The Definitive Dwiggins no. 177—Rotunda Sketches

There is a small scrapbook in the original W.A. Dwiggins Collection at the Boston Public Library. Among its miscellaneous contents are five small sheets of paper bearing undated outline drawings of rotunda alphabets. [1] Three sheets contain sets of capitals, one has a mix of capitals and minuscules, and one has minuscules only. Two alphabets are sketched on notepaper from The Carolina hotel in Pinehurst, North Carolina while one set of letters has been drawn on the reverse of an early Dwiggins letterhead. [2] The latter helps to date the five sketches—which all appear to have been done at the same moment—to sometime between August 1906 and May 1907. [3] This post is an attempt to identify the sources Dwiggins drew upon in sketching these sheets of rotunda letters.

Rotunda capitals sketched by W.A. Dwiggins (n.d.). Image courtesy of Special Collections, the Boston Public Library.

The letters above are, by row: M P M D B G; R A P O D; A C F[?] g C M; S P; I. Note the multiple forms of M, including one with a closed left counter. This was a fairly common form in manuscripts. The uncialesque D is a versal. Its inclusion suggests that Dwiggins copied the letters on this sheet from an Italian manuscript. [4]

Rotunda capitals sketched by W.A. Dwiggins (n.d.). Image courtesy of Special Collections, Boston Public Library.

The letters above are, by row: A B C D E F G; H I K L M N O; P Q R S T V U; X Y Z. (Note that I and J are often interchangeable.) Dwiggins copied these capitals from Plate 82 of Alphabets Old and New by Lewis F. Day, one of the few lettering books of the time to include historical examples. Day simply labeled his plate “Italian MSS. 15th and 16th centuries” (see below). The letters look as if they came from an Italian manuscript—or,more likely, multiple manuscripts. What was/were Day’s sources?  J, K, and W are missing because they are letters not used in Latin or Italian. (K and Y are present because they appear in the Greek words “Kyrie eleison”, the name of an important prayer in the Christian liturgy.) Other than changing the line breaks, Dwiggins has faithfully copied the letters shown in Day.

Italian MSS. 15th and 16th Centuries. From Alphabets Old and New by Lewis F. Day (London: B.T. Batsford, 1898), Plate 82.

Rotunda capitals sketched by W.A. Dwiggins (n.d.). Image courtesy of Special Collections, Boston Public Library.

The rotunda capitals on the sheet above are, by row: A B C D E; F G H J (I); K L M; N O P; Q R S; T T U X; Y Z. [5] Dwiggins copied them from Plate 86 of Alphabets Old and New (see below). Day claims to have taken them from a 1570 work by Giovan Francesco Cresci (1534–1614), the 16th century Milanese writing master. However, there is no alphabet in my facsimile copy of Cresci’s Il Perfetto Scrittore (Rome, 1570) matching Plate 86. [6] There is a single page showing littera ecclesiastica capitals, but they are much more elegant (see below). So, where did Day get his letters from? [7]

Dwiggins’ copies of the putative Cresci capitals are freely interpreted and deviate in some details: the order of the two Ts is reversed; the top flourish of A is missing its thick opening section; the curl on the left stem of M is lighter; the bowls of O and Q are rounder; and the X is very different. Oddly, these versions of M, O, Q (somewhat) and X look like the models in the 1902 printing of Day’s book (see the illustration following note 7 below). Many, though not all, of Dwiggins’ letters are actually better composed than those in the 1898 edition of Day—and they certainly reflect the shapes created by a broad-edged pen more accurately than those in the 1902 book.

After G.F. Cresci 1570. From Alphabets Old and New by Lewis F. Day (London: B.T. Batsford, 1898), Plate 86.

Littera ecclesiastica capitals from Il Perfetto Scrittore by Giovanni Francesco Cresci (Rome, 1570).

Dwiggins sketched another group of rotunda letters (minuscules and capitals) on the front of a second sheet of notepaper from The Carolina (see below). These letters are, by row: a b c d e f i g h k l n o p d; q r s t u v w x y z A J P; B E G D T U; A s D R (incomplete) M R g; A S M D S; L. The bottom D is an uncialesque versal.

Rotunda minuscules and capitals sketched by W.A. Dwiggins (n.d.). Image courtesy of Special Collections, Boston Public Library.

