Our Roman alphabet today descends from a set of symbols used by the Phoenicians (left), a pre-Christian trading nation on the Mediterranean, who needed a way of recording commercial transactions. The characters used were a hybrid between pictograms (shapes representing certain, usually physical, concepts) and characters representing speech (actually, sounds). Since the Phoenicians were sailors it is natural that other nations were exposed to this alphabet and ultimately it became the parent of the Hebrew, Arabic, Indian, Burmese, Siamese, Tibetan, Coptic and Cyrillic syllabaries and alphabets.
About 3000 years ago Greeks adopted some and adapted other characters, added a few of their own, making the letters represent the sounds of spoken Greek (right.) Their higher sense of order made the letters more evenly proportioned and better balanced. This formalization, among other things, led to a rapid spread of knowledge and culture.
Although character shape is clearly a function of the tool employed, early letterforms were essentially the same whether incised on wax tablets or written on papyrus, with the strokes mainly angular, similar to the gabled pediments of Hellenic architecture. Later, distinction was made between formal and informal writing. From the 3rd century BC, round strokes were being added to formal Greek script as a means of speeding output.
The Etruscans (left), and later, Romans, adapted the Greek alphabet in Italy. Characters were modified or added to suit the needs of the Latins, and, given the expansionist policies of the Romans, eventually their (and our) alphabet spread throughout Europe and beyond. They added more curved strokes to their letters -- as they added curves to their architecture in the form of the arch -- and the inscriptional lettering of the 1st century AD is now considered to be the epitome of grace and proportion (below).
These letters were first painted on stone and marble as a guide, with the letters chiseled out for permanence. Lesser, ephemeral, public notices were also lettered on walls but were not chiseled: graffitti. There was now an even greater distinction between this lapidary lettering (close kin to their formal pen-written alphabet) and common writing, or cursive, an even more quickly-written form, through the introduction of the chisel as the lettering tool, with its need for precision (and time).
The first distinct bookhand (about the 1st century BC) is known as Capitalis Quadrata, or Square Capitals (left), formed with a pen nib (or flat brush) held horizontally or at a slight angle, and greedy of space.
Capitalis Rustica, or Rusticalis (right), is a condensed variety of Quadrata and can be written more quickly, the nib held at an oblique angle, with serifs added in imitation of those on the popular inscriptional letters, although the pen makes a heavier mark than the fine finishing strokes left by a chisel. Both forms were in use until about the fifth century AD, with Rustica being the functional book script.
Roman Uncials (Uncialis, meaning "inch", left) were fully developed by the fourth century (by intellectuals in North Africa) and were in use from the fifth to the eighth century as the main Christian book hand. Uncials are true pen forms, clearer than the Rusticalis and quickly written, having simple strokes and rounded shapes which seem to flow from the pen and across the page. The nib is virtually horizontal, becoming less so over time. The illustrations show that the change from a speedily-written, simplified alphabet of capitals to uncial letters was fairly natural. Here too were the beginnings of ascenders and descenders, added to differentiate between similar shapes, or sometimes from sheer exuberance.
About the beginning of the sixth century, scribes developed for less important books, a letterform somewhere between Uncial and the common cursive: this form is known as Half-Uncial and their evolution marks the formal change in shape from capitals to "small letters" -- majuscules to minuscules. The script had been used for over a hundred years for Church letters, documents, and minor manuscripts. Later variations on this form are the Irish Half-Uncials (right), reaching their peak of form about 800 (The Book of Kells), and English Half-Uncials (Lindesfarne Gospels, left), modelled on the Irish, both of which led to even further modifications.
on the continent, letterforms were not only under the influence of the
rougher Roman Cursive, but Irish (and other) missionaries were criss-crossing
the continent with holy works penned in a rich variety of styles.
In 789, in an attempt to improve communication throughout its dominions, a Church decree called for a reform of the writing used in its books, and an English abbot, Alcuin of York, in the monastery at Tours under Charlemagne, developed a hand now known as the Caroline Miniscule (right). The forms of those letters are nearly identical to the ones we use today. (Alcuin also systematized punctuation in manuscripts and the division of text into sentences and paragraphs, with capital letters at the beginning of sentences.) While the new alphabet was heavily influenced by the English half-uncials Alcuin had learned in his youth, he borrowed and adapted many ideas gleaned from his travels and studies.
During the earlier Roman conquest of Europe, the church spread out as well, establishing abbeys at the furthest outposts of the empire. With the fall of the Roman Empire (4th c.) intellectualism and learning faded somewhat (survival being more important), kept alive in the monasteries either in these outposts or on isolated mountaintop monasteries, safe from ravaging Goths. However, over the course of time, in different parts of Europe, but especially in the north, written letterforms continued to undergo radical changes. With the constant need for speed of production (spurred on by the spread of universities in the 12th century, to be increased further by the introduction of paper in the 14th century), and influenced by regional nationalism, scribes began returning to more angular, compressed scripts and emphasized the contrast between thick and thin strokes. These letterforms are Gothic in name and character (reflecting the pointed arch of Gothic architecture), and because of the preponderance of religious publishing in the north, these forms have come to be associated with the ecclesiastical. Various distinct sub-groups evolved, but it was this basic Textura letterform (left) in mid-15th century Germany which Gutenberg proceeded to cast in metal (right), in an attempt once more to increase productivity in the spreading of the written word.
In Spain and Italy, warmer climes, letterforms generally were rounder, more open, and easier to read, although they are demanding of space. Rotunda (left) is the name given to these characteristic scripts.
When the new craft of printing reached Italy in the late 1400s, the best script in use locally was virtually the same one that Alcuin had used seven hundred years earlier, having been judged appropriate for use in scholarly and humanistic works (right). This was therefore the minuscule alphabet cast in metal for the Italian market (left, by Sweynheym and Pannartz, 1468), along with an alphabet of Roman Capitals, in an attempt to imitate the look of handwritten books.
Only three pen-written letterforms after 1500 have significance for us, two more so than the other. About 1501, the great publisher Aldus Manutius hired a gifted lettercutter, Francesco Griffo to create a type based on a cursive lowercase which was still being used (albeit in a more refined form) for lesser documents in the Papal Chancery. This script is the model for all subsequent italic types, used now as a companion to the basic roman type we see and use every day. The second is the formal Chancery Cursive (right), a most elegant script, recently reinterpreted by Robert Slimbach in the digital face Poetica. And finally, Copperplate (left), which is actually a derivative of engraved lettering, used extensively in the 1700s, and for which a split, pointed pen is required, rather than the edged pen of all the other scripts.
This article is adapted from one which originally appeared in the Summer '96 issue of the CBBAG Newsletter and was written by Richard Miller and titled A Brief History of the Alphabet: The Calligraphic Heritage.