The mysterious writing-master Clemens Perret and his two copy-books

in Quaerendo
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Abstract

In the first half of the 17th century penmanship in the Dutch Republic flourished as never before or since. Responsible for this flowering were a number of schoolmasters from Brabant and Flanders who in the 1570s and 80s had fled to the North and had settled there as writing-masters. To what level they had raised calligraphy may be seen from a large number of manuscript and printed writing-books that have been preserved. Just as they inspired their followers in years to come they had themselves found a source of inspiration in the two copy-books of Clemens Perret, brought out in 1569 and 1571. The earlier of these, the Exercitatio alphabetica, was not only the first ever to be reproduced entirely by copper engraving, but also the first with examples in seven languages, all of them written in the appropriate hands. Moreover in this book, the first to be produced in the Low Countries in such a large, oblong size, all plates had lavishly executed borders, designed on an architectural framework on which a variety of objects, human figures, grotesques, animals and so on were depicted. The book was obviously designed for collectors, wealthy connoisseurs and fellow writing-masters. The later book, the Eximiae peritiae alphabetum, although containing an equal number of plates, likewise in seven languages and in various hands, lacks the beautiful borders and is of slightly smaller size. It is altogether a more modestly conceived book, surely intended for use at school. Little is known about Perret's life. The title-pages of his books tell us that he was born in Brussels in 1551. A poem in a writing-book by Jacobus Houthusius, published in 1591, refers to his death. A contemporary manuscript note in a pamphlet of 1583 states that the writer Etienne Perret was his father. In the Plantin archives it is recorded that he had a brother, named Paul, and a sister. In a pamphlet of 1599 the writing-master Jan van den Velde states that Perret went to England to serve Queen Elizabeth's Chancellor as writing-master and teach the Queen the Italian hand. This seems unlikely as the Queen is known to have learned italic handwriting from Roger Ascham, while still a girl. The author has examined 26 copies of the Exercitatio in public collections and distinguishes two different editions. The first was probably brought out by Perret himself. Nearly all its plates contain errors in spelling, punctuation and word division. When Plantin took the distribution of the book in hand these mistakes were corrected and another plate added, containing within an engraved border a privilege with the text in letterpress: the 2nd edition. A variant of this edition is identical but for the privilege which is now engraved. The 2nd edition, corrected

The mysterious writing-master Clemens Perret and his two copy-books

in Quaerendo

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