Priest and Calligrapher

The loveliest thing I have read in this dreary season appeared in an unlikely place: The New York Times‘ Art & Design section on March 4th. It was the obituary of a Roman Catholic priest and former Trappist monk, who was also the calligrapher/muse behind Apple’s typography. He was 83 when he died on February 26th.

Margalit Fox’s essay on the Rev. Robert Palladino is subscription only. So let me reprint the core of it for you:

“Priest and calligrapher” his business card read, in his unimpeachable Renaissance italic, and he long plied both trades at once. For years, babies he baptized received baptismal certificates in his flawless hand. In Oregon, where he made his home, Father Palladino hand-lettered the state medical licenses for generations of newly minted doctors.

As a Trappist brother, Father Palladino learned his art in silence, honed it over years of study and eventually, on leaving his order, taught it to others.  .  .  .  Father Palladino learned his art in silence, honed it over years of study and eventually, on leaving his order, taught it to others.

To his students, he brought a world of genteel scholarship and quiet contemplation; a world whose modus operandi—by hand, with ink, on paper, parchment and vellum—was little changed for centuries; a world of classical music (an accomplished singer, he liked to ply his calligraphy to Beethoven), Gregorian chant and the Latin Mass, which he continued celebrating in discreet defiance long after Vatican II.

Into that world burst a young college dropout named Steve Jobs.

Embellished initial from Erhard Ratdolt’s edition of Euclid Ratdolt was a pioneering printer in Augsburg (15th C).

The monastery abandoned the hardscrabble New Mexico farmland for Oregon in 1955. Brother Robert was ordained a priest three years later. Discouraged by the reforms of Vatican II—including the dissolution of monastic silence, the exchange of vernacular music for Gregorian chant, and the loss of Latin—he left the monastery in 1968:

When it changed, I could no longer dedicate myself to it. It no longer satisfied my longing for union with God.

Shorn of its traditional beauty, the monastic life no longer held his heart. Dispensed from his vows by Pope Paul VI, Mr. Palladino married Catherine Halverson, the principal clarinetist of the Portland Symphony in 1969. A recognized authority on the history and architecture of scripts, he joined the faculty of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, that same year.

The Harley Psalter (early 11th C). © British Museum.

The college’s calligraphy program, flourished from 1938 until Palladino’s retirement in 1984. Now closed, it was widely regarded during those decades as the foremost in the country for training artists, typographers and graphic designers.

Mr. Jobs briefly attended Reed in 1972 before dropping out for economic reasons, but hung around campus for more than a year afterward; during that time, he audited  Palladino’s class. After helping to found Apple in 1976, he often credited the company’s elegant onscreen fonts—and his larger interest in the design of computers as physical object—to what he had been taught there.the

“I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great,” Mr. Jobs said in a 2005 commencement address at Stanford. “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.” He continued:

“Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”

His wife Catherine died in 1987. Readmitted to the priesthood in 1995, Fr. Palladino served in Oregon parishes and went on to teach at Portland State University and elsewhere. Through all those years, and to the end of his life, he neither owned nor used a computer.

Early Carolingian script from the Iberian Peninsula.

I like Ms. Fox’s brief commentary on calligraphy itself:

In Father Palladino’s hands, however, calligraphy was about far more than mere beautiful letters: It was about the ways those letters can be coaxed to nestle companionably together to make words, and how those words in turn can be assembled to form a meaningful text.

Whether he was writing in the Phoenician alphabet, the Hebrew, the Greek or the Roman — encompassing myriad forms, including the elegant square capitals cut into Roman monuments or the curvaceous uncial script used by early medieval scribes — every stroke of Father Palladino’s pen entailed meditative deliberation, historical fealty and not a single wasted movement.

The work was, for him, the logical culmination of a fascination with the art of the written word that had begun in boyhood.

Visigoth script, the graphic form the Latin alphabet took as it developed on the Iberian Peninsula, 8th -13th centuries.

The art of the written word. We do not think of handwriting in those terms. But we should. Cursive is—or was until quite recently—every child’s first experience in disciplined drawing. An ancient technique, it is a liberating, evolving technology that has always been both ordered and expressive at the same time. It surprises me that a culture as besotted as our own with individuality and self-expression should abandon this intimate and enduring sign of oneself.

We have come to take handwriting so for granted that we thoughtlessly discard it. One school system after another is dropping it from the curriculum. Cursive is a quaint addendum in upscale school districts, more a signal of parental nostalgia and status than a felt need. We no longer have to write in long hand. We text. We email. The word signature now indicates an arrangement of pixels on a screen. No need to write your name; just hit a key.

We think of reading and writing in unity with each other. But that has not always been so. Some could read but not write. Others could write as much as they needed [to keep a ledger, submit a bill, etc.] but could not read a text. Catherine of Siena herself made use of a scribe.

Fr. Palladino was a scribe. His calligraphy granted dignity and beauty to official documents. But is it possible the role of scribe might be needed once again for homelier tasks? I sometimes wonder if our technology is leading us back to a quasi-unlettered state. The hand can ply a mouse but not a pen. The eye can recognize print but not script. It is a dependency that has something barbarian about it.

Maimonidies’ draft of his legal code in cursive Sephardic (1180).