Saturday, October 28, 2017

Lo Stampatello: How Italians Write

The word stampatello in Italian translates as block letters, but is better interpreted as writing that looks like it was typed. There are two types: stampatello minuscolo (lowercase block letters) and stampatello maiuscolo (uppercase block letters). Stampatello's showy brother is corsivo or cursive lettering.

When I write, I tend to use a combination of lowercase block letters and cursive, as I believe many Americans do. What I find fascinating in Italy is the preference for stampatello maiuscolo or uppercase block letters when writing. I often ask people to write in my little black notebook and almost always they do so using uppercase block lettering. (Yeah, I'm that kind of person who shoves a notebook in front of you to write something down.)

Here are six examples from the last few months.

Sample 1
Who: Middle-aged man
Where: Udine
Context: We ate at an enoteca called Fred in Udine, and one of the staff wrote the name of a particular garlic we tasted called Aglio di Resia from Tarvisio.
A sample of Italian writing, stampatello.

Sample 2 
Who: Older woman
Where: Bergamo
Context: One morning, in our café Bar Papavero, I was talking with a friend whose family is from Basilicata and she was listing places to see there include: Craco, Tricarico, Venosa, and La Certosa di Padula.
A sample of Italian writing, stampatello.

Sample 3
Who: Middle-aged woman
Where: Outskirts of Bergamo
Context: After lunch one day at Trattoria all'Alpino (great walk from Bergamo, see here), we got to talking to the owners and told them that we would be going to Friuli-Venezia Giulia in a few days. They wrote down a few suggestions that might be of interest to us. They were: Maniago – a city known for its production of steel blades, Vajont – location of the disaster that killed over 1,900 people in 1963, and the Sequals, the home town of the Italian boxer Primo Carnera.
A sample of Italian writing, stampatello.

Sample 4 (two samples)
Who: Middle-aged woman and a female teenager
Where: Bergamo
Context: In our café Bar Papavero, I first asked Eleonora for her telephone number, which she wrote down. Next, I asked the granddaughter of one of the café regulars to write down a saying we were talking about. That saying is: prendi l'arte e mettila da parte – basically meaning, learn what you can, because you'll never know when you'll need it.
A sample of Italian writing, stampatello.

Sample 5
Who: Middle-aged man
Where: Cuneo
Context: Talking with one of our "cousins" we got a suggestion on something to visit while staying in Piedmont. He wrote: Ormea / Alto / Caprauna / [undecipherable] / Cantarana / Upega / Ponte di Nava – all towns in the Cuneo Province of Piedmont, close to the French border.
A sample of Italian writing, stampatello.

Sample 6 (two samples)
Who: Two different middle-aged women
Where: Bergamo
Context: One sample is during a discussion at Café Bar Papavero when I was talking with a woman about the Italian writer, translator, and journalist Fernanda Pivano. The second sample is from a woman who was on a guided tour of Bergamo's iconic Roccolo di Castagneta (Tavernella). (A roccolo is basically a big bird trap. For more information on roccoli, see A Walk from Albino to Bergamo via Monte Misma.) During the visit, the guide described wooden instruments that were thrown to simulate a bird of prey so that smaller birds would be frightened and hopefully fly into a waiting net. The device is called a spauracchio in Italian. The woman I asked thoughtfully wrote it in Bergamasco dialect as well – sboradur – always in capital letters.
A sample of Italian writing, stampatello.


Besides these samples, we have watch countless times as someone filled out a form (for themselves or for us) and used stampatello maiuscolo. Now, instinctively, when asked to write something official, we write in uppercase block letters, even if we can't get it out of my mind that the only people we knew who used all caps were crazy family members sending the latest conspiracy email.

This Italian expert in the study of handwriting and criminology discusses some ideas about why Italians use stampatello. The author suggests wide-ranging reasons including hiding one's tender side (cursive being more vulnerable?), avoiding being judged by other (bad writing?), looking for independence and asserting oneself (by adopting what everyone else does?), or just wanting to be legible (and sort of a conformist?). Maybe all valid reasons, I don't know, but I thought one obvious reason – at least to me – the author overlooked is that Italy, a country with many dialects and languages, still struggles to achieve unification in the sense that other European countries have at least in terms of language. Maybe, stampatello is one small step in that direction?

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