The Humanist Script – Manuscript Analysis – basic

One of my favorite scripts to read is the Humanist Script.  We are told that the Humanist script was a reaction against the Gothic script.  Here is an interesting paper regarding the origins and development of the Humanist script.  It really is a beautiful hand and with the exception of the “tall s” that looks like an “f” with only the first half of the crossbar, it is readable to almost any modern eye.

I was fortunate enough to be able to handle a manuscript written using the Humanist script.  It is from the middle of the 15th century written in Italian from the region of Lumbary and most like from Milan.  Details about the manuscript are found here.

In this case the x height for the letters is approximately 2 mm.  Yes, that is it, 2mm.  The equivalent of writing with a 0.5mm brause nib to a 4 nib width height.  Pretty small for writing by hand!  Small writing of course allows for more writing to be put on the page.  It also covers up a multitude of mistakes.  Here are three lines from one of the folios of the manuscript.  I have digitally marked it up for your viewing.  For a refresher on how to analyze calligraphy read my post about analyzing calligraphy.

Basic analysis of three lines of a manuscript

Basic analysis of three lines of a manuscript

I made it so clicking on the picture will open it in a new window.  Hopefully that will make it easier to view it side by side with this post.

Purple line = true base line,  Blue line = true vertical, Red circle = connection or ink problems, Green Circle = excellent connector, Green line = pen angle.

Chances are pretty good that on your screen the writing from the manuscript is not much bigger than 2 mm.  It looks pretty good in the thumbnail doesn’t it?  Click on the image and we see that it isn’t perfect.

First we take a look at how the page is set up.  We don’t see the whole page with these three lines but for our purposes that is enough.  By the faint lines below the letters we see that the page was ruled before it was written on and the lines were left on the page. This is normal for higher quality manuscripts.  We also see that the letters float above the lining instead of resting on the lining. This is a perfectly normal approach to writing at the time.  Floating letters however can, well, float and not keep the same baseline.  This means that the letters don’t all start at the same height above the line.  The purple line shows us just to what extent the letters do not all share the same starting height above the line.  This can lead the eye to feel as if the writing is squirming along the page.  Even if you are not writing on the line it is best to keep the letters x height starting at the same height above the line.  This makes your writing look much crisper, cleaner and people will enjoy looking at it.

In analyzing the script let us start with the pen angle.  What is the pen angle?  Roughly 40 degrees and it stays pretty consistent.  There is some variance on occasion but not by much in most cases.

Are the letter straight and tall?  and Should they be? Consistency is key when writing your calligraphy as if following the ductus.  Consistency though will cover a lot of ground for you.  The blue lines are showing us the true vertical.  As we can see, some letters are true vertical and some are not.  The Humanist script like all scripts does have regional variations but they all have a consistent vertical angle and usually they are at 90 degrees.  Since the default for most Humanist scripts is 90 degree verticals and this hand of Humanist is inconsistent we can infer that the non 90 degree strokes are not what was supposed to happen.

Connections are also important to how the letter looks.  If the connections are good the letter looks crisp.  If the connections are not good the draw the eye and some of the beauty of the letter is lost.  Though for the person analyzing the letter missed connectors give us some insight as to how the letter was formed. Red circles show improper connections and green circles show excellent connections.  Notice how I did not put any circles on the top of any “p”s.  Remember that consistency is very important.  Not one of the letter “p”s has a connection  at the top. This means that in this hand of Humanist that the letter “p” is supposed to not connect at the top. And that is okay.  However I did mark one “p”.  Why?  because even though there is supposed to be a gap at the top, that gap is just way too big.

I hope you enjoyed this basic analysis.  For your viewing pleasure I am putting the pictures of the page this analysis comes from below.  As a side note this manuscript is almost 500 years old and it was written with iron gall ink.  Not even a hint of ink corrosion.


7 responses to “The Humanist Script – Manuscript Analysis – basic

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  4. Thank you for this series. I’ve always enjoyed analyzing text and it’s nice to see someone else’s take on it. IMAG0490 was particularly fun. Are we looking at two different constructions of the letter x? (First word, second line and third word, third line. Also the final e on the fifth line really shows the scribes hand at work. Thanks again.

    • Kecain, we certainly could be looking at two different constructs of the letter x.

      If we look at the 4 pictures I posted that detail the entire page it certainly looks like we are. I do not read or speak Italian and certainly not 15th century Italian but based on what we are seeing I would agree it is two constructions of the letter “x”

      However in the interest of reasonable analysis, we could be looking at abbreviations using a modified “r” construct followed by a “c”. I think that unlikely but believe that keeping that in the back of one’s mind until someone who speaks Italian says otherwise, would be a good idea.

      • Agreed. After taking another look, I noticed there are no ‘cc’ combinations as in modern Italian. I could very well be wrong, but I think ‘cc’ makes a similar sound to a hard ‘ch’ which could be related to the Greek chi which looks like the Roman ‘x’. That’s a lot of round-about guess work and flat-out speculation on my part. I would love to hear input from an Italian scholar on this.

      • Hadn’t thought of the “cc” “ch” “X” sounds being similar. Good catch.

        Of course google translate didn’t help any but I had to try it.

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