Handwriting after printing the book

The inspiration for my short story is the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti Múzeum) in Budapest. In some of El Greco's paintings, we can see some of the handwriting of the period, and we also have the opportunity to observe the master's handwriting on a page. After seeing the pictures, I wondered how handwriting could have survived in the 15th and 16th centuries after the invention of printing. Surprisingly, it made a big difference!

Handwriting after printing the book


The invention of printing in the mid-15th century had a dramatic impact on the way books were produced and consumed, and with it the role of scribes in society. While book printing spread rapidly, documents used in business, legal and financial transactions continued to be written by hand. As the medieval scribes disappeared, the economic and social transformation of the Renaissance (starting in Italy) led to the mass emergence of handwriting teachers (scribes), and the invention of printing made it possible to publish manuals that both helped students to practise writing and 'standardised' handwriting, promoting its widespread use.

These "copybooks" not only served as models for copying, but also as a means of promoting the work of the masters and guaranteeing their reputation well beyond the borders of cities and countries. Italy was a forerunner in this (as in many other areas). The cancellareca (italic/cancellor's hand) and the more italic 'Italian hand' quickly seduced scribes. These books influenced the development of handwriting throughout Western Europe, and their success inspired many scribal masters right up to the 20th century.

Nyomtatott kézírás

Printed manuscript

The first typescript books were printed from woodcut plates. The method gave mediocre results, and the scribes were aware that the technique of the time was not capable of reproducing the finer details. Their typefaces had to remain relatively simple and their copybooks conveyed only the basic principles of the various scripts depicted. By the end of the 1500s, however, engravers were able to reproduce almost any typeface on copperplate, and the copybooks themselves began to follow the new techniques and become more sophisticated. Thanks to these publications, handwriting became increasingly popular as books became more widespread.

Far from supplanting the manuscript, the earliest printed books had to be 'completed' by the earliest scribes and owners with large rubricated capital letters and other navigational aids, including page numbers. The size of the margins and the space between the lines were also calculated according to the purpose of the book, as in medieval manuscripts, so that readers could add their notes.

Such a "side note" from El Greco can be seen in the exhibition (photo by me):

Coming back to the paintings, I would definitely recommend visiting the exhibition, as we can see the work of an extraordinary painter. Even though we are in the 16th and 17th centuries, the painter's imagery often seems quite astonishingly modern (see the picture below, which could have been painted at the end of the 19th century).

El Greco in Budapest

El Greco exhibition

Criticised in his own time, El Greco was, until the 19th century, at best a marginal painter on the sidelines of art history, and at worst a madman. To succeed, the master had to wait a few centuries. El Greco is proof that art is never fixed at a single point in time, but is constantly oscillating between past and future, even between temporality and eternity, just as manuscript is.

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