Calligraphy: The art that was born twice

Calligraphy is the art of beautiful penmanship. The term derives from the Greek words graphein (to write) and kallos (beautiful). But beautiful penmanship or an elegant style are not sufficient to yield true calligraphy, just like knowing how to draw or play a musical instrument correctly is not sufficient to create art.

Nico Zardo

In calligraphy, knowing and respecting the rules are essential elements. Time-consuming exercises are necessary so that the hand no longer needs to ask the brain how to move but they work together to manifest the deep needs of a harmoniously cultivated instinct.
Western calligraphy, that we are taking into consideration here, was born with the organizational needs of Imperial Rome that with regularity and discipline, turned penmanship into a unifying element, testimony of the power of its dominions. Regularity and discipline are the pillars on which Christian monasticism, sustained by faith, has preserved and transmitted Western culture through writing.


THE FORMAL ASPECTS OF WRITING have expressed themselves through a calligraphy that reflects historical changes, accelerations or slowdowns in history, aesthetic tastes and the instruments used to translate thoughts into written words.
The reference model for our writing, called “Roman Capital”, is the one featured in the inscription engraved at the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome. Its aspect is determined by the material on which it is engraved and by the instruments used: the letters were painted on the stone using a brush and then engraved with the scalpel to obtain the characteristic V-section that facilitated a chiaroscuro effect because one of the sides of the engraving was always shadowed.
At the dawn of Christian civilization, in the book production and in the administrative sectors, we witness the passage from the papyrus roll (volumen) to sheets of parchment tied together (codex), and as far as the writing instrument is concerned, the brush is replaced by the reed pen, a swamp reed tapered at its extremity.After the 3rd century, when it became the state religion, Christianity favored the birth of the Onciale (“large character”) that proposed soft rounded forms written using a straw or a quill feather on a smooth surface such as parchment or sheepskin.


WITH THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, it is the monasteries, in particular the Benedictines, who inherit the task of collecting and transmitting culture and knowledge, thanks to a meticulous work of copying the antique codes. The Scriptores Amanuensis worked in silence: “Three fingers write”, they will note for posterity, “the whole body suffers. Just as the sailor yearns for port, the writer longs for the last line”.
Charlemagne, who became ruler in 771, not only championed an intense work of literacy, but also felt the need - like the ancient Romans did - for a form of writing common throughout his Holy Roman Empire.
He entrusted this task to Alcuin of York, an experienced Anglo-Saxon monk, who created a very clear and legible writing system, the “Carolingian Minuscule”, that established, among the novelties, to distance one word from the other (previously they were all joined together) and to use differently shaped lettering within the same page.


WITH THE DIFFUSION OF BOOK PRODUCTION, that after the 11th century were no longer an exclusive prerogative of monks but also developed around the newly born Universities (Bologna, Paris, Padua), the need for savings in material and for a simpler and faster copying method imposed a narrower, more angular and compact style of writing; one that developed vertically and that featured less space between lines. Gothic (i.e. barbarian) was born. It witnessed broad diffusion and had many local variants. “Textura”, so called because of its thick texture, was adopted by Gutenberg to print, in 1455, his Bible in 42 lines, trying to reproduce the quality of the manuscript. In Italy, the Gothic script consisted in more rounded lines reflected in its name: “Rotunda”. And while in Europe it remains in use until the beginning of the 15th century, in German-speaking countries Gothic is present until the ‘40s of the 20th century.


WITH HUMANISM AND THE RENAISSANCE a secular renewal takes place based on new social conceptions.
It is retained that, with Gothic culture, the sense of beauty inherent in Latin and Greek Classicism was lost.
Researching the past for these values led to documents in Carolingian minuscule script, erroneously considered the original, in lack of more ancient finds. And from this writing “Humanists Minuscule” was born, also called “Littera Antiqua”, adopted by Petrarch and with which calligrapher Niccolò dei Niccoli (1363-1437) transcribed most of the classical works.


