Calamaro and Calamaio

July 18th, 2013 § 3 comments

In Italian the word for inkwell is calamaio, which is very close to the word calamaro, meaning squid, as in the calamari fritti one sees on the menus of seafood restaurants. Looking at a squid, you wouldn’t think that it’s part of the mollusk family, but by eating the chewy rings, you realize it’s pretty close to a clam. It’s a soft bodied mollusk or cephalopod, like cuttlefish or octopus. Unlike a clam, it doesn’t have a hard shell for protection. Instead it has “ink” that it can squirt out to confuse and arrest predators. (Nautilus are the only cephalopods with protective shells.)

As calamaio (inkwell) and calamaro (squid) are so close, it’s natural to want to recognize a calamaio as a receptacle for squid ink. However, this isn’t the case. Squid ink, or any other type of cephalopod ink, was rarely used, largely because of its tendency to fade. For a post on sepia ink, please see below or follow this link.


Workshop of Severo da Ravenna - Cleveland Museum of Art

Workshop of Severo da Ravenna – Inkwell and Candlestick with the Infant Hercules Killing the Serpents – c. 1510 – 1520 – Bronze – 21 x 11 x 13 cm – Cleveland Museum of Art – Inv. ref. John L. Severance Fund 1954.798


The Italian word calamaio actually comes from the Latin word calamus (kalamos in Greek) which means cane or reed. Pens, which were made from reeds, were known as calami, as were other objects made from reeds, like flutes and fishing poles. (Pens made from bird feathers or quills came into use only later, in the early Middle Ages.)

What’s fascinating about squid is that they carry not only ink, but also a reed-like pen within them. Just below is a photograph, courtesy of Shannan Muskopf and her site, of drying pens dissected from squid. The Latin word for squid is lolligo. So it seems then that the Italian word for the sea creature comes from calamus, or reed. In English, “pen and ink fish” is a colloquial name for squid, and it makes good sense.


Squid pens

Squid Pens – Courtesy of Shannan Muskopf and


To underscore the fact that cephalopod ink was seldom used, there aren’t squid decorated inkwells. Riccio, Severo da Ravenna, and the other crazily imaginative Paduan makers of small bronzes, would have found it irresistible to ornament inkwells with squid or cuttlefish if they were using their ink. Granted, they are not that easily represented, but this wouldn’t have stopped these sculptors.

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