In 2004 I moved to Mauritius, a small island to the east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. One of the advantages of the downbeat life in the tropics, was that I had time for my research. It was also then, when my attention shifted from typography to handwriting.
It all started when I realized that my own handwriting had deteriorated so much, that it was hardly readable. I decided to re–teach myself handwriting and bought a couple of ‘how to’ books full of advice and theory, mainly aimed at children, with few examples of what I thought would be a adult mature hand.
But, among the next batch of books that I had ordered, there was one that immediately stood out, despite it being an inexpensive somewhat jaded second–hand book, the beauty of La Operina caught my attention immediately.
On the first page I was greeted with a handwritten dedication by the author (the kind of surprise we can expect in a second hand books). The first words from the introduction from, the translator and commentator of this edition, Paul Standard (1896–1992), were: ‘Long considered the finest writing manual of the western world…’
Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi (1475–1527), was the author of this book originally called The Method or Rule for writing the Cursive or Chancery letter, first published in 1522. Arrighi was, an accomplished scribe and printer (See pages 28 and 29). His work is another proof of the recurrent theme in this book: the connection between book typography and handwriting.
Right at the beginning of his manual Arrighi reminds us that the printed model is ‘as close to my handwriting as I can manage. If they do not answer all your needs, I pray you pardon me, since the press cannot fully represent the living hand’. The scripts in the book follow actual handwriting, but were printed from woodblocks and the true effect of the handwritten page is lost.
He continues ‘first we should learn make these two strokes , with which all the chancery letters begin. Of these two one is flat and thick, and other is slanting and thin’.
In other words, considering strokes as shapes comes first to describe the strokes.
What I found so fascinating about Arrighi’s manual was it’s rational approach. He presents a model that is systematically built and precisely described and structured on an imaginary oblong.
I remember that this idea came to me as a revelation. For the first time I had a method to follow to write (construct) letters. What the method proposed was that one single stroke is made of parts. As in cursive writing the letters are written without lifting the pen, these individual parts are not revealed, the elements are, so as to say, hiding. Dividing the strokes into segments is not a ‘de-constructionist’ approach, but a genetic one.
Arrighi’s oblong offered a solution to the usually received idea that handwritten letters are based on circles or ovals.
Construction of the ‘body’ of letter a.
The same body is used for the letters a, d, c, g and q.
Nearly all letters are formed based on the oblong.
This is the complete alphabet.