Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Susanna Berger reviews The Making of Measure and the Promise of Sameness

Emanuele LugliThe Making of Measure and the Promise of Sameness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019. 312 pp. 

Review by Susanna Berger

13 May 2020

In The Making of Measure and the Promise of Sameness, Emanuele Lugli demonstrates that processes and notions of measuring from the eleventh through the early fourteenth centuries played a more significant role in shaping measurement than the famous metric transformations of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To this end, he adopts a deconstructionist approach to complicate and enrich preconceptions about measurements as neutral magnitudes, quantities, or extents, revealing the manifold ways in which powerful agents prescribed measurements so as to sustain or to magnify their own authority. Through the introduction of norms in measuring, he argues, power wields dominion over the material world. With its remarkable aggregation of captivating moments in the history of measurement, from the writings of the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s diary and pamphlet “Von Deutscher Baukunst” (“On German Architecture”), this book is bound to appeal to historians in a broad range of fields across the humanities.

The book delves into a rich array of understudied sources and introduces archival research as well as material evidence, such as the official standards of measure—medieval stone artifacts showing regional metrological systems that were displayed in nearly all Italian cities but have been overlooked by historians. Lugli traces the ways in which the public display of standards of measure throughout the Middle Ages in, for instance, the wall of Padua’s town hall—the so-called Palazzo della Ragione—or in an antique funerary stone at the base of the Capitoline hill bolstered the authority of local governments. Among the book’s most important findings is a discussion of previously misidentified standards of measurement in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government in Siena’s communal palace. In addition, Lugli argues that medieval standards of measure supported dreams of precision that still impact notions of objectivity today.

To offset misleading impressions of a straightforward advancement in the history of measurement manifest in other studies of the subject, Lugli boldly leads readers backwards chronologically, starting with the inauguration of the metric system in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and ending with the thirteenth-century Pisan mathematician Leonardo Pisano (also known as Fibonacci). Moreover, he encourages readers to skip over sections of his text as they desire. These methodological innovations may frustrate some readers, but they enable Lugli to stage his material in a kaleidoscopic view; in this manner, he places the onus on readers to form their own conclusions on the history of measurement without offering a simplified historicist narrative. Along with Andrew Hamilton’s Scale and the Incas and David Young Kim’s edited volume Matters of Weight, Lugli’s study will inspire future conversations about measurement, a topic that has been neglected by art historians for far too long.