The source for the minuscules above might be Plate 141 in Letters and Lettering by Frank Chouteau Brown (Boston: Bates & Guild Company, 1902) (see below). The key to this identification is the straight-legged h and the roman z, both of which are not found in rotunda examples from 15th century Italian manuscripts or even in rotunda typefaces from the incunabula period. They may have been invented by Brown. Also note the presence of w (another invented letter) and two forms of d in Plate 141 as well as the serif at the top of b. Other letters by Dwiggins diverge noticeably from those by Brown (e.g. a, bowed d and r).

Italian Round Gothic Small Letters. 1500. From Letters and Lettering by Frank Chouteau Brown (Boston: Bates & Guild Company, 1902), Plate 141.

Dwiggins’ source for the capitals on this fourth sheet has been harder to identify. The first A, E, J, R, S, and U seem to be based on the Littera Formata capitals in Il Modo de Temperare le Penne by Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi (1523)—and, less perfectly so, do the B, L, first M, P, and T. Although some of the minuscules (e.g. e, g, n, r, t and v) closely resemble those drawn by Dwiggins, Plate 141 in Brown is a better match overall. While there is little doubt that Dwiggins was familiar with the books by Day and Brown, it is unclear where he saw all or part of Il Modo de Temperare, Arrighi’s second and lesser known manual. [8]

Littera Formata from Il Modo de Temperare le Penne by Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi (1523).

Contemporary calligraphers take Arrighi’s name for granted, but prior to the publication of The Calligraphic Models of Ludovico degli Arrighi, surnamed Vincentino: A Complete Facsimile and Introduction by Stanley Morison (Paris: Privately printed for Frederic Warde, 1926), little attention was paid to him by letterers and those interested in the history of writing. His cancellaresca corsiva is not included in Penmanship of the XVI, XVII & XVIIIth Centuries: A Series of Typical Examples from English and Foreign Writing Books selected by Lewis F. Day (London: B.T. Batsford, 1900) and he does not appear at all in Letters and Lettering by Brown or Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering by Edward Johnston (London: John Hogg, 1906). However, some oddities by Arrighi—ribbon letters, interlaced roman capitals, and a textura alphabet—are included in Alphabets Old and New, though not his Littera Formata. [9] Dwiggins never owned a copy of Arrighi’s book and neither did his client and mentor Daniel Berkeley Updike. [10]

The source for a sheet of rotunda minuscules (see below) drawn by Dwiggins can be precisely identified. He copied them from Plate 87 of Alphabets Old and New by Day where they are credited to “Vespasiano 1556”. Day assembled the alphabet from fourteen plates of geometrically constructed rotunda letters in Opera di Frate Vespasiano Amphiareo da Ferrara dell’Ordine Minore Conventvale. For his layout he colored in the letters and reduced them in size. Dwiggins supplemented the Vespasiano letters with w and z, but strangely enough left out j and v.

Rotunda minuscules sketched by W.A. Dwiggins. Image courtesy of Special Collections, Boston Public Library.

Italian. Vespasiano 1556. From Alphabets Old and New by Lewis F. Day (London: B.T. Batsford, 1898), Plate 87.

Constructed rotunda a and b from Opera di Frate Vespasiano Amphiareo…

The sources that Dwiggins derived his rotunda letters from are of interest because the options in the years between 1890 and the 1910 were extremely limited, especially for American lettering artists and designers. [11] There were numerous books on lettering, but only half a dozen of them included historical examples. They were Alphabets: A Manual of Lettering for the Use of Students, with Historical and Practical Descriptions by Edward F. Strange (London and New York: G. Bell & Sons, 1895), Alphabets Old and New by Lewis F. Day (1898), Penmanship of the XVI, XVII & XVIIIth Centuries by Day (1900), Letters and Lettering by Frank Chouteau Brown (1902), Lettering in Ornament; An Enquiry into the Decorative Use of Lettering, Past, Present, and Possible by Day (London: B.T. Batsford, 1902), and Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering by Edward Johnston (1906). [12] All of these books went into multiple editions.

Often, as has been seen in some of the plates reproduced here, the authors of these books redrew and recreated historical alphabets rather than commissioning photographic copies of manuscripts or writing books. The technology existed for the latter but perhaps such images were too costly.

