Posted in 1280s, 1290s, Dante, Middle Ages

The discovery of Dante’s handwriting

I recently was alerted to a July 2021 article in The Daily Mail, corroborated by the more serious U.K. paper The Times and several other sources, reporting that a British-born, Florence-based nun named Julia Bolton Holloway discovered a few manuscripts almost certainly written by Dante in the 1280s or 1290s. While researching manuscripts written by students of Dante’s dear surrogate father and guardian Brunetto Latini in several libraries, Sister Julia found some which we have very good reason to believe were penned by the Supreme Poet.

These manuscripts were located in Florence and the Vatican, dated to Dante’s student days, when he was copying books and treatises on government. In the days before the printing press, everything was handwritten, and it was quite common to copy other people’s work for one’s own education or personal library.

Some of the manuscripts from Brunetto Latini’s students were also transcriptions of his own lectures and writings on philosophy, politics, law, government, rhetoric, science, and ethics, greatly influenced by things he learnt while in exile in Spain.

Sister Julia was a professor of Medieval Studies at Princeton before answering the call to become a nun. One of her great passions is Brunetto Latini, whom she’s studied for fifty years. After taking the veil, she moved to Italy and ran the English cemetery in Florence. She also lived for awhile as a hermit in Tuscany. But always, her love of the Middle Ages endured, which was what led her to making this miraculous discovery.

According to Leonardo Bruni (ca. 1370–1444), a historian, humanist, and statesman of the early Renaissance, Dante’s handwriting was Cancelleresca script (Chancery hand), with the same idiosyncrasies as those in the documents Sister Julia discovered. These documents are also the only ones among all the manuscripts written by Brunetto Latini’s students using Cancelleresca.

Cancelleresca was developed by the Apostolic Chancery, a department of the Roman Curia responsible for the Pope’s books and censoring documents. It’s a form of blackletter, known as rotunda script in Italy and with origins in Carolingian minuscule. Among the unique features of the Italian form of this script are uncommon spellings and abbreviations (e.g., milex instead of miles, qui represented by a line under the letter q). It was also less angular than other forms.

The most calligraphic form is officially called minuscola cancelleresca italiana, and eventually began to be used for books instead of government communications like charters.

Sister Julia believes Dante’s father, Alighiero di Bellincione degli Aligheri, taught him to write in Cancelleresca.

In addition to being the only documents written in Cancelleresca, out of all the other known samples from Brunetto Latini’s students, they’re also the only ones written on cheap parchment instead of the more upscale vellum made from calfskin. Though the Alighieris were minor nobility and always had enough money to live comfortably, they also weren’t an über-rich Florentine family like the Portinaris or Falconieris.

Thus, Dante didn’t have the same financial means as the other students. After his father died in the early 1280s, the family’s finances also became more precarious, and Dante had to earn money through selling letters of credit his usurer father had on unpaid loans, charity, loans, and income from family farmland. As Forese Donati, one of his best friends, joked about in the six tenzone they exchanged in the first half of the 1290s, Dante wasn’t exactly a wealthy man, or even bourgeois.

Tana (Gaetana) and Francesco were Dante’s much-younger halfsiblings, to whom he was very close

Sister Julia says, “The handwriting is schoolboy-like in the early manuscripts, but the writing is in excellent Tuscan,” and feels it “provides an insight into his genius.”

The big square imposed on a circle represents God, an idea which Dante later expressed in Canto XXXIII of Paradiso, pondering the geometer who can’t find the principle to square the circle as he gazes upon three circles representing the Trinity.

Given how Dante rescued many women from historical oblivion by recording their names and stories, and how his overall treatment of women is lightyears ahead of the majority of his contemporaries, it feels only fitting that a woman should discover these manuscripts and figure out he wrote them. The good you put out always comes back to you.

Posted in 1990s, Atlantic City books, Cinnimin, Left-Handedness, Writing

What Writing Looks Like Blog Hop


Today is the What Writing Looks Like Blog Hop, in which participants post pictures or print screens of a first draft. It can be written on any medium, with any medium. Posters will share a little bit about what they were writing and why they chose those particular media.

I handwrote a lot of my first drafts, in the days when we only had one computer and I had to wait my turn to use it. Later, after we had several computers and my parents gave me the older models (the ’84 and ’93 Macs were mine and mine only after they were replaced), I continued handwriting some things. Handwritten first drafts include all 8 (novella-sized) books of the now-shelved WTCOAC (We the Children of Atlantic City) series, Max’s House #1, #3, #7, and #8, the four books of the introductory Atlantic City series (none of them anywhere near novel-sized, except the first, after a significant rewrite and restructuring), and, of course, Cinnimin.

99% of Cinnimin is handwritten, and has been since I began it in September ’93. I really began it in December ’91, but the little I’d written is long since lost, and I later recreated what I could remember as a short Part I (one of the VERY few pieces that’s computer-generated). Yes, I’ve been writing a 12-volume book by hand since age 13, for 19 years and counting. I’m not like most people!

