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

7.1 Use and characteristics of uncial

Uncial has been considered substantially a capital script because most of its letters derive from the forms of those from the Capital script. The letters that come from the new forms of Minuscule have smaller shafts and bows, so as to be essentially incorporated into a bilinear system of two parallel lines. Many paleographers today prefer to call it a “mixed” script of both majuscule and minuscule characters.

It began to be used in codices especially but not exclusively by Christian authors, in the 4th century, and continued in use up until the 7th century. Some consider it to be the particular writing of the Roman Christian culture, but use of the Uncial script was not confined to this group alone, since there are also pagan texts in Uncial; for this reason, it is better to define it as a writing of Late Antiquity (Cencetti, Lineamenti, pp. 64-66).

Beginning from the 6th century, that is, from the disappearance of the Capital script, it was considered to be the most important and solemn script, often used for biblical texts. It is difficult to determine a precise chronology for the growth of the script, since the evolution of Uncial is rather limited. Still, it is possible to distinguish between an “old style” and a “new style” by examining the characteristics of a certain irregularity in the layout, lengthening of the shafts, and appearance of extraneous and occasional features. In some juridical codices from the sixth and 7th centuries, there is an influence of cursive script on Uncial, such as in the Florentine Pandects (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, s.n.), a manuscript made in Byzantium with Justinian’s Digest. Uncial also bore the influence of (as well as influenced) local writings elsewhere, which can be seen in examples such as the Codex Amiatinus, (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Amiatino 1), a large biblical manuscript copied in Northumbria between the seventh and the 8th centuries to be donated to St. Peter’s Basilica. This text was affected by the influences of round insular minuscule.

The fact that many texts, especially the biblical ones, were linked to the new Christian culture and were written in Uncial favored its increasing circulation throughout the Roman Empire. To understand the difficulty of a precise chronology, it is important to bear in mind that out of 390 codices found by P. Lehmann (on the basis of a work initiated by L. Traube), only 16 can be dated with a certain degree of certainty.

Alfabeto onciale.jpg
Uncial alphabet (Vat. lat. 10696)

The general characteristics of the Uncial script are as follows:

  • continuous and fluid writing, which does not show interruptions in the flow of a line;
  • roundish letters, which tend to close in a circular design (they are enclosed and confined to a bilinear model);
  • particular design of some original letters, which do not come from the Capital script or Minuscule: A, D, E, M (to such an extent that B. L. Ullman proposed to call Uncial by the name of “the ADEM script”) .
A, D, E, M onciale.jpg
Form of A, D, E ed M
h, p, q, u onciale.jpg
H, p, q, v: are in minuscule form
G, t, u onciale.jpg
The other letters derive from the Capital script; in particular the following can be noted: the strokes of G are markedly curly or have elongated tails, the T with a roundish or curved shaft, the U with a shaft that curves to the left

Among the oldest examples (in the Uncial called “old style”) we may list the palimpsest of Cicero’s De re publica (scriptio inferior of Vat. lat. 5757) of the fourth/fifth century, and the Vat. lat. 10696, which contains a Classical text by Livy and dates from the same period.

Among the examples of “new style” Uncial are the scriptio superior of Vat. lat. 5757, which contains Augustine’s Enarratio in Psalmos, written in the 7th century on top of the text of Cicero, the Vat. lat. 3835-3836 (homilary of Agimundus, which dates from the beginning of the 8th century) and the Reg. lat. 9 (Letters of Paul), from the 8th century.