An Italic Calligraphy Handbook

An Italic Calligraphy Handbook

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by Caroline Joy Adams

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An updated version of the classic Renaissance manuals, this handbook is geared toward modern practitioners. It features the best ideas from the early guides, compiled into a contemporary system that makes writing the Italic as simple as possible. With this manual as a guide, both experienced and novice calligraphers can cultivate their natural creativity.


An updated version of the classic Renaissance manuals, this handbook is geared toward modern practitioners. It features the best ideas from the early guides, compiled into a contemporary system that makes writing the Italic as simple as possible. With this manual as a guide, both experienced and novice calligraphers can cultivate their natural creativity.

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Dover Publications
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Lettering, Calligraphy, Typography
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An Italic Calligraphy Handbook

By Caroline Joy Adams

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Caroline Joy Adams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-16889-0




The story of Italic begins in Renaissance Italy. The Humanist scholars of the early fifteenth century, becoming very much interested in early Greek and Roman writings, took upon themselves the task of copying out many of these manuscripts for contemporary usage. For some time there had been a growing dissatisfaction with the style of lettering then in common use, properly referred to as "Blackletter," but often today wrongly termed "Old English." These letters, beautiful though they can be, are densely packed together on the page, and can be somewhat difficult on the eyes in sustained reading. The Humanist scholars, therefore, decided to write out the new books in a more legible style. Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1437), who did much to promote new manuscript production, is generally credited with bringing about this change of lettering styles. He took as his models the rounded, pleasing letterforms of the Carolingian period, and these ninth century letters, in a somewhat revised version, became widely used in the copying of texts in the early 1400s. Then referred to as "Lettra Antiqua;" today the term "Humanist" is used for these letters.

The early Italic style really began to take shape not long after, when another Humanist scholar, bibliophile and friend of artists, Niccolo Niccoli (13631437), took the Humanist letters one step further. He wrote a more rapid version of them, and certain changes began to occur. As the hand moves rapidly along, upright circles tend to transform themselves into slanted ovals. The letters often begin to lean in the direction of writing, and letters tend to join each other, or run together, when written more quickly. Niccoli, then, established the basic characteristics of Italic.

His style, used for personal correspondence as well as the writing out of manuscript books, quickly spread throughout Italy. This Humanistic Cursive (the word cursive deriving from the Latin root for running), really began to develop as a separate style in the 1420s. By the 1440s, it had come to the attention of the Vatican Chancery, and was adopted as the official hand for writing out those documents known as briefs. From this usage, the style began to acquire several new names, including "Cancelleresca," meaning Chancery, as well as "Littera di Brevi," designating its particular use in writing out briefs.

Two similar but slightly different styles of Italic began to emerge. In one, the ascenders of the letters were initiated with a slight upward diagonal stroke on the left side of the vertical, which may be called a serif. This is a natural continuation of the Humanist letterforms. Niccoli's own version of Italic, however, more often used a kerned projector to the right side of the vertical—such as is always, by necessity, on the letter f. This may more easily by referred to as a "head" and the corresponding leftward projector on letters such as p and g, a "tail." This feature must be seen as more decorative than practical, as it actually takes slightly longer to form a letter in this way than with a serifed ascender. Some writers, of course, freely mixed both types of endings to the letters in their Italic, as is often the case today.

As Italic continued to develop and spread in popularity throughout the fifteenth century, something very exciting was happening that was to affect not only the future of calligraphy but the course of the entire world. While the Chinese had moveable wooden type much earlier, and the Koreans had a system of moveable metal type by the early 1400s, Johannes Gutenberg, in about the year 1450, was the first to solve the mechanical problems presented by printing in Europe. Books could now be printed in days that would have taken months to write out by hand. His system of moveable type was rapidly imitated by others, and within thirty-five years, almost all the countries of Europe had their own presses.

By 1465, Italy was in possession of printing technology. The types designed for use in the early books were in direct imitation of the best hand-lettering styles of the day, which were, of course, the Humanist letters in Italy. These letters eventually became known as lower-case roman (lower-case referring to the lower tray in which the printer kept the type, as opposed to the higher tray used for capitals). Countless variations have been made on these basic forms, and they have remained the most widely used of all Western printing types. The letters that you are reading on this very page derive directly from those early Italian printing types.

In the dawn of the sixteenth century, however, which was truly to be the golden age of Italic, the next developmental stage of the Italic style began, and was closely linked to the printing press. In the year 1500, an Italian printer, Aldus Manutius, commissioned the first Italic printing type. Designed by Francesco Griffo, it was very clearly based on the prevalent Italic handwriting, characterized by its slanting oval shapes. This type had serifed letters, and Griffo even created joins between the typecast letters, in imitation of the handwritten forms.

