It was Mae West who said that a man’s signature was his kiss, but in antiquity, some artisans preferred to leave their kisses in stone via signaturae artificum. Recently I have been rather interested in the signatures of artisans in antiquity, and have been doing a bit of collecting on the idea.
It all got started a few weeks ago when I stumbled across the signature of an artisan named Hephaistion on a mosaic from 2nd c. BCE Pergamon that is now in Berlin. Carole Raddato has a picture of the whole mosaic on her brilliant Flickr page. It just looks like a piece of parchment that was held down with wax and about to fly away. Though it has the look of a little post-it note just casually mentioning that the artist made it, the verity is meant to amuse the onlookers. Hence why the Pergamene mosaicists were some of the best in the business.
Beginning in the 7th c. BCE, Greek artisans began to sign ceramics and other produced items with an increasing frequency. Like most inscriptions, there was a formula to follow, often including the verb ποιεῖν, “to make”. Usually it was “[Name] made (ἐποίεσεν and sometimes ἔγραφσεν) [it]” or simply the name of the artisan, but there were also “speaking” inscriptions that noted, “[Name] painted me [!]” (Wendrich 2013: 182). It is rather fascinating to note that it is not the quality of the pot or piece that necessarily determined whether an artist signed it or not. We have both crude and rather more refined pieces that bear signatures upon them, and some with multiple signatures that used different verbs. In that case, the ἐποίεσεν usually denoted the potter and the ἔγραφσεν was usually the painter (Clark et al. 2002: 143). It shows that a work of art was often a collaboration between artisans. To date, we have over 500 Greek artist signatures on record.
Although it is much rarer, there are some references to artists coming from a certain teacher or school. This displays a seminal aspect of workshops in general: apprenticeship. We tend to focus on Renaissance workshops when we reflect on this work relationship, but it was a system in place during antiquity as well. The signature on the sculptural group of Orestes and Electra, the so-called “Ludovisi Group” reads, “Menelaos, student of Stephanos, made it.” It is originally from the Horti Sallustiani, but is now at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome (1st c. BCE).
We find such signatures in a number of places on pots and other instrumenta, and on sculpture, it was common to write upon out of the way, sneaky places or, later, even the plinth. We even find references to the artist on small gemstones, where one would think that an inscription might loom too large for the object.
As usual (!), I would link the purpose of such inscriptions back to status–both of the creator and the consumer of the piece. It was often Greek artisans that crowed about their skills (though we do have a few Roman ones announcing their abilities epigraphically), and it was they who developed the epigraphic habit of artisan signatures. However, it was also the collectors of such pieces that may have valued such signatures. Particularly for well-known and prized artisans, having a veritable signature of a celebrated artist was a status symbol to collectors like Lucullus or Pliny the Elder. Just think about how valuable it is today to have that Monet signature at the bottom of a canvas, or perhaps Michelangelo’s signature on the Pietà.
As Amanda Claridge (2015: 116-120) has pointed to, we often think of ancient artisans as lowly in terms of status, but clearly there were opportunities to ascend and to be recognized by name. Perhaps we too forcefully put down the artists of yore and wrongly consider the value placed on artists to be a modern phenomenon. Certainly there were slave and freed artisans in the ancient Mediterranean, but there were still sculptors, painters, potters, mosaicists, and gem workers that became celebrated. These signatures give voice to largely invisible people from antiquity, but perhaps they are rather more invisible today than in their own day. As usual, epigraphy provided a voice to individuals to announce status, skill, and name to the public through the powerful medium of the inscribed word.