First Published in 1998 Letter Arts Review


Three considerations contribute to change and growth in the 2000-year development of the Roman alphabet. Are these the same things that drive creativity in other art forms?

In the undulating chronicle of change in written letterforms from ancient Rome to the present there is a lesson buried about the creative process. When art combines with language or communication it is necessary that the forms remain true to traditional codes while still being able to expand under the influence of personal autograph and expression. A combination of factors have held the Roman alphabet in a state of balanced tension over its history, keeping it open for invention and evolution yet bound by the precedent of an ideal from.

The ancient Romans, by what divinations we do not understand, arrived at a set of alphabet symbols which have survived the sack and plunder of two thousand years. When we view this period under time compression, the Roman alphabet, reaching for new expressions then returning to ancient traditions, reaching and returning, creates an almost liquid feeling of movement.

In the first century, we see the formal Roman majuscule relax its shape then move toward a rounder shape – then, like a primeval life form, acquire legs and reorganize itself toward its development as a minuscule letter. Gradually we see the Roman scripts mutate and depart from the ancestral forms and become absorbed by regional tastes. There they are left to languish separately and illegibly while losing their function to carry language and literature. In the 8th century we see this explosion of exotic individual hands reined in as traditions of uniformity and aesthetic principles are brought back to the shaping of letters. Further drifts continue to occur as the Carolingian model moves toward Gothic, giving way to more vertical movements of the hand, sacrificing legibility and proportion for a new artistry and ease. Then the call back to ancient Rome during the Renaissance: the reawakening to the harmony and grace in the classical Roman majuscules and the effort to retrace the logic and spirit that infused them. The drift continues into the 16th century and beyond as new technologies are introduced and invention and artistry bring writing to bizarre heights of decorative virtuosity, but the ill-considered letter shapes collapse under the weight, until finally the inexpert hand runs away with the script.

Three factors contribute to the ebb and flow of these shifts. It is the overlapping relationship among the three that make combustible all of the ingredients of creative change. The first factor is the tendency among artists to observe traditional, ideal forms. Second, is the kinesthetic influence of the hand at work, and third, is the “individual” creative intent.

The first factor recognizes that in every art that must reliably transmit a set of formal structures from one generation to another there exists the notion of an ideal or traditional version of that form. This is evident in stylized representations of the human figure, in decorative symbols in preliterate African art, or in the patterns of movement in martial arts in eastern cultures. It can be seen in the movements of ballet, the motifs in Greek vase painting, or in the principles of proportion and balance in the design of classical Roman majuscules. Each of these art forms was created for aesthetic balance, harmony and structural resilience to be able to withstand the stresses and strains of generations of handling. It’s not known whether these forms were created in a single moment or over time, the result of one person’s work or a gathering of sages, whether it was by divine inspiration or collective unconscious agreement. But there is general acceptance of the idea that certain movement patterns, symbols and their relationships to one anther come as close as we dare admit to formal perfection. And in spite of a persistent drift away from them, it is toward these forms and the principles that guide them that we keep a recurring vigilance. In the 8th century under Charlemagne and Alcuin a tremendous structural revision of the minuscule alphabet took place involving the reapplication of ancient principles in search of original ‘new’ forms. Renaissance artists and scholars also looked backwards for their move forward, adapting the old to new technologies and taste.

The second factor is the creative influence of the hand at work. When an artist tries to copy a model set down before him, with all his effort focused on reproducing it faithfully, the individual rhythms of his hands at work get absorbed into the piece adding a specific style and distinction that invariably set it apart from the original. This cooperation of the hand with the artist’s purpose gives the piece its energy and tone. If the hand becomes dominant in this partnership, responding to internal rhythms by drawing on the emotional and energetic systems of the body, a kinetic response can occur in the hand that can cause an erosion of the artist’s intent away from a faithful replication of the model. The power of the individual hand following its own path is that it can debauch or energize, create slippage or new growth. Degenerative or regressive actions of the hand are most clearly recognized in some of the cursive variations that digress from many of the formal hands. But progressive changes can occur from the rebellious rhythms of the hand as well. Is it possible that the relationship between formal capitals and the Rustic style that followed in the 2nd century had something to do with the hand in a condition of lassitude? Did the hand forge a path to this new variation, slipping into its own more natural movements and the broad strokes the reed pen enabled? Were those narrow Gothic letters artistically imagined outgrowths of Carolingian letters designed to save space? Or, since it is unquestionably hard for the hand to produce the series of compound curves required to write a Carolingian hand, could it be that the more rhythmic, vertical patterning of Gothic letters was in part the hand’s invention?

