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The term “Calligramme” was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire to designate his own figurative texts where the outlines of a pattern are represented not by drawing but by a line of written text. Giovanni Pozzi (“La parola dipinta”, 1981) extends its meaning by presenting it as an alteration of  the versus intexti, consisting in acrostics that across an underlying text or first text, reproducing a pattern. If you remove the first text, the underlying one, the versus intexti stand on the void, that is on the blank of the page. According to this definition which we agree upon, the earliest Calligramme could be Eugenius Vulgate’s “Pyramid” (see versus intexti). However in a code in possession of the Bibliotheca Apostolic Vatican (the Vatican Apostolic Library) (Cod. Bibl. Chig. A.VI29 I-II; fol. 1-38)  there is a poem consisting in five lines that divide the page into 4x4 squares and six more arranged in diagonals 3x3 so that, in addition to the squares, there are also diamonds. In the absence of the first text this poem which is by Hrabanus Maurus, may be considered the forerunner of the calligramme.


Abbon of St.Germain des-Prés


A poem dedicated to King Odo of Paris, “ Versus de nomine Odone regis” by Abbon of St Germain-des-Prés, to be dated about 888 (Fragment 89, fol. 8r, Deutschestats Bibliotek, Berlin) is circular in shape and the eight lines that radiate from the centre and in a circle divided into eight parts, each beginning with an “O”. (P.2)

By the same author another poem (Fragment 89, fol.8r, idem) is dedicated to Queen Theotrada and consists in a rectangular surface divided by a cross into four squares, divided in their turn by the diagonals into four triangles, thus causing sixteen triangles. Also in this case all the lines begin by a “T” standing out in capital standing for the name of Queen Theodrada, which derives from  “theo tetrada” (fourth for god), that is “she who possesses the “perfecta cognitio Trinitatis”. (P. 3)  This throwing into relief of a letter of the alphabet will also be used by Uffing von Werden and by Jaconus de Dacia, as an essential element of the Calligramme: it constitutes a phonosymbolism common both to the linear poetic text which accompanies the figurative one and to the figurative one itself. It is the distinguishing mark of a styleme which from 880 reaches as far down as 1350 with Jacobus de Racia.


Uffing von Werden


Uffing von Werden, a monk, is the author of a hagiography on Saint Ida von Herzfeld and of a “Vita sancti Liudgeri”. At the National Bibliothek  of Budapest (Cod. Lat.7. fol. 2v) there are two figurative poems by him, of exceptional verbo-visual intensity, that develop the same styleme as Abbon’s, but in a much more ornamented form.

The first one is circular, divided into eight semicircles with at its centre, inscribed, a square divided into sixteen triangles. (P.4) The lines of the pattern are composed by lines that begin by an “S”  standing well out in size and in bold, except for the first “A” in “Alfa et Omega dominans sine calce per etera regnans”, the ninth “Aureas spes orbis, tuus Otto semper  fidelis “ and 170 “Alme pater, nostris succurre benigniter ausis”. The  work vibrates from an optical point of view both for its elegant geometric structure and for the relief given by the “S” and by the unique “A” set at the top of the poem; the name Otto refers to the emperor Otho III and the composition may therefore be dated about 985.

The other figurative poem  (fol.3r)  is in the pattern of a Greek cross, composed by a series of twelve arcs of circle. Also in this instance a strong relief  is given by the letter “T” repeated thirty-one times, as all the lines of the poem, which is a hymn to the Cross, begin with this letter. (P.5)


Peter Abelard


Peter Abelard, philosopher and theologian (1079-1142), is the author of a figurative poem  “Versus magistri Petri Abelardi de incarnatione Domini et de reparatione Lapsi”. The calligramme is composed by two concentric circles and by thirteen radii. The bigger circles bears the lines “Omnibus ostendo, quod Homo sum corpus habendo” and “Occultusque polo solio Deus impero solo”. All the dystichs that make up the radii begin by the letter “O” and are double-rhymed: ostendo–habendo, polo–solo, consilio–filio, Deo–virgineo, omo–pomo etc. The line “Omnia solus ego rex sine fine rego” forms the inner circle. (P. 6)



