The Diagonal Join and Angularity

By Alfred Fairbank
Date Added: 17/07/2009


The invention of the italic hand was credited to Niccolo de Niccoli by the late B. L. Ullman. Niccoli used the diagonal join. This aid to speed is to be found in medieval cursives. and Professor Ullman agreed with my guess that Niccoli, having used the join when taught a medieval cursive in his youth, introduced it into the newly-adopted Carolingian minuscule and thus changed the style and proportions of the humanistic (roman) script. So about 1423 a new script arose. What influence Niccoli's writing had on the later 15th-century humanistic cursives (italic) is not clear, and, as Niccoli was not a skilful penman, I often wonder if our homage should go to Poggio. There are also many Renaissance scripts displaying the natural modification of book-hands caused by fluency: roman turning into italic.

The diagonal join is as much a cursive feature as a Gothic one. A cursive hand could be said to be one written with evident reluctance to lift the pen from the paper. The stress of speed may reduce the number of pen-strokes in writing m from three to one. It may also link up letters. In the copperplate tradition, all letters are linked by continuing strokes, to the abuse of letter-forms. There is no strict rule on linking in italic handwriting.

In the 1920's I had tried but failed to write quickly enough for ordinary purposes with every letter separate, as taught by Graily Hewitt at that time. I realised that I must use joins and so I sought to find a kind of join suitable for the use of the chisel-pointed pen and different from the joins in the Vere Foster hand I had been taught at school. In my searches a convincing example was provided by the writing-manual of G. A. Tagliente and particularly in the word ‘imparare’. I recall thinking that, if I could embody the diagonal joins of Tagliente into a hand nearer to that of the Spaniard F. Lucas, I might have a good cursive script.

The upward sideways hairline stroke, as one sees it in Tagliente's word imparare above, proceeds from sharp angle to sharp angle, in what I thought could be called a diagonal join. The name has stuck. The sharpness of the angles in Tagliente's model owes more, however, to wood-engraving than to cursive penmanship.

Handwriting is a system of movements, involving touch. As a demonstration, move the pen to-and-fro along a straight course some several inches long. When it reaches the two terminals there must surely be an infinitesimal moment when the pen-point stops before returning. This constitutes a break in frequency, though slight. Instead of a straight course, now move the pen in shallow ellipses. Then the pen would not stop at the point of return, though, of course, speed would be reduced. Here, then, is a principle, relating to movement, that can be applied to the design of italic exemplars: namely, that, where possible, sharply angular points should be avoided. For example, the letter n should begin and end not with sharp points but with very narrow bends. It is true that the difference between the sharp angle and the narrow bend may be so slight and subtle that both may be thought to be angular, and said to be so; but the effect on fluency is significant and can be felt. Anybody writing the italic letters a,d,h,i,l,m,n,u at first with sharp angles would tend to make them into narrow bends as speed increased. It is sensible, therefore, to start with narrow bends where possible and anticipate the effect of speed.

An interesting feature, which I have noticed occasionally in Renaissance hands, is that, in writing the letter n, the scribe, possibly unconsciously, has turned the direction of the narrow bend to the left of the first down-stroke. The movement has the virtue of making n less likely to be taken for u, but, as yet, I have hesitated to adopt it in my teaching; for, if not properly understood, it might debase writing by exaggeration.

The diagonal join, being an upstroke, is best made by a sideways upstroke producing a hairline. The angle of hairline will partly depend on the way the pen is held, and partly on the style of nib. If the hairline is as much as 60°, the script would be narrower, in my view, than is suitable in teaching children. The angle of 45° which I recommend can be arrived at (and few teachers, I find, are geometrically certain in guessing angles) by a simple test: make a cross so +.

If the strokes (perpendicular and horizontal) are equally thick the angle of hairline is 45°. If the horizontal stroke is thinner than the vertical, the pen is probably pointing more to the right shoulder than to a point above the elbow, and the angle is less than 45°. If the reverse is the case, the elbow may be too far from the body and the hairline is at an angle greater than 45°.

One must admit that the diagonal join may not be always a straight stroke, and therefore the name diagonal then fails to be exact. When u runs on to i, the link would possibly take on some of the curvature a narrow bend would give to the first upstroke of the u. Also, in joining from u to n, the n, for clarity, should begin with a bend and not a sharp angle.