Humanistic Script

Why did we need an Humanistic Script anyway?

How did we get to a “Humanistic Script”? Well, imagine yourself in a rather dark, candle-lit room in the late 1300s. You have just received a long sought-after manuscript and you are set to read it, open it and – BLAM! – you get a text like this:

Gothic Script example
Source: Unknown. This is a modern rendition. More info here.

The text reads:

mimi numinum niuium minimi munium nimium uini muniminum imminui uiui minimum uolunt[1]

You’d throw your manuscript out of your house and start crying.

That’s exactly how Petrarch and Coluccio Salutati must have felt: In 1366 the sixty-two years old Petrarch, Italian scholar, poet and early Humanist, sent mail to Boccaccio, other Italian scholar, informing him that his ‘Epistles’ were being copied, not in the fashion contemporary to him; in which scribes could be confused with painters, and their writing would tire the eyes of the reader; but in ‘littera […] castigata et clara’: neat and clear letters [2]. During the fourteenth century Coluccio Salutati, early humanist himself, asked for a copy of Abelard, a medieval French scholastic philosopher of the twelfth century, to be written in the original script that he called ‘antica littera’, indicating with those words the Carolingian script. He favored that script to the Gothic one because it was better for his aging eyes.

Initial O: The Pietà
Master of the Lee Hours
Flemish, probably Ghent, about 1450 – 1455
Tempera colors, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment
7 5/8 x 5 1/2 in.
MS. 2, FOL. 244

These two episodes are just little examples of the difficulties given by the Gothic script’s reduced readability. These issues, along with the emerging interest by humanists in classical texts and writings, plus the direct influence of eminent Italian scholars in the Italian society, would eventually lead to the development of the Humanistic script[3]; either by Poggio Bracciolini[4], who probably originated the script in its book-hand form; or by Niccolò Niccoli, who inspired the faster-to-write cursive variation of the script[5].

What experts in Humanistic script generally acknowledge is that one person in particular was responsible for at least starting the chains of events that led to the creation of all the Humanistic scripts variations as we know them today: Coluccio Salutati.

Coluccio Salutati

Coluccio Salutati, in his natural environment, and displeased with his gothic script manuscript. From a not-better identified manuscript in the Biblioteca Laurenziana, Florence.
Coluccio Salutati, in his natural environment, and displeased with his gothic script manuscript. From a not-better identified manuscript in the Biblioteca Laurenziana, Florence.

Coluccio Salutati, born in 1331 in a small town near Pistoia, Tuscany, and was one of the most influential men in Florence during the fourteenth century. In his life Salutati collected over 800 manuscripts, and in many of his documents that have survived until our times we can still find his handwriting in the notes surrounding the main text, written in gothic script. Also, and most interestingly, Salutati had the good practice of writing his name at the end of the writing of any manuscript he owned, trying to adapt the writing style to to the script he found in the text[6].

This is significant because, since Coluccio owned many manuscripts that were written in Carolingian script, and added his name at the end of those texts too, he had the possibility to practice writing in the ‘antica littera’. In order to adapt his style to the Carolingian script his manuscripts were written in, he started experimenting by mixing typical gothic ligatures and forms with typical humanistic straight “s” and “d” with a reduced use of the abbreviations[7]. Thanks to Salutati and his script-mixing experiments we had the first examples of the Italian semi-gothic script, an early, crucial step towards the development of our Humanistic script. Coluccio’s prominence is not only limited to his experimentations only! He also came in contact with two figures credited for the actual development of the Humanistic script: Niccolò Niccoli and Poggio Bracciolini. It was possibly Coluccio that directly inspired them.

Niccolò Niccoli

Niccolò Niccoli was born in 1363. Son of a merchant, he invested his inheritance in manuscripts and in the study of Latin (RIGHTFULLY SO!), of which he became a true connoisseur. He entered the court of Cosimo de’ Medici and was ordered by him to travel through Europe and search for ancient manuscripts of authors the influential ruler of Florence admired[8].

As mentioned in a letter by Vespasiano, a Florentine bookseller, another central figure for the spread of the Humanistic script that will be discussed later in this post, Niccoli could write both cursive and book-hand in a beautiful and quick manner[9]. Similarly to Salutati, Niccolò had the habit of copying manuscripts attempting to reproduce the exact style they were originally written in and, once he established himself as a professional scribe, also ordered other copyists that worked along with him to do the same[10].

