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What is Calligraphy?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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Calligraphy is the art of writing script in such a way as to express the beauty of what is being written in the formation of the letters themselves.

Calligraphy claims ancient roots in the first recorded forms of expression: the cave paintings of our ancestors some 25,000-30,000 years ago. Eventually this form of pictorial communication became stylized around 3500 B.C. with the development of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Phoenicians followed circa 1000 B.C. with one of the earliest alphabets -- an entirely different writing system in that each symbol represented a sound rather than an idea or picture. The Phoenician alphabet was adopted and modified by many peoples, including the Greeks. The Romans picked up the Greek alphabet and adapted it to suit Latin.

Latin brings us to the beginnings of what many people think of as modern calligraphy. It was the language of the all-powerful churches of the Middle Ages when monks were among the only literate members of society. One of their tasks was committing the word of God to paper, by scribing ancient texts into ornamental volumes to be read by holy elite and royalty. The monks infused the script with a flourishing style that would add glory to the letters themselves as if to make the inscriptions worthy of the holy words they were conveying. The style was also economically narrow to save expensive paper. It became known as Gothic and was the original form of European calligraphy as we think of it today.

By the mid-15th century the printing press was rolling out Bibles in Gothic print preempting the need for monks' calligraphy skills. Beautiful penmanship became vogue among educated society for personal correspondence, formal business and social invitations. As the Renaissance took root and flourished, so did the art of calligraphy and Italians contributed their own script, italic. Then, like the printing press before, engraved copperplates imitated the new italic script and interest in calligraphy once again waned.

By the 19th century the flat-edged pen we associate with calligraphy had been replaced with round-tipped pens, making it difficult to produce the artistic lines needed for calligraphy. The art of calligraphy all but died until British artist and poet, William Morris (1834-1896), took an interest in the lost art of beautiful penmanship. Towards the end of his life he reintroduced the flat-edge pen, reviving the art of calligraphy to its former glory.

Today, despite computers that can mimic any script with clarity, calligraphy is still alive and well. Calligraphy guilds can be found around the world, including the United States, Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, Australia and Spain.

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Discussion Comments
By anon12647 — On May 11, 2008

The first sentence of the article says it all. Calligraphy IS letters, but letters shaped or formed in a very artistic way so as to convey beauty themselves.

For a quick example, if you type a wedding invitation in Times Roman font, it conveys the information required, but in an official, cold, unaffecting way. If the wedding invitation is written in calligraphy, the curvy letters convey a regal beauty befitting a wedding announcement.

To put it crassly, calligraphy amounts to pretty letters.

By anon11760 — On Apr 22, 2008

i still don\'t get what calligraphy is..

calligraphy is an art technique where you use shapes and colours but not letters/writing?

what is the equipment used? and what calligraphy can mean and what it can express? thank you for your time and understanding...

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