Scribes and Secretaries
"The penmanship of Italian Renaissance scribes and copyists before printing became generalized—their ‘fine Italian hand’—was admired throughout Europe; Western handwriting as taught to first-graders today developed from early fourteenth-century Florentine cursive, a pencraft for speedily copying ancient manuscripts. The phrase fine Italian hand has long meant the particular way Italians like to do things, preferring adroitness to sheer force."
--Paul Hoffman, That Fine Italian Hand
Whenever colleagues compliment my handwriting, I remember an incident from my first-grade penmanship class that would mark me, literally and figuratively, as a writing teacher. My instructor, a Sister Gertrude, shattered my right hand with a pointer because I had not minded my p's and q's. The middle finger never completely healed, and to this day if I trace my writing hand on a sheet of paper I seem to be wearing a signet ring. Although teaching college composition is light years away from the copybook knuckle-rapping of my Catholic school days, I still wrestle with the potential abuses within writing itself, as my family history will explain.
My immigrant parents survived a brutal dictatorship. The facade of San Lorenzo Martire, the main church of San Buono, my father’s mountain village located in the Chieti province of the Abruzzi, still bears in faded letters Mussolini’s slogan, "CREDERE, OBBEDIRE, COMBATTERE!" Believe, Obey, Fight! The church is the former chancery, its spires and battlements casting a shadow on the town piazza, and I myself descend from medieval and Renaissance chancery clerks, scribes, and secretaries, among them Cola Di Rienzo. Better known as Rienzi, this charismatic 14th-century notary used his writing skills to seize power and briefly resurrect the Roman Republic before being torn to pieces by a mob. For inventing the fountain pen he was declared anathema by the Church, his butchered body burned like that of a carnival ox in the square near the Jewish ghetto. My forefathers’ chancery script may have paved the way for the Italian Renaissance, but it was still a "discipline" in the most fascistic sense of the word, a set of military drills socializing the mind through the hand. A chilling proverb from Machiavelli's day states: "The hand that holds the pen is the hand that turns the rack."
These ancestral memories of cruelty and subjugation, revolt and recidivism, haunt my teaching and have led me to define writing as: a public act of private communication, arising from the physical and material conditions of a specific historical moment, mediated by competing social discourses and institutions, with ethical, political, and legal consequences. In other words, writing is about power, expression, and resistance. This definition guides my pedagogy in professional and technical writing, classical argument and satire, and first-year academic writing. It also forms the touchstone of my scholarship and creative writing.