bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Littera antiqua as a cosmopolitan enterprise

Posted in Humanism, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 25 January, 2018

One advantage of teaching palaeography at King’s College, London, this year — apart from the enthusiastic and inquisitive students, of course — is that it is a short hop to the Eurostar. So, having introduced the groups to the delights of textualis yesterday morning, I am now in Paris to speak at the conference. Its title is L’Humanisme à l’épreuve de l’Europe (XV e. -XVI e siècles) and my topic is ‘The Renaissance of littera antiqua: a cosmopolitan enterprise’. At the risk of forfeiting what suspense there might be to my paper, let me share with you one small part of what I will discuss.

Littera antiqua, otherwise known as Roman hand or humanist minuscule, is famously an invention of Florence, c. 1400. Poggio Bracciolini (my old friend) and his colleagues called their innovation ‘ancient letter’ because they saw themselves reviving a script older than what had recently been fashionable. They insulted that fashion by labelling it not just modern but also ‘gothic’. That term implied that the contemporary bookhands, with their compressed, uniform-looking script, were an imposition on Italy by barbarian foreigners who knew no better. Poggio and those who encouraged him wanted to liberate their countrymen from this tutelage, and looked back to the scripts that preceded gothic to find a style of writing they considered more legible and more elegant. In this way, the humanists’ campaign had an element of local pride, of asserting an Italian-born cultural identity against the invasion of northern European habits.

The humanists’ nomenclature has stuck, and with it also some of the assumptions that underlie it. In particular, littera antiqua, like the other forms of script that the humanist came to promote, has been seen as an Italian product which was sometimes exported in the years after its invention and then slowly adopted in countries beyond the Alps, by the barbarians themselves. Thus, it is considered a safe assumption that a manuscript in a fine humanist minuscule was manufactured by an Italian, unless there is explicit evidence to the contrary. Sometimes there is, in fact, such contrary proof, for it is known that there were some non-Italians who adopted the humanist scribal habits, even in their homeland. So, for instance, Poggio tutored other copyists in the new style and these included one Frenchman, with whom his master was pleased — and his ability to emulate Poggio’s hand was so successful that it has sometimes proven difficult to distinguish one from another.

The ‘good French scribe’ is thought of as the exception, and in Florence, this has some truth. A. C. de la Mare’s seminal listing of seventy-two Florentine humanist scribes includes only eight who were non-Italian. That, though, does constitute a proportion of over one in ten. I have, previously in print, extrapolated from the data provided by Albert Derolez for a larger group of humanist scribes active across Italy and shown that the proportion there is one in six. It would, in other words, seem that in the city of littera antiqua’s birth, the engagement of foreigners in the humanist agenda was below the average.

There is one city which is certainly known to have been highly cosmopolitan and that is Rome. Elisabetta Caldelli, in a rich survey of scribes in the papal city, has drawn attention to the fact that about half of those whose identities we know were visitors, often long-term residents, from other countries. Caldelli’s figures, however, range across all scribes, not just those who adopted humanist practices. It would be plausible to assume that those who came from ‘gothic’ cultures would continue to deploy that style in which they were originally trained, and so that a lower proportion wrote in littera antiqua. In preparing my paper, I investigated her data further, organising those with a stated origin by geographical areas as they would have been contemporarily defined, and identifying the usual style employed by each of the copyists, both Italian and non-Italian. Of Caldelli’s 138 scribes, I find that 126 can be defined by national origin (my figures and designations differ slightly from hers; she organises them by modern countries). Of those, it becomes clear that only a minority — a third — of the total list were expert in littera antiqua, but that, of that minority, exactly half were non-Italian. Here is the information in detail:


All scribes

Scribes of littera antiqua


















TOTAL 65 out of 126 scribes (51.5%) 21 out of 42 scribes (50%)

[Data extrapolated from E. Caldelli, Copisti a Roma nel Quattrocento (Rome, 2006)]

Naturally, these figures need to be used with caution: they are based on named scribes, and not all were ostentatious enough to announce their identity. More did so in the Quattrocento than in previous centuries, but still only a small proportion of manuscripts have a revelatory colophon. It may be that scribes from afar were more likely to state their nationality, though I must say that I know of several non-Italian scribes active in Italy who did not feel the urge to do so. It is also the case that the figures make Rome exceptional, as Florence also was: nowhere else in the peninsula could claim to have a community of humanist scribes that was so cosmopolitan.

Even with those caveats, there is a very striking implication of these figures. The usual assumption, as I have said, is that a manuscript in littera antiqua should be taken to be by an Italian hand until proven otherwise. If, though, a volume hails from Rome, that assumption is patently not sound: it is equally likely that it was by a foreigner. That said, it is not always easy to localise a codex to a particular city and, that being the case, it raises further complications. In most places, only a minority of humanist scribes were non-Italian but the proportion was rarely negligible and, that being so, is it legitimate to continue to hold the traditional assumption? More broadly, is it not time to reconceptualise the history of the impressive pan-European success of littera antiqua?

This, as I have said, is only one small part of my talk and, in describing to you, I have glossed over some of the interesting features: I have not mentioned the split between nations; I have also left aside the issue of humanist cursive and of its most elegant sub-type, the italic bookhand (the proportions are strikingly different from the ones I have just outlined). There is more to say — but, then, I do need to leave some revelations fresh for the conference audience.



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