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

2.2. Pens and inks


The calamus

The calamus is a long and thin hollow cylindrical reed. One end of the calamus is cut obliquely with a slit that allows one to draw the desired amount of ink to be used, which is found in the hollow part of the calamus when it is dipped in ink.

penna d'oca.jpg

The quill pen

The quill pen (or other bird) is hollow and is cut like a calamus; it allows you to write on the parchment with finer strokes, and on account of its flexibility, it allows for greater speed and the ability to trace thick and thin strokes more easily. The type of cut of the tip affects the way of writing and sometimes even indicates a particular type of script.


Carbon black ink

Carbon black ink was produced with a black pigment, as a result of slow combustion in an environment with little air (ink comes from encaustum = burned under cover) of wood or other material, which is deposited on the surrounding surfaces (it was produced in a covered container or even collected for example in a fireplace hood or next to the wick of an oil lamp); it was mixed with an adhesive substance (such as Arabic gum, or sometimes honey) and was marketed in the form of solid pats or rectangular portions; at the time of use the scribe would dissolve it in water to obtain a black liquid.

Noci di galla.jpg

Gallic-metal ink

Gallic-metal ink was produced from a gall (an excrescence or growth caused by various agents, such as insects, fungi, and bacteria, on oaks or other types of plants) which contains a lot of tannin. This was finely pulverized and combined with a metallic salt, usually iron or copper sulphate; the chemical reaction produced by these two elements creates an ink that is the color black, that was then mixed with a binder and dissolved in water for use. There are many recipes for the preparation of this time of ink, that may include other components as well.

Urb. lat. 1, f. 1r, Title page of Bibbia Urbinate.

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Colored inks used for decoration were made from various pigments of mineral origin (either vegetable or animal), and were mixed with vegetable gum, egg whites, wine, vinegar, decoctions with cecidia and other elements. To obtain the color red, minium was used (lead oxide), from which the word, miniature, is derived; for white, white lead was used (composed of lead and sulfur) or chalk; for yellow, saffron or the juice of the dyer’s weed; for green, black nightshade or malachite; for blue, indigo, cornflower, or lapis lazuli; to make gold and silver, the powder from these minerals was used, for purple, a liquid secreted from Muricidae mollusks. The pigments that were generally used were numerous and the recipes to make them were often found in the manuscripts themselves, and the scribes would hand down to one another.