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Scripts and the Vernacular in Medieval and Renaissance Italy
The Birth of the Vernacular
The first appearances of texts that can be clearly defined as vernacular - that is morphologically, syntactically and lexically distinguishable from Latin––occurred in comparable ways throughout the different Neo-Latin or Romance language areas. The most ancient vernacular texts, the so-called ‘tracce’ (‘traces’), survive thanks to a recording/transcribing system that did not use the canonical channels of reproduction and diffusion of the Latin written culture (books, documents and inscriptions specifically created to contain different kinds of Latin texts): they were instead added to already written texts- books or documents - distant in terms of language (vernacular vs. Latin), chronology (considerable temporal divide between the better: base text and the added vernacular text), graphic type (often different because far in time). These early vernacular texts were therefore brief textual passages occasionally added to sources that were not specifically prepared for them, and preserved only thanks to chance.
The process of adding vernacular texts to pre-existing written sources sporadically appeared in the early 9th century, became fairly common in the 11th and 12th centuries and gradually ended around the second half of the 13th century, with the emergence of manuscripts specifically designed for vernacular texts. From the last decades of the 13th century onward, if a scribe had to insert additional material to a pre-existing text it was most often simply to complete or integrate the text itself, in line with its content. These textual insertions were slightly later or nearly contemporary additions.
The early process of writing vernacular texts from the 9th through 13th centuries in all its complexity was essentially characterized by:
- transcriptions on unused parts of occasional and unrelated manuscripts, such as documents or books;
- preservation solely linked to the fate of the manuscripts. That is, since the original textual object was intended to preserve a different, Latin text the abililty of the vernacular text to survive depended completly upon the degree to which the Latin text was considered worth preserving.All such vernacular texts in effect survive by chance.
- singular witnesses whose conservation depended entirely on personal or local interest in the text they contain.
Already in this early period, we can observe a phenomenon that would develop further in later decades: the lack of a script specifically intended for the process of writing in the vernacular. In the example below, the script used for transcribing the Conto navale pisano was the same as the one used by its scribe in his everyday life and in his own profession. The same can be said about other early vernacular texts such as in the Indovinello veronese - Verona, Biblioteca Capitolara, LXXXIX, c.3r - and the Ritmo cassinese - Montecassino, Archivio della Badia, 552, p. 206. The results are three different scripts–- Caroline minuscule, documentary cursive, Beneventan script––each reflecting the graphic culture of different scribes from different times and geographic areas.
|Example of caroline minuscile|
|Conto navale pisano|
An Independent Vernacular
During the second half of the 13th century – and more specifically during its last quarter - in Romance language-speaking countries of Europe, entire books were at last written in the vernaculars of all the major romance languages. Some of these languages, especially those in French territories (Occitan or langue d’oc and langue d’oïl), had by then already experimented both with the occasional forms of vernacular writing and the development of an extensive literature in the vernacular (including the production of original texts in poetry and prose). In other places, like Italy and Spain, the development of a vernacular literature took place later. However, full-scale books in vernacular languages were not created anywhere until near the end of the 13th century. It is worth noting that in France the temporal gap between the beginning of a vernacular literature and its earliest written forms was considerable (the presence in French areas of vernacular manuscripts already at the end of the 12th century (see table above) refers to an early Anglo-Norman production linked to the Anglo-Saxon manuscript tradition that began at the end of the 11th century). In the southern peninsulas - Italy and Spain - this gap was much smaller.
Between the end of the 13th and the beginning of 14th century a number of important manuscripts were produced in Italy, testifying to a written tradition, a reading public and a book production now explicitly dedicated to vernacular texts. These first Italian vernacular books - as well as manuscripts written in French and Provençal in the Northern Italian peninsula – were produced by professional copyists. Moreover, these vernacular books did not differ much from contemporary Latin production, as they still exclusively used the littera textualis (or gothic), a script that had originated in University circles and had extended into all book genres by the end of the 13th century.
By contrast the diffusion of vernacular documents - as opposed to manuscript books - is linked to a practical use and/or to a mercantile environment, with a greater frequency of ‘practical’ texts. These documents differ substantially from contemporary notarial and chancellery production, both in terms of script and layout. Vernacular documents were transcribed in a cursive hand characterized by ligatures at or near the baseline which facilitated the speed of writing. Towards the end of the 13th century, this sort of script developed in two types:
- formal minuscola cancelleresca
- a commercial script called mercantesca
Each of these two scripts was linked to a specific social and professional environment; both were crucial in the political, economic, cultural and linguistic development of the Italian city-states.
