What’s Online no. 3—The Catich Collection

The recent comment by James Mosley re: Father Catich and W.R. Lethaby led to a discussion between us about what Father Catich’s sources were. That prompted me to see if any of Father Catich’s research materials for his books on the Trajan Inscription survive. I knew that St. Ambrose University, the school in Davenport, Iowa, where he that he taught had a collection of his inscriptions, calligraphy and other artistic works since I had been in touch with the archivist years ago. When I went online to see what else might be listed I discovered that the school had digitized the Catich material and made it available online as The Catich Collection. The website is http://catich.sau.edu/

Poking around the site last week I failed to find what I was looking for: photographs, drawings and notes regarding inscriptions made by Father Catich during his stay in Rome in the 1930s. Typing in “letters” in the search engine lead me to one page in a 1935 sketchbook, one page in a 1936 sketchbook and one page in a 1940 sketchbook. The first (sample 1) consists mainly of pencil drawings of versals and textura capitals; the second (sample 1) has a reference to the Trajan Column but no sketches of letters; and the third (sample 8) is a spread about Hebrew letters. I also got two hits for a 1960 sketchbook which were more relevant. The first (sample 10) is a sequence of letter Hs in which Catich is clearly trying out his notion of how the minuscule h developed from the capital form. The second (sample 16) is a spread containing notes on the notion that the inscription’s letters were designed with perspective in mind. In general, the sketchbooks are filled with amateurish drawings of religious figures rather than with letters.

However, on other pages in the 1960 sketchbook there are notes about key works on writing, the alphabet, inscriptions and related sources—including the many Catich cites and lambastes in his books—as well as this intriguing note on sample p. 15:

‘The Pen, as a substitute for the brush, did not come into general use in Egypt until Roman times (after 30 B.C.), although it was used by the Gks. towards the end of the 3rd century B.C. Composed of the reed Phragmites Aegyptiaca, it was pointed at one end & it[s] normal length when new appears to have been abt. six inches.”

Similar notes appear on sample pp. 5 and 12. A few scribbled Imperial capitals appear on sample p. 4.

While The Catich Collection is—so far—a disappointment for anyone looking for the material that Catich used to develop his theories about the origin of the serif and the notion that the broad-edged brush was the tool that determined the basic form of the Trajanic letter, there is much to enjoy in it. There are numerous alphabet stones carved and painted by Catich. Most are Trajanic in style. Some (like Calligraphic Slate BOH 1335) include the basic brush strokes Catich believed underlay the Imperial capitals. An exception is Calligraphic Slate BOH 1322, a gothic/grotesque alphabet. Presumably Catich made it to demonstrate how the broad-edged brush could be used to produce a sans serif letter in the manner of signpainters.

There are also broadsides that explore the Trajanic capitals and their component strokes. See Calligraphy Broadsides 18 and 24 for instance. These broadsides show off Catich’s mastery of the broad-edged brush—as well as his love of pastel colors. Mixed in with the broadsides are two short video clips of him demonstrating writing with the broad-edged brush and also one of him making a rubbing of an inscription. They were done c.1969 and are extremely brief. Finally, a search for letters turns up a series of “illuminated initial letters” Catich produced in which Trajanic capitals are combined with figures. The figures are decidedly contemporary as there are swimmers, hockey players, football players, skiers other athletes alongside various animals and religious figures. However, nos. 009 and 019, a Roman ordinator (making an S) and a Roman stonecutter (making an I and T), stand out. They appear to be the artwork for drawings in Catich’s book on the origin of the serif.