Calligraphy and Typography in Europe

By Druet, Roger | UNESCO Courier, July 1988 | Go to article overview

Calligraphy and Typography in Europe


Druet, Roger, UNESCO Courier


Calligraphy and typography in Europe

ALL typefaces, even the most modern digitized characters designed with the help of a computer, are based on forms of writing. This link between written and printed characters is particularly noteworthy in the history of European typographical design.

The Phoenicians and the Greeks, who invented the early alphabets from which Western scripts derived, were seafaring and colonizing peoples who needed to carry precise and legible messages over very long distances. Consequently the priorities of Western writing were speed of execution and simplicity of design.

The creation of phonetic alphabets (instead of ideographic systems) using only twenty to thirty signs for the transcription of language was a decisive step in a process of abstraction in which the Greeks played a leading role by considerably developing the Phoenician alphabet. The alphabet they created is the basis of the Latin characters used in many parts of the world today.

By the fourth century BC, the Golden Age of Hellenic thought, Ionic script had already developed the rectangular form of modern capital lettering. During the Greek and Roman classical era, writing acquired the harmonious and balanced form which is known as lapidary because of its resemblance to the monumental script used for inscriptions in stone. This script with its firmly chiselled grooves and broad strokes which stood out well in sunlight and were enhanced by shadow, answered a need for beauty and harmony but also expressed imperial power. Latin capital-letter script may be regarded as the basis of subsequent developments in Western scripts and, later, type designs.

Cyrillic script, which was adopted by Orthodox Christians for the Slavonic languages, particularly in Russia, emulated these upright, monumental styles of writing. Systematically used as a phonetic form, it became a widely employed substitute for Latin script in the Slav countries, The invention of Cyrillic script, derived from a Greek book hand, is attributed to the ninth-century Greek missionaries Cyril and Methodius, and was standardized by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII.

After the heavy quadrata, or square capitals, the basis of all Latin scripts, and the Roman rustic capitals, an early form of cursive script, writing evolved towards the rounded uncial script. In the ninth century, Charlemagne imposed on the Holy Roman Empire the form of small lettering now known as Carolingian miniscule, which included most of the features of the lower case Latin alphabet. The official adoption of this cursive script did not bring about the disappearance of capital letters, but it was the dominant hand of Western Europe throughout the ninth century and served as a model for later innovators until the dawn of European printing in the fifteenth century.

With the foundation of universities in Europe in the twelfth century, parchment became scarce. A new script, known as black-letter or Gothic, as angular and narrow as the Gothic pointed arch, answered the needs of the moment in that it took up a minimum of space. The expression of thought seemed to be channelled through a kind of grid. This design gave rise to two basic scripts: the rigid, vertical Textura, used primarily for liturgical texts; and a more flexible script, Rotunda.

In the fifteenth century, the angular Gothic script, having been appropriated by the lettered classes in France, became known as batarde or Bastarda. The invention and use of spectacles also made it possible for writing to become smaller. It was not until the end of the sixteenth century that the Germans introduced capital letters into the Gothic alphabet for woodblock printing. Hitherto, the place of the "dropped initials"--initial letters at the beginning of a page or chapter, which covered two or three lines of text--had been left blank, to be filled in by the illuminators.

For engraving, the Germans had adopted a spiky kind of script, whose rather fussy, fractured style suggested its name, Fraktur.

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