January 20, 2005

Figurative Alphabets

Just as there are pictures composed of letters: calligrams, for example; there are, inversely, letters made from pictures. An interesting sub-set of the latter are those alphabets contrived out of human figures…

Detail of fanciful figurative alphabet by Giovannino de Grassi.


Detail of engraved figurative alphabet by Master E.S.

There are many examples of figurative initials in mediæval manuscripts. One of the earliest known alphabets wholly drawn in such a way is that of Giovannino de Grassi (active 1389-98), as detailed in the first of the two images above. The second image shows part of an engraved 15th Century alphabet, strongly reminiscent of de Grassi’s, executed by a German artist known only as ‘Master E.S.’ (active ca. 1450-67), after the initials found on several of his prints.

Letter 'A' from Geofroy Tory's 'Champ Fleury.' Letter 'H' from Geofroy Tory's 'Champ Fleury.'

Geofroy Tory (ca. 1480-1533) was a printer, designer and engraver best known today for his book Champ Fleury, ‘wherein he explains and illustrates the theory governing his designs of Roman capitals.’ These designs, in the best Renaissance fashion, derive from human proportions, and such derivations are illustrated in the book, as in the latters A and H pictured above.

Peter Flötner's figurative alphabet.


Letter 'G' from Martin Weygel's copy of Flötner's alphabet. Letter 'G' from Martin Weygel's copy of Flötner's alphabet.

A complete figurative alphabet was published by one Peter Flötner (ca. 1485-1546) in 1534. In Flötner’s alphabet, naked or nearly-naked figures are posed singly or disposed in pairs to form the various letters. Unlike de Grassi’s alphabet, we find only human figures here, no other animals. And unlike Tory’s illustrations, these letters seem an end in themselves, rather than the means of demonstrating a design strategy. Flötner’s alphabet was imitated by other engravers. The letters G and N above are reproduced from an alphabet published by one Martin Weygel in Bavaria in 1560. Weygel’s alphabet can be found complete at this site.



A few letters from Giuseppe Maria Mitelli's 'Dream Alphabet.'

Giovanni Battista Braccelli, creator of the mysterious Bizzarie di Varie Figuri, was also responsible, we learn, for the design of a figurative alphabet (in 1632). Another odd alphabet, which, alas, I have been unable to find entire, is that by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli (1634-1718), entitled Alfabeto in Sogno (Dream Alphabet), in which each figurated letter is illustrated together with other items meant to suggest or exemplify a word beginning with that same letter. For example, D stands for Diligenza, or, perhaps, Disembodied Ears! Mitelli, like Flötner, is also notable for his creation of a design for a deck of cards…

Had I the stamina, I could continue with further examples from the 18th through to the 20th century, with the figurative alphabets produced varying from the surpassingly elegant to the crudely indecent (for more examples of the latter, see Max Bruinsma’s essay on The Erotics of Type.) For further related reading, see these sites.

Posted by misteraitch at January 20, 2005 10:49 PM | TrackBack

Very nice, I've been looking for something like this like this for a while! Thanks!

Posted by: Karin on January 22, 2005 03:45 PM

Great essay, truly enlighting.

Posted by: Manji on January 23, 2005 02:05 AM

Those are fabulous. I've long had a special affection for the illuminated initials in Medieval manuscripts; I can't wait to further explore on all the links you've provided here.

I love the first deGrassi example. What an excellent scan! It appears to be done on vellum or lambskin; you can see the texture of the background. And the colors are still so vibrant!

The erotic ones remind me somewhat of Beardsley? Didn't he do something similar? I'll have to check my books.

Thanks for this!

Posted by: Peggasus on January 24, 2005 05:26 PM

I agree, a lovely subject and presentation. I've got The Comical Hotch Potch over my desk for inspiration. These figuratively alphabets are visual reminder of the fact that for many, letters and the words they comprise are both physical and intellectual in equal measure. We contort our mouths and minds and position ourselves on them the way these characters assume the poses that lead inexorably to language and communication, with or without words. Congratulations on your silk pajama nomination, and best of luck continuing your site.

Posted by: sissoula on January 26, 2005 10:50 AM


Posted by: David Weman on January 28, 2005 09:11 AM

Again; my favorite site. Do you know where to get the complete alphabet of master E. S.?

Perhaps the following site can be of interest. I have a printer friendly version somewhere if the white-on-black lettering is too hard on the eyes. The bogoscope mail address doesn't exist anymore.


Posted by: runde on January 30, 2005 03:49 PM

Peggasus—the de Grassi image is scanned from a book called Codices Illustres, a fine survey of ‘the world’s most famous illuminated manuscripts.’

Sissoula—I think it’s also worth remembering that the letters of the alphabet ultimately derive from pictorial symbols, some of which represented parts of the body—a hand, an eye, a head, a mouth, a tooth…

Runde—Alas, I was unable to find either the de Grassi, the Master E.S. or the Mitelli alphabets complete. Even for the Fltner and Braccelli alphabets, I could only find relatively small jpegs. Many thanks for your rather fascinating link.

Posted by: misteraitch on January 30, 2005 05:06 PM

sissoula said figuratively...

Posted by: mezizany on February 1, 2005 10:59 PM
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