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


Beginning in the 3rd century BC, with the birth of a true literary tradition in Latin, and with the growth of literacy and the diffusion of schools, the production of books (papyrus rolls) spread to Rome, not only with the help of scribes working for the wealthiest families but also in artisan shops. This process increased in the following centuries, while the first libraries were born as well.

Use and characteristics of Book Capital

The writing used is called ROMAN BOOK CAPITAL, similar to the epigraphic capital from which it derives many of its characteristics: the separation of letters, the uniformity of aspect, and the bilinear structure characteristic of capitalization, which is easily legible. There are some changes with respect to the epigraphic capital executed on stone; these are due to the flexibility of the calamus, the softness of the material (papyrus) and the diversity of the technique (writing, not engraving).

Book Capital spread in all the territories that were subject to Rome and became for a few centuries (at least until the 3rd century AD) the only book writing of the Latin world. The oldest surviving examples of this writing are found in the papyri of Herculaneum and in very few others, through which the alphabet can be reconstructed.

capitale libraria.jpg
Example of the alphabet in Book Capital (Vat. lat. 3225)

The characteristics of Book Capital are:

  • pronounced chiaroscuro, with a strong contrast between thick and thin strokes;
  • rigid separation between letters;
  • uniformity of aspect, in a bilinear scheme;
  • tendency to transform angles from straight to curved;
  • at the ends of the vertical shafts, often there may be a wedge-shaped extension or a cross-stroke garniture.

Beginning in the 4th century, other types of book writing began to spread (Uncial and semi-Uncial), but Capital script continued to be used until the 6th century. The circulation of a new type of book (the parchment codex) and the crisis of Roman book production, in part, also caused by the economic, political, and institutional crisis that led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the 5th century, made the difference between de luxe codices and codices for school or private use increasingly clear. There are various examples of codices that are entirely or almost entirely written in this script; these can be traced to the educated class of the lower Empire, that is, to the senatorial class.

These codices mainly contain texts pertaining to the ancient Latin literary heritage and are often the result of a cultural movement of a traditionalistic nature. Such a movement developed in opposition to the newly emerging Christian culture. The examples (codices with texts by Virgil and Terence) were collected and studied by Elias Avery Lowe (1880-1969) between 1934 and 1971. Since there is such a small number of cases that survive, it is difficult to date these manuscripts with certainty.

Important examples of Book Capital script can be found in the following manuscripts:

  • Vat. lat. 3225 (called “the Vatican Virgil”), with works by Virgil, 4th /5th century;
  • Vat. lat. 3867 (called “the Roman Virgil”), with works by Virgil, end of the 5th century;
  • Vat. lat. 3226 (called “the Terence Bembo ms.”), with works by Terence, end of the 5th century.
Vergilius Vaticanus
Codex Bembinus
Vergilius Romanus

After the 6th century, Book Capital was no longer used for the writing of books. In general, Capital was not used for the most important texts in Christian manuscripts such as the biblical ones, but another script came to be used that was considered solemn, Uncial script, and semi-Uncial script for other writings. The codices that refer to the texts of Prudentius and Sedulio prove to be exceptions to this norm, perhaps due to the success of their worth as poets, even though they were Christian. No text of Virgil in Uncial script or in semi-Unciale has survived, nor any biblical text in Capital.

Book Capital, however, was still used as a distinctive writing, for example, for the headings of chapters, incipit (the first words of a text) and explicit (the last words of a text), as well as for headers, and for this purpose it was also widely used in the humanistic period.