Hello, I am Olena Mudalige. I am a second-year PhD candidate at the Kharkiv State Academy of Design and Arts, studying Design. I previously completed a master’s degree studying art criticism and graphic practices and have qualified as an art critic and lecturer. I have come to the UK under the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ programme after leaving Ukraine on February 24 2022 and have become affiliated with the CREWS project through the European Research Area for Ukraine (ERA4Ukraine), https://euraxess.ec.europa.eu/ukraine scheme. I’m currently interested in the origins and early forms of writing and in the history of study of writing in the ancient world. Today I want to write a bit about different graphical traditions in Roman writing.

The small number of surviving Latin inscriptions is explained by the fact that they were applied to marble only in the second half of the 1st C. BC. Prior to this, inscriptions were applied to tuff and limestone, which were prone to erosion from wind and rain. Inscriptions were erected on public buildings, triumphal arches, columns, tombstones. They were a reflection of the cultural aspects of the history of Roman society and a means of public and solemn representation of the Roman Empire in a vast territory from the British Isles to Egypt, from Gibraltar to the deep regions of Asia.

The widespread use of writing in ancient Rome, the high percentage of the population which was literate, the growth of libraries, the opening of enterprises for correspondence and distribution of books, public readings – all this contributed to the development of the art of beautiful writing and the emergence of the profession of ‘font master’.

The art of font developed over time and acquired new forms. In the 1st to 3rd centuries AD the most widespread style was the square capital font, giving a wide stroke when moving down and to the right, and a thin line when moving to the left and horizontally. The text was placed between two straight lines, with no spaces between words and sentences. The easy-to-read, strict, proportional forms of the square capital font tended towards monumentality and were most often used epigraphically on memorials carved on stones.

Here is an example of Roman monumental writing of the 1st C. BC. It is an inscription dedicated to a consul who died in battle, found in Rome on the site of the Campus Martius. Currently, the plaque is kept in the Vatican Museum.

Inscription on a slab from the Campus Martius in Rome. 1st C. BC. Vatican Museums

Another example is an inscription in honour of the emperor Augustus on an Egyptian obelisk brought back to Rome after his conquest of Egypt. This inscription has more graceful, less squat letters. The inscribed obelisk is located in Piazza di Montecitorio in Rome.

An inscription on an Egyptian obelisk. Piazza di Montechitorio in Rome. 1st C. BC

The most perfect, classic example of a square capital font, which inspired the creators of Latin fonts for quite a long time, is the inscription on the pedestal of Trajan’s Column in Rome (2nd C. AD), which has also survived to this day. The inscription glorifies the last great conquest in the history of Ancient Rome, namely, the victory of the Roman legionnaires over Dacia (part of the territory of modern Romania) and its incorporation into the empire. Located at a height of 2.5 m from the ground, the letters of the inscription seem the same when viewed from below due to the skillful consideration of the laws of perspective and the real increase in the height of the letters on the upper lines.

Inscription on the pedestal of Trajan’s Column, Rome. 2nd C. AD

The structure of Roman capital type harmoniously coexists and is inextricably linked with ancient architecture. This can be seen in the alternation of its straight and rounded lines of letters, similar to the architectural components of Roman buildings – columns, semicircular vaults and horizontal cornices.

There are several peculiarities of the square capital font: only capital letters (majuscule) are used and letters are arranged between two parallel lines. The distance between these lines is equal to the height of the letters and the letters, together with the serifs fit into a square. The distance between letters is optically uniform. Letters consist of combinations of simple elements: circles, semicircles and lines. There is a clearly defined alternation of thin and thick strokes and the angle of diagonal strokes is 25-30º; the inclination of the axis of rounded letters to the left is 18°. The presence of light serifs emphasises the horizontality of the line.

Such a font is understandable, concise, neat, has a stable form and is economical in its image, which contributed to its popularity among the general public of Roman society. In the Renaissance it attracted a lot of imitators and became the basis of many Latin-style fonts called ‘antiquas’.

Manuscript of Virgil’s Aeneid. 5th C. AD. Vatican Library

To write books and business papers that required an accelerated pace of writing and an economic arrangement of as many characters as possible in a line, rustic capital writing (the so-called ‘peasant’) was used in parallel with the square capitals. The letters of this script seem compressed, narrow and high due to the presence of thin vertical and wide horizontal strokes. Line spacing is half the height of letters. The inscription has the appearance of a solid block and words are only sometimes separated by dots. The angle of inclination of the pen is not less than 60 º. Rustic capital writing, like capital square writing, consists exclusively of capital letters. Rustic writing was used until the end of the 11th C. AD, despite the development of new types of writing. The Vatican Apostolic Library contains ancient handwritten texts from the beginning of the 5th C. AD, with the works of the 1st C. BC Roman poet Virgil executed in rustic capital writing.

The capital letters used in classical Roman inscriptions are the most living element of the heritage handed down to us by antiquity. No other civilisation has endowed its inscriptions with such an unmistakable character, such a form, that it has not lost any relevance and still constitutes a means of communication in the languages of many people.

~ Olena Mudalige

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