Last updated: 10 March 2015

This page is dedicated to rendering semi-formal Chancery cursive handwriting based on the exquisite Cancellaresca corsiva hand of Bernardino Cataneo, an Italian renaissance writing master of consummate skill.

The objective is to develop beautiful and elegant writing of small size (approx. 2mm - 2.5mm letter body height) that can be rendered with comfort and ease.

I mostly used edged nib fountain pens with bottled fountain pen inks in rendering the Chancery cursive writing: depicted on this page.

Freely rendered Chancery cursive (Italic) writing

As a young Calligraphy student I initially concentrated on rendering formal round hand writing, but I soon became interested in Chancery cursive writing and set about adapting my versions of it for everyday use.

My initial references were:

"A Handwriting Manual" by Alfred Fairbank
"The first Writing Book -- Arrighi's Operina" by John Howard Benson.
"Three Classics of Italian Calligraphy (Arrighi, Tagliente, Palatino)", Oscar Ogg

I based my Chancery cursive writing at that time on the writing hands of those Italian Renaissance masters.

One day -- sometime in the 1980s -- I was perusing the shelves of a local used book store when I came across the following title:

Example of my own Chancery cursive
handwriting based on that of Cataneo

I had not seen this book mentioned in any of my references, but when I leafed through it I was immediately struck by the beauty and elegance of Cataneo's exquisite writing hand and there and then resolved to make it my model.

[Introductory exemplar of my everyday italic handwriting]
Freely rendered Chancery cursive writing

Bernardino Cataneo was Writing Master (maestro di scrivere) at the University of Siena, Italy, c. 1544-1560. The only known surviving exemplars of his writing are the pages in this copybook, dated 4 February 1545, which has been published in facsimile with explanatory notes by Stephen Harvard -- the book I reference above.

I do not use the Majuscule letter forms of Cataneo, preferring instead my own adaptations of the Majuscules of other practitioners of Italic writing -- and some of my own developments. Similarly, I use classic Roman capitals (Monumentalis capitalis) and humanistic small Roman writing (lettera antica) for my supplemental writing hands (headers, emphasized text, gloss, etc.) instead of the sometimes stylized letter forms of Cataneo.

Developing Chancery cursive (Italic) writing skills

In developing or adapting any writing hand I think it is very important to first concentrate on producing well formed letters, both Majuscules (Capitals or upper case) and minuscules (small or lower case), with precision and consistency -- the essential forms of the letters as Edward Johnston expressed it. You cannot deviate too much from the basic letter forms that the general population is familiar with without degrading legibility. Individual style is incorporated after the basic letter forms have been well learned. Again, the goal is to produce finely crafted letter forms that can be consistently rendered at an acceptable writing speed. The letter forms may not be as pretty as when written slowly and deliberately, but they will still possess a basic loveliness and be eminently readable.

Example of my Chancery cursive
(Italic) handwriting freely rendered

Beginners should not be put off by comparisons of their own freely rendered letter forms to exemplars depicted in books by experienced calligraphers -- those are usually rendered with great deliberation and care under the most favorable conditions (and often after several less perfect renditions have been consigned to the wastebasket) using reservoired steel nibbed pens or even hand cut quills on best quality paper or sometimes calfskin vellum or split sheepskin parchment. The exemplars of Chancery cursive writing by Renaissance Masters were usually rendered on vellum or parchment using painstakingly cut quills. The letter forms in these exemplars are naturally much crisper -- and the flourishes more sweeping -- than can be achieved using fountain pens on everyday writing paper.

I think it is a delightful and satisfying experience to write on paper using pen and ink. The delight is increased a thousand fold if your writing possesses the qualities of beauty, elegance and clarity.


Writing position & surface for everyday handwriting:

You have to adapt to the space and writing surface that is available. When rendering formal display calligraphy, scribes like to use a sloped writing table for comfort and visual acuity. Of course, such an ideal writing arrangement is seldom available in everyday writing situations.

If possible, I write sitting down at a table with a smooth surface. In that circumstance I sit with my upper torso bent forward and relaxed, square to the table, with both feet a comfortable distance apart and flat on the ground. I rest my forearms on the table top. I select a location that provides ample (preferably natural) light. I tilt the paper or document I am writing on a few degrees to the left (I am right handed) for writing comfort. Whenever possible, I use a pad of smooth paper under the writing sheet.

My writing position

Of course, in everyday writing you often have to write in cramped quarters with uneven surfaces and poor lighting, sometimes standing up. In those circumstances you have to make the best of the conditions and assume as comfortable a writing position as possible.

Paper guard:

Whenever possible I rest my writing hand on a folded piece of paper in order to protect the writing surface from the oils which are present in the skin (and which can cause skipping) and in order to provide a place to practice letter forms or test the nib for smoothness and ink flow.

Writing base line guides & templates:

These are necessary to keep the writing straight and evenly spaced on unlined writing paper. When thin, translucent, writing papers are used a thickly lined sheet of paper can be placed under them to provide visible guidelines. When thick and opaque writing papers are used, a template can be prepared from mat board, or a ruler can be used, and the guidelines drawn directly on the writing page surface using a soft lead pencil, the guidelines being erased after the writing is completed. I only use base line guides, for I subscribe to Edward Johnston's postulation that attempting to write using double base line/letter height guidelines inhibits fluid, rhythmic writing and is like trying to dance in a room where the ceiling is the same height as the dancer. In some instances, such as when addressing envelopes, writing guidelines can be dispensed with and the eye alone relied on to keep the writing straight:

Pen hold:

I think that learning how to write well using a pen or pencil starts with developing the correct writing instrument hold.

