The truth is that the Roman Majuscule “Capitalis Monumentalis” is perhaps the most majestic and seductive alphabet produced in the West in over 2000 years. And it is with us everywhere we go, from street signs to advertising to government buildings and museums, and very often even unto our final resting places. It is far more than an accident of history that these sublime letterforms have traveled the corridors of time and show little, if any, hint of ever being deflected from their magnificent paths of deployment. Yes, they ARE difficult to render with pen and ink. But let us first remember that this alphabet was originally designed to be carved in stone, not for the writing of manuscripts. The Roman alphabet evolved from Greek forms of the 5th century BC and slowly developed into the elegant and sophisticated letters that adorn the great monuments of ancient Rome and the wealthier cities scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The letters attained their highest degree of refinement during the late 1st-mid 2nd century AD when the Empire was at peace (Pax Romana) and at the peak of its prosperity. The intention was to extol the deeds and accomplishments of the emperors in as resounding a manner as possible; hence carving them in marble on the temples, arches and great public buildings explains the nomenclature of Monumental Capitals. Just as they strike fear and trepidation in neophyte scribes, so too were they meant to convey a feeling of awe and power in the viewer as he/she wended his/her way through the crowds on the way to the forum or the gladiatorial games. “MATINÉE TODAY: CLAUDIUS vs MARIUS”
Exercitatio optimus est magister (Practice is the best instructor)
No less an authority than Sheila Waters believes that these letters are mystical and mysterious, and that “somehow you never quite get them.” What this really means is that the forms display an abundance of subtleties that are tantalizingly elusive, from the slight swelling at the heads to the even slighter swelling at the foot of the letter (a mimicry of the architectural concept of entasis, so prevalent in classical architecture), to the 4-degree angle off the vertical of the 1st stroke of M to the 6-degree of the right hand stroke. “Who cares about 4-degrees and 6-degrees?” Well, you do… and if you don’t, then you should. Because only then, when you begin to focus on these deceptively trivial elements does your calligraphy begin to achieve a polish and refinement that hitherto you may have only sporadically attained. Studying Roman Caps trains your hand to master greater control and touch incorporating techniques of pressure and release, and to write with strength and conviction. Your eye is likewise sensitized to correct rhythmic spacing and enables you to identify active counterspace as opposed to “dead” space that can ruin a design. A heading of beautifully rendered Romans is an immediate attention grabber, just as the emperors intended, and sets a tone of anticipation for what follows.
Yes, the alphabet requires a commitment of time and patience. Precise, voluptuous forms in general will not magically emerge after only a 2-day workshop, but the building blocks will have been put securely in place. Augustus Caesar, who reigned 41 years, declared that he found Rome a city of brick but left it a city of marble. And was Rome built in a day? Obviously, the effort to build The Eternal City was worth it.
Barry Morentz began studying calligraphy 37 years ago, and like most normal newcomers avoided Roman Caps like plague for the first three years. After an intensive workshop with Julian Waters he experienced The Great Awakening, and he has been studiously challenged and happily seduced by these wondrous forms ever since.