There were almost no collections of manuscript reproductions prior to 1910. The first was Reproductions from Illuminated Manuscripts Series I–III (London: British Museum, Department of Manuscripts, 1907–1908) which included 150 items, but none of them matching the unidentified rotunda letters in Dwiggins’ sketches. The contemporaneous Victoria and Albert Museum Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts Part II: Illuminations, Leaves and Cuttings (London: Printed for His Majesty’s Stationery Office by Wyman & Sons, Limited, 1908) was parsimonious in its images. The first set of reproductions of the celebrated choral books sporting large rotunda letters in the Libreria Piccolomini in the Duomo in Siena was not published until 1910. But Cifre e Ornati nei Corali della Libreria Piccolomini esistenti nella Cattedrale (Siena: [Off. d’arti grafiche R. Falb], 1910) focused on the illuminated miniatures rather than the calligraphy.

Art magazines and journals such as The Burlington Magazine or The Studio rarely reproduced manuscript pages and when they did the emphasis was on the miniatures instead of the calligraphy.

While English lettering artists had access to substantial manuscript collections at the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, and the John Rylands Library in Manchester, their American counterparts had few such opportunities. In contrast, the holdings of illuminated manuscripts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and The Newberry Library in Chicago were all modest at the time. Other American institutions well-known today for their manuscript collections, such as the J. Pierpont Morgan Library, either were not yet established or were still private. [13]

There is one other potential source where Dwiggins might have discovered rotunda letters, especially a variety of capital forms: reproductions of incunables. A surprising number of early printers used rotunda types, including printers in Switzerland, Germany and Spain as well as Italy (e.g. Nicolaus Kesler, Johannes Amerbach, Anton Koberger, and Arnaldo Guillén de Brocar). However, none of the pages illustrated in contemporary books on the history of printing contain a sufficient number of letters similar to those sketched by Dwiggins to be considered his model. Perhaps he gathered letters from multiple examples? [14]

Detail of a 15th century Italian illuminated manuscript written in rotunda. This is typical of a cutting.

Type specimen by Erhard Ratdolt (1486) showing nine sizes of rotunda letters. Among the capitals is M with a closed left counter.

Rotunda in Use

These five sheets of rotunda sketches by Dwiggins coincided with two motto cards he designed for Boston publisher Alfred Bartlett in September 1906 and a greeting card done for E.O. Grover published in 1907. The Bartlett cards are “The Human Touch” by John H. Tearle and “To My Friend” by Richard Burton by while the Grover card, done for The Canterbury Company in Chicago, is “An Honest Friend” by Robert Louis Stevenson. [15]

The rotunda lettering in the Tearle card is the most authentic of the three, with capitals that look as if they were derived from Dwiggins’ research (though there is no precedent in his sketches for the four H variants). An exception to the sense of authenticity is the presence of the straight-legged h found in his sketches along with his invented w.  However, with the Burton and Stevenson cards Dwiggins broke away from historical rotunda models by using roman capitals (and, in the Stevenson quotation, a textura W). Both cards suggest that he was aiming for increased clarity. Certainly, the Stevenson card is the most assured of the trio with a better sense of rhythm and spacing. Dwiggins’ confidence is especially evident in his pairing of textura with rotunda. [16]

“To My Friend” by John H. Tearle. Motto card designed and lettered by W.A. Dwiggins for Alfred Bartlett (1906). Image courtesy of Special Collections, Boston Public Library.

“The Human Touch” by Richard Burton. Motto card designed and lettered by W.A. Dwiggins for Alfred Bartlett (1906). Image courtesy of Special Collections, Boston Public Library.

“An Honest Friend” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Greeting card designed and lettered for the Canterbury Company (1907). Image courtesy of Special Collections, Boston Public Library.


