From computers to cellphones, Twitter to Facebook, the typed word dominates our daily life. With the increasing proliferation of digital technologies, access to writing has become almost universal.  In the 17th century, however, writing was a skill reserved for an educated subset within the European population. Calligraphy, referred to as the “Tenth Muse,” was considered an art form, and its practitioners were often trained schoolmasters. Jan Van de Velde’s 1605 book Spieghel der Schrifkonste (Mirror of the Art of Writing) was published at a pivotal moment in the evolution of Dutch calligraphy. The book displays not only Van de Velde’s renowned penmanship, but also provides insight into the historical evolution of writing as a learned skill. This text secured Van de Velde’s reputation as a master calligrapher.

Dutch calligraphers, including Van de Velde, were educated in the south and migrated to the Northern Netherlands to teach at “French schools.”[i] Van de Velde was born in Antwerp in 1569, and relocated his trade to Rotterdam in 1592 where he served as writing master at the local Latin School. Like many of his peers, Van de Velde supplemented his teaching by publishing writing manuals and copybooks.[ii] Writing manuals taught practitioners how to construct individual letters and words, while copybooks, such as Spieghel, reproduced larger passages as textual models for copying.[iii]  Dutch calligraphers, and in particular Van de Velde, developed a reputation throughout Europe for these copybooks. Van de Velde’s Spieghel reproduces examples of hands throughout Europe, and offers a powerful argument in favor of the running “Italian Hand,” a serpentine, flowing type of script.[iv]

Van de Velde collaborated with the engraver Simon Frisius to publish Spieghel. The book is divided into three parts, the first with examples of Dutch, French, German, and English hands, the second part with cursive hands in Latin, Italian, and Spanish, and the third part with his Fondement-Boeck (Book of Fundamentals). This final section offers Van de Velde’s treaty on the art of handwriting, an effort to “conform to a distinctive, yet universal standard of imitation.”[v] Spieghel illustrates Van de Velde’s particular skill for pennetrekken, or pen flourishes, apparent in Cooper-Hewitt’s print. These flourishes extend from the text in serpentine loops that evolve into images or designs, often of animals, flowers, or mythological creatures. Pennetrekken was an opportunity for the calligrapher to further display his mastery, and Van de Velde was particularly celebrated for his flourishes.[vi] Cooper-Hewitt’s print displays a text in French and features an eagle drawing constructed from Van de Velde’s looping lines and topped with a crown. Spieghel, published in 1605, was followed by a great number of Dutch writing manuals, though none achieved the same reputation as Van de Velde’s book.

[i] Broos, B. P. J. “The ‘O’ of Rembrandt,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, 4 (1971): 151.

[ii] Muller, Sheila D., Ed. Dutch Art: An Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2011), 54.

[iii] “Calligraphy.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 31 Jul. 2013. <>.

[iv] Broos 151.

[v] Muller 54.

[vi] Broos 162.


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