Niccoli had the desire to break traditional late medieval book-hands, and being him an expert in Latin, his main interest was in books written in that language. According to him, the ‘littera antica’ was not intended for books written in vernacular, consequently, the Italian gothic rotunda would have been a type of script that would fit to Dante’s Divina Commedia, but when ancient Latin texts were to be copied, a script as similar as possible to the Carolingian script was exclusively to be used[11].

The main issue to understand the role of Niccoli’s role in the development of the Humanistic script is the fact that he hardly ever signed his manuscript works[12]. We know of his central role thanks to the letters that were sent to him by three main figures in the development of this script: Salutati, who made Niccolò one of his protégées; Vespasiano, the Florentine bookseller who described Niccoli’s writing style as “bellissimo”; and Poggio Bracciolini, the other notary indicated as the possible true inventor of the Humanistic script[13].

Poggio Bracciolini

A portrait of Poggio Bracciolini in Urb. Lat. 224.
A portrait of Poggio Bracciolini in Urb. Lat. 224.

Poggio Bracciolini was born in 1380 and studied in Arezzo and Bologna where he learned civil law. Being the course too expensive, he abandoned the city in order to follow notarial studies in Florence in year 1400. A course that would have taken him two years rather than the eight needed to complete the studies in civil law. To pay for his books and studies, he would often copy manuscripts in ‘littera antica’, showing a talent as a scribe[14]. Soon after becoming a notary, in 1403, he went to Rome where he eventually became papal secretary. This event gave him the possibility to travel through various European capitals and, inevitably, their libraries, where he could study both the majuscules and the minuscule that, together, would form the Humanistic script.

These episodes in Bracciolini’s life also explain how Poggio contracted the economical resources to train directly other scribes with his own style and contribute to the spread of the Humanistic script in Italy[15]; the fact that Bracciolini had the possibility to train scribes is fundamental to understand how a villager managed to become one of the most influential humanists of his period and gained access to samples of the Carolingian script that eventually made him the possible originator of the Humanistic bookhand.

After briefly observing the lives of the two most influential scribes of Humanistic script, it is a fascinating to observe that this script did not originate entirely in monasteries or in the scholarly environments, but mainly in the hands of notaries. As we have read, Bracciolini and Niccoli had worked as notaries for the Roman Catholic Church.

It is also interesting to observe that the Roman Church itself was very fast in adopting this new form of writing, although, for example, it took centuries before the Vatican abandoned the use of the scroll for official acts in favor of codices. In fact, although the origin of this script can be traced back to Florence, it might have never been more than a Florentine local fashion if Pope Eugenius IV (Pope from 1431 to 1447) would not have reserved for the engrossing of minor documents a script similar to the Humanistic one, which later became famous as “cancelleresca corsiva” or chancellery cursive: the Humanistic hand in its speedy form[16].

But it’s not over! Another personality who is must be mentioned to argue the importance of society in the development and spread of the Humanistic script is Vespasiano da Bisticci.

Vespasiano da Bisticci

Vespasiano da Bisticci was a “cartolaio”, a stationer, which used to sell parchment, paper, ink and all sorts of writing material, along with complete books[17]. He quickly became one of the most important booksellers of the Renaissance period and was ready to accommodate orders from any part of Europe.

Cosimo de’ Medici ordered from him copies of 200 manuscripts in order to furnish the Badia of Fiesole and gave the Florentine cartolaio two years to carry out the assigned job. Vespasiano hired then 45 scribes to finish the huge amount of assigned work in time. Also, in 1470 Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, asked for his services in order to create a very expensive library, which books can be still seen at the Vatican[18].These massive quantities of manuscripts ordered by the two Italian rulers were all written in Humanistic script, either in bookhand or in cursive and can be observed today in the Vatican Library.

As mentioned before, the Roman Church was certainly one major contributor to the spread of the script, especially in Italy; but, as we can see, Vespasiano can be seen as the individual who helped the Humanistic script to travel beyond the Alps and in the rest of the western world.

The Origin and Development of the Humanistic Script

Now that we have met the key individuals that contributed to the development of the Humanistic script, it is time to give the development of the script itself.