The Vernacular in Disguise: the Littera Textualis
Until the end of the 13th century in Western Europe only one script was used in book production: the gothic, best referred to as littera textualis. This script originated in north-eastern France between the end of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th century, soon spread southward and in the middle of the 12th century it reached Italy and Spain. This new script typology developed from the caroline minuscule (the common West European handwriting, from the ninth to the eleventh centuries).
This new, gothic littera textualis was an angular script, characterized by fractured strokes, lateral compression––for which many letters overlap or are simply drawn next to one another while a significant blank space is left between words, reducing interline spacing and causing a minimum height of the ascender.
The littera textualis originated in university environments and mirrored a new way of studying: it favored speed in reading by combining clear subdivision of words, intense use of abbreviations, two-column layouts, hierarchical disposition of decorative elements like initials, and insertions of graphic elements (index notes, paragraph marks, and the like) to aid in the comprehension of the text and in consulting it. This new manner of writing and reading can be considered as one of the aspects – the most important - of a more general new way of producing books. In fact, books, at this point, were no longer produced inside monasteries, but in lay workshops that sprang up around the Universities or in the service of courts, rich merchants, ecclesiastical dignitaries. Thus, producing books was no longer an activity dedicated to God and related exclusively to the internal life of a monastery, but became a commercial enterprise. These new books were created using new techniques, and a variety of specialized artisans were employed in the different phases of their production.
These innovations were so profound and so useful that they soon spread outside of the university environment to the production of different kinds of texts, less complex in their layout and even different in terms of readability. Literary texts, including those in the vernacular, represent a good example of the success of this new type of book production and writing.
When the first entirely vernacular books were produced during the last quarter of the 13th century, the only existing model for them was the prestigious university book written in littera textualis. Later on, during the 14th and 15th century, new graphic strategies were created. But vernacular writings would not lose their ties to the littera textualis, always perceived as the highest in the hierarchy of contemporary scripts, although it was less frequently used for vernacular texts and then mostly limited to literature on saints or didactic texts. Depending on the graphic training received by copyists and writers, gothic script could also appear in everyday writings and, if the level of execution was low, it could also be distorted and deprived of its many characteristics of the script.
|Examples of littera textualis, 13th and 14th century||Examples of littera textualis, 15th century|
|Columbia University, Western MS 012 (1275-1299)||The Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV 13 (before 1356)|
|Morgan Library, MS M676 (1345-1355)||Newberry Library, VAULT Case 129 (1425-1450)|
|Newberry Library, Case MS 27.1 (early XIV century)||Newberry Library, VAULT Case 79 (1450-1499)|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 122 (1359 ca.)||Newberry Library, VAULT Case 219 (1460-1480)|
|Morgan Library, MS M502 (1375 ca.)||Newberry Library, Case Wing ZW 1 .45 (1450 ca.)|
|Columbia University, X511.AL3 (1375-1399)||Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 171 (1400-1499)|
|UCLA, Rouse MS 60 (1300-1399)||Newberry Library, VAULT folio Case MS 87 .1 (1400-1499)|
New Vernacular Expressions
During the course of the 13th century, complex and widespread sociocultural changes promoted the creation of a new cursive type, particularly in the second half of the century when the literacy numbers were at the highest level since the second century: this was mostly true for central and northern Italy, especially the liveliest and economically strongest regions such as Tuscany (and in particular Florence), Emilia, Veneto but also Umbria and Lazio. In all of these areas, conditions were ideal for the flourishing of a mercantile and artisan social class and a political, executive, bureaucratic and administrative class. This last group was often composed of notaries. In these same regions, the vernaculars were promoted through an increasingly varied and articulated literature.
The new cursive soon became the common script for the newly literate. Between the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century, it split into two independent graphic types, each perfectly reflecting one of two emerging cultural powers particular to the make-up of the Italian city state: notaries and merchants. The first group identified with the minuscule cancelleresca and the second with the mercantesca: these two scripts, even though they had different traits, developed in parallel trajectories that not infrequently intersected. The mercantesca, however, ultimately outlived the cancelleresca.
Minuscola Cancelleresca (Chancery Script)
The minuscola cancelleresca was a script typical of public (papal, imperial, regal or noble chancellery) and private (notarial) documents. It was characterized by a cursive motion of the pen with counterclockwise ligatures along or near the baseline, an absence of contrast in the thickness of strokes, round letters, a pronounced lengthening of ascenders and descenders compared to the body of the letters, and such decorative traits as tails on letters like m and n.
