Latin Paleography From Antiquity to the Renaissance [by A. M. Piazzoni]


In the last years of the 13th century and in the first decades of the 14th century, the cultural climate was changing in some European regions. The rediscovery, study, and renewed interest in authors who had been forgotten, and in the classical world that they represented, inspired a flourishing return to linguistic, stylistic and literary models of antiquity. There emerged a consciousness of the need for a cultural renewal, which sometimes also meant a detachment from contemporary culture. Manuscripts and inscriptions were in high demand and graphic models were also imitated. This “return to the ancients” was the main component of so-called “pre-humanism”, which developed particularly in Tuscany, in the Veneto region, and at the papal court of Avignon, through the activity of figures such as Lovato Lovati and Albertino Mussato in Padua, Landolfo Colonna in Avignon, Ferreto Ferretti in Vicenza, Convenevole from Prato in Tuscany and then in Avignon, and many others. From these circles of intellectuals and professionals, there began a cultural movement which took shape (from the perspective of the history of writing) as an anti-Gothic reaction. Lovati and Colonna, for example, consciously imitated the Caroline of the 10th and 11th centuries.

The best exponent of this return to the ancients (general as well as graphic),was a student of Convenevole da Prato, Petrarch (1304-1374), one of the first great Italian poets, who is characterized by his constant interest in writing and in the book. He wrote many texts in manuscripts by his own hand, some of which have come down to us today.

The Semi-gothic script and Petrarch

The production of Italian writing of the 14th century was full of trends and currents linked to the Caroline tradition. These tendencies were represented by writing instruments such as the uncut pen-tip or the pen with the tip cut at the center (and therefore without chiaroscuro, like Merchant script), by the roundness of the local Gothic script (the rotunda), by spaciousness, and by leaning of the shafts (as the cancelleresca bookhand). Another type of writing also developed from the same type of everyday writing that gave rise to the cancelleresca and Merchant script (Supino Martini, Per la storia, pp. 249-264); this script was called SEMI-GOTHIC, long considered a sort of “invention” of Petrarch, who thrived on this writing and used it for his own glosses and also for entire manuscripts. Actually, this writing was already completely formed, for example, with the poem Pharsalia of Lucan, copied in 1305 in Vat. lat. 11559.

A few decades later, however, Petrarch had a decisive influence in launching a new graphic culture because he developed a specific and conscious polemic against the cultural trends of his time. In two letters to Giovanni Boccaccio, which constitute a sort of graphic and book manifesto, Petrarch criticized the Gothic scripts, which he considered exaggeratedly artificial, difficult to read, and too overcrowded with ornamental elements. He also denounced ignorant scribes who corrupted the texts with their poor and incorrect transcriptions, and praised the sobriety, clarity, elegance, and simplicity of the Caroline script. Above all, he advocated a new bookhand which was based on the imitation of Caroline minuscule (of which he owned several specimens in his library). He pronounced the theoretical principles required for the script: simple and clear, legible at first sight, and orthographically correct

There are about sixty manuscripts annotated or entirely transcribed by Petrarch, who did not succeed in freeing himself entirely from the Gothic tradition (he always used the pen cut on the left). In the textual script, his semi-Gothic became spacious, elegant and balanced, as in the autograph of the Canzoniere of Vat. lat. 3195, written between 1366 and 1374, partly by himself and partly by his scribe Giovanni Malpaghini. In the so-called gloss script (see, for example, Vat. lat. 2193) he also achieved remarkable levels of harmony and elegance by commenting on classical texts in Gothic (see 16.3). In both types of script, he was an example of a continuous search to outstrip Gothic writing and opened the way for those who would follow on the same path, for his disciples, and for his friends.

Coluccio Salutati and pre-antiqua

The graphic inheritance of Petrarch was received in Padua by the disciple Lombard Della Seta, who directed a writing center that produced copies of the master’s works. Here they also imitated his script (executed in a clear semi-Gothic style but not open to other innovations) and above all in Florence, where Coluccio Salutati, notary and chancellor of the Republic for thirty years from 1375, used the Petrarchan semi-Gothic script but inserted imitative elements of Caroline, resulting in a script that is called pre-antiqua because it foreshadowed humanistic writing, called antiqua by the humanists. Salutati’s merit was to have spread this writing also through his professional activity. Along with the profuse circulation of the many official documents of the Florentine Republic, written by him or under his direct guidance and supervision, the writing also spread, thus leading to the imitation of ancient models.

In the book world, the characteristics of pre-antiqua are found for example in the second part of Vat. lat. 2063, a manuscript made to be assembled by Salutati himself, who combined some texts by Plato in Gothic with other texts by the same author copied not by him directly (as has long been thought) but by a trusted collaborator, Iacopo Angeli da Scarperia . The work of Coluccio Salutati, like that of Francesco Petrarch, thus represented, in the history of Latin writing, an important moment of transition towards the rebirth of Caroline that was about to be fully fulfilled.