TMCnet Feature
September 24, 2019

History of Calligraphy

The first human that had the idea of starting to write probably thought, right away, about how to make this new skill pleasant to the eye. Humans love beautiful, aesthetically pleasing things, and of course, this new art that engages the eye so much should also be as beautiful, lovely, as enticing to the eye as possible. That is how calligraphy started: the art of making your handwriting as aesthetically pleasing and beautiful as possible.

But what were the real origins of calligraphy? What was the first instance of "calligraphy" ever? How did we get to be able to download calligraphy fonts in our computer, from a group of monks in a monastery painstakingly copying a book by hand? Well, it is said that the origins of calligraphy might have been in China, in the 3rd Century before Christ. During that era, the Shang dynasty asked to have beautiful slogans or excerpts of poems engraved in animal bones and turtle shells for a decorative purpose. Since the canvas to use was so small, the characters had to be written slightly slanted to be able to fit them all, which might be what gave origin to the cursive script. After this, it started to be used more often, in a more mainstream way during the 7th Century after Christ also in China, where Buddhist monks started copying manuscripts.

But at the same time, this art form had already started spreading all over the world: the Romans had gotten a hold of it, and started to write beautiful lettering in slabs of marble, either in statues, signs or just to create poems in slabs of marble. The highly geometrical, straight, formal lettering that they used is really representative of ancient art today, and a lot of the times we don't think of it as two separate art forms: we consider the calligraphy as part of the statue, mosaic...

In the 7th Century, calligraphy also started to spread across the Islamic world: since the Qur'an is very strict about artistic depictions, the beautifulness of the letters started to be highly regarded as an art form itself to the point that it started to be considered as the highest art form. The Qur'an started to be written in an increasingly elaborate and ornate way, and excerpts of the book with a beautiful, elaborate calligraphy started to be used in other art forms: clothing, paper, tiles, carpets, stone, jewelry... this love of calligraphy ended up creating two major styles: Kufic, the oldest and most flashy style, and Naskh, the smaller, more ornate style. Islamic calligraphy has continued evolving and evolving and didn't lose any popularity, to the point "calligraffiti", a mix of calligraphy and graffiti is a highly regarded art form in a lot of Islamic countries nowadays.

When it comes to Western calligraphy, after the Romans, reading (and therefore calligraphy) got taken from the masses again, and it became a sign of nobility. Due to this, the only people who could have books were Kings and other royalty, who ordered the monks copying books to write in an increasingly elegant and complicated way to show off their power and luxury. Later, in the 1400s, Guttenberg invents the first printer with movable typefaces and allows the public to get a hold of books again: however, instead of using straightforward lettering that is as small as possible and without adornments... he uses a type of letters that would be closer to what we consider a "serif" today: with small adornments in the letters, demonstrating that humans value beauty above anything else.

However, due to this first typeface being not very legible, what we would consider "typists" nowadays start inventing different letter styles for different purposes: to save money, for better legibility, to be able to fit more words inside a page... and calligraphy continued evolving into what we know of today: hundreds of different fonts, many different typefaces, something with a lot of different aesthetics that can fit every single need you might have.

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