What exactly is italic?

Handwriting / What exactly is italic?

A modern handwriting style—with heritage

Italic is a contemporary version of a style of writing that was popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and is particularly suited to modern writing instruments. The capitals are based on shapes and proportions of classical Roman inscriptions.

Children in Icelandic schools are taught joined letters from the outset. The style is legible and handsome. But its chief advantage is an excellent movement pattern that has been refined by centuries of scribal practice.

Letters at an angle

Usually italic has a slight slant, three to four degrees. Some versions are written at a greater angle. A slight backslant is useful for left-handed writers.

Condensed writing

The style has a width-to-height proportion ratio of 2:3. But this is open to personal choice.

Distinctive shape: the a-family

The bowls of italic have a characteristic triangular shape that extends in part to the letters u and y.

Distinctive shape: the b-family

Turned upside-down, the same triangular shape is used in six letters.

Two-stroke letter e

The italic letter e is best made with two movements, the way it was written well into the seventeenth century. The alternative, a common loop, is easily confused with either a low letter l or the letter t with a missing crossbar.

Left-turning letter f

The descender of the letter f in the italic style turns to the left. This was a fifteenth-century innovation, probably to match other descenders. The new shape had too close a resemblance to the now-obsolete long s, shown on the right. For more on that subject, see the brief story of the letter f.

Historical support

The italic revival owes much to a slim instruction manual called La Operina (Rome 1522). In 32 pages, Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi explains his approach with examples that are admired the world over.

Distinctive shape, 1522

The second line from the bottom in the example above shows Arrighi’s basic shapes: bowls of soft triangles.

Origins 1: 14th century movement pattern

Italic handwriting was invented in the early 1420s by Niccolò Niccoli, a Florentine scholar. No doubt his education involved learning blackletter cursive, with movements that had evolved over centuries.

This is a 14th century example of the style, a pilgrims’ guide to the city of Rome (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1093).<https://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/csg/1093/1v>

Origins 2: great lettershapes, 11th century

Many rediscovered manuscripts prized by renaissance scholars were written in the Carolingian hand. Copies made by Niccoli were influenced by this style, but had the movement pattern of blackletter cursive.

This example is from a plenary missal, with chants and prayers for the mass, in a late Carolingian minuscule, 11th century (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 343). <https://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/csg/0343/16/0/Sequence-490>

The Carolingian style was sometimes referred to as ‘littera antiqua’ and blackletter called ‘littera moderna’.

Origins 3: movement and lettershapes combined in a new style

Early italic has neither a close resemblance to blackletter cursive nor carolingian minuscule. But in time these humble beginnings led to chancery cursive and copperplate writing, and onward to both various commercial cursives and modern italic. It also provided the basis of the most popular calligraphic style in the Latin alphabet.

From Cicero: Orator and Brutus. Bibl Nazionale, Florence, Conv. Sopp. J.I14.

Modern adaptation

Alfred Fairbank was in the forefront of the italic revival in the twentieth century. This example was written with a broad-edge pen.

Ideal for children

An average, ten year old English boy wrote this. The text is in Icelandic, which he had not come across before. Like all other children at the Staplehurst Primary School, he was taught italic.

Should children learn to write with a broad-edge pen? It's great when it works, a mess when it doesn’t.