Like most how-to manuals, the first calligraphy books promised self-help. The authors suggested that it should be possible for the neophyte to master the scripts they describe without a professional teacher. At the same time, however, they were setting out to embellish their own reputations as professional teachers of scripts and inventors of new teaching methods. Armando Petrucci notes that these intersecting claims are not fully compatible. As a first step, the new writing masters distinguished themselves from humble teachers who merely transformed illiterates into literates. Textbook authors also promised to turn the newly literate into professional scribes qualified to serve in bureaucracies of the pen -- the government offices of emerging modern states. Printing was an essential tool for the ambitions of these writing masters. They could improve their own social status only by publishing writing manuals that at once disseminated their pedagogical principles and enlarged their claims to cultural influence and prestige. (50)

Pedagogically, the writing masters were attempting to do two quite different things. First, they offered an entirely new kind of elementary instruction through textbooks that summarized skills hitherto taught only through practice. Their greatest originality was at this most elementary level of instruction. At a second level, however, they attempted to provide professional training for the purpose of full-time clerical employment. The language of the manuals reflects this dual purpose. The authors employed a lively, popular, bourgeois Italian with many regional and dialect forms. Their books embody the vernaculars spoken in elementary classrooms. On the other hand they taught chancery hand, the unified script of cultured Italians throughout the peninsula. Petrucci believes that the writing masters of the first half of the sixteenth century failed in their social ambitions because the skills they offered were still traditional ones and the working life of the scribes they trained was so routine that it did not allow for genuine artistic achievement. Only later in the century, when writing masters also ventured into the field of epigraphic and architectural lettering did they succeed in transforming themselves into graphic designers in the service of powerful political figures. (51)


The advertising of handwriting manuals developed in this same direction across the century. Tagliente in 1524 wrote as a servant of the Venetian state, proud of his career as the official teacher of government scribes; but rhetorically he stayed close to his own middling social class. Without embarrassment he compared the well-equipped scribe to a "barber [who] can never shave a beard well without hurting the man who is being shaved, unless he has a razor honed to a cutting edge." (52) A year or so later, Ludovico Arrighi aimed a little higher for models, taking his cue perhaps from the papal court where he worked and where his colleagues included a number of internationally renowned musicians: "Just as a man who wishes to learn to play a musical instrument must also know how to tune it, because many contingencies may occur, so for many reasons the student who aims to learn handwriting must know how to cut quills." (53) Starting in 1540 with the Libro nuovo d'imparare a scrivere of Giovanbattista Palatino (d. ca. 1565?), writing masters openly criticized each other, patently attempting to aggrandize their own reputations at the expense of others. This same generation (including, besides Palatino, Giovanni Francesco Cresci and Luca Orfeo da Fano) began to claim that public lettering was a powerful political tool, and that the writing master was not just a scribe, but also, at least potentially, a propagandist in the service of the state. They were encouraged in this by highly visible commissions for public projects in Rome. (54) Their successes in stone encouraged them to make still broader claims for the humble secretary. The scribe is no longer to be compared to a barber or a musician, but, as Cresci says, a "superb goldsmith," a great painter, even an "erudite orator," that is, a humanist. (55)


Calligraphic manuals in print played a major part in creating the personal reputations of all the leading designers of these later generations. Their epigraphic commissions were rarely signed, so they had to look to other forums in which to put their name before the public permanently. Like earlier writing masters they used print to validate reputations they had already achieved through teaching and patronage. On the level of book design, the generation of aggrandizers made an important innovation by turning the axis of the textbook page and presenting their writing specimens in landscape format, the better to make even chancery hand look as if it were inscribed on tablets of stone. They refashioned textbook authorship too. The author was now an artist; he made not a simple handwriting textbook but rather a calligraphic album that was an art object in its own right. As such, most of the important later calligraphic manuals were more specimen books than textbooks, well beyond the scope of our study. Real, skills-oriented handwriting manuals continued to be produced right up to the twentieth century, but often in very humble formats. Even the showiest of calligraphic specimen books, moreover, sometimes still included how-to sections in recognition of two facts: that even talented scribes continued to make a living as teachers, and that some in the public for such books were amateurs looking to educate themselves. (56)

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(50)  Petrucci 1988, 838-839, and 1993, 614-615.
(51)  Petrucci 1988, 839-842 and 1993, 615-616; compare Mosley 1964, 18-20; Morison and Barker 1990, 130-142.
(52)  Osley 1980, 62. Cox 2003, 686-690 points to the strong class-consciousness of bourgeois teachers whose students came from the Venetian aristocracy.
(53)  Osley 1980, 79; this elegant simile may be a direct response to Tagliente's homelier one, since it does not appear in Arrighi's first book (which appeared before Tagliente's) but in his second (which appeared later).
(54)  Petrucci 1988, 841-842; Mosley 1996.
(55)  Osley 1980, 119.
(56)  Further on professional manuals, Petrucci 1993, 620-628.

Posted by admin on September 22, 2008
Tags: Chapter Six

Total comments on this page: 5

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Robert Williams on paragraph 3:

It would be interesting to know when “teach yourself to play an instrument/sing” manuals came on the scene. They, too, seemed to be marketed to a general public.

March 26, 2009 11:53 am
Paul F. Gehl :

This is discussed briefly in section 6.19.

March 26, 2009 12:22 pm
Robert Williams on paragraph 4:

The 90-degree rotation of the format of writing books is most interesting from a graphic standpoint. Of course they made it easier to place the book above a blank sheet on which exercises were to be copied, but they also physically set writing books at odds with the usual vertical format of all other types of books (except, perhaps, music books) literally making them stand out.

March 26, 2009 11:58 am
Carla Zecher on paragraph 3:

I understand what you mean by, “the scribe is no longer to be compared to a barber or a musician,” but “musician” may not be the best word to use. A distinction between “minstrels” and “musicians” was coming into being in this period, and depending on the context and the language in which the term appears, the latter group could include renowned composers of polyphony.

July 23, 2009 8:32 am
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 3:

Good point. The first comparison, to a barber, has to be referring to a professional, though not one of high social status. But I suppose an amateur might be understood in Arrighi’s case, since the context is learning to play an instrument. On the other hand, the writing masters are clearly claiming professionalism and progressively claiming higher degrees of professional status.

July 23, 2009 1:12 pm

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