Exploring the square capitals of Codex Sangallensis 1394, a fifth-century manuscript.

square capitals practice
The first 7 lines are a fairly close copy of the manuscript page. After that, I began making adjustments. Walnut ink and 1mm Tape nib on Strathmore Drawing 400. Yeah, it’s a horrible photograph. I may try again in daylight.

Square capitals

I have become particularly interested in capitals as a text hand. If you read this blog regularly, you may have noticed that I have long been drawn to capitals as a way to create texture on a page. (See this post and this one and this one. ) And square capitals are one of the styles of capitals that are found as a text hand in historical manuscripts.

I first began teaching the class, “Capitals as Text & Tiny Paintings as Graphical Elements” at the end of 2020. (See this blog post for more information.) I was able to organize my thinking about capitals as a text hand when I took an inspiring class with John Stevens in early 2021.

Then I took a really interesting class with Ewan Clayton in October and November. Six hour-long lectures traced the development of capital letters from the beginning of writing to contemporary times, and they were jam-packed with examples and information. And I mean jam-packed: there were sometime more than a hundred images covered in an hour!

Historical manuscripts

During the course of that survey of capitals square capitals caught my attention. They are found in only two historical manuscripts (that we know of so far), but it is thought that this hand was used in many more documents that have since been lost. One of the two manuscripts is Vergilius Augusteus, written around the 4th century, and only seven leaves survive. I found an image of page ruler (https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.lat.3256), which enabled me to figure that the original letters on that page had been written at 5.6 – 6.0 mm high, and that the distance from the first baseline to the last was 200mm. When I divided by 18 lines, I got a line leading measurement of 11 mm. The calculations gave me my guidelines.

Codex Sangallensis 1394, written in the 5th century, is the only other extant example of square capitals as a manuscript hand. Only eleven leaves — partial leaves, really — survive. You can see them here:

I began this page in my daily journal by copying the first seven lines of this page as closely as possible:
and then began to make adjustment for quirks that I wanted to leave out. I’ll keep working for another few pages, at least.

Daily lettering: freely written capitals with leftover gouaches

Freely written capitals using that same palette of leftover gouaches and a 1.5mm Brause nib.

I’m thinking that the little meander book (2.5 x 3.5 in or so) in the corner may be how I got this leftover palette of gouache in the first place. The colors match. If so, then I began with three primaries (warm yellow and blue, cool red), and that’s it.

At this rate, I’ll be binding another journal of daily lettering soon.

Exemplar as an exercise in humility

Developing an exemplar is one of the most humbling exercises that a calligrapher can undertake. Having spent hours on this one, a number of thoughts tumble (my original typo “thumble” seems apt) through my head, in no particular order:

  • In most of my work I usually choose Roman capitals to go with italic minuscules, and it shows here. Which leads me to the specific note …
  • G: pick an oval, won’t you? That G bears no resemblance to the C or O or Q.
  • D: doesn’t have much base.
  • U: there’s an awful lot of skinny in the connecting stroke.
  • F: looks like it’s mid-jump on a pogo stick; that’s a paste-up error.
  • M: has a heavy top left shoulder.
  • W: has an awkward join on the right bottom corner; I’m usually better about that.
  • Z: well, I don’t know what exactly, but the base is not straight and it looks wooden; perhaps I should have flattened the pen angle a bit more on the horizontals
  • L: although I didn’t spend much time on kerning, the L is noticeably too close to the M. It’s all crowded but I wanted them as large as possible but still fitting on a letter-size page.
  • J: also wooden, except where it’s wavy when it shouldn’t be.

Sigh. Well, I do like the P and R … That leaves only 24 letters that need work.

I used a partially dried-out 5mm Zig marker so that students can see how the letters are being made.

2015-02-06 italic plain caps exemplar