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Encyclopedia Judaica:
Caligraphy and Writing Masters

Hebrew: Table of Contents | Modern Hebrew Caligraphy | The Hebrew Alphabet

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The Jews of southern Europe under Arab influence paid particular attention to calligraphy and beautiful writing. In his ethical will, Judah ibn *Tibbon stressed the importance of writing in a beautiful hand, while Profiat *Duran in his Ma'aseh Efod insisted that as an aid to memory persons should study only from beautifully written books. Italian Jewish teachers in particular regarded calligraphy as an essential part of their pupils' education. When the study of Hebrew spread beyond the Jewish community into the circle of Christian Hebraists in the 16th century, Hebrew writing specimens were occasionally included in the calligraphic handbooks which now became common, e.g., Louis de Olod's Tratado del origen, y arte de escribir bien (Gerona, 1766). Conversely, from the 17th century, Jews began to figure as writing-masters: for example, Jacob Gadelle of Amsterdam (c. 1650) whose portrait was published in mezzotint (perhaps for advertisement); or Salomon Israel (later converted to Christianity as Ignatius Dumay) who flourished as a writing master in Latin as well as Hebrew characters in Oxford (c. 1745). In the 17th and 18th centuries, a new school of Hebrew calligraphers appeared, becoming active in Central Europe. It specialized in books of blessings, occasional prayers, and Passover Haggadot, often illuminated. In some cases the calligraphers modeled their handwriting, as they proudly announced, on "the letters of Amsterdam" – i.e., the fine Sephardi type which had been introduced by the printing-presses of that city. Formal documents such as the *ketubbah occasionally displayed much calligraphic skill. In Amsterdam, among the ex-Marrano community, polemical works in Spanish and Portuguese with artistic title-pages were produced by masters of the calligraphic art, such as Judah Mach-abea (c. 1600) or Michael Lopez (c. 1729). An ornate Hebrew writing book, Saggio di caratteri ebraici ad uso della studiosa gioventù, by Giuseppe Vigovano (engraved by G. Pirani) was published in Verona in 1824; this is the earliest Jewish publication of this type on record.


J.S. da Silva Rosa, Geschiedenis der portugeesche Joden te Amsterdam (1925), 102–3; A. Rubens, Jewish Iconography (1954), no. 2067; C. Roth, in: Oxoniensia, 15 (1950), 63–80; 27 (1963), 73–78; M. Wischnitzer, History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds (1965), 58, 120, 179, 234.

[Cecil Roth]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.


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