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calligraphy (kəlĭgˈrəfē) [Gr.,=beautiful writing], skilled penmanship practiced as a fine art. See also inscription; paleography.

European Calligraphy

In Europe two sorts of handwriting came into being very early. Cursive script was used for letters and records, while far more polished writing styles, called uncials, were used for literary works. Both styles can be seen in papyrus fragments from the 4th cent. B.C. After the 1st cent. A.D. the development of the half uncial or minuscule letter from the Roman capital gave rise to an extraordinarily beautiful and long-lasting calligraphy.

As tools and materials of high quality came into use, masterpieces of calligraphic art were produced, e.g., the Irish Book of Kells (8th cent.; Trinity College, Dublin; see under Ceanannus Mór) and the English Lindisfarne Gospels (8th cent.; British Mus.; see Holy Island). Carolingian minuscule script and its splendid and complex derivative, known as Gothic, were the principal calligraphic styles from the 9th to the 14th cent.

The humanistic handwriting style of the Renaissance, a deliberate imitation of Carolingian minuscule, was both aesthetically pleasing and extremely legible. The Italian manuscript copyists of the middle to late 15th cent. produced many glorious calligraphic works. Among the best known of these masters were Matteo Contugi, Gianrinaldo Mennio, and Pierantonio Sallando. Alphabet design became a subject of study, and several technical treatises were published on writing styles.

By the late 16th cent., with the secure establishment of the printing press, the art of calligraphy declined generally throughout Europe. Penmanship of a relatively inferior sort was taught in elementary schools in England and in the United States until the late 19th cent. The 20th cent. has experienced a revival of interest in the art, influenced by the work of Owen Jones and William Morris. Fine calligraphy is currently taught in art and craft schools and is exhibited in museums.

Asian Calligraphy

In the East calligraphy has been consistently practiced as a major aesthetic expression. In China, from the 5th cent. B.C., when it was first used, calligraphy has always been considered equal, or even superior, to painting. Chinese calligraphy began with a simplified seal script, known as “chancery script,” in which the width of the strokes varies and the edges and ends are sharp. The perfection of the brush in the 1st cent. A.D. made possible the stylization of chancery script into “regular script,” distinguished by its straight strokes of varying width, and clear, sharp corners, and a cursive “running hand.”

The Japanese value calligraphy as highly as do the Chinese. They began to practice it only in the 7th cent. A.D., with the introduction of Buddhist manuscripts from China. Kukai, c.800, invented the syllabic script, which was based on Chinese characters.

Arabic Calligraphy

The art of calligraphy is also practiced with the limited letter alphabet of Arabic. Because the Muslim faith discourages pictorial representation and reveres the Qur'an, the Islamic peoples esteem calligraphy as highly as do those of East Asia. The earliest Islamic calligraphy is found in the beautiful Qur'ans, written with black ink or gold leaf on parchment or paper in formal, angular script. Begun by the 8th cent., this script was fully developed by the 10th.

Elaborations, such as foliation, interfacing, and other complexities were invented later, but they are used only for decorative work. Qur'ans continued to be copied in austere and monumental letters. In the 12th cent. rounded cursive style was invented and spread throughout Islam. Many different cursive scripts developed thereafter. In Islam calligraphy decorates mosques, pottery, metalwork, and textiles, as well as books.


See H. Child, Calligraphy Today (1964, repr. 1988); D. Miner, ed., 2,000 Years of Calligraphy (1965, repr. 1972); A. Baker, Calligraphy (1973); P. Standard, Calligraphy's Flowering, Decay, and Restoration (1977); Z. Ouyang and W. C. Fong, Chinese Calligraphy (2008); C. Calderhead and H. Cohen, ed., The World Encyclopedia of Calligraphy (2011).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the art of beautiful and precise handwriting. The history of calligraphy is linked with the stylistic evolution of art and with the history of script and writing instruments (the reed pen, or qalam, used in ancient Greece and Rome, also used by Oriental peoples during the medieval period; the quill pen, used in Europe through the first half of the 19th century; and the brush, used in Far Eastern countries). Calligraphers strive not only to provide ease in reading but also to endow handwriting with emotional graphic expressiveness. Calligraphy tends to be either clear outlines that can be read from a distance; expressive, cursive italic script; or ornamental patterns that, at times, impede readability.

In China and other Far Eastern countries, calligraphy was highly valued as an art that communicated emotional and symbolic meanings through graphic signs. These signs do not only communicate the meaning of the word but also embody the thoughts and feelings of the artist. As a result, the calligraphy of China, Korea, and Japan is characterized by rhythmic freedom and vividly expressive brushwork. Well-known Chinese calligraphers include Wang Hsi-chih (fourth century), Hsiian-tsung (eighth century), and Mi Fei (11th century). In Islamic countries, where the pictorial arts were limited, calligraphy became extremely ornamental and rhythmic; geometric and floral designs were often combined with figurative elements. The most notable calligraphers included the masters of neskhi—Ibn Mukla (tenth century), Ibn Bawwab (11th century), and Yaqut Mustasimi (13th century), in Baghdad—as well as the masters of nastaliq—Mir Ali Tabrizi (14th century), Sultan Ali Mesh-khedi (15th century), and Mir Ali Harawi, Shah Mahmud Ni-shapuri, and Ahmad al-Husayni (16th century) in Iran and Middle Asia.

In ancient Greece and Rome, Greek and Latin script was developed; this classical script was characterized by clarity and harmonious proportions. In medieval Europe scriptoria were the calligraphic centers. During this period, the classical regularity of Carolingian calligraphy was replaced by ornamental and fractured Gothic script. In Russia there are outstanding examples of calligraphy; the earliest was the Gospel of Ostromir, which was transcribed by Deacon Grigorii in 1057.

Since the 15th century, engravers, scribes, and artists have assumed the leading role in European calligraphy. They created fanciful calligraphic compositions, which subsequently became luxury items. Book printing sharply restricted the use of calligraphy. With the invention of the typewriter, this art basically became a subject of study in elementary schools (penmanship). Calligraphy is also used as an artistic device in book design, poster art, and commercial graphic art.


Kazi Ahmad. Traktat o kalligrafakh i khudozhnikakh. Moscow-Leningrad, 1947.
Istrin, V. A. Razvitie pis’ma. Moscow, 1961.
Bonacini, C. Bibliografia delle arti scrittorie e della calligrafia. Florence, 1953.
L’art de Fécriture. Paris-Baden-Baden, 1965.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


(graphic arts)
Elegant writing or penmanship as an art and as a profession.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


handwriting, esp beautiful handwriting considered as an art
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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