It is my perception that numerous people these days do not hold pens and pencils correctly, and that causes much frustration for those who aspire to write well. I suspect that the widespread use of ball pointed pens, and maybe the teaching methodologies in schools, has resulted in the emergence of a restrictive, tight grip of the pen or pencil very close to the tip that results in letter formation using the wrist and fingers rather than the arm and shoulders.

The following photograph illustrates the pen hold I was taught as a schoolboy and which I have used ever since. All right handed students were taught, and required to use, this pen/pencil hold:

My pen hold

The shaft is held between the thumb and first finger and rests against the large knuckle of the first finger, on the outside, and on the first knuckle of the middle finger which is curled up with the others to provide a "rest pad" on the writing surface. The writing action is in the manner of "painting" the letters rather than painstakingly forming them. Letter formation is via forearm and shoulder movement rather than by finger and wrist movement. The grip on the pen or pencil is light and relaxed in order to facilitate ease of letter formation and prevent writing fatigue.

Individuals may want to modify the above pen hold slightly in order to obtain a more comfortable writing position.

Note: The Information and scanned exemplars on this page relate to right-handed writers. The following links are to online reference and instructional pages that offer specific information for left-handed writers:

Depiction of edged nib usage:

The following diagram illustrates the correct attitude of the pen nib to the paper for Italic writing. It depicts a broad edged nib, but the principle applies to all edged nibs, no matter how narrow they may be. Numerous fountain pen owners have their iridium tipped nib fountain pens reground to an edged profile by after-market "nibmeisters". Note that if the pen is used as depicted, writing rendered using the forearm and straight, but relaxed, wrist will be easily facilitated.

Relation of nib to line of writing depiction
(by one of my students)


Italian renaissance derived Chancery (Italic) handwriting is characterized by letter forms that are narrow & sloping.

Chancery cursive minuscule letter bodies should be formed within an imaginary right sloping oblong -- the body width being about half of the body height -- with ascenders & descenders about the same length as the letter body height as depicted in the following handwritten diagram with accompanying text:

Letterform structural parameters depiction

"n" values:

I use the minuscule n as the basis for determining letter & word spacing and "weight" of the writing (some teachers use the minuscule "x" instead).

These are the n values that I generally use -- they will produce widely accepted Italic style letter forms. However, there are not any codified n values and there is no penalty for adjusting them to personalize your writing.

Classic Italic letterform bodies are typically 5 nib widths high and are sloped to the right a few degrees.

Slope should not be too severe -- it can be varied on occasion to suit the whim of the writer. Different practitioners use different prescriptions with a recommendation of 5-10° or so being often specified (Cataneo uses a slope of 8°). Of course the slope must be constant.

In general, spacing between letters should be equal to about half the width of n and spacing between words should equal the full width of n.

The foregoing letterform values are not precisely measured or codified -- the idea is to develop a sense of the proportions and relationships -- your eyes, and experience, will do the rest.

Although ascender/descender clashing is normally to be avoided, occasional infringement is unavoidable (especially when swashing is employed) and, if handled with discretion, is generally acceptable. I sometimes use swash descenders for the minuscule k and q. Most calligraphers make Chancery cursive lead-off Majuscule letters (Versals) twice the height of n -- or taller -- but make intra-text Majuscules 1.5 x n height which is the prescription of most Renaissance Writing Masters.

The following exemplar illustrates how I start my letterform renditions:

Starting strokes for minuscule letter forms

Note in particular that the letter "t" is not much taller than the "n" body height (as prescribed by Arrighi) and that the "cross bar" is at the same height as the "n" body.

The following exemplar illustrates the letters that start with a push stroke ..........

Starting push stroke depiction

.......... I have always constructed these letter forms this way whether using pencils, quills, canes, reeds, reservoired "dip" pens or fountain pens.

Descenders should be finished off slowly -- that is, you should slow down as you approach the bottom of the stroke -- just as you do when applying the brakes on your car -- and make sure there is a smooth curvature where appropriate. They should not be rushed. Most calligraphers make the ends square and flat (ala Cataneo). The following exemplar depicts the rendering of finishing descender strokes

Swash minuscule exemplar

Swashed or flourished descender variants are depicted for k and q. When forming them, never forget Edward Johnston's admonition that all flourishes should "crack like a whip" -- they should never be tentative or noodle-like. You have to have courage and purpose when flourishing.

Although most Renaissance Writing Masters prescribe the n body height for all minuscule letterform ascenders and descenders, an examination of renaissance copy books and exemplars shows many different lengths being used with variability in different documents by the same scribe. In general, they should not be too much longer than the letter body height. Of course, Majuscule letters are swashed and flourished to the writer's fancy.

Please note: If you are contemplating adopting this style of writing as your basic hand, then ask yourself the following questions:

If the answers are positive, I would congratulate myself on producing good handwriting and not change one thing!