Between the 13th and 14th century, the cancelleresca became the common script of scholars, men of erudition, the laity and those unrelated to the university and ecclesiastical culture. These intellectual figures were mostly identifiable with the municipal upper-middle class with notarial background or training. Already towards the the last decades of the 13th century, the minuscule cancelleresca was also used to transcribe books carrying Latin texts on various municipal activities (municipal and guilds statutes, local chronicles, histories), and the new vernacular literature (poems, prose, poetry, translations). Used for copying books, the minuscola cancelleresca often displays a steady motion of the pen (ductus), ample line-spacing, and regular flourishes in shape and dimension.
This type of book was typically commissioned for politically powerful and wealthy patrons. The resulting books were therefore generally fine copies written on parchment of medium to large dimensions, decorated and illuminated. Especially from the second half of the 14th century, however, less precious and expensive books were also produced in minuscule cancelleresca.
|Examples of minuscola cancelleresca, 14th and 15th century|
|Morgan Library, MS M 289 (1330-1337)|
|University of Pennsylvania, MS Codex 273 (before 1356)|
|Columbia University, Lodge MS 16 (1390-1410)|
Mercantesca (Merchant Script)
The mercantesca, as its name suggests, originated in a mercantile environment, essentially Tuscan, and primarily Florentine. Until the second half of the 16th century, the mercantesca was the usual script of monolingual writers, educated in schools of abbaco (commercial mathematics) or on the job in shops and workshops: in other words, it was the script of merchants, bankers, painters, sculptors, architects, artisans and working men––all belonging to the middle or lower classes––who learned to read and write in vernacular only. Even though it began as a script predominantly used to transcribe commercial documents and accounts, around the end of the 13th century the mercantesca started to be used in manuscript books. The oldest volume containing early vernacular lyrics, Vaticano Latino 3793, considered a first extant example of the Italian literary tradition and of the history of vernacular writings, for example, shows the new script in use for literature.
As many 16th-century treatises on writing inform us, the mercantesca was taught more by practice than by theory. It was characterized by an extremely cursive ductus, rather less so in books than documents, an absence of shading, a straight axis, round and compressed letters, short strokes and round loops––especially in the ascenders––with a return to the right to link the base of the letters, few abbreviations, and an abundance of symbols for measurements and currencies.
A book in mercantesca was typically a “poor” book produced using paper, in a medium-small format, without ruling, decorated with watercolor-pen drawings and containing a variety of texts (a miscellaneous books of this sort is called a zibaldone). This new kind of book survived until the end of 16th century and was mostly linked to non-professional scribes copying vernacular texts for themselves or their own families who sought to create a product that was similar to documents produced by people of the merchant class.
|Examples of mercantesca, 14th century||Examples of littera textualis, 15th and 16th century|
|Newberry Library, VAULT oversize Case MS 27 (1339-1360)||Newberry Library, VAULT Case 227 (1480-1490)|
|UC Berkeley, BANC MS UCB 10 (1385-1399)||University of Chicago, MS 1083 (1455-1519)|
|Columbia University, Plimpton MS 170 (1392-1400)||Newberry Library, VAULT folio Case MS 110 (1501-1529)|
|University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Codex 197 (1342-1395, 1423-1669)||The Getty Institute, MS 860787 (1529-1530)|
|University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Codex 1535 (1385-1399)||UC Berkeley, BANC MS UCB 54 (1501-1542)|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS folio J 035 .182 (1500-1799)|
Autograph texts by the most prominent vernacular literary figures began to be preserved from the 14th century onwards. This novelty (very few autograph texts pre-date the 1300s, none before the 1100s) began with a group of scholars particularly interested in classical Latin culture for its linguistic and socio-literary aspects in particular. Central to their studies was a philological return to the sources and, therefore, to the study of classical texts in manuscripts in late Caroline script (11th -12th century).
