From the lost drawer: Italian calligraphy book from the 1900s

Et Cetera

Dating the book

The book is approximately 13.5 cm tall and 28.5 cm wide, and consists of 40 plates plus an illustrated inside cover. There is no explicit printing date, but the publisher — Carlo Barbini Editore — was active between 1860 and 1918. According to this book, which lists all the publishers based in Milan, Italy, that were in business between 1900 and 1945, Carlo Barbini Editore added the book trade to its publishing activities in 1868.

Inside cover

As you can see in the bottom center of the inside cover, the publisher is listed as “Carlo Barbini Librajo Editore”. Libraio (here written in the spelling of the time) means bookseller in Italian. Therefore this book must have been printed after 1868. Since it clearly belonged to my great-grandfather (it has his signature on it) and he was born in the early 1890s, the book was probably used when he was a student during the 1900s (calligraphy was taught in high school back then). It’s hard to say when exactly it was printed — it could have very well been any year between 1868 and 1918 — but I venture a guess that it may have been printed in the 1900s at the latest. The 1910s is too late a period for my great-grandfather to have used it in school (he fought in World War I).

Structure of the book

The book consists of 40 plates. It begins with a few plates (№ 1 to 10) outlining the way to draw letters. Then it offers examples of alphabets and words in various styles (round, italic, English script, Gothic script) (plates № 12 to 19). Then there are a few plates with different typographic examples (№ 20 to 22, then № 29 to 34). Plates № 23 to 28 offer a fair amount of beautifully ornate monograms, while plates № 35 to 39 are examples of headings to use in letterheads.

Condition of the book

Considering that this book is at least 100 years old, I’d say things could be worse. The paper used is rather thick and coarse, and it certainly helped the book survive all these years. Unfortunately it was mishandled and abused, probably when it was passed to my grandfather and his brother when they were kids. They treated it as a colouring book and there are a lot of scribblings on many of the pages. Some I was able to erase because thankfully they were done with pencils, but there are pages showing markings made with coloured pencils, crayons and even dip pens. For these, I did my best at cleaning up the scans using the stamp tool in Graphic Converter. Sadly, there are also a few pages missing (ripped or cut off). 

Cleaning up

All the scans presented here are of the pages and plates I could scan and restore. If a plate is missing, it’s because either the page itself was missing or the page was so badly damaged/abused it wasn’t worth presenting. I managed to clean up a few plates where the abuse was light. I proceeded with caution and I decided to limit the cleaning process to a minimum to avoid results that would have looked too artificial for a 100-year-old book. My aim was to make letters and glyphs more legible, nothing more. Here are a few before-and-after examples of the work I did:

Cleaning up


Cleaning up


Cleaning up


Cleaning up


The scans

And here are all the scans. I have made available a Dropbox folder containing the high-resolution images (filenames ending with ‘c’ — e.g. tav03c.jpg — indicate that the plate has been retouched and cleaned).


Plate 1
Plate 1


Plate 3
Plate 3


Plate 5
Plate 5


Plate 6
Plate 6


Plate 12
Plate 12


Plate 13
Plate 13


Plate 14
Plate 14


Plate 15
Plate 15


Plate 16
Plate 16


Plate 17
Plate 17


Plate 18
Plate 18


Plate 19
Plate 19


Plate 25
Plate 25


Plate 26
Plate 26


Plate 27
Plate 27


Plate 28
Plate 28


Plate 29
Plate 29


Plate 30
Plate 30


Plate 32
Plate 32


Plate 34
Plate 34


Plate 39
Plate 39


Other posts in the “From the lost drawer” series

  • Miniature train catalogues
  • La Lettura magazine
  • 1957 Italian typing manual

    The Author

    Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!