Niccolò de’ Rossi


Niccolò de’ Rossi, from Treviso (1285-1348), is the author of sonnets in the Venetian dialect, some of which he transferred into novel visual forms (cfr “Il canzoniere di Niccolò de’ Rossi, edited by F. Prugnola, Padua, 1974-77). His texts are preserved in the Cod. Colombianus 7.1.32, Bibliot. Capitular of Sevilla and in the Cod. Vaticanus Barberianus  3933, containing four canzoni and 75 sonnets.

In figurative sonnet 247 of which we are offering the excellent reconstruction by Brugnolo, the lines are disposed in the pattern of a wheel with two concentric circles. The lines are to be read following  their course of the seven diameters that cut the wheel, from the first “Tanto plaçente esser çogliosa” and going on anticlockwise to “Amor, eo vidi, inamorato stando” and so on. We are offering also the linear text. The vowel “A” in graphic relief, set at the centre of the wheel, represents also the end of a line and the beginning of the next. In their turn the vowels placed between the two concentric circles, have the same function. The pattern of this calligramme could also be interpreted as a flower pattern with fourteen petals, hinting at a herotic undercurrent. (P.7)

The other figurative sonnet ( 248 Codex Colombianus) (P. 8) represents in iconic form the “cathedra Petri”  and is addressed to Pope John XXII who resided in Avignon, exhorting him to nominate Robert d’Anjou as king of Naples. The upper part, a fan of eight lines, represents the backrest and the canopy of the throne and is to be read contrarywise, while the lower part represents the seat of the tailed sonnet. We are giving it here also in its linear form. (P.8bis)

Another sonnet by de’Rossi (237 Brugnoli) is not a calligramme but follows the pattern of concordant lines, a device which consists in changing the roots of words before unchanged endings and viceversa. (P.9)

De’ Rossi is a keen experimenter: his sonnets are a mine of figures of speech, from improbable  rhymes to anaphors, from antitheses to paranomasies. For instance sonnet 337 entitled  “Astosus bistiçus”,  is divided vertically into three parts and the middle one is all made up of alliterated couples:”porteaperto, dormodarmi, osselasso, vegliocaviglio and so on…”, a phonic structure which has a visual value as well. (P.10)


Iacobus Nicholae de Dacia


An author of exceptional poetic intensity and at the same time endowed with extreme figurative sophistication is the Danish poet Iacobus Nicholae de Dacia, the pseudonym of  Iakob Nielsen,  the author of  “Liber de distinctione metrorum” (1362). He was secretary to the Earl of  Pembroke, as master or Ars Dictaminis, then  in 1373 he was teaching in Cambridge, then up to 1379 at the University of Paris.

His “Liber” is a cycle of calligrammes, preceded by a technical illustration and by a text in linear form. Of this work there are extant one code  at the University of Cambridge (Ms. Add. 3077 fol. 169r-178r) with the title “Optimi versus de morte”; another one at the British Library (Ms Cotton Claudius A. XIV. with texts with gilded initials and flowery ornamentation, and another one at the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris (Cod. Lat.10323-2r-263) in beautiful handwriting and ornaments; a fourth one is a the British Library Royal (7B VII).