Three prominent cases exemplify this crucial moment in the history of writing: Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) and Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406). These three writers expressed in different ways a strong interest in contemporary handwriting, experimenting and therefore creating new ways of writing, using elements derived from the late Caroline miniscule.
|Example of vernacular autographs|
|Morgan Library, MS M 676 (1345-1355)|
Vernacular at a Turning Point: Humanistic Scripts
Between the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century, a new script developed in a restricted and culturally élite Florentine environment: the humanistic script or littera antiqua. The name littera antiqua was chosen by members of the same élite, in opposition to the dominant book script of the time, the littera textualis or littera moderna. The littera antiqua was not the product of a natural evolution from a previous or contemporary script, but rather a re-appropriation of the Caroline miniscule as practiced in the central Middle Ages, perceived by the humanists as an ancient graphic ‘tool’ transmitting those classical texts that were at the center of their studies in terms of language, grammar, rhetoric and literature. By contrast to the previous generation (from Petrarca to Salutati), the new writers imitated not only the late Caroline miniscule in its graphic forms (roundness, absence of shading and ligatures, balanced proportion between the body and the length of vertical strokes), but also the majuscule forms (capitale libraria) associated with that older script. The process for the preparation of the physical books was also reproduced, using the same––by then obsolete––techniques: generally square in format, with a prevalence of a single-column layout, dry-point ruling and ‘white vine’ decorations. Around the 1430s, graphic interest and research into the Caroline model shifted towards the North (Padua and the Veneto) and specifically towards environments characterized by cultural, historical, and architectural interests (and not only philological).
With this change of perspective, the historical reference models changed as well: for the minuscule the reference became the early 9th century Caroline script, and for the majuscule the capitale epigrafica (epigraphic capitals, a genuinely classical script imitated from original imperial inscriptions). From this moment on, this new humanistic script––together with its cursive version––would become the dominant form of writing in the Italian peninsula and eventually in all of Western Europe.
In fact, during the 15th century, cursive humanistic writing became the everyday script for scholars, and for those with an adequate education and significant political and economic positions, such as noblemen and influential merchants and bankers. In this social environment––which proved to be an ideal ‘market’ for the new humanistic book––the first public libraries were formed. Given that humanists focused mostly on classical literature, first Latin and then also Greek, the number of vernacular texts worthy of entering this new literary canon was limited: among them Dante’s Commedia, Petrarch’s works, and vernacular translations of classical texts and modern authors belonging to this new humanistic culture.
|Examples of humanistic, 15th century|
|Newberry Library, VAULT slipcase Ayer MS map 1 (1425 ca.)|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 95 .1 (1425-1475)|
|Lilly Library, Ms Poole 11 (1450-1475 ca.)|
|Library of Congress, TX723 .M3 1460 (1460-1480)|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 97.2 (1463 ca.)|
|University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Codex 255 (1464-1473 ca.)|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 214 (1465-1475)|
|The Getty Institute, MS 900255 (1466)|
|Newberry Library, Wing MS folio ZW 1 .469 (1469)|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 75.5 (1466)|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 70.5 (1480)|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 151 (1480 ca.)|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 101.1 (1485)|
|Newberry Library, folio Inc. 5168 (after 1494)|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case 5A 32 (1497-1567)|
|Newberry Library, VAULT oversize Case MS 137 (1400-1499)|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 75.1 (1450-1499)|
|Newberry Library, VAULT folio Case MS 93 (1450-1499)|
Vernacular Between the 15th and 16th Centuries
In early 15th-century Italy, the emergence of humanistic scripts and their quick dissemination both in book and document form created a series of consequences in an already complex graphic setting:
a) The minuscola cancelleresca (chancery minuscule) was completely abandoned––immediately in book production, and at a slower pace but still by the end of the 1450s, in document production.
b) The sharp divide between different audiences and levels of book production increased, reflecting the greater diversity among patrons and social contexts: precious humanistic books in one category and mercantesca books in another. The humanistic book was a fine ––often luxury––copy produced in specialized workshops. It often included illustrations and decoration by important artists and was considered an indispensable luxury object in the personal libraries of princes and lords, rich middle class merchants, courts and the new bureaucrats emerging as the signoria’s functionaries. The mercantesca book was, by contrast, poor in its general structure and materials, and predominantly monolingual. Its characteristics were appropriate for a public with a medium to low level of literacy, interested in a limited number of literary genres: epic poems, chronicles, ricordanze, devotional texts or technical manuals. One of the manuscripts in our sample actually violates this generalization: the Newberry copy of Marsilio Ficino’s Philosophical Considerations on God and the Soul is a humanist vernacular book written in mercantesca.
c) The production of books in gothic script, mostly religious texts (Bibles, liturgical books, books of hours) or scientific academic works (in law, medicine, philosophy etc.), continued throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. In these cases, Latin was the prevalent language used with a few minor exceptions.
d) A similar differentiation of script types and usage occurred in everyday, practical document production, but the distinctions are less clear and more complex because of the broad dissemination of private writings in many different contexts: differences in family status, varying levels of literacy, and a variety of professional or working contexts. Texts of this sort at this period, mostly written in the vernacular, often display hybrid scripts that combine elements of the humanistic with mercantesca scripts.
