6.08 Writing Manuals

Handwriting books are a specialized genre invented in the second decade of the sixteenth century and still with us today. To modern readers, they seem so perennial a form that it is hard to imagine how the schools went for fifty years and more after the invention of printing without textbooks for handwriting. Like many a manual skill, however, handwriting had a firmly entrenched tradition of teaching by personal demonstration and learning by doing that no doubt limited the perceived need for new tools. (44) Only when handwriting was proposed as a self-teachable, how-to discipline, did printed manuals appear.

A clear set of personalities was involved in the creation of the new form. We start, again, with Giovanni Antonio Tagliente. His first calligraphic manual was entitled The Present Book Teaches the True Art of Writing Many Sorts of Letters Very Well. It appeared in 1524, a decade after the first known handwriting book by Sigismondo Fanti (d. ca 1520?) and within a year of one authored by Ludovico Arrighi (d. 1527). Tagliente was about Fanti's age; both were older by a generation than Arrighi. Tagliente had been teaching the chancery hand (cancelleresca) demonstrated in his book for at least thirty years in Venice. He claims to have invented several new teaching methods, but until his book was printed, he presumably followed the age-old practice of providing his students with handwritten models for copying. (45)

What is most striking about this new form of textbook is that it was born fully developed. Fanti's, Tagliente's, and Arrighi's textbooks (and most calligraphy manuals for a generation afterward) looked alike and covered virtually the same material. The three works appeared in a small, broad quarto booklets that allowed the display of multiple lines of fluid script in letter format. All three authors declared that the basic and indispensable hand was the cancelleresca and they gave detailed instructions for achieving it stage by stage. They began with cutting the quill and moved on to rhythm, spacing, and layout. All three shared a method of analyzing scripts stroke by stroke, and they proposed a common method of learning through repetition first of the strokes, then of letters, and finally of groups of letters and common words. (46) All three knew and illustrated the geometrical construction of letter forms. Tagliente and Arrighi added handsome full-page calligraphic specimens. Although they advocated the use of the chancery hand, these writers also recognized and exemplified significant local script traditions -- the venerable merchant hands of Florence and Venice and various Italian and French documentary and book hands. They also gave models for Roman capitals and some other decorative letter forms in white on a black background. (47)

None of these forms had ever been presented in print before but suddenly here they were, described by Fanti in 1514 and displayed in splendid woodcuts made between 1522 and 1525 at the behest of Tagliente and Arrighi. Obviously a long-standing tradition of pedagogy stood behind the new textbooks. But several new cultural trends also contributed to the creation of such books: the sixteenth-century urge to record in print all manner of arts and sciences; the growth of bureaucratic scribing and the need for widely accepted models that could be diffused through print; a general increase in literacy, especially in the vernacular. It was, moreover, the "age of how-to" when many kinds of practical skills became fodder for popularizers and when print was the preferred medium for such experiments. (48)

The reason for a sudden burst of activity precisely in the fifteen twenties is less clear. Some personal considerations may have pushed the genre into existence. Tagliente knew he was nearing the end of his working life and probably wanted to leave a legacy in print on the model of his commercial mathematics books. Arrighi on the other hand was still vigorous and ambitious; he had been cultivating a reputation as a scribe and printer at Rome for a decade or so. It is also possible that a rivalry between the two was spurred on by the approaching jubilee year of 1525. At least one handwriting booklet specifically says that it was "designed and made ... in this holy year of 1525." Since these small, handsome books were collector's items from the start and represented what was newest and most fashionable in Italian design, some authors may well have had a souvenir market in mind. (49)


  • Open Bibliography
  • (44) De Blasi 1993, 385-387.
  • (45) The only known survival of a notebook with exercises of the sort was published by Cherubini 1996.
  • (46) Petrucci 1993, 622-624.
  • (47) Morison and Barker 1990, 51-66.
  • (48) Eamon 1994, 126 for this epithet and the Europe-wide phenomenon; see also Cormack and Mazzio 2005, 23-25, 79-93. Compare Quondam 1977, 84-88; Petrucci 1993, 613-614; and Bell 1999, 2-16 on Italy.
  • (49) Casamassima 1966, 25, 46, 49-50; Osley 1980, 47-48, 56-59; Gehl 2008a.
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