In Europe two sorts of handwriting came into being very early. Cursive script was used for letters and records, while far more polished writing styles, called uncials, were used for literary works. Both styles can be seen in papyrus fragments from the 4th cent. B.C. After the 1st cent. A.D. the development of the half uncial or minuscule letter from the Roman capital gave rise to an extraordinarily beautiful and long-lasting calligraphy.
As tools and materials of high quality came into use, masterpieces of calligraphic art were produced, e.g., the Irish Book of Kells (8th cent.; Trinity College, Dublin; see under Ceanannus Mór) and the English Lindisfarne Gospels (8th cent.; British Mus.; see Holy Island). Carolingian minuscule script and its splendid and complex derivative, known as Gothic, were the principal calligraphic styles from the 9th to the 14th cent.
The humanistic handwriting style of the Renaissance, a deliberate imitation of Carolingian minuscule, was both aesthetically pleasing and extremely legible. The Italian manuscript copyists of the middle to late 15th cent. produced many glorious calligraphic works. Among the best known of these masters were Matteo Contugi, Gianrinaldo Mennio, and Pierantonio Sallando. Alphabet design became a subject of study, and several technical treatises were published on writing styles.
By the late 16th cent., with the secure establishment of the printing press, the art of calligraphy declined generally throughout Europe. Penmanship of a relatively inferior sort was taught in elementary schools in England and in the United States until the late 19th cent. The 20th cent. has experienced a revival of interest in the art, influenced by the work of Owen Jones and William Morris. Fine calligraphy is currently taught in art and craft schools and is exhibited in museums.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.