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

13.1 The early medieval scripts of central-northern Italy

The Lombards, who were a conquering people, did not possess a system of writing except in very primitive forms, although they soon understood its importance (in 643, King Rothari had the first collection of Lombard laws written down in Latin).

Between the 7th and 8th/9th centuries, central-northern Italy did not have a developed form of its own writing. The people of the region continued to write (but witnesses are few) in Uncial, in semi-Uncial and in New Cursive. The latter however, developed some features towards the end of the 7th century that made it possible to speak of a New Italian Cursive, but the scarcity of manuscripts and the difficulty of locating them and dating them make it difficult to put together a convincing picture.

The writings that were in use were therefore different from each other, that is, the result of a process of tending toward a more calligraphic style in local documentary cursive, resulting in a more set and polished script, sometimes tending toward a more cursive style from the the traditional Uncial and semi-Uncial book scripts with cursive insertions. In the paleographic tradition, these writings have been defined with the term pre-Caroline, but since Caroline is not derived from them, today it is preferable to define them more simply as HIGH MEDIEVAL SCRIPTS. Some common elements have been identified for these scripts:

  • a: open at the top, in the form of two juxtaposed c’s;
  • c: also in the crested form;
  • i: high when it is found at the beginning of the word and sometimes when it has a semi-vocalic (intervocalic) function;
  • t: frequent also in the form with the bow to the left.

The identification of the types of places where the book production took place is instead easier and clearer to identify. This essentially took place in several new monastic foundations (such as Bobbio, Novalesa, Nonantola) but also in chapter centers attached to bishoprics of ancient and high prestige (Verona, Lucca, Vercelli).

13.1.1 Monastic scriptoria

The most important center of writing in northern Italy was in Bobbio, a monastery founded by the Irish monk Colombanus in 612; in the 9th century it had a library of ca. 700 codices. One of the reasons for the importance of Bobbio was certainly its connection to the islands and to Gaul, but also to Pavia, capital of the Lombard kingdom. The writings in use at this monastery included the Insular scripts, Uncial, semi-Uncial, and also a Minuscule characterized by many Italic elements, quite calligraphic, and known by the presence of various Insular elements. An example is the scriptio superior of the palimpsest made in Bobbio in the 8th century with texts of Isidore of Seville copied over biblical texts in Uncial and in semi-Uncial (Vat. lat. 5763).

Another important center of writing also developed in Nonantola, a Benedictine monastery founded in the middle of the 8th century. Between the end of the 8th and the beginning of the 9th centuries there was a typification of Book Minuscule. This typification has been identified in about twenty codices and is characterized by a large, roundish Minuscule, with a heavy tracing of the letters, with oblique chiaroscuro but without a “broken” form. Characteristic traits include the capital Q with a flourish, the long r, the high e with bow, which also partially appear in the Beneventan script. Examples of manuscripts produced in Nonantola in the 9th century include the Vat. lat. 9882 with texts by Caesarius of Arles, and the Vat. Lat. 5951, with the medical treatise of Celsus.

This is the only typified book Minuscule script to have developed in northern Italy before Caroline, and it spread perhaps even outside the monastery of Nonantola. A writing with similar characters is found in fact in a collection of canons produced in Chieti in the 9th century (Reg. lat. 1997), which also shows similarities with Beneventan. For this reason, it has long been retained that this Nonantola type of Minuscule may have exerted influence on the Beneventan script, but today palaeographers are more inclined to believe that it was the Beneventan of Monte Cassino that influenced that of Nonantola.

13.1.2 Chapter scriptoria

The oldest scriptorium was that of the Chapter of the cathedral of Verona, where there is evidence for a center of writing as early as the 6th century and where there is still a library, which is unique to the rest of the world, as it has been active without intermission since the 6th (and perhaps the 5th) century. In Verona, codices continued to be produced in Uncial and semi-Uncial, which Bishop Ursicinus had introduced there in the 6th century, but also in cursive script. The proficient organization of the scriptorium meant that a certain uniformity was maintained in the production of the books, even when made with different writings. At the beginning of the 9th century, the chapter center of Verona was one of the first writing centers to adopt the Caroline script, especially by the archdeacon Pacificus (d. 845), to whom we owe the direct production or direction of the copies of at least 213 manuscripts.

A case of absence of a unitary orientation is instead that of the chapter scriptorium of Lucca, at least judging by the only certain codex (the famous manuscript of Lucca, Biblioteca capitolare, 490). It is a miscellaneous codex produced between 796 and 816 on the initiative of Bishop John I, written by at least 40 different hands, who employed all known types of writing in the most disorderly way possible: capital, Uncial, semi-Uncial, cursives of various kinds.

There were also scriptoria known to have existed in other episcopal centers, but only a few examples have remained from Vercelli and Novara, and there is little information on the activity of copying which was carried out in Tortona, Milan, Monza and in other chapter centers of northern Italy.