The Reaction Against the Gothic Script

Paleography experts Ullman, Davies, and Morison see in the Humanistic script a reaction to the ‘over-complicated and barbaric’ Gothic script. By comparing these two types of handwriting the reasons for this appear to be clear: Overelaboration of letterforms, small size of the script, and abundant use of non-standardized abbreviations; all these elements rendered Gothic script in all its forms (quadrata, fracta, praecissa, and rotunda) undesirable to scholars in the Italian peninsula[19].

The rejection of the Gothic Script led to the research of a more “user-friendly” script. Italian Semi-Gothic started to develop[20]. This typology of script was already influenced by the ‘littera antica’, but it is in the later fully developed Humanistic Bookhand that its influence is most evident.

The Different Fate between Humanistic Script and Beneventan Script

Leiden UBL VLQ 1
UBL VLQ 1 – A beautiful example of Beneventan script transitioning into Carolingian.

In the thirteenth century Florence was the center of the humanistic world and became the birthplace of the humanistic script[21], which developed very quickly and soon spread through Italy and beyond the Alps. But why this script did not face the same destiny of the Beneventan Script? Beneventan, so called because of its center of production was Benevento in Southern Italy, is a script that originated in the eighth century and was used until the thirteenth century, roughly the same period as the Carolingian Minuscule. Although it was used for six centuries, it never developed beyond southern Italy and zones influenced by beneventan faith in Dalmatia[22].

Humanistic script, on the other hand, developed at the end of the fourteenth century and by the first decades of the next century it was already found in Ferrara, Bologna and Venice[23]. By 1455 the script would be in Subiaco, near Rome, ready to influence the first types used in the printing machines in Italy. How? Simple! Many of the early humanists would come to Florence, discussing humanistic topic and eventually buy locally copied manuscripts in Humanistic Script, carrying home the script to the different parts of Italy[24].

Moreover, in the same period, the kings of Aragon decided to create a new library in Naples and, intriguingly, rather than relying on the Beneventan script, typical of the area[25] he chose for the Humanistic script. Scribes from Florence traveled to southern Italy to write the manuscripts necessary to fill the newborn library[26].

Soon the script would be dominant in many other libraries ,such as the ones in Urbino, Cesena; but also in Hungary, where King Matthias Corvinus would create one of Europe’s greatest collections of secular books[27].

Humanistic script for Humanistic Books

But in which typology of manuscripts was the Humanistic script mainly used? We actually do not know. A clear and complete analysis of the typology in which this script was mainly adopted appears not to be available, yet. Martin Davies, an expert in Humanistic script, simply states that “Humanistic script was used for Humanistic texts[28]” and this appears to be true: due the humanists’ interest in Classics, many transcriptions of Latin and Greek were written mainly in Humanistic bookhand and have survived until our times.

Texts in Italian vernacular written in Humanistic script and dated before 1450 are difficult to find, and even after that date the script’s presence in vernacular texts is not so common[29]. Manuscripts regarding professional matters that were useful to lawyers, philosophers and physicians continued to be written in Gothic script[30].

There are also examples of Humanistic script used in various Books of the Hours, while the only example of Bible written in Humanistic script that I was able to find is the “Ubinate Bible”. This is a massive vulgate bible ordered by no other than our friend Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, from Vespasiano da Bisticci, the Florentine bookseller. The Urbinate Bible f 2r
The Urbinate Bible, Urb. Lat. 1, f2r

The Influence of the Carolingian Script

We have been referring to a ‘littera antica‘, a synonym of Carolingian Script and we mentioned that it directly influenced the Humanistic script. But how can this influence be proven? To answer this question it is necessary to get close to the ancient texts and compare letters and details from the two scripts. Awesome. Let’s do that!

Let’s observe this image from the Stuttgart Psalter, an illuminated Carolingian manuscript written in Saint Germain des Prés in circa 830.

The Stuttgart Psalter
The Stuttgart Psalter, Saint Germain (France), 820-830, Württemburgische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart (Germany)

What we can notice here are a series of important details. The most evident is the uppercase “Q” in “quia” in the very last line at the end of the visible page. As we can notice there is a very long “tail” which continues under the following “u”. Let’s now observe Poggio Bracciolini’s script in the following image:

Bracciolini’s book-hand, from Ullman, B. L. (1960). The Origin and Development of Humanistic Script. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura. Appendix.
Bracciolini’s book-hand, from Ullman, B. L. (1960). The Origin and Development of Humanistic Script. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura. Appendix.