In his “Praefatio” the author declares that the subject of the book is mortal conditio of man, the description on his ills, both of the body and of the soul, his state of weakness, the faults of man and his yearnings for heavenly happiness. The theme is therefore the “vanitas mundi”, the “memento mori” and the state of the homo terrenus, an explicit reminder of the Old Testament Ecclesiastes’ pessimism. (P.11)

De Dacia takes up again, 350 years later, the sophisticated calligraphic technique of Uffing von Werden, which induces us to suppose that it was a rather common styleme in that period. But the novelty that de Dacia systematically introduces is the taking up of a double texts, whose verb material is exactly identical, only its form changes. The first is linear, the second is by calligrammes, creating a relationship of particular tension between the two versions, both equally valid. Also the linear solution is such up to a point. (P.12)

If we look, for instance, at the linear part of  Metrum XXVII we shall  note that the text is set in four parts, the first three by four dystichs, the last one by two, separated by precise references to the figurative text. If these references were removed, we should have a sort of versus intexti consisting in the “M” letters that act as acrostic, double mesostic  and telestic:  an obsessive iteration of the capital letter, at the same time consonantic and iconic, set into relief by the equally insistent repetition of the same rhyme. The tension  created between the two versions is therefore produced by the besetting tragic pathos of the linear-phonic version in contrast with the impassive sophistication and geometric symmetry of its translation into calligramme, a contrast between two forms, certainly not between form and content, which finds in itself  a pre-baroque incompatibility between the tragic realism and the funereal pomp of the ornamentation. Just think of some funereal sonnets by Gongora.

On the other hand we mustn’t forget that just round the middle of the fourteenth century there broke out all over Europe the Plague, the tragic event against whose grim background Boccaccio will set his “orrido cominciamento of his masterpiece, the Decameron.

Calligramme Metrum XXIII (P. 13) is constructed by “versus concordantes” and so is Metrum XIX. (P. 14)

Metrum XXV is an example of “pyramis inversa” with a triangular base (triedron). (P. 15) The triangles of the base are marked by the word “Mors”  and the middle of the outer sides is marked by the letter “M”, while the letter “S” is situated on the central cusp.

Metrum XXVII, that we have already quoted, is composed by three concentric squares, the initial and final “M” of each line appears here well set our graphically as a series of points on which the calligramme stands , as we have also noted for the calligrammes by Uffing von Werden (P. 16)

Metrum XXVIII is also formed by three concentric  squares  but set in the diagonal respectively. The innermost square is in its turn divided into four triangles by the diagonals, a rather graphically cynetic image. This metrum is a hymn to Christ as triumpher over death. The graphic scheme is based on the relief given to the letter “S” of the words “spes, sol, solve, surgite, spem”.

With metrum XXIX we are back to the pessimistic mood with the dramatic question “Me verto quorsuM? Mors infert vulnere morsuM! Me premit ad dorsuM, Me trudit ad ima retrorsuM”.The pattern of the calligramme is a double eight point star. Both the points and the crossings of the rays, as well as the centre, are thrown into relief by the letter “M”. (P. 17)

The pattern of  Metrum XXXI is two concentric circles and the sixteen lines are set in such a way that eight go from the centre to the larger circumference , four form the smaller circumference and four the larger one. The pattern therefore appears as a wheel with the evident impression of visual cynetism. (P.18)

Metrum XXII is based on the pattern “metrum scacarium sive scacarii”, consisting in eight lines, each of eight words, set on a chessboard of 8x8 squares. We give here  both the picture of the calligramme and the reading sense following the direction of the diagonal lines. (P.19)


The Baroque Calligramme


The Baroque calligramme, after the brilliant medieval creations of Uffing von  Werden and Iacobus de Dacia flourished again in the baroque period. A perfect example of calligramme is the “Thirtieth Seal”  by Giordano Bruno  in his “Explicatio Triginta sigillorum (1583). (P. 20)

Caramuel de Lobkowitz in his “Primus calamus ob oculos ponens metametricam…” (1663) gives us many examples of it as in the circular poem “Pentacyclica inscription”. (P.21)

Caramuel makes an interesting reflection on pluridirectional reading, recto or contrarywise or curving and so on…. made possible by the  technique of the press as this device implies reversing the letters: “ typing is a kind of reversed writing, and places the letters in the opposite order to the one they are composed in.”

Caramuel has also created a rebus/poem (P.22) with no words, composed by hearts, circles and musical notes, a novel solution of  verbophonic visual essence.

