The first time I saw Donald Anderson’s book, Calligraphy: The Art of Written Forms, originally published in 1969, I knew I wanted it for my permanent library. This book is a veritable encyclopedia of calligraphy, historical, contemporary and international. It is full of pictures of superb historical hands _ an average of 4 illustrations in every two-page spread _ which are extensively explained in the lively text. He covers everything, from the historic migrations of alphabets to the pen angle of particular manuscripts. His text is exhaustively but entertainingly written, and I found myself reading the book straight through, about 350 pages, as if it was a very good novel about one of my favorite subjects. Then I copied 40 pages of the illustrations for reference and reluctantly returned the book to its owner, knowing that it was out of print. Thus you can imagine my happiness when it was republished by Dover this year. Needless to say, it is now in my library.
Anderson is the best kind of historian, vividly drawing the connections and parallels in the development of writing. Nothing stands alone but is related to past and future, as well as parallel, events. He begins the book, naturally enough, with pre-writing, marks and cuneiform writing, hieroglyphics and even contemporary Native American pictographs. He then begins to trace the ancestry of our western alphabet, from the ancient Phoenicians and Hebrews to Greece, the birthplace of our modern alphabet (from the Greeks’ first two letters, alpha and beta). His studies of inscriptional lettering (chiseled in stone, which the Romans later made so famous) include a manner of writing known as boustrophedon, literally “as the ox turns in plowing.” This means that the writing alternates direction at every line so that you read from left to right, then right to left, then left to right. In each left-facing line the letters would also flip over, so that the prongs of the E would face left, etc. Imagine if this had caught on! Around 500 B.C., though, things settled down a bit and the direction of writing was always from left to right. The Greeks also had a mode of writing known as stocheidon, in which letters were arranged on lines both horizontally and vertically, as if on a grid, a rather serene presentation. Some chiseled letters at this time began to show the influence of pen-made strokes, with endings slightly wedged, pre-serif. Of one illustration Anderson remarks that “there seems to be little interest in this wedge-stroke style among modern designers, a” challenge I think some designer at Adobe must have taken up, judging from the similarity to the ubiquitous font Lithos, which may be seen everywhere in current advertising.
Before being established in Rome as the Latin inscriptional letters which we still recognize today, a version of the ancient Greek alphabet took an interesting migration to the Etruscans, the mysterious pre-Latin inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, around 675 B.C. The Etruscan alphabet, which borrowed some Greek signs, is indecipherable to us today, but apparently traveled north when the Romans drove out the Etruscans, and later resurfaced in the runic writing of northern Europe. Runes have survived to the present day, and are often ascribed some occult character.
Runic writing was dislodged in Europe by the more curvaceous Latin alphabet, which followed its Roman conquerors to the farthest reaches of the empire. Even emperors had a hand in the formation of the letters at this early stage, as shown by the 312 B.C. decree of Appius Claudius Censor ordering a small upright stroke to be attached to the bottom end of C to differentiate the g sound from hard c. Professor Anderson delves into the calligraphic influence on stonecutters’ inscriptional letters, about which he consulted with Father Edward Catich, whose The Origin of the Serif was published about the same time. Also included are interesting commentaries on rustic Romans (the brush-drawn letters on the walls of Pompeii) and on Roman cursive, the ancestor of our modern monoline minuscule.
Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin letters lived on as the alphabet of the Christian religion, bringing us to the section, “The Grand Age of Manuscripts.” Another form of Roman writing, the uncial, literally “inch-high,” traveled with missionaries to the furthest reaches of the British Isles, where it combined with the fanciful forms of the ancient Celtic peoples, and emerged as some of the most unique letters in western history, the Irish uncials of the Book of Kells. The need to preserve Christian teachings produced a wealth of writing, ranging from the early Anglo-Saxon books to the Bibles and classical texts copied by the Carolingian scribes. This revolution in learning was begun by Charlemagne, and resulted in a clear, graceful alphabet, highly legible and with much space between lines. The development of vellum and quill (or pen, from the Latin word for feather, penna) during the Middle Ages led to the emergence of the book. The rise of the universities and the increase in the number of books slowly led to the transformation of Carolingian_a highly subsidized hand, into the more angular and compressed style known as blackletter, which could fit more words on a page. Ascenders and descenders were shortened to allow less space between lines. Blackletter was used primarily in northern Europe, where it finally became illegible when all the letters began to look alike.
In Italy, the bookhand of the Middle Ages was rotunda, which retained round elements. Eventually the scribes of the Renaissance, believing they were looking at the manuscripts of the ancients but instead seeing those pages copied by Carolingian scribes in the ninth century, developed the style they called littera antica and which we call humanist bookhand. Scribes in Italy were surrounded by the crumbling Roman inscriptions, and from these they revived the classical Roman majuscule. Here Anderson includes six pages of constructed capitals as drawn by Renaissance scribes newly acquainted with geometric principles, something I was unable to find in any of my other histories of calligraphy. A thorough study of the writing masters of the Renaissance follows, highlighting the origin of our modern letters, roman and italic, as preserved for all time by the invention of the printing press. Only one other major calligraphic style evolved after the emergence of typography, and that was the style known today as copperplate. This cursive style grew out of italic and was done with a flexible pointed pen, mimicking the engraver’s art of inscribing with a burrin on metal surfaces. All letters are joined for speed of writing. This is the modern ancestor of our cursive handwriting.
The section on typography which follows is most educational for Anderson’s presentation of the influence of calligraphic hands on type, and stories of the early printers, such as Caslon and Garamond, who tended to unify dialects into a single language. In England, where the Anglo-Saxons had carried over the runic letter thorn for the “th” sound, the letter was written in medieval times like a cross between “p” and “y.” It began to be used in print as simply “y”; thus the word “the” appeared in print as “ye”, a last echo of runic signs.
Writing became a peripheral art as the printed word took over, and it wasn’t until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the work of Edward Johnston and William Morris revived calligraphic hands of the past. The section on the twentieth century is quite thorough and includes not only the early calligraphers of this century but discussions of modern graphic design and sign writing.
Rather than end here, as most histories of calligraphy tend to do, Anderson takes us on a fascinating tour of other writing systems of the world, some descended from Aramaic, a Semitic language spoken by Jesus which then traveled to the east. Out of this evolved Arabic calligraphy, a marvelously free and artistic hand, and Hebrew. Its influence was also seen in the ancient writing of India, Sanskrit. Today India has fourteen principal languages, and as many scripts! The section on Chinese writing, where calligraphy is unquestionably a fine art, is most enlightening for a westerner. I came away with a feeling of awe for a language and writing system that has existed for four thousand years.
Inserted between the history of the western alphabet and the worldwide section, Anderson has put a few chapters devoted to the actual practice of calligraphy and typography. Though brief, he covers the basic points of technique and includes examples of his student’s interpretations of the historic hands just discussed. Finally, Anderson’s bibliography is a treatise in itself and should prove fruitful for those who want more information. It is fortunately arranged to correspond to the text, thus making research on particular subjects much easier.
Throughout the book, Anderson jumps across centuries and geography whenever necessary, showing for example Edward Johnston’s version of Greek calligraphy, or suggesting that the free form of Arabic calligraphy might have been inspirational to Art Noveau designers testing the outer limits of plastic form. As a reference book for the study of historical hands, Calligraphy, the Art of Written Forms is unsurpassed. I was not surprised to learn that it was the required text in Sheila Waters’ class before going out of print, and imagine that it will be again.
First published in 1997, in the newsletter of John Neal, Bookseller
Book is currently out of print but can be found through the used-book market