Greek in Italy

Project Research Blog

Why are all the artists Greek?


As I said in an earlier post, I’m currently in Rome as an award-holder at the British School at Rome. One of the best things about spending time at the BSR is the range of scholars and artists who live here, all with an interest in Italy but with very different areas of expertise. This sometimes leads to very intense conversations in museums or over dinner, particularly when scholars generously give up their time to give a seminar or a walking tour on their area of interest. Recently, the linguists, epigraphers and art historians had a particularly interesting debate in the Palazzo Massimo – why do all the artists in Rome sign in Greek?

Consider the two examples of artworks below, both from the era of the emperor Hadrian. These are both pieces of work found in Rome which are signed in Greek. These don’t just feature an artist’s name, but a full Greek sentence in the Greek alphabet – the mosaic reads “Heraclitos made (this)” and the inscription on the altar in the relief below reads “Antonianos of Aphrodisia made (this)”. You can see in both cases that these are beautiful pieces of art, and there are very few artworks in Rome signed in Latin – so it is easy to assume that the best artists in Rome were all Greek.

“Unswept floor” mosaic, villa on the Aventine Hill. Now in the Gregorian Profane Museum, Vatican Museums.

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Relief of Antinoos, the deified lover of the emperor Hadrian. Palazzo Massimo, Rome.

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Is this a fair assumption? Now, Hadrian was a huge Hellenophile, so he and his wealthy contemporaries no doubt had the will and the means to ship over Greek artworks and Greek artisans to Italy if they so desired, and they very often did. But when art by Greek craftsmen had such a cache, I think it’s very likely that artists from Italy – those from both Greek-speaking and non-Greek-speaking areas – probably wanted to get in on the action. We should also remember that plenty of people in Italy could probably speak some Greek (many slaves and freedmen had been born the Greek East, for example), and even a non-speaker could learn to write a single Greek name or sentence. So how do we know that all these “Greek” artists in Rome are really “Greek” at all?

Just as importantly, what of all the artworks that aren’t signed? Should we assume that they were also by Greek artists, since almost all of the artists who signed their work did so in Greek? Or should we actually decide the opposite – that any unsigned work was probably by someone ‘local’ whose name and language was not prestigious enough to bother with a signature? Perhaps only foreign artists sign their work, while local artists, already well known to their communities and their patrons, would not need to add their name to identify themselves.

We can never answer these questions definitively, though the possibilities are interesting. I think that the unsigned works are probably by artists from all over the place, not just ‘locals’, though we will never know. I’m also certain that the works signed in Greek include a healthy number of Romans who gave themselves a more desirable Greek pen-name (chisel-name?) for the purposes of their art. Ultimately, many Romans seemed to have believed that Greeks were the best artists – but maybe we shouldn’t believe them.

Thanks to Guido Petruccioli, who gave the tour that prompted this post, and to all the other BSR residents who took part.

3 thoughts on “Why are all the artists Greek?

  1. The tendency of artists to sign in Greek continued into the modern period – at least to judge from a nice example in the Camposanto, Pisa. The monument to Francesco Algarotti ‘rival to Ovid, pupil of Newton’, died 1764, includes the signature ΛΕΥΚΩΝ ΕΠΟΙΕΙ.

  2. The same reason a 15th-cent. painter called Rogier de la Pasture, born in French-speaking Tournai (Belgium), changed his name to Rogier van der Weyden in order to fit in better with his Flemish Primitives colleagues of Dutch-speaking origins…

  3. Pingback: Spoils of history? Negotiating the past in the arts of pre-modern Rome | Life at the BSR

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