Here is a calligramme by M. Kelmer, combined with an acrostic anagram (“Epanodia” 1620) (P.23). B y the Jesuit Ermanno di Santa Barbara here is a calligramme combined with anagram and acrostic, representing a star (P.24) and another calligramme combined with acromesostics, representing the sun. (P.25)

By L. de Gand de Brachey we possess a calligramme shaped like the sun (“Sol Britannicus”,1641). (P.26)

By the Jesuit Pascasio di San Giovanni a calligramme shaped like a rose (“Poesia artificiosa”,1674). (P.27)

By E. Lenaerts a calligramme combined with rebus in the pattern of a heart “Trophaeum amoris”, 1739). (P.28)

Also heart-shaped as a calligramme by Simeon Polockij (1678). (P.29)

By F. Weiss here is a bridal calligramme representing a chalice with spiritual wishes (1679). (P. 30)

Two calligrammes by S. Lepsenyi, one shaped like a crown (P. 1) the other in the pattern of a rose (P.32) (“Poesis ludens”, 1551).

Finally by Baldassarre Bonifacio here is this “Clepsydra” (“Musarum Liber XXV Urania”, 1628). (P.33)


Futurist calligrammes


If we choose to go fishing in the well stocked fishpond of futurism, we may find a fair number of examples of  parolibere that show many affinities with the calligramme. Apollinaire already confesses that the idea of the “Calligrammes” had been suggested to him by  his reading of certain texts by Francesco Cangiullo (see the article “Devant l’idéogramme d’Apollinaire” signed  Gabriel Arbouin, alias Apollinaire himself, in “Soirées de Paris” – July/August 1914).  For example in the parolibera “Fumatori II” (“Su l’Acerba”, 1914) (P.34), where we find at the beginning the image of a railway porter with the word “valige” (suitcases)  repeated several times and overlapping one on the other, or in “Serata in onore di Yvonne” (idem) (P.35), the word “fumo” (smoke) blown up by inserting between the letters various names of cigars or again  in “Piedigrotta”, published in 1916 but already circulating in manuscript two years before, the word “suono” (sound) enlarged taking the shape of a megaphone (P.36) or in “Palpavoce”, a four hands calligramme by Balla and Cangiullo (P.37) the pattern of a flight of stairs, where the handrail acts as transmitter of the voice.

The spiral is a calligramme in “The ellissi e la spirale”, film +parole in libertà”  by Paolo Buzzi (P.38), as well as by Corrado Govoni the picture of  “Autoritratto” (P.39)  or that of  the “Camera sentimentale” or again the episode of the “Fresca fucileria della pioggia”  akin to Apollinaire’s  “Il pleut”), the whole to be found in “Rarefazioni e parole in libertà” (1916). (P.40)

By Paolo Buzzi is the ironic rewriting as a calligramme of d’Annunzio’s  “La pioggia nel pineto” (“L’Italia Futurista”, 1916). (P.41) Mario Carli is the author of the calligramme “Crocicchio di notte” (Cross-roads at night)   (idem) (P.42). L. de Nardis is the author of “Il sonno visto come un pallone-luna galleggiante nella notte” (Sleep seen as a moon-balloon floating in the night) (idem) (P.43). Also by de Nardis is “Compenetrazione” (P.44), a dynamic calligramme where the smell of petrol of a car speeding by seems to be brutally cutting through the smells of the countryside.

Still on the subject of speed, here are the “Polirumori di un treno in fuga”: mixed noises of a train speeding by) (P.45) by Jamar (1917), echoed by “Treno in corsa” (a train running by) by Cesare Simonetti, seen as a bullet (in “Nuovi poeti futuristi”, 1925). (P.46) In a more relaxed atmosphere we find  “Buffet di Stazione” by Ardengo Soffici  – in “BIF§ZF+18 simultaneità e chimismi lirici”, 1919 (P.47) –  where there appears the very stylized picture of a man reading a newspaper sitting in a station buffet.