The capital “Q” in line eight is written in the same fashion. In line two of our Carolingian sample, the second word is “psallere”. In Poggio’s writing, the letter “s” is written almost the same exact way. Observe the word “sotto” in line one: even the small detail of the “ear”, that small stroke extending from the upper-left side of the Carolingian “s” is copied. In line three of the Carolingian sample presented the ampersand “&” looks extremely similar to Bracciolini’s in line five.

The Majuscule in the Humanistic Script

Vat. lat. 9152 f28v-29r, Poggio Bracciolini's "Sylloge". Not digitized yet.
Vat. lat. 9152 f28v-29r, Poggio Bracciolini’s “Sylloge”. Not digitized yet.

This is probably a good time to discuss another important detail of the Humanistic script: the majuscules. It must be noted that Carolingian manuscripts inspired mainly the Humanistic minuscule. What about majuscules? Well, those came from somewhere completely different: inscriptions! But why would letters that were not found on ancient manuscripts inspire the Humanist scribes? As mentioned before, humanist scribes thought that the Carolingian script was the original script used by ancient Roman authors.

When humanist scribes traveled to Rome (as Bracciolini and Niccoli did because of their professions as notaries for the Church) they had samples of true ancient majuscules sculpted in marble! They decided to copy these rather than the ones found on manuscripts[31].

“That’s a bold statement, Cotton” Need proof? Our friend Poggio Bracciolini collected the inscriptions he found in Rome and eventually published a whole book about them called “Sylloge”[32]. Since these inscriptions are still visible today we have a precise idea of which specific style was most influential in the Humanistic script’s majuscule: Imperial and formal inscriptions[33].

This is why is the “Q” that has been used in our Carolingian example above is so similar to the same letter written in ancient Rome. It could be said that as Poggio developed the Humanistic minuscule basing it on the Carolingian’s, Carolingian scribes developed their majuscules on the ancient Romans’[34]. Bracciolini probably thought of this and went directly to the source to develop his own capital letters[35].

The Influence of the Humanistic Script on Modern Typography

As imaginable, all the events regarding the humanistic script that took place in Italy during the early Renaissance became very deeply influential when the first printing machines came to the abbey of Subiaco in Italy during the second half of the fifteenth century.

Clearly, the Humanistic script influenced the produced fonts (Italic and Roman), mainly because, as we have seen, it was intensely used in the near Rome[36]. It must not surprise us then that by the end of the fifteenth century, in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili printed by Aldo Manuzio, we find a type so similar to the written Humanistic script.

Need proof? OK! Let’s use a method similar to the one used to compare the Gothic script to the Humanistic. We will use samples of printed products of the period, next to a sample in Humanistic hand: In Bracciolini’s example above we have text written by him  in 1425. Let’s pay attention to the following letters: “s” in “obious”, line one; “g” in “ligurem”, line one; “a” in “ornatissimum”, line two; “&” in line five; “Q” in line eight.

Now let’s observe a print of the mentioned Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Strife of Love in a Dream) by Francesco Colonna, which was the greatest achievement by the greatest printer of the Renaissance, Aldus Manutius.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Strife of Love in a Dream), Francesco Colonna, printed by Aldus Manutius, Venice, 1499.
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Strife of Love in a Dream), Francesco Colonna, printed by Aldus Manutius, Venice, 1499.

It was printed in Venice in 1499, seventy-four years later than Bracciolini’s sample. The similarities in Manutius’ print start since word one in line one: the “S” in “Sotto” is very similar to Poggio’s. Let’s now observe the “g” in “figura”, line seven. The structure is very similar between the two samples: two different bodies; one above the baseline and one under it, united by a “link”.

The letter “a” is, instead, particularly interesting for the following reason: While Poggio in its bookhand kept the traditional form of the letter [37] in his cursive, Niccoli developed the “a” without the “final”. Compare Niccoli’s and another sample from Manutius, this time printed in italic:

Lucius Caecilus Firmianu Lactantius, De Falsa Sapentia, printed by Aldus Manutius, Venice, 1500 ca.
Lucius Caecilus Firmianu Lactantius, De Falsa Sapentia, printed by Aldus Manutius, Venice, 1500 ca.

