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Humanist Manuscripts: Paleography

Section 1: Historical Overview

All the previous scripts we’ve studied grew organically from gradual stylistic evolution and the practice of many scribes in many centers. Even Caroline minuscule, which was shaped by the agenda of a particular movement for the reform of texts, language, and liturgy, built on decades of previous experimentation to achieve a clearer script, and emerged from several monastic and scholarly centers at around the same time.

Humanist scripts, by contrast, were the conscious creation of a handful of Florentine scholars.


St. Gallen, Kantonsbibliothek, Vadianische Sammlung,
VadSlg MS 298 (
Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer,
Cod. Bodmer 137, f. 1r. (www.e‑
HMML, MS. Lat. 4, f. 5r. Used under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license.

In the last years of the 14th century, Petrarch began experimenting with a new personal script. He was interested in creating a clearer alternative to the plethora of Gothic scripts familiar in his day. His friends Boccacio and Coluccio Salutati picked up on his experiments. These men were trained in Italian chancery scripts, which had some influence on their experiments, as did Southern Textualis (Rotunda). They were used to reading both the full range of Gothic scripts, which were what they wanted to avoid, as well as Caroline minuscule, which was the script in which the Classical texts they studied had reached the late Middle Ages.

Shortly after the year 1400, Salutati’s student Poggio Bracciolini created a new script in imitation of Caroline minuscule. It is Poggio’s script, as practiced by him and imitated by other scribes in the 15th century, that we know as Humanist minuscule. Within just a few years, another scholar in the same circle, Niccolo Niccolini, created a calligraphic cursive version of Humanist script, which became what we know today as Italic.