The sources that Dwiggins looked at in drawing some of his rotunda capitals (specifically the two Ms with semi-closed left counters, the double-peaked angular M, and the two versions of S with a double-stroke spine) remain unidentified. These letters may look peculiar to modern eyes, but they are not inventions. They are most likely from one or more 15th century Italian liturgical manuscripts such as an antiphonary or choral book or perhaps from cuttings taken from such manuscripts. [17]

Investigations into the resources that American designers in the early 20th century had at their disposal are important for establishing a better understanding of professional practice. [18] This is especially important given the prevalence of work—illustrations, decoration, and lettering—based on European models and the emphasis in the trade on learning the styles of the past, from Ancient Egypt to 18th century England. [19] Copying the past was an established aspect of graphic design—in work for advertising as much as for magazines and books—before the arrival of art moderne in the late 1920s. In this respect Dwiggins’ efforts to study rotunda letters as inspiration for the lettering of greeting cards were nothing out of the ordinary.

1. The small scrapbook is located in the Boston Public Library, 1974 W.A. Dwiggins Collection, Box 80pb.
2. The Carolina in Pinehurst, North Carolina was owned by Leonard Tufts of Boston. The notepaper lists H.W. Priest as manager. He worked there in the winter months (from January to mid-April) and then worked as manager in the summer months of the Hotel Preston in Beach Bluff, Massachusetts early in his career and then The Wentworth near Portsmouth, New Hampshire later on. The Carolina notepaper is of no use in dating the alphabets since Priest was its manager from 1896 through at least 1921. For a description of The Carolina see Pinehurst, N.C.: A Brief Description of the Leading Health and Recreation Resort of the South … (Boston: Leonard Tufts, 1906). How Dwiggins acquired the notepaper is unclear as he never visited the hotel. He may have known either Tufts or Priest since they both lived in the Boston area, but there are no jobs for either man listed in Dwiggins’ surviving account books.
3. The Dwiggins letterhead reads: WILL DWIGGINS / THE DECORATION OF BOOKS / DECORATIVE ILLUSTRATION / LETTERING. It was first used in August 1906 and then supplanted with a different letterhead in May 1907. See the Huntington Library, Merrymount Press Collection, Correspondence—letter 108: 19 W.A. Dwiggins to Daniel Berkeley Updike, 25 August 1906 and letter 108:61 Dwiggins to Updike, undated but sent between 17 and 20 May 1907.
4. These letters are copied on the reverse of notepaper from The Carolina.
5. These letters are copied on the reverse of a Dwiggins letterhead (see note 3). The text is slightly visible at the bottom.
6. Il Perfetto Scrittore by Giovanni Francesco Cresci (Rome, 1570) Facsimile (Nieuwkoop, Netherlands: Miland Publishers, 1972). Views of all online scans of Cresci’s book have been blocked. Four other pages of minuscule littera ecclesiastica samples precede the page of capitals.
7. Strangely, in the 1902 printing these capitals—taking up two pages and crudely redrawn in outline with cross-hatching as Plate 69—are captioned “Italian. After Vespasiano. 16th Century.” However, there are no such capitals in the Opera di Frate Vespasiano Amphiareo da Ferrara dell’Ordine Minore Conventvale (Venice, 1572) (first published 1548 in Venice under the title Uno novo modo d’insegnar a scrivere). Furthermore, the revised second edition (1906) and the revised third edition (1910) of Day’s book have the original 1898 Plate 86 crediting Cresci.

Italian. After Vespasiano. 16th Century. From Alphabets Old and New by Lewis F. Day (London: B.T. Batsford, 1902), Plate 69.