In “Piccola amica” by Pino Masnata (in “Tavole parolibere”, 1932) the paroliberi knife and fork are about to slice a luscious lady on a plate.(P.48) By the same author is the table “Do you love me?” where she asks the question thinking of the wedding ceremony, while he answers “So much” thinking of bed. (P.49)




And now we come to Guillaume Apollinaires’s “Calligrammes” published in the book of that title in 1916.

In “La cravate e la montre” the longer and longer phrases that take up the last hours on the dial of the watch, shortening the distances between one hour and the next, tell us that the last hours go by more quickly; in their turn the longer writings , wanting a longer reading time , represent visually the greater duration of the strokes that spell the extreme hours” (G. Pozzi, “La parola dipinta”, 1981). (P.50)

In “Voyage” the engine drags its load through dark dales and lighted plains towards a deep night that cancels, in spite of the starry sky, the images of the fondest memories. The apparent serenity cannot deceive us: the journey takes place in a landscape laden with sad forebodings, as witnessed by the arid cloud and the featherless bird” (G. Pozzi, idem). (P.51)

The calligramme “2° Cannonier conducteur” will be the memory of the Paris district – the thoroughfare, the palaces, the Eiffel Tower – in contrast with the image of the firearm suggesting the idea of  war. (P. 52)

In “Coeur couronné et miroir” (P. 53) the words draw the frame of a mirror; the blank of the page is the reflecting glass, while the reflected image is represented by the name of the poet. The surrounding words read: “Dans ce miroir je suis enclos vivant et vrai comme on imagine les anges et non comme sont les reflets”: that “I” is true and not reflected , because it is not seen in reverse as one would see him if it were reflected. Moreover that “I” is represented by a name and not by a profile, that is by the pure identifier of a true and living absent.

Curiously enough it is just at the beginning of the book that the most complex and elaborate calligramme is situated, “Lettre-Océan”, which takes up three pages and the calligramme most akin to the futurist parolibere. It may be interpreted as a letter posted to Mexico, containing a series of sentences set in a circle that suggest the idea of Paris; the calligramme ends with a complex series of concentric circles made up of phrases and noises and this ending seems to us to be a perfect graphic translation of the “poème-conversation”  which is a typical solution of simultaneousness by Apollinaire (one could compare it to Marinetti’s “Decalogo della sensibilità motrice” in “Dune” (in “Lacerba”, 1914). (P. 54, 54 bis)


Other modern calligrammes


One very interesting calligramme is the one by Tristan Tzara “Astronomie astronomie” penned on blue squared paper, dated 1916 and now in the Tzara archive in Paris: the sky is seen as a spider’s web of constellations. (P. 55)

Another prolific author of calligrammes was Pierre  Albert-Birot: here is his elegant “Rosace” in “Poésies”, 1916-24) (P.56) or “La fleur de lys” (P.57) or again  “L’offrande”(in “La Lune”, 1924), which is a pathetic offering to his friend, the poet Apollinaire who had recently died. (P.58)

Other elegant examples of calligrammes are the various typewritten solutions (“Poèmes mécaniques”) by Ilse Garnier in “Rhythme-silence” (P.59) and the bunch of flowers (1964) by the American poetess Mary Ellen Solt. (P. 60)

By Eugenio Miccini we have a superb calligramme,  an ironic essay on a new form of writing (P.61) and by the same author “Poesia” (P. 61bis), made on the ground by shaving foam cum roses and two pre-socratic poems (P.62, 63) where philosophy and nature merge.

By Franco Spena we here publish a road paved with pages of daily papers entering a wood, that is the material paper is made of going back into the place it had originally come from (1995). (P.64)

The calligramme “Lettre” (1980) by Marcello Diotallevi is very witty: letters of the alphabet that become detached and fall to the bottom of the page, as had already dreamt in a nightmare Borges, who tells us about it in “Aleph”. (P. 65)

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