The “&”, indicated the Latin word “et” that meant “and” and kept its meaning until our days. Observe the form in line five in Bracciolini’s sample. In Niccoli’s you find the ampersand in line three, in Manutius’s sample: line one. In the Carolingian script sample above, in line three. All of them are very similar among each other.

Finally, let’s observe the letter “Q”. The most distinctive detail in both Niccoli and Bracciolini’s uppercase letter is the very long and curved end of the letter under the baseline that tends to go under the following letter. Surprisingly, Manutius font keeps the same letter structure in line three: the curved end in the “Q” in “Quelli” continues under the letter “u” although founding and setting such a complex letter in an antiquate press must have been tricky, but that’s Style.

As an extra proof of the Humanistic script on modern typography: this blog is published using the “Lora” font, derived from the Humanistic script. The famous “Palatino” type, designed by Herman Zapf in 1948, named after the Italian calligrapher Giambattista Palatino, was inspired by the humanistic bookhand and adapted to contemporary readability needs[38].

When printing came to Italy it led to the end of copying in Humanistic script. Some of the copyist, to avoid going completely out of business such as Sinibaldi, an Italian scribe who declared that printing had reduced his workload so much he was barely capable of buying clothes, decided to become proofreaders for the printers.

But wait, there’s more!

The success of the Humanistic script in the fourteenth and fifteenth century was due to multiple factors, all closely linked together, that subsequently led to the development of the script.

The interest of early humanists in Latin and Greek classics was one of the main causes of the development of the Humanistic script. Without this interest by Petrarch, Boccaccio and Salutati there would not have been an influence that guided the scribes Poggio Bracciolini and Niccolò Niccoli to the development and promotion of this clear and very readable script. We have also seen how a book dealer and broker as Vespasiano was responsible for the spread of the script in Italy and, most importantly, beyond the Alps, along with the help the Roman Church, which played a central role in affirming the script’s usefulness, not only in manuscript books, but also in an official setting.

By joining these elements together, the deep relation between the Italian society of early Renaissance and the origin of the Humanistic script appears evident. The Humanistic script is one of the most important scripts in manuscript’s history, yet it appears not to have been thoroughly researched still.

There are still doubts on “who” was the true “inventor” of the script. As it has been argued, Ullman, one of the most influential authors and researchers on Humanistic script, affirms that Niccolò Niccoli was the developer only of the Humanistic cursive whether Poggio Bracciolini has to be intended as the inventor of the Humanistic bookhand. Ullman then criticizes Morris that instead believed that Niccoli was the inventor of both of the forms of Humanistic script. None of these mentioned authors managed, however, to deliver definitive proofs of their beliefs.
Their books were written in the 1960’s and, even though there are many unclear details about the script that should be researched, more recent researches and articles appear to be difficult to fin. Here are several questions I was unable to find answers to:

  • Vespasiano’s role in the spread of Humanistic script in the western world should be more thoroughly researched: It is known that he sold manuscripts written in Humanistic script to his customers around Europe and we know that he hired many scribes to carry out the orders he received. What we do not know if it was his direct order to the scribes he hired to write in Humanistic script or if it was the scribes’ own choice; or if Vespasiano’s clients specifically asked for their books to be written in such fashion.
  • A complete analysis of in which typology of books the discussed script was mainly used is also still nonexistent. This is probably due to the fact that a catalog that indicates all the manuscripts written in Humanistic hand is also nonexistent. Such catalog could very useful and could speed up research.
  • Furthermore, as far as I know, few in depth studies have been done on the mentioned library ordered from Duke of Urbino to Vespasiano and now observable at the Vatican Archive in Rome. The mentioned “Urbinate Bible”, one of the few Bibles written in Humanistic script, has little published research done upon it. If you have any tips on books, articles, or dissertations, let me know!

The Humanistic script appears therefore to be hiding still many secrets that once unfolded might cast a light not only on a further understanding of the Humanistic script itself, but also on the whole humanist movement in Renaissance.

(This is an edited version of an old essay I wrote available on Academia.)

References & Footnotes[+]

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