Ascenders in Writing Models

By Alfred Fairbank
Date Added: 17/07/2009


The writing papers of the sixteenth century often presented a rather rough surface to the pen. The quill when sharply 'nibbed' might splutter ink spots over the paper if frictional resistance from a non-smooth surface was experienced as the pen was pushed against its edge. With contemporary smooth papers and easy-running pens ... we do not suffer much from this awkwardness, though I have had a few students who have found that pushed-strokes gave them some difficulty. In a formal hand of the carolingian tradition the letters are built up in such a way that pushed-strokes are avoided, but they occur in italic and are best dealt with by smooth paper, easy-running pen and a light touch.

Arrighi in LA OPERINA teaches that the letters abcdefghkloqsxyz (but xyz do not seem relevant) should begin with a stroke that is flat and thick and has a return movement: the stroke moves from left to right, returns from right to left, and then descends. In this way, the friction on beginning, to write a letter is reduced. It is doubtful whether any calligraphers of today use this 'lead-in-and-return' movement when writing their exemplars, and this is a good thing, for models should be economical in the movements they indicate and our equipment does not require the expedient.

One can see in Arrighi's examples that the to-and-fro movement in starting certain letters did produce a greater thickness than the pen would make if initially pushed from right to left, and this is particularly noticeable in the ascenders. Indeed it is clear from Arrighi's copy of Collenucci's APOLOGUES (BULLETIN No 15) that the movement from right to left was often not an exact retracing of the lead-in stroke. Arrighi was giving his ascenders a somewhat formed decorative feature, but it was not one that he had invented. The humanistic bookhands of the fifteenth century all display some sort of accent at the tops of b, d, h, k and I, made in various ways. The 'kerns' used by Arrighi were not uncommon in documents of that period.

Palatino's models of 1540 also show ascenders formed much as they were by Arrighi but in his later examples published in 1566 the thickening of the kerns was more ~ shaped and bulbous. Palatino's revised models have been held to have been influenced by Cresci's copy-book of 1560, which I have not seen. The bulbous beginnings of ascenders are distractingly obtrusive in Hercolani's examples and spot and spoil the ~ pages (cf. plate 36 of A BOOK OF SCRIPTS). The bulbous kerns spread to England.

When Peter Bales, signing himself as Cypherar, offered his services to Lord Burleigh 'for a poore Newyeares gltt', he treated his ascenders in the style. A simple movement, made to help ease in writing, developed into an overpowering decorative element in the copies of John Davies and Martin Billingsley (plates 38 and 39 of A BOOK OF SCRIPTS).

A fact to be appreciated is that the bulbous kerns of Cresci's cancellaresca testegiatta were in use many years earlier. Figure I and 2 are taken from a letter written in 1509 (British Museum Add. 28272). Other evidence could be cited.

Handwriting is a system of movements. The movements in making the kerns as by Hercolani are rather more up-and-down than horizontally to-and-fro, as in Arrighi's examplar. Can these movements have encouraged the introduction of loops in writing-manuals?