8. The National League of Handicraft Societies, formed in February 1907, had a library for members that included the books by Lewis F. Day and Frank Chouteau Brown. Dwiggins, as a member of the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston, one of the League’s constituent societies, would have had access to the library. At some point Dwiggins owned a copy of Brown. See Boston Public Library, 1974 W.A. Dwiggins Collection, Box 106 [original numbering].
9. See Alphabets Old and New, Plates 88–91. Arrighi’s manuals were included in various English, French, and Italian bibliographies of writing books in the 1890s, but without illustrations.
10. Although Dwiggins did not own a copy of Arrighi, he did purchase a copy of the contemporary Il Presente Libro… by Giovantonio Tagliente (1525) from Updike in 1911 for $13.50. See the Huntington Library, Merrymount Press Collection, Business Records, Sales 1911–1914, entry for 13 June 1911 for D194 (Dwiggins’ designation in The Merrymount Press account books). The book is now item 20.9 in the Dorothy Abbe book collection, Boston Public Library.
11. In this discussion I am focusing on English-language resources.
12. The Story of the Alphabet by Edward Clodd (London: George Newnes, Ltd., 1900) is not relevant since it confines itself to the origins of writing.
13. It is unclear how many illuminated manuscripts these American museums and libraries had by 1910. A 1914 history of The Metropolitan Museum of Art emphasizes the donation that Mrs. Lucy Drexel made in 1888, but it consisted of only 23 manuscripts. No other subsequent donations were cited. The annual handbooks of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston occasionally mention donations of illuminated manuscripts, all of which are very small. The Newberry Library had 150 manuscripts in 1896, but the major C.L. Ricketts Collection was not acquired until 1941. The Morgan Lbrary was completed in 1907 but not opened to the public until 1924. The Spencer Collection was donated to the New York Public Library in 1913. And the Houghton Library at Harvard University was not established until 1942. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened in 1903, but it does not seem to have had any Italian manuscripts written in rotunda. See A Choice of Manuscripts and Bookbindings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner, Fenway Court (Boston: Privately printed, 1922).
14. I looked at work by printers John Schall (1475), Nicolaus Jenson (1479), John Herbert (1483), Erhard Ratdolt (1486),  Nicolaus Kesler (1489), Johannes Amerbach (1491), Anton Koberger (1492), Andrea Torresani (1496), Lucantonio Giunta (1511), and Arnaldo Guillén de Brocar (1511 and 1515). Some had one or two letters identical to those in Dwiggins’ sketches, but none—including Ratdolt’s famous type specimen—had a majority. The double-peaked, angular M appears in a 1494 Venetian book reproduced in Early Venetian Printing Illustrated (Venice: Ferd. Ongania, London: John Nimmo, and New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895), p. 107.
15. See the Boston Public Library, 1974 W.A. Dwiggins Collection, Box 40, Folder 14 and Box 41, Folder 20. None of these jobs appears in the surviving Dwiggins account books in the 1974 Dwiggins Collection, Boston Public Library. Alfred Bartlett (1870–1926) was an important early client of Dwiggins and Edwin Osgood Grover (1870–1965), his college classmate and colleague, became a Dwiggins client as well. They will both be discussed in future posts.
16. The cadel initials in the two Bartlett cards look to be based on letters in Letters and Lettering by Brown, Plate 166. Although they are captioned “Italian Gothic Initials. Giov. Palatino, 16th Century,” they do not appear in the 1548, 1550, or 1561 editions of Libro di M. Giovambattista Palatino cittadino romano: nel qual s’insegna à Scriuer ogni sorte lettera, Antica & Moderna, di qualunque natione, con le Sue Regole, & Misure, &… or in the Compendio del Gran Volvme de l’Arte del Bene et Leggiadramente Scrivere Tvtte le Sorti di Lettere et Caratteri: Con le lor Regole, Misure, & Essempi by Giambattista Palatino (Venice, 1578). Instead there is a lighter set of cadel initials. So where did Brown get his alphabet from? Dwiggins’ cadels are heavier and better balanced than their Palatino models.

Italian Gothic Initials. Giov. Palatino, 16th Century. From Letters and Lettering by Frank Chouteau Brown (Boston: Bates & Guild Company, 1902).

17. The popularity of Italian illuminated manuscripts, including cuttings, by collectors from the Renaissance to the 20th century is discussed in Italian Illuminated Manuscripts in the J. Paul Getty Museum 2nd ed. by Thomas Kren and Kurt Barstow (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015), p. viii. Although cuttings focus on miniatures and illuminated initials, many have bits of calligraphy including some capital letters.
18. Uncovering the sources underlying Dwiggins’ work, especially in the years 1900 to 1920, has been a constant theme of The Definitive Dwiggins blog posts. See numbers 18, 23, 25, 37, 41, 48, 52, 62, 63, 70, 165, 168, 180, and 198. There will be more.
19. For instance, see Historic Design in Printing: Reproductions of Book Covers, Borders, Initials, Decorations, Printers’ Marks and Devices Comprising Reference Material for the Designer, Printer, Advertiser and Publisher by Henry Lewis Johnson (Boston: The Graphic Arts Company, 1923) and The Art & Practice of Typography: A Manual of American Printing by Edmund G. Gress (New York: Oswald Publishing Company, 1910).