Here’s a recent page of writing, from Part LVI, “Crossing the Point of No Return,” Saga VI (Children’s Children). It’s late October 1998, and some of Cinni’s granddaughters are having a sleepover weekend while their troubled parents are extending a recent vacation to Hawaii.

Two shots of the same page. The top half of the page is written in one hand, and the bottom half is in another hand. Can you guess which hand wrote which? Hint: When you’re writing with your right hand, you’re pulling the pen across the page, but with your left hand, you’re pushing it. Some letters also have to be formed at different angles, like how A and O are counter-clockwise with the left hand.

Posted in Atlantic City books, Cinnimin, Writing

Why handwritten?

Even though I grew up on computers and actually hold the old MacWriteII as my favorite word processing program of all time (I still think Word is too complicated and not as simple and straightforward to understand!), there’s something to be said about writing a first draft by hand. I’ve always written Cinnimin by hand, over now 42 notebooks (some multi-subject and others with artificial breaks I created), since starting it in earnest on 3 September 1993. (I always write “Cinnimin continued” and then the start date on the upper right-hand corner of the first page, then write the finish date underneath, because I like to record dates like that.) Only the reconstructed Part I was typed on the computer and then printed out, but that too was originally handwritten back in late ’91. It was written in the same notebook I wrote Part II in, but my mother ripped it out, along with a number of other stories I’d had in notebooks originally used for school, claiming she was making “space,” in the summer of ’93. Yeah, thanks for throwing away my hard work and assuming it was trash!

I handwrote all of the first drafts of the WTCOAC series, the first (which will never see publication but for sections I reworked and put into other books which also covered those events) in a one-subject notebook with a fancy dark blue thick paper cover, six in two three-subject notebooks, and the final one in the first subject of a three-subject notebook which also holds the first drafts of The Very First and the beginning of The Very Next. On the back covers, I drew pictures of the characters at the ages they are during those respective years. And I still see them as looking like that in my mind’s eye so many years later, and when I’m going through their names, I call them to mind in the order I drew them.

I handwrote four of the first drafts of my Max’s House books—#1, #3, #7, and #8. All the rest I typed on the computer. I also began one of my hiatused soft sci-fi books by hand, and my hiatused alternative history where the Tsar was never murdered and Aleksey becomes Tsar in his twenties and goes on to become Russia’s most beloved ruler of all time.

I know it wears one’s hand out, but there’s something to be said for the old-fashionedness of writing a first draft by hand. You’ll certainly never risk losing it to a disk bug or system failure, which I’ve remained paranoid about over the years after experiencing that several times many years ago. I actually do a save every minute, or thereabouts, when I’m typing something, ever since. I don’t want to risk typing a lot and then losing it because there’s a system crash and I didn’t save it till I was done typing for that session. And when you’re writing in a notebook, even though you can’t count words or even really pages (something I didn’t even know a writer was supposed to be concerned about until relatively recently), you can have a good idea of how much space you’re going to be using, and plan accordingly. You can tell in advance when you’re approaching the end, and will know to start wrapping things up and thinking of a good ending passage. If you have to, you continue a bit longer on the inner back cover or stick in a handwritten page if you need a bit more space to finish. I suppose that’s why I’ve been able to keep my handwritten books so much shorter than the books I’ve written on the computer, because I know I don’t have unlimited space to create a story.

I also love seeing how my handwriting has changed over the years, and the kinds of ink I used at various points. It really tells a personal story that you can’t get from looking at words set in Palatino font on a computer screen. When I first began writing Cinnimin, and when I wrote the first drafts of the WTCOAC series, my writing was nicely spaced. But after the Hell I went through in eighth grade, you can see a distinct change to the words being squeezed very tightly together, a writing style that pretty much continues to this day. I’ve always believed the awful treatment I endured from peers in junior high was to blame for my writing becoming so closely squeezed together. Although since I’ve switched to writing with my left hand, my writing is a bit more openly spaced, for whatever reason.

I also love having so many different styles of notebook to look back at, with different materials for the covers—thick paper that’s almost cardboard, regular colored paper, dark colors, light colors, transparent plastic, plastic you can’t see through, animal motifs, a cute smiling kitten with a hairbrush and other vanity supplies (that’s Part IV of Cinnimin), artistic designs, patterns, you name it. Now that I’ve switched my writing hand, I hope I don’t have too much of a problem with the spirals for the ample supply of notebooks I stocked up on a few years ago digging into my arm!

I believe I have enough notebooks to last me through at least the mid-Aughts of Cinnimin, the future Saga VII. I honestly don’t know if I’ll decide to say enough is enough and continue the rest on the computer, but I feel sentimentally bound to finish (bar the finale, which is on the computer) the exact way I started, back before I pretty much had to write everything by hand unless I wanted to work in dribs and drabs when I had permission to use my parents’ computer. I know it’ll be a lot of hard work to transcribe everything (this is going to finish up as one book in twelve volumes!), esp. since the earliest parts were written when I wasn’t the most stellar writer yet, but it’s hard work for a purpose. And when I want to reread it, or just a particular section, all I have to do is pull out the notebooks instead of firing up the computer and staring at a screen.