THE DIFFUSION OF PRINTING SYSTEMS greatly changes the figure of the calligrapher. Previously tied to a quantitative work of book copying, now his art is qualified and used for precious writings or official documents where clarity of the reading and formal quality qualify the contents and the subject issuing them. The new calligraphy takes the name of “Chancery” or “Italic”. It is used for notary deeds and in chancelleries, it is characterized by the elegance of its strokes that often move between words creating swashes, and for the airiness of the page that offers a lively and dynamic overall view of its contents. The father of this new script is considered to be Ludovico degli Arrighi who illustrated it in his “La Operina” (Rome, 1522), giving it the name of Chancery.


CONSIDERED THE LAST OF THE CALLIGRAPHERS, Giovanni Francesco Cresci, Vatican scribe, collected the experiences of his predecessors and in 1570 published a treatise entitled “The Perfect Writer” where he set down the rules of a new form of writing, called “Bastarda”. This script evolved Chancery by giving it a strong slant to the right, tying all the letters together and maintaining a homogeneous stroke, thanks also to the use of the turkey quill (recently arrived from the Americas), more resistant, with a point that could be “sharpened” and more flexible compared to those used up until then.
The new writing witnessed great success in Europe and overseas. While in 1760, in France, Charles Paillasson diffused its use through several tables used in the Encyclopédie by Diderot and D’Alembert, enriching it with Baroque-style swashes, in Great Britain it was interpreted in a form of sober elegance and called “Copperplate”, known in Italy as “English Script”. In America it will be interpreted by Platt Roger Spencer, taking on the name of “Spencerian”.
The practical difficulties of writing using fine strokes will be overcome halfway through the 19th century with new technologies that will allow using the industrially produced metal nib and smooth paper.


AS A REACTION TO THE INDUSTRIAL PROCESS that developed in England halfway through the 19th century that placed the machine at the center of progress without limits, with the consequent decadence in the taste for the form of everyday objects, a movement was born to rediscover the importance and the value – even spiritual – of the ancient arts.
Its promoter was William Morris (1834-1896): he produced furniture, wallpaper, fabrics, objects of everyday use and gathered around him friends who shared the idea of privileging personal satisfaction, the social dignity of manual work degraded by industrialization. The “Arts and Crafts” movement that developed around Morris and through the analogous Werkbund movement (German Association of Craftsmen) will lead to Bauhaus.


MORRIS’ INTEREST IN THE ART OF BOOKS AND CALLIGRAPHY ARE INHERITED BY EDWARD JOHNSTON (1872-1944), a former medical school student from Edinburgh who put a lot of effort into studying the manuscripts stored at the British Museum and, by creating it anew, rediscovered the art of calligraphy, conferring it the dignity of an autonomous art form.
He delves into an in-depth study and recovers the forms and techniques of calligraphy starting from its origins and rediscovering the secrets of preparation of the pen, the shapes and slants that determine the quality of the strokes, of the parchment and of the inks. He is called to hold courses first at the School of Arts and Crafts in London and then at the Royal College of Art, training a new generation of skilled calligraphers such as Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson (who will go on to found Doves Press) and Eric Gill (legendary figure in the realm of engraving, sculpture, drawing and typeface). In 1906 Johnston publishes his magnificent manual, Writing & Illuminating & Lettering (still today periodically reprinted) that constitutes the synthesis of all his years of research. In the preface, he writes:
 “The essential qualities of Lettering are legibility, beauty, and character, and these are to be found in numberless inscriptions and writings of the last two thousand years. But since the traditions of the early scribes and printers and carvers have decayed, we have become so used to inferior forms and arrangements that we hardly realize how poor the bulk of modern lettering really is"1.


THANKS TO JOHNSTON’S WORK, whose effort was much appreciated and developed in every Western country, today calligraphy has found a new life. It is practiced and studied by many enthusiasts and is widely used in image communication that requires a strong emotional meditation. From product logos to titles of film posters, the calligrapher – thanks to expertise and artistic ability – can overcome the repetitiveness of the typeface by introducing sensations and rhythms that add unique expression to the contents that we want to transmit.


Note1. Giovanni Lussu, “Il rinascimento calligrafico in Europa”, in “Calligrafia 1991-1995”, AA. VV., Nuovi Equilibri , 2007, p.17

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