Vernacular Writing by Intellectuals and Artists Between the 15th and 16th Centuries
Between the 15th and 16th centuries the number of non-academic scholars and intellectuals (heirs of 14th-century pre-humanists such as Lovato Lovati, Albertino Mussati, Landolfo Colonna and most notably Francesco Petrarca) grew and diversified. Their usual script was a quick and expert cursive, generally humanistic, often mixed with elements derived from the ‘rival’ mercantesca or vice versa. At this time, the recovery of ‘ancient’ (that is, early or high medieval) manuscripts and new philological editions and commentaries of classical texts (both Greek and Latin) constituted the backbone of a vast book production, often characterized by humanistic graphic dress.. The same cultural environments in which this new book type flourished also produced a series of treatises on the status of vernacular Italian, promoting it through the creation of grammars (e.g. Leon Battista Alberti, La Grammatichetta 1438-1441), standardized phonetic, syntactic and morphologic rules (by Gian Giorgio Trissino and Pietro Bembo), and comparative linguistic studies with different neo-Latin variations (by Angelo Colocci).
In this environment, new professional figures began to focus on linguistic and philological issues too: painters, sculptors, architects and goldsmiths. They were at the time still considered simple artisans, a status reflected in their graphic-cultural education. They were mostly trained in workshops, learning techniques necessary for their own profession including the ‘practical’ mercantesca script. As the cultural level of their own work rose, often including classical references, their handwriting also began to develop as a marker of their gradual assimilation into higher intellectual humanistic circles. Michelangelo Buonarroti, for example, notably switched from mercantesca to a more humanistic script. The same happened to the young Raffaello.
|Examples of writing by artists|
|Newberry Library, Case Wing MS ZW 535 .B 943 (1545) - Michelangelo Buonarroti|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 3A 21 (1562) - Lodovico Castelvetro|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 5A 56 (1565) - Benvenuto Cellini|
|Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 4A 32 no. 3 (1578) - Lodovico Castelvetro|
Standardized Vernacular Between the End of the 16th and the 17th Centuries
Towards the middle of the 16th century a new and final push towards standardization involved both language and script. Pietro Bembo’s Prose della volgar lingua was published in 1525, establishing on a theoretical level the existence of the Italian language as well as its honorable place as a literary language. Bembo specified that certain exemplary authors should be used as reference for both prose and poetry since they provided an essential grammar, establishing once and for all the dignity of Italian vernacular alongside Latin. Handwriting manuals with a variety of scripts were produced and published around the same time: these manuals focused in particular on humanistic cursive (both in terms of books and documents), in addition to mercantesca. Between the end of the 15th and the beginning of 16th century, humanistic cursive had acquired some characteristics of the cancelleresca (spirals at the end of vertical strokes, dots above the i, majuscule forms within or at the end of words). This new type of script is what we now call cancelleresca italica. During the 16th century the cancelleresca italica––partly under the influence of certain handwriting manuals of Roman origin (see Arrighi and Palatino) and the work of scribes linked to the Curia, became increasingly artificial, even in its cursive forms. It still represented, however, the basic stylistic model for all professional scripts (those of chancellors, notaries, secretaries, instructors) or upper-class scripts (those of professors, clergy and aristocrats).
During the second half of the 16th century and into the 17th century, a new type of cancelleresca emerged following the example of the Essemplare di più sorti di lettere by Giovan Francesco Cresci (first of many editions: Rome, 1560) and under the pressure of a growing need for private texts. This new cancelleresca italica was more subtle in its strokes in cursive, with rounded “r” and long curved ascenders and descenders. Cresci’s reformed script gained currency throughout Europe, developing into what English speakers would come to call italic handwriting. By this time the use of gothic scripts was largely limited to luxury liturgical texts (especially choir books), while the use of mercantesca was ‘downgraded’ to a script for low and poorly educated classes. The cancelleresca italica was also imported into the new print culture; it remained the only script type through which vernacular Italian (and Latin) was hand-written into modern times.