Monday, January 10, 2011

The Art of 18th Century Handwriting

The Peter A. Wick Collection of rare writing manuals and calligraphy books celebrates a dying form of visual art.

by Stephen J. Gertz

Title Page.

TORIO DE LA RIVA Y HERRERO, Torcuato. Arte de escribir
por reglas y con muestras, segun la doctrina de los mejores
autores antiguos y modernos...
Madrid: [La Viuda de Don Joaquin Ibarra], 1802.
Palau 334356. Brunet V, 885. Graesse VII, 174.

When New York City's P.S.2 third-grade teacher Mrs. Stallone patrolled the aisles during penmanship classwork in 1960 we all sat in abject fear of the martinet with piercing eyes and tight, red hair bun.  She was a stern mistress of cursive script and the scourge of poor hand-writers. Her mandate: to transition us from block-lettering to graceful flowing lines and turn  illegible doodles into legible writing.

"Round, curve, and glide, Mr. Gertz!" she despaired of me. And, alas, to this day, an hour after I've hand-written something, I can't decipher what I wrote.

Proper position for holding stylus.

SANTIAGO Y PALOMARES, Francisco Javier de. Arte nueva
de escribir,
inventada por el insigne maestro Pedro Diaz Morante...
Madrid: [En la Imprenta de D. Antonio de Sancha], 1776.
Palau 299945. Berlin 5248. Bonacini 1353.

Correct posture for writing.

ROSSIGNOL, Louis. L'art d'écrire.
Paris: [Chez la Veuve de Pierre Fessard, ca. 1775].
Cf. Bonacini 1567. Berlin 5136. Jessen 2430.

Prior to the dominance of keyboard-based writing, clear, legible cursive penmanship was a necessary skill to communicate. Beyond legibility, however, an artful hand demonstrated good breeding and a cultivated and civilized mind. You were how you wrote as much as what you wrote.

And so as the literacy rate increased in the late seventeenth -through the eighteenth and nineteenth  centuries so did the need for writing manuals for those with lofty goals seeking instruction.

Many of the instructionals carried titles that proclaimed penmanship as an art form - Lucas' Arte de escrevir (1608), L'art d'escrirer par Alais (1698), Araujo's Nova arte de escrever (1794), Arte nuevo de escribir por preceptos geometricos y reglas mathematicas (1719), Rossignol's L'art d'écrire (1775), Torio's Arte de escibir...(1803) are examples - and so it was. Function developed into art form, an evolution of aesthetics.

"S" with calligraphic border.

SCHWANDNER, Johann Georg von. 
Disertatio epistolaris de calligraphiae
nomenclationem, cultu, praæstantia, utilitate.
Viennæ [Ex typographeo Kaliwodiano], 1756.
Bonacini 1663. Berlin 4908. Graesse VIII, 468.

Calligraphy is the art of beautiful handwriting taken to its logical extreme, and is found in all developed cultures. After the Roman Empire fell, each of its former regions in the West evolved their own handwriting standards, generally those of an area's primary monastery, the sites to which writing had retreated along with scholarship, and was preserved, essentially, for the copying of religious manuscripts, particularly the Bible. Most scripts were of a sacred nature, pretty yet near unreadable.

Calligraphic abbreviated names.

OLOD, Luis de. Tratado del origen, y arte de escribir bien.
Gerona [En la Imprenta de Narciso Oliva..., ca. post-1768].
Bonacini 1310. Berlin 5247. Palau 201092.

The rise of the Carolingian Empire in Europe during the Dark Ages led to a new, standardized calligraphy. During the eleventh century, Carolingian script developed into Gothic ("blackletter," aka the script that makes readers want to scream for mercy), and in the fifteenth century, Gothic calligraphy was adapted by Gutenberg to become the first movable typeface.

Engraved portrait head of Frederik III
atop calligraphic body and horse.

Lex Regia, Det Er: Den Souveraine Konge-Lov...

København 1709.
Bibliotheca Danica II, 739. Graeese IV, 192.

But type cannot replicate what an artful individual's hand can create, nor was type practical for everyday, pre-keyboard writing. A graceful and elegant handwriting style still spoke to the character of the person wielding the stylus, and, until the advent of the ball-point pen, writing instruments allowed for artful variations in  the thinness and thickness of each stroke. Attractive, visually  impressive handwriting, once a routine aspect of one's education and cultivation, has ebbed to its present status as an arts & craft activity.

Facing archers.

TENSINI, Agostino. La uera regola dello scriuere vtile à giouani.
Bassano: [Remondini, ca. 1790].
Cf. Bonacini 1860. Jammes 30. Ekström, p. 26.

For several decades Peter A. Wick (1920 - 2004) amassed a collection of books focusing exclusively old and rare writing, calligraphy, and pictorial alphabet books, as well as early studies and histories of the development of writing.

Calligraphic initial.

ALBRECHT, Johann Christoph. Vollkkommene
Gründ- und Regulmässige Anweisung...

Nürnberg: {In Verlegung Joh: And: Endterischer Handlung, 1776].
Bonacini 16. Berlin 4921

The Wick Library of writing and calligraphy was acquired by old and rare art book specialist Ars Libri Ltd of Boston, which placed the majority of the Wick volumes with the Library of Congress in September of 2010. Its current Catalogue 155 features of portion of the Wick Collection not adopted for foster care by an institution.

"The most important work on calligraphy...printed in Holland."

VELDE, Jan van den. Spieghel der schrijfkonste
in den welken ghesien worden veelderhande gheschriften
met hare fondementen ende oderrichtinghe wtghegeven.

Amsterdam: [bÿ Willem Iansz, ca. 1609].
Bonacini 1931. Berlin 5010-12.

The collection is another example of a book collector staking out a subject heretofore unexamined, staying sharply focused, building and, in the end, bequeathing a singular and important research library that without the collector's interest would not have existed.

If Mrs. Stallone, long since deceased, is trapped in the hell that we third-graders cruelly consigned her to, one look at these books will cast her immediately into Heaven. They certainly make me ashamed of my chicken-scratches.

The International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting (IAMPETH), over 500-members strong, has an excellent website, and has scanned and mounted the texts to many old and rare handwriting and penmanship books from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries here.

Wikipedia feaures an excellent primer about calligraphy from around the world.

All images courtesy of Ars Libri Ltd, with our thanks.

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