Sign your name across my art

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A fragment of a cup from ancient Ischia (Pithekoussai) inscribed with the artist’s name (…-inos), reproduced from Jeffrey M. Hurwit, Artists and Signatures in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 2015), p. 72

The oldest artist’s signature in Europe comes from a little fragment of a krater cup from the island of Ischia off Naples made in the 8th century BC. The Phoenician letters inscribed on the shard read, from right to left: INOSMEPOIES[E]. Expanded, the inscription says that someone whose name ending in -inos ‘made me’ (-INOS ME POIESE). The earliest surviving signature gives voice to the created object, not the artist. It is the creation talking, not the author. It is hard not to think of Pygmalion and Galatea, the statue becoming human in the skilled hands of the artist, the object leaving its objectivity behind to become a personable subject. For the ancients, art was truly creative, and had the power to animate, to breathe life into lifeless matter.

For antiquity and most of the medieval period, the object would often tell the story of its creation. A 10th-century sword found at Sigridsholm, Sweden bears the inscription INGRLRII ME FECIT, Ingrlrii made me. On a sixth-century brocaded tabletwoven band, the words ‘Alienor regina me fecit’ suggests that Alienor of Aquitaine fashioned the embroidery herself. Each time, the object testifies to its author. The message is clear: authorship is not an abstract category floating in creative space, but it is understood as part of the creation itself. The artefact breathes, speakes, proclaims its autonomy, its history, its pride.

The scientific turn in European culture at the very end of the medieval period represented a shift from art as embodiment to an understanding of the artistic object as removed from organic ties of paternity. The object’s clear, authoritative voice dissolves into the modern signature as we know it: the artist’s name inscribed, as possession, on the heart of the artefact.

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