It was Griffo's second Italic type, however, designed a year later for another printer, that was to have a decisive effect on the future of Italic handwriting. While the first Italic type imitated handwriting, the second type began to be imitated by calligraphers, to some extent. For in the second version of Italic type, Griffo eliminated many of the joins between letters, giving a more refined feeling to the lettering as a whole. There is no evidence to be found of any Italic writing without joined-together letters before this time period. Yet soon after the nearly unjoined type became widespread, examples of Italic writing with few joins began to appear as well. Samples of an unjoined, slowly written version of Italic that made use of serifed ascenders and descenders can be found dating from about 1515. The ascenders and descenders were sometimes shortened as well, in keeping with those on Griffo's type. This version of Italic was later referred to as "Cancelleresca Formata," and sometimes, but again not always, a tendency to make the letters slightly wider and rounder in the "Formata" is apparent. Faster, informal versions of serifed Italic with joined letters were still in use as well. The second version of Italic, that made use of heads and tails, was also affected by the growing use of Italic printing types that employed few joins. While for the most part this version of Italic retained the use of joined letters, it did become more and more refined and formal-looleing as time went on, due in part to the natural maturation of a style now nearly one hundred years old, but also to the need to compete with the regular, even and consistent look of Italic type.

The advent of the printing press was in many respects an unfortunate event for those who made their livings as calligraphers, for much of their copying work could now be done more efficiently by the press. One positive result, however, was that with the much wider availability of books, more and more people needed instruction in the arts of reading and writing. Many scribes, then, turned to the teaching of writing to earn a living, and in the sixteenth century, a great flood of instructional manuals on the art of writing began to pour forth.

The Italic style almost always took pride of place in these manuals, and it was usually a version with joins and heads and tails that was emphasized, and given the name "Cancelleresca Corsiva." The first of the writing books to give instruction for writing the Chancery hand was published in Venice in 1514. Sigismondo Fanti's Theorica et Practica gave extremely clear and detailed directions for writing Italics, to a greater degree than any of the later books on the subject. Unfortunately, however, due to the difficulty of reproducing models of small Italic letters, no actual models of the letters were shown alongside his instructions for Italic, although three other lettering styles were presented in the book, and did have accompanying models, in a very large size. How amazed the Renaissance scribes would have been to be able to obtain perfect and instantaneous reproductions of their work, as anyone can today on a copy machine! For them, however, the problem of reproducing calligraphy was a difficult one. Although it was an extremely time-consuming and delicate procedure, the only possible way to reproduce hand- written letters was to carve them into wooden blocks, from which they could then be printed. The Chinese had used this wood engraving process for centuries, and the Germans began to use it also, to produce illustrated books with minimal amounts of text some years before the perfection of moveable type. The Italians, then, again built upon German experience in printing. The very small, slanted Italic letters, however, proved especially difficult, because in order to have letters appear to be facing the right way when printed, they must be written onto the blocks in reverse. This problem was most likely surmounted by borrowing the Chinese method of writing the original copy onto very thin paper, turning it over, pasting it onto the block in reverse, and then cutting around the letters which showed through the paper, leaving each letter standing in relief.

The first writing manual to be produced in this way is often claimed to be that of Arrighi, published in 1522. Several scholars, however, have come up with some evidence that Arrighi's manual may not actually have appeared until 1524, the same year that a rival calligrapher, Tagliente, brought out his manual. Arrighi's manual, however, can claim to be the first one that was entirely written in Italic handwriting, unlike Tagliente's. The woodcarver, however, cannot really do justice to the quality of the original calligraphy, something Arrighi himself acknowledged, by adding a disclaimer in his book to the effect that the press could not really represent the living hand. A page from Arrighi's manual is reproduced in the title page of the fourth chapter of this book, and in comparing this to the photographic reproduction of Cataneo, Figure 1, the difference is readily apparent.

Once the Arrighi and Tagliente manuals were in circulation, many others on the subject began to appear as well, some of which were, of course, far more noteworthy than others. In addition to Arrighi and Tagliente, the third most popular author of an Italian writing manual was Giovambattista Palatino. Pages taken from his manual appear as headings for the second, third, sixth and seventh chapters of this book.

Perhaps as a result of the proliferation of these instructional manuals, the Italic hand began to spread to other countries. It was the hand taught at the royal courts, and became the mark of educated men and women throughout Europe. Other countries were soon producing their own writing manuals. Spain, Germany, Holland, England, France, etc., all adopted the Italic style to some extent. Each country, and indeed each author of a manual, showed a somewhat different version of the style, as might naturally be expected.

