What’s in a name? And what is the power of that name to communicate artistry and prestige? Since antiquity, names have had the power to generate relationships, tying us to people, to places, and also to the media we make. But what did a signature mean in the ancient world, and how much can we trust what they seem to tell us?
The word “signature” comes from the Latin verb signo. A signaturum is something about to be sealed or marked off. Starting around the 8th century BCE, Greek artisans began to sign ceramics and other crafted items with increasing frequency. Like most inscriptions, there was a formula to follow, often including the Greek verb ‘ποιεῖν’ (“to make”). The formula for providing a signature was typically “[Name] made (ἐποίεσεν and sometimes ἔγραφσεν) [it].” Occasionally the piece simply bore the name of the artisan. Perhaps the definitive work on Greek artists’ signatures is Jeffrey Hurwit’s Artists and Signatures in Ancient Greece. Hurwit emphasizes that signatures in ancient Greece were used sporadically at best. While the signed names of ancient Greek female potters have not been discovered, the fingerprints left upon many vessels indicate that women were likely involved in the making of early Greek ceramics. Although some artists noted only that they had made a ceramic, still others created inscriptions that spoke to the viewer: “[Name] painted me [!].” It was not the quality of the item that determined whether an artist signed it or not; both crude and refined pieces bear signatures. Some have multiple signatures. In this case of Greek ceramics with two signatures, the use of ἐποίεσεν usually denoted the potter and the ἔγραφσεν was usually the painter of a ceramic. Multiple signatures can demonstrate that a work of art was a collaboration between artisans. To date, there are about 1000 known ancient artists’ signatures on record.
Artists could be clever about the ways they signed their works. One of the most famous ancient Greek signatures to date is also a trompe l’oeil — an optical illusion. A mosaic from the 2nd century BCE, originally from a palace on the Acropolis at Pergamon (modern Turkey) and now in Berlin, bears the signature of a mosaicist named Hephaistion. A piece of parchment appears to be attached to the mosaic in the bottom center — an ancient post-it note adhered with dripped wax and about to fly away, taking with it the name of our artist. Hephaistion surely made it to amuse onlookers, just as other mosaicists employed trompe-l’oeil to depict discarded food on the ground, intended to amuse diners staring at the floor during dinner. This and other impressive mosaics were attributed to the 2nd-century BCE mosaicist Sosus by Pliny the Elder. And yet is the name really that of the mosaicist? Hephaistion (“little Hephaestus”) seems itself to be a joke referring back to the patron God of craftsmen, Hephaestus. Pergamene mosaicists were known as some of the best in the Mediterranean, but they also had a particular sense of humor.
Although much rarer, some signatures reference artists coming from a specific teacher or school. This underscores a pivotal aspect of ancient and then medieval workshops in general: apprenticeship. Popular media tends to focus on the workings of Renaissance artist workshops when reflecting on this teacher-student work relationship, but this system was in place during antiquity as well. The 1st century BCE Greek signature on the sculptural group of Orestes and Electra, the so-called “Ludovisi Group” reads, “Menelaos, student of Stephanos, made it.”The sculpture group is originally from Rome’s Gardens of Sallust and tells us that many students wished to connect themselves back to the workshop in which they were trained. But it also hammers home a point that experts in Greek ceramics, such as Sarah Bolmarcich and Georgina Muskett have noted: Oftentimes on ancient artworks, we cannot tell whether a signature represents the name of a singular craftsman or the named owner of a workshop.
The degree to which a given name in the ancient world can be trusted has been questioned by art historians including Sanchita Balachandran. As associate director of the Archaeological Museum at Johns Hopkins University, she works regularly on reconstructing the lives and experiences of artisans such as ancient potters. In conversation, the curator and conservator suggested that signed names of potters and artisans—who were often classed as enslaved, freed, or foreigners — could necessitate more subaltern readings. “Is there something subversive about signing your name as an enslaved individual?” she asks. “Are these moments of resistance? Are they saying, ‘I am here’?” Balachandran notes that if we look to later artisans, like the 19th-century potter and enslaved African American David Drake, who signed his name perhaps as an act of resistance and defiance, we may be able to gain some insight into the possible motivations of migrant and even enslaved potters in antiquity. Comparative archaeology can allow for the experiences of enslaved people to be recovered. As Tiya Miles has reconstructed in relation to “Ashley’s Sack,” which recorded the sale of an enslaved girl named Ashley and her great-grandmother Rose in embroidery, inscribing a name was an act of remembrance in a world that forgot those enslaved.
A name was not the only way to assign ownership or to associate a person with a piece of art. The natural historian Pliny the Elder (NH 37.15) contends that in the 1st century BCE, the dictator Sulla’s son-in-law purportedly had a penchant for collecting rings in a cabinet called a dactyliotheca. A Roman writer named Aulus Gellius notes that male and female Romans wore rings on the finger next to their left-hand pinky, that is, their ring finger. Many of these were signet rings used to seal documents with wax or even clay in a design specific to each individual. The use of seals, ceramic stamps, and complex monograms were all ways to denote that letters or important documents came from a particular individual. Such seals could be applied to goods and even foods, or to connect a brick-making workshop, a winery, or even a bakery to the individual seller. The use of the name for authentication was much less common than its use as a kind of personalized logo, which allowed for individual verification on wills, business contracts, and a litany of other important documents. Artists used such identifying stamps and marks for their wares as well.
