Lettering at the base of Trajan’s Column at one end of Trajan’s Forum in Rome is regarded by many as one of the best example of Roman Capitals. These majestical letters, with beautiful proportions, are one of the purest guides for any who want to study the proportions of Roman Capitals. On a recent trip to Rome, I was determined to take the best photograph I could of this block of lettering. For many years this Forum was closed for restoration (it is the other side of the road to the main Forum), but I had read that Trajan’s Forum was now open and so I could stand in front of the column and get a good shot.
Good fortune was clearly not smiling on me, as when we were there it was closed yet again, with no date for re-opening, and this was the best photograph of the lettering I was able to get – not what I had planned at all, and only from a side angle. The letters are not narrow as they look here, but grand and rounded. Notice also the way in which a later roof for a porch of an access door has been cut into the last line of the lettering. Interestingly, which you may just be able to make out here, the height of the letters on the top line is greater than the next, and so on until the bottom line. This is because the letters were designed to be viewed from the ground, and by having larger letters at the top, they would look all the same.
There are examples of stunning Roman Capitals all over Rome (including all the modern street names). This is the triumphal Arch of Septimius, just across the road from Trajan’s Forum in the main Forum. It is best viewed, as here, by not going into the Forum itself, but climbing up the path behind the Vittorio Emmanuel monument. The letters were originally bronze and you can make out in close-up the small round darker areas which indicate the attaching pins.
Undaunted by inaccessibility to Trajan’s Column, I knew that there were really good examples of Roman lettering attached to the tombs along the Via Appia, some way out of the city centre and a long walk, but certainly worth a visit. This is just one example. The letters are beautifully cut in marble, and generally their proportions are good – although the letter N is rather too wide in most examples. However, spacing is not always as good as the letter-forms, lines 9 and 11 being examples of letters pushed too tightly together. David Kindersley, the great letter-cutter, used to say that a bad space is worse than a bad letter. See my Calligraphy Clips on spacing.
The Pantheon, the temple to all gods, has some majestical Roman lettering along the top of it. From this you can see how wonderfully clear the letter-forms are. We were standing quite a long way away yet it is clear that Agrippa was involved and it was made (FECIT)!
Even road signs around building sites look good in Rome when Roman Capitals are used, but if we’re also looking at spacing, slightly blur your eyes. The ROM is fine, but perhaps the letter ‘A’ is slightly too far to the right. It is the ‘PIT’, though, in the middle of ‘Capitale’ which really stands out. The letters ‘I’ and ‘T’ need to be further to the right, and join up more with ‘ALE’. But this is being really picky when such a good use is made of this wonderful lettering style.
So what are the proportions for Roman Capitals shown in all these examples? Allowing for the fact that letters need to breath, and don’t always conform, generally speaking the letters in Roman Capitals are regarded as being based on a circle that can be encased within a square, as shown here. Obviously the letter O is that circle, and Q too with its tail (notice it poking out to the right). The letters C, D, and G are also formed from parts of that circle. You can trace them with your finger over the red lines.
Asymmetrical letters, then, are narrower, and the width of half of a square, as shown on the left of the diagram. These are B, E, F, J, K, L, P, R and S.
The odds are the letters I and W. Obviously the letter I is a vertical line. The Romans, very sensibly, had nothing to do with the letter W and it is an awkward letter. Nowadays it is regarded as two very slightly narrower Vs.
To see how Roman Capitals can be made to sing, look at this wonderful example of lettering from Tom Perkins for the Heritage Crafts Awards. THIS is how Roman Capitals should look when they are made into a distinctive personal style.
But lettering should not have a rigid a straight jacket, but room to allow it to breath, so the letter R has a tail that sensibly extends beyond that half a square and the top bowl is larger than that of the letter P, the top and bottom bowls of the letters S and B are not equal in size, and so on. Studying the proportions of Roman Capitals is a good first step, but keeping rigidly to them is not the best second step!
Books you might find useful:
Patricia Lovett, The British Library Companion to Calligraphy, Illumination and Heraldry
Patricia Lovett, The Historical Source Book for Scribes
Lida Lopes Cardozo Kindersley, The Annotated Capital
Lida Lopes Cardozo Kindersley, Letters Slate Cut
Tom Perkins, The Art of Letter Carving in Stone
Edward M Catich, The Origin of the Serif
L C Evetts, Roman Lettering