Saturday 15 February 2020

Thesauro de Scrittori (1532)

The Central School of Arts and Crafts was founded in London in 1896 (it is now known as Central St. Martins). One of the founding directors was the English architect and design teacher, William Lethaby (1857-1931). Based on his family background, early apprenticeship, education and inspiration from William Morris, Lethaby developed a deep appreciation for traditional art and craft skills.

In a preface to Edward Johnston's  book on handwriting and calligraphy, Lethaby wrote;

Of all the Arts, writing, perhaps, shows most clearly the formative force of the tools used ... No one has ever invented a form of script, and herein lies the wonderful interest of the subject; the forms used have always formed themselves by a continuous process of development ... we do need a basis of training in a demonstrably useful art, and I doubt if any is so generally fitted for the purpose of educating the hand, the eye and the mind as this one of writing. 
Modern western European handwriting came to fruition in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries. The humanist scholars of the time took the beautiful Carolingian scripts that they thought were from ancient Rome (though in fact were only 2 or 3 hundred years old) and created the lower case roman and italic handwriting that are still recognisable today.

In the mid 1520's a number of highly skilled scribes created illustrated handwriting manuals, showcasing their roman and chancery italic scripts and providing instructional text: Sigismondo Fanti (c. 1490-1530's); Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi (1475-1527); Giovanni Antonio Tagliente (1465/70 - aft. 1527); Giovan Battista Palatino (1515 - 1575). This volume brings together material from several of these master scribes and is a celebration of the art and craft of Italian humanist handwriting and calligraphy from that period.

The creator, Ugo da Carpi (1480-1520 or 1532), was an Italian painter and printmaker who pioneered the use of Chiaroscuro techniques in printmaking. It is hard to establish for the examples shown in this volume the exact author or engraver and several copyright disputes developed around key pages of material. To print this volume, da Carpi had to develop the ability to create wood engravings that captured the form of flowing, cursive handwriting.  This book was originally printed in 1525 and it went through at least eight editions before 1535.
The image shows a display of the instruments and tools required for handwriting. This image was originally included in Lo presente libro insegna la vera arte de lo excellente scrivere de diverse varie sorti de litere a book by Tagliente, published in 1524. There are 19 different tools shown in the illustration; 


Sealing Wax. 

The only material that is now little known is Pounce, or Ponce. A fine powder of cuttlefish bone that was used to prepare rough writing surfaces and also to dry ink.  Another leading Italian calligrapher of the same period, Giovan Battista Palatino (1515-1575), published a very similar illustration of the tools used by calligraphers in 1540 and noted that; `... the mirror is used to save the sight and to assist it in continuous steady writing. It is much better of glass than of steel'.

One edition of the Thesauro was reprinted in a facsimile in 1968, with a short introduction by Esther Potter. It is broadly the same as this version, though a detailed examination shows differences in page order and page layout and provide evidence of the re-work that went on between editions of the book.


da Carpi, U. (1968). Thesauro de Scrittori, ed. Esther Potter. Nattali & Maurice, London.

Finlay, M. (1990). Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen. Plains. Carlisle.

Johnston, E. (1906). Writing & Illuminating & Lettering. John Hogg, London.

Ilardi, V. (2007). Renaissance Vision. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.
The Volume is HERE