In addition to ceramics, mosaics, and mass-produced vessels such as amphorae, Greeks and Romans used signatures on small luxury items, including gemstones. Although a gemstone may appear too small for an inscription, numerous precious gems bear the name of various gem engravers. At the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, an intaglio depicting an athlete has the name of the gem engraver, Gnaios, in the possessive. This grammar tells us that he was this gem’s engraver. Such engravers were known by name. A man named Pyrgoteles from the 4th century BCE, for instance, was so well known that Alexander the Great designated him one of the three seal and gem cutters for the Hellenistic king. Numerous gems are inscribed with his name, but each surviving example seems to be a fake — proving that name brands were as much a thing then as they are now.
Inscriptions signaled power — of both the object’s creator and its consumer. Greek artisans or Roman artists writing in Greek often crowed about their artistic skill. It was they who developed the epigraphic form of artisan signatures. However, the collectors of such pieces also may have valued such signatures. Having a verified signature of a celebrated artist, particularly a well-known and prized artisan, was a status symbol to collectors like Lucullus or Pliny the Elder. Just think about the value today to have that Monet signature at the bottom of a canvas, or perhaps Michelangelo’s signature on the Pietà.
In terms of artists’ status, Amanda Claridge and other classicists have observed that while ancient artisans are often envisioned as lowly, opportunities to ascend and be recognized by name clearly existed for a select few men, such as Sosus or Polykleitos. Perhaps many people today too forcefully undervalue the artists of yore in order better enshrine fine artists in the modern world. Certainly, some enslaved and freed artisans in the ancient Mediterranean might have received little prestige, but other sculptors, painters, potters, mosaicists, and gem workers became celebrated. These signatures give voice to largely invisible people from antiquity, save for a few famed artists. Inscriptions from the ancient world provide a means to recover the voices of individuals who were proud to announce their status, skill, and name to the public through the powerful medium of the inscribed word.
And yet what of this fixation with authenticity embedded in everything from analyses of painting to NFTs today? This may be a modern obsession. Those who copied works of sculpture in antiquity were celebrated as master imitators of the original. The famed “Farnese Hercules” is a massive marble statue of Hercules from the early 3rd century CE originally made for the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. Although the sculptor Glycon signs it, it is in actuality likely a copy of the well-known bronze original done by the 4th-century BCE sculptor Lysippus. Ancient audiences viewing art that decorated the imperial baths or casting their gaze upon the copy of a famed mosaic pattern appreciated the realism and exactitude of trained copyists. Forgeries — with forged signatures — did exist in the ancient art market, but there appears much less focus among ancient authors on the idea of possessing the original — even if collecting the works of famed artists did generate social currency.
And it was not just large works of sculpture that garnered attention and awe. Art historian Elizabeth Bartman has worked extensively with miniature statuettes, noting small-scale pieces of sculpture in antiquity often bear signatures on the base, plinth, or statue itself. Prizing both the copy and the original, the statue and the statuette, may be due in part to how people in antiquity conceptualized the artist. As Bartman remarks,
To the ancients, a sculptor was an artisan rather than an artiste. It is not surprising, therefore, that patrons and sculptors could applaud the technical execution of the work — what was called its techne — while paying little homage to the original artist responsible for conceiving the image … to the ancients, it would seem, a miniature copy was a copy, and a copy was simply a statue.
With the advent of casts and more recently 3D printing, the artistry around the creation of copies has been largely eliminated. Mechanized reproduction dehumanizes the process and rarely warrants a human signature. Reproduction used to be seen as an art form, and yet today we stigmatize it as derivative.
A final medium to be signed in our transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages is the codex, which became more popular as a format for reading in the first centuries CE. Although illustrated papyri existed as far back as ancient Egypt, the art of book illumination took off in the late Roman Empire into the Middle Ages. And yet the illuminator’s signature was uncommon early on. A small notation by an illuminator, “Adelricus Me Fecit” (“Adelricus made me”), is hidden in white ink on a 9th-century CE mask cabinet depicted in a manuscript copy of the Roman playwright Terence, but only a handful of illuminators from this time are known by individual names.
Why might this be? Eric Ensley, a curator of rare books and maps and the University of Iowa, noted to Hyperallergic that most illuminators operated within a workshop setting called a scriptorium. They often did not sign their works in the early Middles Ages, although in the Eastern Mediterranean signatures as a way of proving a document’s authenticity were more popular. And thus this preoccupation with naming may reveal the modern desire to identify “masters.” As Ensley states, “it is a form of connoisseurship; we want to name them as masters. But If you are working in a medieval scriptorium, you have a team of illuminators working together to create a book.” Historians such as Béatrice Fraenkel have reconstructed the histories of the signature, and assert that the “onomastic act” of signing one’s name on a book — as artist and as owner — would proliferate into the High Middle Ages.
The artist signature was and is an ostentatious act. It had its own form, implications, and meaning in antiquity — all of which we have to understand in the signature’s unique cultural context. The study of these inscriptions on marble or parchment, or etched into onyx, also reveals something about our current moment. They cast into relief the deep modern fixation with the notion of authenticity and the value placed on singularity, in a way that might be distinctly foreign to many ancient art collectors or to those who perused art in the great villas, gardens, and quasi-museums of antiquity. All value is, at the end of the day, a human construction. Maybe the worth of an ancient signature lies not in using it to classify the “master” artists of the past, but simply to appreciate the pride with which many artists used the name to claim their work.