The Renaissance affected change in every sphere of life, but perhaps one of its most enduring legacies are the letterforms it bequeathed to us. But their heritage reaches far beyond the Italian Renaissance to antiquity. In ancient Rome, the Republican and Imperial capitals were joined by rustic capitals, square capitals (Imperial Roman capitals written with a brush), uncials, and half-uncials, in addition to a more rapidly penned cursive for everyday use. From those uncial and half-uncial forms evolved a new formal book-hand practiced in France, that spread rapidly throughout medieval Europe.
This Carolingian script flourished in the eighth and ninth centuries. However, from the beginning of the eleventh century, through to about 1225, the Caroline minuscule (accompanied by a form of uncial majuscule) evolved into a more angular and laterally compressed script. Not only were letterforms affected by this compression, but the letter-spacing too, so much so that letters begin to kiss, bite, and fuse. By the twelfth century, this gothic script, with numerous national and local variations, was fully developed and adopted throughout Europe. However, by the fourteenth century, changes were afoot. Humanists like Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406) and Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459), among others, championed a new semi-gothic script that would thereafter evolve into the humanist book-hand.
In late medieval and early Renaissance Italy
the gothic script, as elsewhere in Europe, was the preeminent formal book-hand. However, the extreme angularity and compression of Northern Textura (or Textualis) was resisted in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. The southern European variant, rotunda or Southern Textualis, is characterized by rounder bows and broader letterforms.
Humanism, a cultural and intellectual movement born in Florence, saw in antiquity a culture vastly superior to their own. Burckhardt describes the early Italian humanists as “mediators between their own age and a venerated antiquity.” (Burckhardt, p. 135). A great deal of their enthusiasm was aimed at restoring classical civilization, embodied in its literature. And so they scoured the earth for manuscripts, transcribed, translated, and copied them in earnest. Seeing that a great number of their venerated classical authors were penned in a script so contrasted to gothic, they mistakenly attributed the medieval Caroline minuscule to antiquity, hence the term ‘littera antica,’ or antique letters. By the time two dusty and tired German clerics arrived at the monastery of Subiaco in the quiet seclusion of the Sabine hills east of Rome, the humanist script was fully evolved, and already a natural choice for manuscripts books of classical literature.