Image source – Pixabay

Calligraphy is the art or skill of beautiful writing by hand. In Western calligraphy, the Latin alphabet is more used along with the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets unlike in the “Eastern” traditions.

The historiography of Western calligraphy is very closely associated with Romans and Athens-The two great ancient powers of the Western world. They developed the first scripts that was easy to use. With time, the Romans also started to get creative with their alphabet and script, using a more cursive style of writing. However, their letters were still clearer and simpler to read, compared to the Christian monks who used more complex style of writing to decorate the Bible.

To understand the history of Western calligraphy it is essential to review the different historical writing styles and also the material of writing. As some of these works had a great influence on the subsequent work.

During the Late Antiquity period, saw the emergence of Ancient Roman styles namely Roman square capitals, Cursive capitals, The Uncial and Half-uncial. The papyrus used in the Classical Antiquity was replaced by codex ( a composition of many books) in the Late Antiquity period.

Roman square capitals:

Also known as inscriptional capitals, these were an ancient Roman form of writing, and forms the basis for modern capital letters. Square capitals were mainly used to write inscriptions and not for everyday handwriting. For daily writing the Romans used a more cursive style known as Latin cursive. Some prominent examples of square capitals used for inscriptions are found on the Trajan’s Column, Pantheon, and the Arch of Titus, all in Rome. The characteristic of Square capitals are sharp and straight lines, thick and thin strokes and many more separate marks to form a single letter.

Cursive capitals were strikingly different from Square capitals and was widely used in official documents, books, letters and for everyday use in the Roman Empire. This form of letter was free flowing, simpler and more easy to write. By the late 7th century AD., both Square and Rustic capitals slowly became extinct .

The Uncial is a majuscule script developed in the 2nd and 3rd century. In this script, early forms had distinctive features, like broad single stroke letters and simple round forms. It most likely originated in the 2nd century AD when the codex form of book developed along with the new parchment and vellum surfaces. When the production of books and writing was assigned mainly to the monasteries, this style was more suitable for copying Bible and religious texts.

Half-uncial was also derived from Roman cursive. It was first used around the 3rd century and continued until the end of the 8th century. The early forms were used for Roman legal writing and by pagan authors. In the 6th century the script was used to transcribe Christian texts in Africa and Europe. The difference between Half-Uncial and Uncial script is its minuscule appearance, only the letter (N) was more or less same from the capital form.

Early Middle Ages, writing was mainly limited to monasteries. The tradition of illumination which started in Late Antiquity continued in the Early Middle Ages. This period witnessed the development of Western Calligraphy in the form of Merovingian script, Carolingian Miniscule and the Insular script.

Merovingian script:

This script was used in the 7th and 8th centuries and it was developed in France during the Merovingian dynasty. Merovingian writing played a major role in shaping the black-letter script that was prevalent in the Middle Ages . For this reason it was interesting to the palaeographers as well. Like Visigothic script, the Merovingian style had the influence of the vertical rhythm of the Latin cursive script of the ancient Romans. The Merovingian style script was used in the monasteries of Luxeuil, Laon, Chelles, Corbie. Each script was derived and greatly influenced from the uncial, half-uncial, and the Merovingian charter scripts.

Carolingian Miniscule:

This was the first style to emerge with consistent ascenders and descenders. Carolingian minuscule was originally uniform with rounded shapes and widely spaced . Most importantly this style was easy to read. This was a result of a campaign launched in the Carolingian empire to achieve a uniformity and standardization in the style. Over a period, the Carolingian letters became condensed and took on Gothic characteristics. Eventually it was taken over by Gothic, or black letter, minuscule script.

Insular script was invented in Ireland. Under the influence of Irish Christianity and missionaries it spread to Anglo-Saxon England and Continental Europe Insular script is a combination of various scripts used for different purposes. The half-uncial which was used for valuable documents and religious text. The full uncial was used in English centers. For daily use, non-scriptural documents, letters etc the “ set minuscule”, “cursive miniscule” and “current miniscule” was used.

Later Middle Ages – this period saw the development of Black or Gothic style. Another important event was, the creation of the first printing press by German printer Johannes Gensfleisch. Also known as Gutenberg, he used Gothic style to print his famous bible. Later, Gutenberg designed three hundred different typefaces to produce a variety of scripts. His printing press spread in many parts of Europe and along with it new typography as well.But the art of calligraphy lacked innovativeness after the days of Gutenberg. Many found printing a more profitable.

Black letter:

Also called Gothic script or Old English script, was used from the end of the 12th century to the 20th century in Western Europe. This was the period where new universities were founded in Europe and lots of books were produced. While Carolingian miniscule was widely used throughout the 9th century but it was time taking and labor-intensive to produce. As the demand for books increased, there was a need for a style that could be written quickly. And so emerged the Gothic style and it was directly derived from the Carolingian miniscule.

A style that gained a lot of attention throughout Europe in the Late middle Ages was the Rotunda. It was a much wider approach to lettering style . Every letter was more round and friendly. Soon fonts like Chancery hand or the Court hand followed .

In the Early Modern era, there were documents which were written in varied styles. French officials complained that they were unable to decipher the documents and it led to confusion. Thereby, all legal documents were restricted to three hands, namely Coulée, Round hand and the Speed hand. This period also saw the birth of Humanistic script.

Humanist minuscule:

During the early 15th century, the Humanist minuscule as a handwriting script was developed by Poggio Bracciolini and was later popularized by Niccolo Niccoli. Poggio developed the new Humanist script while working on transcribing ancient manuscripts. In the following decade Niccolo Niccoli adopted the same script but started written faster and thus appearing a little different. There are some variations and opposition to the above testament who suppose that Niccolo’s script was indeed different. Be it as it may, the humanist minuscule scripts did succeed in reviving the clarity and brevity of monumental lettering. Italian renaissance started looking at the classical antiquity of ancient Roman literature again in a new light.

Specially designed for notating business transactions, Chancery hand was a modification of the what was called the “Blackletter”. Several versions of this was adopted by clerics to take minor orders. The cursive form of the chancery hand marks the beginning of what we have come to call as “Italic” and was developed by Niccolo Niccoli.

Developed by the British in the 17th Century, the Round hand was known for its free flowing strokes mixing thick and thin strokes. It later became the standard for printed manuals. It was developed by William Banson and John Ayres.

Resurgence of Western Calligraphy:

19th & 20th century saw the Resurgence of Western Calligraphy .As the printing press gained popularity, the production of hand-written and hand-decorated books stopped, around the 16th Century. At the end of the 19th century, English broad-pen calligraphy was restored and defined in a new way by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Many calligraphers were influenced by Morris, for example Edward Johnson. He is undoubtedly hailed as the father of Modern Typeface or Western Calligraphy. He developed his own broad-edged hand based on his study of tenth-century manuscripts. His book about penmanship has inspired many modern Calligraphers.

Western Calligraphy has some distinctive characteristics, the first letter of each book or chapter are illuminated in medieval times. A very ornate visually styled page, filled with geometrical depictions of bold-hued animals can be the introduction page before the literature starts. Western calligraphy use defined rules and shapes. In the pages of The Saint John’s Bible, many styles and variations of today’s contemporary Western calligraphy are illustrated . Calligraphy or the art of visual handwriting is widely used today in wedding cards, greeting cards, graphic design, logo design and official documents as well. It is the beauty of Calligraphy style that makes it still so relevant. Even after so many centuries of its invention.