The third force for change recognizes the creative influence of the artist’s imagination as the protagonist. The individual mind upon which the impact of experience is imprinted and its ability to transform experience into a personal symbolic language, gives evidence to the existence of an internal creative consciousness. Our image of the calendar, the twelve months of the year, has been inviolable for at least two thousand years. No essential reinterpretation, no reinvention. How is it then, when you ask individuals to draw their conception of a year, to trace a path of months through all the seasons, the shapes are astoundingly out of sync with the calendar grid and take on personal significance? For some, summer becomes an interminably long downhill glide as it bends sharply into the shot uphill climb toward December. For some, the calendar is a line, for others it takes on an amorphous circular pattern. For some, it is three-dimensional and for others a simple oval.

The power of the individual to transform his own visual and sensory material suggests a distinctly personal contribution is possible in the long-term evolution of traditional forms. What nourishes the artist’s unique imprint is his sphere of experience. Regional, artistic, social, political and technological influences make up the sensory material that the creative mind folds into his artistic purpose. Thus, letterforms have been pushed to further variations by the introduction of new tools; cultural climates of unrest and rebirth; the thrust of private experience. Was it in such a spirit of experimentation and striving for the new that the ascenders in the Irish letters of the Book of Kells were clubbed? Were the idiosyncratic Beneventan hand and the 17th century copperplate scripts in some part products of an overheated imagination? Were the uncial shapes more comfortable shapes for the hand to get around or would the argument go that they were a consciously imagined arrangement of lines whose design was a deliberate adaptation to the desire for a sweeter, more derisive form, after the imposing constraints of formal Roman Majuscules?

The point of recognizing these three influences is not to assign them individually as direct causes of any particular change, but to recognize how they cooperate with each other within the broad “evolution” of change in the alphabet. Darwin’s theory of evolution offers a striking parallel to these views when he discusses changes within a species. “There may truly be said to be a constant struggle between, on the one hand, the tendency to reversion to a less perfect state, as well as an innate tendency to new variations, and, on the other hand, the power of steady selection to keep the breed true”. As personal expression urges departure from the ideal, the course of time corrects the imbalance. When the hand strays into rhythmic variations, leaving behind an energetic expressiveness, but a possibly unusable system of marks, the guidance of the creative imagination in combination with the intention to follow old rules provides the necessary checks and balances so that function is not forever lost. Likewise, when traditional form begins to lose purchase, new variations show up in more current aesthetic trends. In these ways, the elements of change trade off, keeping the forms open for change but ultimately safe from destruction.

It is essential, however, to acknowledge the blurred edges of these three influences as they overlap and graduate into one another. For example, it is impossible not to link the kinesthetic responses of the hand with creative interpretation. Likewise, who is to say that the hand in its habitual meanderings might not guide the artist straight back to the memory of traditional ideal form? These ideas do not intend to demystify the process of art, but by examining these mutable factors that contribute to the evolution of the Roman alphabet, perhaps we do reveal something about forces that shape the creative process.

As calligraphers, we strive for some kind of division within the boundaries of a piece of art: between the veneration of the formal; the attraction to the imaginative, speculative, unresolved; as well as to the playfulness of the rhythmic. Each of these takes its turn in the creative process. Some works weigh more heavily toward the traditional, others toward the imaginative or kinetic. Since the Roman alphabet seems built for structural and aesthetic durability, and history balances it whenever it strays too far afield, why not go out on a limb, lose our bearings, and find expression and newness in the art? Because after all, the more we are remembered for the surprise of our inventions, the more we will be kept in check.