word vocabulary for a walk. As I have done here, I confessed my verbiferous subterfuge to readers at the end of the article. Has this perusal then been worth the learning of the word voussoir? I hope it.
voussoirs in the ceiling arches of what was a mosque
Bill Casselman, March 28, 2018
Copyright 2018 by William Gordon Casselman
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