Calligraphy is a visual art related to writing. It is the design and execution of lettering with a broad tip instrument or brush in one stroke (as opposed to built up lettering, in which the letters are drawn). A contemporary definition of calligraphic practice is "the art of giving form to signs in an expressive, harmonious, and skillful manner".
Modern calligraphy ranges from functional inscriptions and designs to fine-art pieces where the letters may or may not be legible. Classical calligraphy differs from typography and non-classical hand-lettering, though a calligrapher may practice both.
Calligraphy continues to flourish in the forms of wedding and event invitations, font design and typography, original hand-lettered logo design, religious art, announcements, graphic design and commissioned calligraphic art, cut stone inscriptions, and memorial documents. It is also used for props and moving images for film and television, testimonials, birth and death certificates, maps, and other works involving writing. Some of the finest works of modern calligraphy are charters and letters patent issued by monarchs and officers of state in various countries.
The principal tools for a calligrapher are the pen, which may be flat-balled or round-nibbed, and the brush. For some decorative purposes, multi-nibbed pens—steel brushes—can be used. However, works have also been made with felt-tip and ballpoint pens, although these works do not employ angled lines.
Ink for writing is usually water-based and much less viscous than the oil-based inks used in printing. High quality paper, which has good consistency of porosity, will enable cleaner lines, although parchment or vellum is often used, as a knife can be used to erase work and a light box is not needed to allow lines to pass through it. Normally, light boxes and templates are used to achieve straight lines without pencil markings detracting from the work. Ruled paper, either for a light box or direct use, is most often ruled every quarter or half inch, although inch spaces are occasionally used, such as with litterea unciales (hence the name), and college-ruled paper often acts as a guideline well.
Sacred Western calligraphy has some special features, such as the illumination of the first letter of each book or chapter in medieval times. A decorative "carpet page" may precede the literature, filled with ornate, geometrical depictions of bold-hued animals. The Lindisfarne Gospels (715–720 AD) are an early example.
As with Chinese or Arabic calligraphy, Western calligraphic script had strict rules and shapes. Quality writing had a rhythm and regularity to the letters, with a "geometrical" order of the lines on the page. Each character had, and often still has, a precise stroke order.
Unlike a typeface, irregularity in the characters' size, style, and colors increases aesthetic value, though the content may be illegible. Many of the themes and variations of today's contemporary Western calligraphy are found in the pages of The Saint John's Bible. A particularly modern example is Timothy Botts' illustrated edition of the Bible, with 360 calligraphic images as well as a calligraphy typeface.
Western calligraphy is recognizable by the use of the Latin script. The Latin alphabet appeared about 600 BC, in Rome, and by the first century developed into Roman imperial capitals carved on stones, Rustic capitals painted on walls, and Roman cursive for daily use. In the second and third centuries the uncial lettering style developed. As writing withdrew to monasteries, uncial script was found more suitable for copying the Bible and other religious texts. It was the monasteries which preserved calligraphic traditions during the fourth and fifth centuries, when the Roman Empire fell and Europe entered the Dark Ages.
At the height of the Roman Empire, its power reached as far as Great Britain; when the empire fell, its literary influence remained. The Semi-uncial generated the Irish Semi-uncial, the small Anglo-Saxon. Each region developed its own standards following the main monastery of the region (i.e. Merovingian script, Laon script, Luxeuil script, Visigothic script, Beneventan script), which are mostly cursive and hardly readable.
The rising Carolingian Dynasty Empire encouraged a new standardized script, which was developed by several famous monasteries (including Corbie Abbey and Beauvais) around the eighth century. The script from Saint Martin of Tours was ultimately set as the Imperial standard, named the Carolingian script (or "the Caroline"). From the powerful Carolingian Empire, this standard also became used in neighboring kingdoms.
In the eleventh century, the Caroline evolved into the Gothic script, which was more compact and made it possible to fit more text on a page. The Gothic calligraphy styles became dominant throughout Europe; and in 1454, when Johannes Gutenberg developed the first printing press in Mainz, Germany, he adopted the Gothic style, making it the first typeface.
In the 15th century, the rediscovery of old Carolingian texts encouraged the creation of the humanist minuscule or littera antiqua. The 17th century saw the Batarde script from France, and the 18th century saw the English script spread across Europe and world through their books.
Contemporary typefaces used by computers, from word processors like Microsoft Word or Apple Pages to professional designers' software like Adobe InDesign, owe a considerable debt to the past and to a small number of professional typeface designers today.
Several other Western styles use the same tools and practices, but differ by character set and stylistic preferences. For Slavonic lettering, the history of the Slavonic and consequently Russian writing systems differs fundamentally from the one of the Latin language. It evolved from the 10th century to today.