UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

A reassessment of early Renaissance inscriptional letters Evans, Gerald


The early inscriptional display letters which were the immediate successors of the Italian Gothic Uncialesque of the fourteenth century were the so-called lettere antiche of the fifteenth century. Very similar to the letters which today are called sans serif, the lettere antiche were not used for all purposes, but only on monuments having antique associations. They were employed by the renowned artists of the early Renaissance for a period of some seventy years (1400-1470) until they were supplanted by the so-called neo-Trajanic letters, display letters of exceptional beauty and grace which resembled quite faithfully the original Trajanic letters of the Roman Empire. Neo-Trajanic letters remained canonic for some three centuries until, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, letters of the sans serif variety reappeared and have remained quite popular and widely used to this day. Early inscriptionals were viewed by nineteenth and early twentieth century art historians and palaeographers as transitional between the Gothic Uncialesque and the neo-Trajanic letters. They were thought to be experimental efforts at achieving an authentically antique style and therefore only marginally antique. That opinion was reinforced by a seeming lack of stylistic continuity among the lettere antiche. After the mid-twentieth century, however, art historians began to question the generally negative appraisal that early inscriptionals had hitherto received. In reappraising the lettere antiche, however, these modern critics were not systematic enough to provide an adequate explanation either of the subtlety of the assumptions that supported the traditional view of the early inscriptionals or of the historical and calligraphic significance of the lettere antiche. The objective of this thesis is twofold: to establish first that the lettere antiche are genuinely antique, where antiqueness is stylistically conceived; second, that they express a stylistic continuity that reveals the conscious calligraphic intention of the early Renaissance artists. In short, I intend to question the negative appraisal that early inscriptionals have received in the past by challenging the assumptions that supported that appraisal. In order to facilitate an understanding of the misinterpretations of the inscriptional evidence implicit in the traditional view, it will be necessary to provide a comprehensive view of epigraphy in the early Renaissance. To accomplish these ends, I have adopted the following structure for my thesis. The Introduction and Chapter I will give an overview of the general problem and of the historical process by which the transition from the Gothic Uncialesque to the Trajanic letters was made. From this it will also become clear why critical opinion was led to a negative appraisal of the lettere antiche. Chapter II delineates the views of the two modern critics most responsible for the contemporary reassessment of the lettere antiche, giving the substance of these views and evaluating them. Chapter III introduces a method of stylistically determining the 'antiqueness' or 'gothicness' of a script independent of its authenticity as a known period style. By that method the lettere antiche are then evaluated and found to be genuinely antique. Chapter IV sets forth a neutral system of analysis, employing an objective palaeographic methodology, by which early inscriptionals may be analyzed and classified in terms of their qualities, and not in terms of their departure from or adherence to a norm. Drawing on the conclusions of Chapter III, and employing the methodology introduced in Chapter IV, Chapter V concludes the argument of this thesis with a reclassification of early inscriptionals by which valid lines of stylistic continuity may be demonstrated. In the Conclusion of the thesis, I apply the pattern of stylistic continuity which emerged from the classification of early inscriptionals in Chapter V to reveal significant variations in the manner of letter execution from the beginning to the end of the seventy year period under consideration. These variations disclose the real nature of the experimentation which can be said to have characterized the efforts of early Renaissance calligraphers.

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