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Michelangelo's Handwriting



Questions by Becky Lofstead
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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In his day job as professor of thoracic radiology at West Virginia University, Bob Tallaksen, MA ’05, Art History, teaches his students to study human lungs and hearts via X-ray, CT scan and MRI in order to diagnose diseases. In his private life he studies other images, namely handwriting from the medieval period to the Renaissance – his favorite being the beautiful and evocative italic handwriting of the famous Italian sculptor, painter and poet Michelangelo Buonarroti.

I understand that in analyzing Michelangelo’s writings you discovered that he consciously and purposefully changed his handwriting when he moved from Florence to Rome. What prompted this research?

When I joined the faculty at WVU, I wanted to have time to pursue a graduate degree. I settled on art with a concentration in Medieval and was extremely fortunate to find outstanding faculty in the art history division of the College of Creative Arts, including Professor Janet Snyder, who directed my graduate study, and Professor Kristina Olson. I enrolled in a seminar on Michelangelo taught by Bernie Schultz, a Renaissance art historian and former dean of the college. It was a fascinating class, and when one day he showed us an image of Michelangelo’s handwriting, I was intrigued to the point that I needed to know more. I eventually settled on doing my master’s thesis on “The Influence of Humanism on the Handwriting of Michelangelo Buonarroti.”

What exactly did you discover through your studies?

Michelangelo was born in 1475 and did his early schooling in Florence. When he was 13, he was apprenticed to the painter Ghirlandaio. He later lived in the home of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who was ruler of the city and a patron of the arts whose collection of paintings, sculpture, silver, gold and books was extensive. After living briefly in Venice and Bologna, Michelangelo returned to Florence before moving to Rome in 1496. Sometime between 1496 and 1502 his handwriting changed from the script that he had been taught in school, called merchantescha – a Gothic cursive mercantile script described as “difficult to read” – to a different script that had been adopted by the humanists, called cancellarescha, also known as chancery cursive. He used this new handwriting in all his letters, annotations on drawings, and records for the remainder of his life. Interestingly, I found one document that he had written in 1501 with characteristics in both scripts – before he went permanently to the humanistic cursive. 

What kind of writings did you find and where?

Michelangelo’s handwriting survives in letters, contracts, memoranda, records of accounts and in annotations on drawings. Dean Schultz had images of some. I found others through library research and various books. I also had the opportunity when I was in Florence for a medical conference several years back to take time for research at the Archivio Buonarroti. I brought a letter of introduction from Dean Schultz, was admitted and was able to inspect and study the original documents.

Why is it important for people to know about Michelangelo’s change in handwriting styles?

I simply found the artist’s conscious decision to change from one script to another fascinating, and worth investigating and trying to explain. Our understanding of Michelangelo’s character and art, and the influences on them of humanism and Neoplatonism, is enhanced by knowledge and appreciation of the decision and the reasons for it.

This seems to be a case of art and science meeting in the middle. Do you agree?

Yes. Paleography, or the study of ancient and historical handwriting, is a science. But I feel that letter forms and manuscripts also embody art, for they are products of human creativity. They reflect the time of their creation and the character of the writer and can be objects of great beauty and significance. 

What other unusual things have you done in your career?

Several years back, I took a course in the Anglo-Saxon language from the former chair of the English Department, professor Pat Conner, and just thoroughly enjoyed it. He called me up after class one evening and told me that he had heard that the person teaching introductory Latin at WVU could not continue. He told me that if I were interested in teaching the introductory semesters of Classics 101 and 102 that I should contact Ángel Tuninetti in the World Languages Department. I met with him and he offered me the opportunity to take over this responsibility. Well, that was in 2008, and I’ve been teaching the first year of Latin every Tuesday and Thursday since. These are generally small classes, and my students enjoy and appreciate learning about the culture and the language.

In 2009 while recuperating from surgery I received an e-mail from an auction house in New York City asking me to consult on a letter that was thought to be written by Michelangelo and had been offered for auction. It turned out not to be authentic, but I was flattered to have been consulted because of my knowledge of his writing.

Conclusion from Tallaksen’s 2005 thesis: 

“Making a radical change in one’s handwriting is extremely difficult. We have seen how fundamental the change was, both in learning new letter forms and discarding the ones he had been taught. Making such an alteration requires a conscious determination, which in turn entails commitment, perseverance and weeks and months of practice – practice not only to learn the new letter forms and the method of writing them, but also for the even more difficult task of unlearning the method one was originally taught. The ductus [direction, sequence and speed of the strokes] for many letters and their forms are so essentially different between the two scripts that one is obliged to conclude that there must have been a definite decision by Michelangelo to alter his handwriting.”