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


The UNCIAL script plays an important role in the history of Western culture. Many important texts have been passed down in this writing, which was used for over five centuries throughout the Latin world. It replaced Book Capitals as the new script in use for solemn writing and de luxe writing and as such, it was a writing from which no others were derived. When it disappeared in the form of a script used for entire codices, it was hence used only as a display script for titles, initials, etc., often together with Capitals.

The origins of the uncial script

Book Capitals did not satisfy the needs of the taste and new culture that had established itself with the arrival of Christianity. It was also called, in a derogatory sense, by the name of litterae Vergilianae, indicating a type of writing destined to record stories of an era that had already long passed.

The origin of Uncial is attributed to several factors: the need to make the forms of primitive Minuscule more elegant, the adoption of the quill pen to facilitate the drawing of the curves and perhaps even the deliberate will of a writing teacher. According to some historians, this teacher would have belonged to an African writing center, while others think he is to be associated with a center in Italy. In fact, the major centers of book production in Late Antiquity era were located in Africa and Italy. In addition, some paleographers also recognize the more or less direct influence of the biblical capital script used for Greek texts, which was a writing characterized by elegantly round shapes that emerged in the first half of the 3rd century.

The term “Uncial” was used for the first time by the scholars of the Benedictine Congregation of St. Maurice (Maurini), Charles François Toustain and René Prosper Tassin in the Nouveau traité de diplomatique (vol. II, Paris 1755, p. 510-511). It originated from a questionable interpretation of a passage written by Jerome in the introduction to his translation of the book of Job. Jerome argues with the graphic culture of his time, which is attentive not to the content of the writings but only to the shape and elegance of the letters. In such a context, he uses the expression “litterae unciales.” Various hypotheses have been made about this usage, all of which are prone to criticism and have been entirely criticized. Perhaps Jerome meant to say Capitals in which pagan literature was written; uncia is a particular dimension (one twelfth of a foot) and therefore Jerome might have been referring to letters that occupy a large space. Uncia also signifies a particular weight (one twelfth of a pound) and therefore could refer to letters to be traced with an ounce of gold. The word unciales could also be an incorrect reading of the word initiales; as well as other hypotheses. In essence, however, Jerome probably did not intend to indicate a specific type of writing, but only to mark the difference of his poor but correct notepaper with the de luxe codices written with solemn characters.

Vat. lat. 10696, f. 1r, Fragmenta liviana

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