History of Calligraphy

The art of calligraphy as we know it today actually finds its origins in cave paintings. Back in the days when communication was a series of grunts, the written word was a mere pictorial representation of significant events in a caveman’s life. As humans developed, the art of drawing pictures became quite highly developed and reached great heights under the direction of the Egyptians. About 3500 BC, the Egyptians created the highly stylized hieroglyphics for which they are so well known. These symbols were incised inside tombs or painted with brushes across papyrus paper. A few thousand years later, around 1000 BC, the Phoenicians went a step further and developed what is believed to be one of the first alphabets and writing systems. Luckily the Phoenicians were sea faring types and they readily passed along their new talents to every seaport through which they passed. They most likely influenced the Greeks who later developed their own form of writing which by 850 BC the Romans had adapted to suit the Latin language.

It just so happens that Latin was the lingua franca of the churches of Europe in the Middle Ages and the monks (and a smattering of nobility) constituted the only literate members of society. Since nothing could be more glorious than the word of God, the monks began to carefully scribe ancient texts into decorative books used by high-ranking church members and royalty. Paper was expensive during the Middle Ages, so scribing monks developed a writing style that was narrower allowing more words to fit on a single line. This style came to be known as Gothic and lasted as a popular scribing technique throughout much of the Middle Ages.

By the mid 15th century, however, Johannes Gutenberg had invented the printing press based upon the Gothic lettering of the monks. This new technique allowed for faster printing of Bibles and threatened the m├ętier of the monks. Although the use of the printing press spread worldwide, handwriting skills were still in high demand. The bulky printing press was too coarse for everyday letters, formal correspondence and invitations. As the arts flourish during Europe’s Renaissance, so too did the art of calligraphy. Italians during this time invented the italic script, which became popular throughout most of Europe. But calligraphers were threatened once again with the advent of engraved copperplates in the 17th century which permitted the printing of finer lines more attuned to italic script. One hundred years later, artistic penmanship was in a steep decline.

To further complicate matters for artistic scribes, by the 19th century the steel pen and fountain pen replaced the flat-edged pen. The rounded tip of these new pens made the special curves of calligraphy more difficult to achieve. The art itself might have seen its extinction if it weren’t for the British poet and artist William Morris. In the mid-19th century William Morris spearheaded a calligraphic revival, reintroducing the flat edged pen and elevating the act of writing to the art form of its past.

It might appear that the art of calligraphy couldn’t possibly withstand the competition from the 20th century’s most important invention – the computer. With a click of the mouse, a list of various scripts are generated electronically and lasered onto bleached paper in an instant – the art of script preserved in an electronic pulse. But calligraphy is flourishing more than ever with calligraphic societies throughout the United States and Europe. According to noted calligrapher, Julian Waters during a lecture at Washington’s Sidwell Friends School in 1997, true calligraphy is the art of producing letters that capture the spirit of the text they represent. For many artists, much mental pre-planning is necessary to fully understand the text before deciding how to display it in its full beauty. This type of emotion can not always be generated from a computer, which for Julian Waters is ‘simply another tool’ to be manipulated by the artist.

Calligraphy is a popular art form whose boundaries are not restricted to Europe and the United States. Around 1500 BC the Chinese developed a complicated writing technique using more than 1500 characters. Today the Chinese consider calligraphy to be one of their most respected art forms. Master Chinese calligraphers may appear to be spontaneously stroking a brush over the paper, but many meditate extensively before designing. The Arabs are also noted for their history of calligraphy. Their cursive is written from right to left and formed by eighteen distinct shapes, the various combinations of which produce twenty-eight letters. Arabic script appears highly distinctive from the lettering used throughout most of Europe, but Arabic calligraphy has had many of the same Greek and Phoenician influences. In Arabic calligraphy there are six major scripts (Farsi, Naskh, Kufi, Deewani, Req’aa, and Thuluth) representing various artistic styles.

For true calligraphers, the art of penmanship will always be alive as long as there is at least one artist willing to carry on the tradition. Despite super fast computers that can produce a myriad of different fonts, real calligraphy comes from deep within the artist who strives to evoke the true emotion of the script through the words they draw. Calligraphy has survived throughout history despite printing presses and copperplate engravings, and dedicated followers of the art expect it to outlast the next big invention of the 21st century.