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Calligraphy History
Source: Microsoft Encarta

Calligraphy, the art of fine writing or script. The term calligraphy is derived from the Greek kalligraphia, meaning “beautiful writing,” and is applied to individual letters as well as to entire documents; it also refers to an aesthetic branch of paleography. In Islamic countries and in India, China, and Japan, calligraphy is done with a brush and has been a highly respected art form for many centuries. In the West, calligraphy eventually evolved from the earliest cave paintings, such as those (35,000-20,000 bc) at Lascaux, France, into the abstractions that became the familiar letterforms of the alphabet.

About 3500 bc the ancient Egyptians created a form of picture writing called hieroglyphs—sacred inscriptions—usually incised on monuments or inside tombs. Hieroglyphs were also written on papyrus, an early form of paper made from a rushlike plant growing along the Nile; the earliest examples date from the 5th Dynasty (2465-2323 bc). The scribes used either a brush or a flat-edged pen cut from a river reed to write on papyrus scrolls. In Sumeria, about the same period, people used a stylus of hard wood or bone to press wedged shapes—cuneiform—into clay tablets, which were then baked in the sun. The writing, a complex system of syllables and words, was adopted by their Babylonian conquerors and by neighboring Semitic peoples. The Phoenicians, traders and seafarers of the eastern Mediterranean, were the first to invent, sometime before 1000 bc, a system with 24 letters, written from right to left. The word alphabet is derived from the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet, aleph and bet. About 850 bc the Greeks took over alphabetic writing from the Phoenicians. The first line was written from right to left, followed by a line written from left to right, as a farmer would plough a field. This method is called boustrophedon. Finally they settled on left to right, as Westerners still write today. Greek letters were carved into stone, cast in metal, painted on pottery, and written on papyrus. The Romans, before the end of the 2nd century bc, had adapted the Greek alphabet to the Latin language, changing the shapes to the capital letters used today. The proportions of Roman letters on monumental inscriptions, such as those on Trajan's Column (106-113) in Rome, have never been surpassed. They were painted on stone with a brush and then carved with chisel and mallet. In day-to-day use, writing was pressed with a stylus on wax tablets, which could be erased and reused. For correspondence, a speedier script called cursive was developed. For books or scrolls, a more lasting material was used—either parchment, made from animal skin, or vellum, a high-quality parchment. The script called uncial, a rounded capital letter, was the book hand used between the 4th and 9th centuries.


During the decline of the Roman Empire and the ensuing ages of turmoil, the Christian church was the principal guardian of Western culture. Monasteries became centers of learning, establishing libraries and copying chambers. Monks copied mostly religious books, as well as some ancient texts; many produced decorated books called illuminated manuscripts. Scribes gradually developed the first minuscules—small letters of the alphabet—most notably in England and Ireland. Irish half-uncials were especially beautiful, as evident in the famous Book of Kells (800?, Trinity College, Dublin). Many obscure styles of writing had developed by the 8th century. After Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman emperor in 800, he asked the English scholar and ecclesiastic Alcuin of York to reform handwriting and to have it taught to all government officials and to everyone in the monastery schools. The new writing was slightly sloped, extremely rhythmic, and clear; by joining letters (eliding) now and then, it could be written at greater speed. The script, which became known as Carolingian, is the source of today's printed minuscule. By the 12th century the merchant class had become powerful. Professional scribes set up their own workshops, artisans worked in groups or guilds, universities were founded, and trade increased with Islamic countries. Through the Arabs, the knowledge of papermaking came from China to Europe, where paper replaced expensive vellum and parchment. Between the 12th and 13th centuries Carolingian letters were turned into compressed and broken forms. Today they are called black letter. Eventually this writing became a model for early printing. Sometime between 1450 and 1456 Johannes Gutenberg printed the Bible on his press in Mainz, Germany, with movable letters cast from lead; soon printing spread all over the world. The characters used by printers copied the scribal styles of the period; for a century, nevertheless, initial letters of major sections were still hand drawn. A more spiky, cursive script was developed (called bâtarde, French for “bastard letter”), which combined book hand, secretary hand, and Gothic script. In Italy and Spain a rounder form called rotunda was preferred to the compressed Gothics; the fraktur type of black letter, half round, half broken, was popular in Germany during the 16th and 17th centuries and continued in use there until it was officially abolished during World War II (1939-1945). Today it has only decorative and ornamental uses.


About 1400 classical scholarship was revived, and the Renaissance age began, first manifesting itself in Italy. With Carolingian and later book hands as a model, Italian scribes developed an elegant, slightly sloped cursive style now called italic. In 1522 Ludovici degli Arrighi, secretary at the papal offices in Rome, published the first writing manual, a teaching guide entitled La operina. Other 16th-century writing masters followed with their copybooks, among them Giovanni Antonio Tagliente, Giovanni Battista Palatino, and Gianfrancesco Cresci, in Italy; Juan de Yciar in Spain; and Geofroy Tory in France. The italic style soon spread throughout Europe.


In Renaissance books calligraphy was printed from woodblocks, but in the 17th century wood was replaced by copperplates. These engravings resulted in much finer lines and increasingly elaborate writing books. One of the finest calligraphic artists was Jan van de Velde of Holland. Maria Strick of Rotterdam and Ester Inglis of Scotland were 17th-century professional calligraphers. In England, Edward Cocker, Charles Snell, and John Clark and other calligraphers in France and Spain spread the new copperplate styles. In the 18th century, The Universal Penman (1733-1741), by the English calligrapher George Bickham, appealed to businessmen, administrators, and schoolmasters. Calligraphic scripts continued to serve as models for type designs. For the businessman and student it was not easy to attain the perfection of the engraved scripts with the use of quill pens. To speed up writing, the pen was held at a far steeper angle, hairlines were thin, and curves and downstrokes swelled with pressure from the hand. As commerce took over, penmanship declined.


Two inventions of the 19th century—the steel pen (imitating the shape of the quill) and the fountain pen—became part of daily life, but handwriting, overembellished, often vulgar, could hardly be considered calligraphy any longer. In mid-19th-century England, the poet and artist William Morris, engaged in a revival of arts and crafts, rediscovered the use of the flat-edged pen. In London, the educator Edward Johnston carried this revival of interest in calligraphy further through research at the British Museum, through his calligraphy classes, and with his book Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering (1906), reprinted to this day. In 1922 his students in London founded the Society of Scribes and Illuminators. In the United States, the writing systems of various specialists such as Platt Rogers Spencer and proponents of the “push-pull” Palmer Method of penmanship carried on the copperplate tradition.


In the 20th century the typewriter did not replace handwriting altogether. In England Alfred Fairbank revived italic with his teaching sets of the 1920s. Tom Gourdie brought italic to schools in Great Britain, Scandinavia, and Germany. Rudolf von Larisch in Austria and Rudolf Koch in Germany taught calligraphy and design. Those who promoted calligraphy and handwriting in the United States include William Dwiggins, Oscar Ogg, Ray DaBolla, Paul Standard, Arnold Bank, and George Salter. When Donald Jackson, a prominent English calligrapher, first visited the United States in 1974, he inspired a fresh interest in calligraphy and illumination, through television interviews, lectures, and workshops, suggesting that Americans might form their own societies for teaching and exhibitions. More than 30 calligraphic societies currently flourish in the United States and Europe.

Contributed By:
Lili C. Wronker

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.