Historia of Type — The Capitalis Monumentalis

Charchit Garg
Mar 1 · 4 min read

This article is the continuation of the Previous Article in which I shared about the evolution of letters. In this article, I’ll specifically discuss the Roman Square Capitals, how they’re formed and how the Romans has influenced the World of Typography Today.

Roman Square Capitals, also called Capitalis Monumentalis, Inscriptional Capitals, Elegant Capitals and Capitalis Quadrata, are an ancient Roman form of writing, and the basis for today’s modern capital letters.

Sometime around the First Century BC, Roman lapidary (from Latin lapis “stone”) dramatically changed from a flat and monoline inscription to a much more elegant geometrically based letter with terminal serifs. And exactly how or why this change occurred is still the subject of some debate, but it most likely has to do with Roman calligraphy. The letterforms, however, represent perhaps the most elegant, and certainly the most celebrated example of the Roman letter.

Square Capitals were used to write inscriptions and were used less for everyday handwriting. For everyday writing, the Romans used a current cursive hand known as Latin cursive.

Square Capitals are characterized by Sharp, Straight Lines, Supple Curves, Thick and Thin Strokes, Angled Stressing and Incised Serifs. These Roman capitals are also called majuscules, as equivalent to minuscule letters such as Merovingian and Carolingian. Notable examples of square capitals used for inscriptions are found on the Roman Pantheon, Trajan’s Column, and the Arch of Titus, All are situated in Rome.

Roman Pantheon | Source: Wikipedia

Square capitals were greatly respected by artisans of the Renaissance such as Geoffroy Tory and Felice Feliciano. A few centuries later, they were also a major inspiration for artisans of the Arts and Crafts movement such as Edward Johnston and Eric Gill.

Fr. Edward Catich is known for the complete development of the thesis that the inscribed Roman square capitals owed their form, including the serifs, wholly to the use of the flat brush, rather than to the urgent need of the chisel or other stone cutting tools. Catich made a complete study and proposed a convincing ductus by which the forms were created, using a flat brush and then chisel. He communicated his views in two works, Letters Redrawn from the Trajan Inscription in Rome and The Origin of the Serif: Brush Writing and Roman Letters.

In his seminal studies, Catich made the case that the letters were quickly drawn using a flat chisel-shaped brush (at about a 35° angle), creating the modulation of stroke widths as well as the serifs, then cut with a hammer and chisel into a V-shape, creating the illusion of form through shadow.

He extensively studied the individual letters and found that the vertical strokes were about twice as thick as the horizontal ones, and the height of the letters is about nine times the width of the vertical strokes ― proportions that he considered nearly ideal. Perkins, further analyzing Catich’s drawings, found that the letters closely followed the classic geometries of the square, the golden rectangle and the similar root five rectangle.

So, it’s pretty clear that the inscription is the first inscription which is drawn geometrically and is also calligraphic. According to Catich, the inscription is “the best roman letter designed in the Western world, and the one which most nearly approaches an alphabetic ideal,” or, even stated even more emphatically by White: “No single designer, nor the aggregate influence of all the generations since, has been able to alter the form, add to the legibility, or improve the proportion of any single letter therein.”

During the early era of the movable type printing press, Roman square capitals became the primary inspiration for the capital letters in early serif typefaces. The 1989 digital typeface Trajan from Adobe is a direct, all-capital adaptation of the Roman square capitals on Trajan’s column.


David Lance Goines is an American Artist, Calligrapher, Typographer, Printing Entrepreneur, and Author. In 1982, he published his calligraphic classic book A Constructed Roman Alphabet. The classic shows a detailed step by step process of designing Roman Square Capitals from scratch using geometry.

Click here to access the Electronic Version of the book which I found on codex99.com to design the Roman Type with your hands.

Here’s one screenshot from the Book

Originally published at charchitgarg.com on March 1, 2019.

Charchit Garg

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I share what I write in my so called "Crap Diary" and some other stuff too. Sorry for not being specific here.

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