History demonstrates that almost all styles of writing go through a process of growth and development, gradually becoming more refined and formal in appearance, and then begin a slow decline as other styles take precedence. The Italic style of calligraphy seems to have reached its highest state of development, then, in the time period encompassing the early to mid-sixteenth century. By the 1550s, its use was widespread in all its forms; fast, slow, joined, unjoined, serifed, non-serifed, handwritten and typeset. Many others had imitated Griffo's types, creating numerous variations on them, some making use of heads and tails rather than serifs. Handwritten Italic continued to be influenced by type, and unjoined Italic with heads and tails became more commonly used as well.

The writing of Bennardino Cataneo (Figure 1) is a superb example of the grace, beauty and elegance that formal Italic with very few joins reached at its highest state. This sample, written in 1545, is taken from an original manual that was never reproduced in its own time period, but was meant for the private instruction of its owner, Edward Raleigh, who commissioned it. Though not apparent in this photograph, most of the capitals and flourishes are done in gold ink. If Cataneo and his peers brought the Italic style to its final state of perfection, then, perhaps it was almost inevitable that it complete its life cycle and that a new style be ushered in.

In 1560, a calligrapher by the name of G.F. Cresci published a writing manual that criticized the current Italic style. He complained that it was too slow to write, and that the letters were too narrow and pointed, and not slanted enough. As well, he felt that a narrower pen should be used. His style, as shown in his manual and in the chart here, began to lead to alterations of, rather than variations on, the Italic style.

It was also at this time that another change was taking place that was to have perhaps an even greater influence on the development of writing. Italian printers began to experiment with engraving onto copper plates, a process that would be much simpler than wood engraving, and could produce more accurate results. This process, once again, was taken from the Germans, who had already used it to produce illustrations.

It was soon found that the pointed engraving tool, called a burin, did indeed make the process of producing writing manuals much easier, yet it was more suited to creating letterforms other than those easily made with the edged pen. The pointed tool created contrast of line quality not as a natural result of the pen angle, but as a result of increasing pressure on certain parts of the letters to create thicker lines.

The first writing manual to be produced using this method rather than woodblocks was published by Hercolani in 1571. After that, virtually all manuals followed suit, with rare exceptions. The influence of the engraving tool was rapidly apparent. In 1581, a Venetian scribe, Scalzini, issued a manual attacking the Italic of Cresci, claiming it was still written too slowly and with too wide a pen. Scalzini's Italic, as shown in the chart in this chapter, began to show a radical departure from the basic Italic forms that had now been in use for over 150 years. His script, a perfect example of the capabilities of the burin rather than the pen, was generally thin, with thickness appearing now mostly in the heads of the ascenders rather than throughout the letter bodies. He was very fond of creating loops, as was Cresci before him. Undoubtedly, his script really was a bit faster to write than the old Italic, in part because he allowed joins between all the letters within a word, whereas in previous versions of joined Italic many, but not all, letters had been allowed to run into each other.

Although the engraver's burin was partly responsible for these changes in the letterforms, the pen was made to follow along. Scalzini's advice was taken, and writers began cutting their quills to a point rather than an edge. Loops began to become a regular feature of the writing that had once been Italic, and the simple forms began to disappear into the new, highly flourished style, which today we generally refer to as "Copperplate," an example of which is shown in Figure 2, as well as in the chart. As the original Italic began in Italy and then spread to other countries, so developed the Copperplate style. Although some countries, especially Spain, continued with a modified form of Italic, written with an edged pen, as well as the new forms, one variation or another of Copperplate dominated the handwriting styles of all of Europe and America by the mid-seventeenth century. Excessive use of loops and flourishes, joining of all letters, a great degree of slant, and the use of a pointed pen that created variation of line quality through the use of pressure characterized almost all variations on the Copperplate style. Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, no dramatic changes took place in these basic characteristics.

About the mid-nineteenth century, however, as more and more children were sent to school, and as businesses had greater need of proficient clerks, new methods of teaching writing sprang up, based on the prevalent style, but with an eye only towards speed rather than beauty. It was faster, of course, to dispense with the varying of line quality in the letters, and to simply write-with a constant and unchanging amount of pressure on the pen, which created letters of completely even line quality, exactly like a modern ball-point pen or pencil. The Palmer method, among others, in America, took hold, based on this principle, and if you look at the example of this on the chart, you will see that it is really the same style of cursive writing that most of us have been taught as schoolchildren throughout this century, the results of which are rarely pleasing.

The lack of both legibility and beauty that occurs when this style is written quickly with a monoline tool was the source of dissatisfaction by the 1870s in Britain, when the modern calligraphic revival really began to take shape.


Excerpted from An Italic Calligraphy Handbook by Caroline Joy Adams. Copyright © 2004 Caroline Joy Adams. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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