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The letter O: Made complex by 17th century calligraphy
In the hands of master calligraphers, the humble O can shed its simplicity, its symmetry, and even its bounded borders
O

f all our letter forms, the O is arguably the simplest. One stroke moving in one direction. A circle, perhaps an oval, grounded and elemental. A pair of rounded lips, an eye, an egg, the earth. But in the hands of master calligraphers, the humble O can shed its simplicity, its symmetry, and even its bounded borders to perform feats of 'O'ness that defy all expectation. Here are 12 Os from a 17th century German book, The Proper Art of Writing: a compilation of all sorts of capital or initial letters of German, Latin and Italian fonts from different masters of the noble art of writing, each one more complex and beautiful than the one before it.

1. CLASSIC

Just the barest hint of tilt and variation in line thickness. Pure elegance.

2. A LITTLE MORE TILT

A slender open channel. The O is leaning toward freedom.

3. CURVES BECOME POINTS

Air forces its way out in a tangle of swirling breezes.

4. MORE

More lines, more shapes, stability in the base, chaos at center.

5. STATELINESS RETURNS

The circle is squared, essence contained but not stilled.

6. THE AIR BURSTS THROUGH

Symmetry abandoned. New life forms within.

7. MORE OPENING

More sharpness. The O releases its tendrils of sound.

8. ALMOST MODERN

This was made in the 17th century. Long before Miró. Long before Picasso.

9. TOGETHER

The circle comes back together, yet the lines are still open.

10. SYMMETRY RETURNS

Until you look at it more closely.

11. CIRCLE BACK

Almost the pinnacle of 'O'ness. The circle that goes on forever.

12. ELABORATE

Topped off with a dollop of infinity.

(All images courtesy of PublicDomainReview.org)

Arika Okrent is editor-at-large at TheWeek.com and a frequent contributor to Mental Floss. She is the author of In the Land of Invented Languages, a history of the attempt to build a better language. She holds a doctorate in linguistics and a first-level certification in Klingon.

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